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Feature Thu Apr 03 2008
Chicago's latest breakout band, Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, is just as eclectic as it sounds. Formed in summer 2001 by Ellen O'Hayer and Elia Einhorn, the Choir released a four-track album, Do You Still Stick Out in the Crowd?. Matthew Kerstein and Sam Koentopp soon joined the band, and the foursome released the catchy single, "Jennie That Cries," in 2002. The song played on XRT and immediately caught the attention of Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, who fell head over heels. Tours followed, including those with fellow indie pop darlings Of Montreal and Fiery Furnaces.
I Bet You Say That to All the Boys, the band's first album, was released in 2003. Five years later, the band compromises seven full-time members and a revolving door of musical talent. The Choir hooked up with local indie rock veterans Bloodshot Records in 2007, releasing a self-titled album on their label in October of the same year. Featuring 50 other artists, the music on this album is blithe chamber punk pop, wrapped around cheerless but bold topics like mental illness, sexual identity and drug abuse. Twenty-seven-year-old Einhorn is the band's front man, as well as the heart and soul of its paradoxical paradigm of pain and joy. Born in North Wales, Einhorn grew up in Chicago but spent his summers back home, where he gleaned the musical sensibilities of Manchester bands like the Happy Mondays and the Inspiral Carpets. He calls himself the Morrissey of the Choir, a reference to his favorite band, The Smiths.
This month, the Choir debuts new songs at Schubas, kicking off a month-long residency on Monday, April 7. The Choir performs on Monday evenings, along with a diverse array of local talent, from Scott Mason from OFFICE to Elizabeth Elmore of The Reputation. Proceeds from the residency go to charity, such as Urban Initiatives, a program that helps out kids from Cabrini Green, and the Valentino Achak Deng foundation, which aids the Sudanese in Sudan and the United States. Venus Zine, Reckless Records and Bloodshot are among the sponsors donating prizes for the event.
Gapers Block: Transmission recently caught up with Elia Einhorn over the phone, to talk about writing for sanity, kicking religion to the curb, and the Choir's new songs.
GapersBlock: There was a delay from the release of your first album in 2003, to the recent self-titled, label release in 2007. What happened in between?
Elia Einhorn: We were looking for a label, touring, building our name and getting our act together, we went through lots of personal changes, which is how the Choir tends to go.
GB: Have those changes affected the band in a negative sense?
EE: No I would say in a positive way. People take off for school or go on to play in an orchestra. I've got an excellent band right now, we're writing songs, and we're sounding so amazing. That's what we'll be doing in April, playing ten of our new songs each night.
GB: And now on to the Schubas residency, could you talk about that?
EE: The title is "Friends with Benefits." It's going to be Chicago-based bands, poets, comedians, and a variety show each Monday night in April, with charity going to different groups each time. Martin Atkins, founding member of Pig Face will be there, Scott Mason from OFFICE, and Darren [Spitzer] from the Changes, one of our best friend bands.
GB: How did the idea of a charity event come about?
EE: We'd been talking with Schubas for a while and, as it turned out April works and Schubas said you put the bills together. We thought why don't we try out the new songs to an audience who knows us, why don't we contribute to a good cause at the same time?
GB: You're something of a transatlantic hybrid, born in Wales but raised in Chicago.
EE: It's funny. I grew up spending the summer in North Wales. I didn't realize until a reviewer asked me, that my favorite authors--Sandra Cisneros and Hemingway--are American, but my favorite music is The Smiths. I grew up south of Manchester; I was ten years old wearing Doc Martens listening to The Happy Mondays and The Inspiral Carpets. They were big in the Manchester scene in the '90s.
GB: Does that play into your music?
EE: People say, is your singer British? I say I am half, and I'm very influenced by those early records. I enjoy Belle and Sebastian and the Pogues. My literary taste is more American; music is the UK.
GB: Did you regret paying homage to Belle and Sebastian on your first album?
EE: I would put it this way: they were very influential in changing me from a folk singer to who I am now. I am glad they are so much a part of my life and it was an expression for us, but I am glad I left it there. How I feel about them now is different from 2001. I would rather read Harvery Pekar American comics now.
GB: You have history of drug addiction but have been sober for over ten years. What role does your past play in your music?
EE: I just celebrated eleven years sober last month. Had sushi with the band and my sister. The way I look at song writing is sing your life—sing all the things that you love and hate. It's like a Morrissey song, I write about the good and bad. Have awkward sex, write about, feel like killing yourself, write about it. Feel like killing someone else write the whole next album about it. The songs we're doing in April is based around three major losses in life, and fallout of those losses, it sounds depressing, it's black humor but sad at the same time. I'm really looking forward to playing them live.
GB: There's a lot of darkness in your music, themes of alienation, and despair. There is also this upbeat optimism.
EE: Yeah! That's an accurate appraisal. I view life as very sad, very disturbing, often very hilarious. And I try to reflect that in my lyrics. I'm really just singing about my life and the people around me.
GB: There's a suicidal element in "There is No Place for Me in This World." What does this stem from?
EE: I've been diagnosed with free-floating anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and they are very difficult to deal with. Those words were written at a real emotional bottom period in my life, due to the emotional anxiety disorder. I would say that if killing yourself weren't such a selfish act, that causes pain for the people around you, I would have jumped on the bandwagon a long time ago. Instead I write sad, funny songs.
GB: In the song "Obsession" you talk about "whiting out the bible." Can you talk about that?
EE: Well, let's put it this way, as a teenager I was very proud to wear a Bad Religion t-shirt, with an image of a crossed-out cross. I have never felt comfortable with organized religion. The God I believe in does not oppose gay marriage, does not condone blowing yourself up, does not support being kosher. Religion is not for me.
GB: You have a full-time job and yet tour with the band and practice. How do you find time to write and be creative?
EE: I'm always writing. I carry a notepad, a pen, and a digital recorder at all times. I wrote a song on the way home form SXSW and we recorded it when we got home, we'll play it at Schubas. It's easier to play at home, but I have to write for own sanity so I'll write wherever we end up.
GB: Are you happy so far with what you have accomplished?
EE: No, I always want more, more, more.
GB: More what?
EE: More people to buy our records, more people to love our band. I love it when people send me emails or Myspace messages saying they love the band. I want to go to more countries; I want to put out a lot more records.
[mp3]: Scotland Yard Gospel Choir – "Aspidestra"
About the Author:
Marla Seidell is a journalist/writer who lives in Chicago. She moved back to her hometown in 2004, after living in the adult playground of Amsterdam for six years. Now safely repatriated in the homeland (efficiency and five weeks' vacation who needs it?) she enjoys hobbies such as underwater basket weaving, baking, and running away from office cubicles.