By Tom Lynch
The walls of Ukrainian Village’s Darkroom are plastered with semi-erotic art pieces but tonight’s crowd doesn’t seem to notice. Some are there to avoid watching another inevitable Cubs playoff loss, others because it’s free, but all because they have at least a slight interest in the headliner, Chicago’s The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, the chamber-pop band that’s been making waves since as early as 2004.
On stage is a free-for-all. It’s later in the set—more importantly, later in the evening, rounding 1am—some of the crowd has dispersed, and leader Elia Einhorn and his gang of musicians are letting go.
“We’re gonna play ‘Ellen’s Telling Me What I Want to Hear,’ even though that’s not what she’s doing right now,” Einhorn says, referencing the song from the band’s first record, which is in itself a reference to cellist Ellen O’Hayer.
They do. The band then launches into “I Never Thought I Could Feel This Way for a Boy,” a giggly frenzy of a song, an early single that’s included on the band’s upcoming self-titled record. The band isn’t drunk, and the band isn’t simply being careless because the crowd’s scattered. They’re having fun—a stage rarity in the melancholy-drenched sphere of pop music. And while the band exudes confidence—made that much more impressive by the large quantity of musicians on stage—it also leaves you on edge, as if each song could fall apart at any moment.
You really can’t ask for anything more.
“We are not a party band, let me put it that way,” Einhorn says. “We are not a party band. People have a drink—people might get a little drunk—but we don’t show up and trash hotel rooms or anything.”
You wouldn’t the impression that they do. Taking the window booth at Lakeview’s Pick Me Up Café, Einhorn—along with drummer Jay Santana, violinist Ethan Adelsman and trumpet player Sam Johnson—eat omelets, drink tea and clear up any misconception or assumption one might have that the more members you have in a band, the more trouble your band’s going to find. Radiohead’s newborn “In Rainbows” blares from above, having been released two days before. The guys briefly discuss one incident from the road—some hijinks that involved excessive drinking and a stolen Cadillac in Ames, Iowa—but the perpetrator no longer plays with the band.
“If somebody does something like that, they’re just out,” Einhorn says. “We have a rule: no drugs on tour. No smoking pot even. We have very few rules, but the rules we have help hold the whole thing in place.”
Einhorn does most of the talking, and it makes sense, as he’s very much the ringleader: chief songwriter, lyricist, nucleus, the only Choir member who’s been here since the beginning. The band self-released its debut record, the cutely titled “I Bet You Say That to All The Boys,” in 2003 in Chicago, two years after the band first came together, an upstart that was just the pair of Einhorn and songwriter Matthew Kerstein. The influences were evident—part Brit-pop, part indie-rock, part jangly punk, part folk—but Einhorn and Kerstein (who both wrote and sung their separate songs) were more than a sum of their influences. You could practically document Einhorn’s childhood within his songs—with one parent in Chicago and another in Wales, he bounced back and forth (summers overseas, school years here), absorbing both cultures. It’s a scruffy record, never overproduced, but the natural gloss that comes from the songs leaves the final impression.
Einhorn met Sun-Times pop-music critic Jim DeRogatis by chance at Southport Avenue’s Avanti Café, where Einhorn was a manager. DeRo hadn’t heard of the band, and it took a bit for Einhorn to realize to whom he was speaking. He had been listening to “Sound Opinions” for years, so he was naturally jazzed.
“When he wrote the band up then all of sudden everyone wanted to write the band up,” Einhorn says. “It was fucking exciting man—we were on the top of all these lists that year, the ‘Best Albums of the Year in Chicago.’ It was thrilling.”
DeRogatis wrote that The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir was well on its “way to becoming one of the most ambitious and rewarding bands in Chicago.”
He was right—but it wouldn’t be easy.
The first mistake Einhorn made was admitting in the press that he scripted “I Bet You Say That to All the Boys” single “Jennie That Cries” as an unabashed allusion to the typical Belle and Sebastian song. This, of course, created a frenzy, with the band being tagged the “New” Belle and Sebastian, the “American” Belle and Sebastian and, perhaps most often, the “Chicago” Belle and Sebastian. The influence was undeniable, to be sure, but only on some songs. Regardless, that’s what people, in turn, wanted to hear.
“We didn’t understand how the press worked whatsoever,” the bearded, bespectacled Einhorn says. “We were just saying how we felt about things, how they were one of our biggest influences, at least for me. Through a combination of us talking about them and lazy journalism, all of a sudden we were Chicago’s copy of Belle and Sebastian. I was so upset by that. [Parts] of the first record [are] pure Clash, you know? Pure British punk. There was nothing Belle and Sebastian about half the record.”
This tag, of course, helped the band as well. They were getting attention from the West Coast, nabbed background-music slots on shows like “The O.C.” and “What About Brian,” impressive for a band that put its first record together all by itself. The band was being courted by major labels like Warner Bros. “We thought we had something special, and it was exciting when other people thought we had something special,” Einhorn says. “Because most bands think they have something special. I worked at the Beat Kitchen for years at the door, and it was so disappointing to see band after band thinking they were special coming through and playing to two people just horrible, horrible music. And all of a sudden people liked what we were doing. People would stop us out in the street. I would be out with my family eating pizza and people would come up to say ‘I love you guys!’”
Instead of venturing on an ill-conceived headlining tour, the band sneaked on as opener for bigger acts, playing dates with the Arcade Fire, the Handsome Family and the Violent Femmes, sometimes for only fifty bucks a pop, but, more importantly, for the exposure it would bring. “We were broke as hell,” Einhorn says, “but we were getting the exposure.”
And just as The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir’s stock was set to soar, co-founder and co-songwriter, lyricist and vocalist Matthew Kerstein quit the band to pursue a different sound, right in the middle of recording its sophomore record. “The band broke up,” Einhorn says of the time, roughly October 2005. Then, after only two weeks, it was back. “It took a little bit, but we worked it out,” he says. “It was the best for both people. By the time Matt decided to leave, we were two different bands functioning with two totally different sounds, at the same shows and in the same studio. It was almost like a ‘White Album’ at that point.’”
What kept them together, from completely falling apart with the loss of such a major creative force? “Patience,” Johnson chimes in.
“It seems you don’t take [everything] personally anymore,” Adelsman directs at Einhorn.
“I just know that this is what I want to do,” Einhorn says. “There’s not a question in my mind. So it’s like, ‘OK,’ someone’s leaving the band. Fine. Three more people want to join the band? Let’s do it. Somebody’s gotta leave and go to school? That’s OK. That’s how it is with this kind of band. We’ve had so many people come through. So many trials and travails. ‘The credit card’s maxed out.’ ‘The van’s broken down.’ Whatever can go wrong, goes wrong.”
“The way I see things now,” Adelsman adds, “everybody gets along well, everybody enjoys being around each other. When someone leaves the band, it’s not ‘Fuck you, you’re leaving the band.’ It’s OK. We’ll still be friends when you’re around.”
Kerstein found his different sound with his new project, Brighton, MA. “Now, it’s awesome,” Einhorn says. “They come to our shows and we go to their shows.” In fact, there are musicians who still play with both bands, like Matt Priest (also of Canasta). The split, though it was surely difficult at the time, was certainly for the best, even from an outsider perspective. The double-sound on “I Bet You Say That to All the Boys” is a bit jarring at times, as the voices, inflections and musical leanings of Kerstein and Einhorn couldn’t seem more different. The two songwriters—two of the most promising in Chicago right now—now have their own forums and, now, there are two very good bands, and not just one.
Nevertheless, the breakup meant that Einhorn and crew had to throw out half of the record and start anew. The band had been working on a follow-up since 2003, they had spent loads of time—and money—in five different studios, working with fifty different musicians to craft an immaculate project. More than thirty songs were recorded over time. Einhorn had a couple breakdowns. Things got more stressful than usual, in an already intense environment Einhorn describes as a “pressure-cooker.” Expectations were high from everyone who had The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir on their radar.
Eventually, after multiple offers, the band decided to release its sophomore disc on local Bloodshot Records (Einhorn says he’s been a fan for years). After laboring over the project for years, they received an ultimatum from the label—“if you don’t finish the record now, it’s not coming out this year”—and turned in the final product. Self-titled, what started as a massive endeavor was pared down to only nine songs with a twenty-six-minute run time, featuring dozens of musicians (including contributions from Sally Timms and Kelly Hogan) playing dozens of instruments. One could say with confidence that it’s the most complete full-length ever released that runs under a half hour—each song is a world unto itself, completely different from one another in sound. The dark themes are there—drug addiction (surely in reference to Einhorn’s troubled past), sexual identity, mental illness—but pinned against a hopeful backdrop of major chords, upbeat delivery and gentle suggestion. After all, sad songs sung to minor chords are lame. “That’s what the nineties were for,” Einhorn laughs.
But he continues, more seriously, “I feel that every day I struggle with my anxiety disorder, where this kind of dissonance occurs, not a musical dissonance, but with the lyrics being so bleak, there is this kind of polar dichotomy. But that’s kind of how I live my life. I try to be very positive and spiritual and hopeful, but at the same time there’s this part of me that’s so anxious and depressed and hurt, and that comes out on the record.”
The record, to be released October 23, switches between male and female vocals, making the most of Einhorn’s abilities and those of Ellen O’Hayer. “I write for Ellen because her voice is just so lonely,” Einhorn says, “and I need that loneliness in my music.” Ballads like “In Hospital” and “Broken Front Teeth” are simple, elegant heartbreakers, and the intelligence and fever of pop songs like “I Never Thought I Could Feel This Way for a Boy” and “Then and Not a Moment Before” are infectious. It’s beautiful record that leaves plenty to ponder even after multiple listens, which, in this case, are easy, because it’s only twenty-six minutes long.
“I can’t remember many records in the last five years where I listened all the way through and I thoroughly enjoyed every song,” Einhorn says, “so I thought, ‘OK, let’s cut out the songs we are iffy about and only put out the songs that are as close to a hundred percent as I’ll ever feel about any of my work…My model for this record was the Porno for Pyros’ first album, one of my favorite records as a kid, and it’s short as hell. And I thought, ‘If Perry Farrell can do it, I can do the same thing.’”
The stress is still present though. Each member of the band still works a full-time day job, and Einhorn not only is the creative leader, he serves as manager and, most of the time, booking agent. He speaks excitedly about the band’s future—he knows he’s leading a talented pack here, and not everyone has the opportunity right now that they do—but with the weariness you’d expect from a musician that says he only has fun “twenty-five percent of the time,” the rest “in panic mode keeping everything from falling apart.” Plus, he says, “I know we all want to do music full time, and I feel the pressure to make that happen.”
Perhaps the band has an advantage with Chicago in its corner. It’s an intense, exhilarating time for Chicago music—more specifically for bands that are about to burst on to the international scene with a vengeance—and while the city is seemingly losing its identity as one that produces a definitive “sound,” the creative output is exponentially growing, as no band sounds the same by any means, no songwriter encompasses everything this city has to offer musically.
“It’s funny, man,” Einhorn says, “all the bands coming up at the time we were, in 2002, 2003, we’ve known for years, and we all have record deals now. Office signed to James Iha’s label. I’ve known Scott [Masson] for years. The 1900s. We’ve hung out with Jeanine [O’Toole] a bunch of times, and they’re awesome, and they signed to Parasol. The Tossers went to Victory. The Changes. I went to school with Darren, we took a songwriting class together at Columbia. It’s just fucking awesome because nobody really sounds like anybody else and we all have our own unique set of influences and goals. We’ve never had anyone be competitive with us or be anything but supportive.”
And, he adds, “With the Choir that’s helpful, because we end up sucking any talented musician in our orbit into the band at some point.”