Every week we feature a notable rising artist on the verge of success. This week we visit Joel Ebner in Chicago to experience his experimental project, City States.
"It’s easy to start a band. It’s easy to call some friends, bang out some songs, and set up some shows in some dingy neighborhood loft. It’s easy to put on a pair of sunglasses and stand in front of a camera for some hot press photos. It’s easy to pay some PR agent to call you the next big thing. Starting a band is easy, and it happens all the time. Being in a band, however, that’s the hard part. Managing personalities, scheduling time, dedicating oneself to one’s craft, pressing on when no one seems to care—that’s hard. Most groups simply dissolve when someone realizes that being in a rock group is a lot tougher than it sounds."—via official bio
How does City States do it? Dedication, perseverance and pure passion for the art.
Ebner created the project in 2008, which “initially started out of a desire to break free from the “four musicians in a room” sound of Ebner’s earlier band experiences, gravitating instead toward studio-centric projects like The Notwist and Sea & Cake.” It has taken him all of those 6 years to finally finish his debut-LP, Geography.
"Ira Glass has said that he’s never met anyone who took longer to find his voice than himself—Ebner may just be giving Glass a run for his money."
You can hear the iconic styles of many of his musical influences in every one of songs on City State’s Resolutions EP: Radiohead, St. Vincent, Brian Eno, Death Cab, Talking Heads, Bowie. The EP is very atmospheric, yet also electronic and experimental. Ebner’s subtle voice against the his very addicting, manipulated instrumental sounds is genius. Due to their thought-provoking nature, you can get lost in one of his songs, but end up coming out of them renewed at the end of it. Resolutions is almost a religious experience: a gateway to the church of Avant-Garde Experimental Art Music.
For me, the first record album that opened me to these possibilities was The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails. There’s no question that this record has a violence and subversiveness that just isn’t part of the music I make, but it’s also profoundly strange in ways that I don’t think it gets credit for. The heavily distorted live drums of “I Do Not Want This,” the looped field recordings on “Piggy,” the bizarre marriage of acoustic guitars and processed noise on the title track. It’s incredible, still. And as a 14-year old—before I knew that there was an entire subgenre of electronic music devoted to beatless ambience—I was entirely fascinated with “A Warm Place.” In hindsight, it was probably the strongest precursor to the music I listen to most often today.
Millions Now Living Will Never Die by Tortoise is another big one. It’s no coincidence that I sought out John McEntire to mix our first LP—his music is about as influential to me as anything I have in my collection. The most famous song on the album, “DJed,” was one that I listened to over and over again as a teenager, and during the making of Geography it was once again in heavy rotation. The particular balance of electric piano, live drums, programmed beats, and processed noise results in a truly singular aesthetic. I’ll stop short of saying that most of my arrangements are a full-on tribute to this style, but I’d be lying if I said that Millions wasn’t an enormous influence on my writing.
The album that I’m most hesitant to talk about is In Rainbows by Radiohead. My reservations mostly have to do with cliche—I mean, what band *doesn’t* mention Radiohead as an influence? (Okay, I’m sure they’re are plenty, but I’m sure you understand my point.) However: this album, which was released only a few months before City States started, really means a lot to me. Once again, there’s a peculiarity in the production—specifically in the way the band weaves texture into tightly-wound pop songs—that resonates with me. And the LP contains several of my favorite Radiohead tracks, like “Arpeggi” and the achingly beautiful “All I Need” (which, to my ears, reminds me a little of my favorite moments on Tortoise’s Millions Now Living).
What are your fondest musical memories?
Many of my favorite musical memories are listening ones, rather than memories of playing or performing. When I was in college, I have a distinct recollection of driving through the Appalachian Mountains on my way back to school while listening to Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues, and it just felt like a perfect accompaniment to that moment. When I was a child, my family made weekly trips on I-80 from the town we lived in to a larger shopping area on the outskirts of the Chicago suburbs, and I have clear memories of sitting in the passenger seat of my dad’s Ford Aerostar while Paul Simon’s Graceland or The Beatles’ Rubber Soul played on cassette.
Lately what musical periods or styles do you find yourself most drawn to as a listener?
I spend most of my hours during the average day listening to instrumental music, particularly electronic and experimental albums that flirt with abstraction--Black Sea by Fennesz, Systemisch by Oval, anything by the Berlin-based group To Rococo Rot. With respect to rock artists, I have always gravitated toward bands that mix a healthy dose of strangeness into the traditional pop format: Talking Heads (especially Remain In Light, perhaps my favorite album of all time); Stereolab; St. Vincent, The Antlers, and Wild Beasts as of late. And lots of Brian Eno.
What is City States currently working on? Any new projects?
We are about a week away from finishing the mixing phase for our first record, Geography, which we are completing at John McEntire’s Soma Studios. It’s been a long process, and I’m excited to be near the end. I hope to announce a single from the record in January, with a full release coming later in the winter or early spring of 2014. I’m also planning on putting out two solo electronic records—one from a project called Modal Voices, which leans heavily on the ideas and style of Steve Reich’s work, and another from an as-of-yet unnamed project, which will likely be noisier and more abstract, in the vein of Merzbow and Oval.
[In his new bio, Ebner describes his upcoming Geography.]
"Geography is an album about change—it’s an album about the desire to understand the contours of the world, and knowing how to respond when landscapes shift unexpetedly; roughly halfway through the making of the LP, Ebner’s father died suddenly of a heart attack, and as a result most of the lyrics deal with notions of death, grief, and the struggle to find acceptance when losing someone close to you. Specifically, “To Remember” is inspired by the eulogy that Ebner gave at his father’s memorial service, detailing the relationship they had via the Fender Jaguar his dad bought in the early 1960s. Musically, the album is inspired by classic art-rock albums of the last 35 years—with it’s droning organs, finger-picked guitars, and melodic synth arpeggios, Geography’s arrangements bring to mind the likes of Stereolab, Brian Eno’sAnother Green World, and Remain In Light-era Talking Heads.”
What is your dream collaboration and why?
I’d love to work with Christian Fennesz.
Or, Brian Eno.
What is your writing process like? How do you create your music? What subjects/experiences do you draw inspiration from?
My songs almost always start with the melody. Usually when I discover a melody I won’t have more than a shred of a lyric—so I’ll sing in gibberish along with an acoustic guitar or a looped sample set in Ableton Live until I find something that feels more fleshed out.
The melody is usually the easy part. Once I get to arranging a song, I’ll run through several iterations, adding and subtracting different combinations of instruments until I think I’ve found something that works. This can be a tough process. For example, a song on the album I’m finishing titled “Uncharted Waters” went through 5 extremely different versions. Imagine a single song trying on the clothes of Joy Division’s post punk, Sea & Cake’s breezy pop, Radiohead’s Kid A-style electropop, and The Walkmen’s somber balladry before arriving at its final arrangement. That’s not an exaggeration—the track mutated quite a bit over the course of a year before I was finally satisfied.
On Geography, as well as our 2011 EP Resolution, I wrote the lyrics last. For me, that’s an easy way to try giving the songs a consistent theme (it’s also a way to put off the hardest part of the process). I try to keep the lyrical content personal; generally I favor sincerity and directness in my own songwriting, as well as the bands I listen to.
What do you think about online music sharing, both as a music fan and as a musician? How do you think social media/music streaming services impacts the rising musician?
I have mixed feelings about online sharing. Fundamentally, I think that artists deserve to be compensated for the consumption of their work. So, as a listener and music fan, if I discover a good album on Spotify and I think I’ll listen to it more than once, I’ll go to a local record store and pick up a physical copy.
In spite of my frustrations over how I think online sharing can be misused, as a musician I fully recognize the need to embrace technology. I don’t feel like my personal experience in that regard has been all that illuminating, but I will say that the experience of finding and interacting with new fans via Twitter and Tumblr has been great.
Many people consider the 90s to be the golden age of MTV. Being in their demographic, as a GenX musician and music fan, were you a viewer? What are your opinions of MTV and how it has now changed to the non-music related content station it is today?
I watched an awful lot of music television when I was a teenager. In fact, my original desire to play music came out of watching “Give It Away” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Around that time my twin brother played electric guitar, and I wanted to play an instrument, too, but didn’t want to repeat his particular instrument of choice. That was a tough dilemma for me to figure out as a 13-year old, as it seemed to me that guitar players were the people in bands who wrote the songs (which, in hindsight, is not really true). But when I saw Flea in that Chili Peppers video, I had this realization that the bass guitar could be a driving element in the songwriting process. Up until City States started (and even into our first 2 years as a live act), the bass was my instrument of choice.
It is interesting that you state you are inspired by St. Vincent, one of IndieBeat’s all time favorite artists. Even though Annie Clark is very innovative and a cornerstone of the avant-garde, experimental rock genre, not many musicians cite her as an influence. What is it about St. Vincent that influences you? What are your favorite songs by her? How do you think she has influenced the genre in general?
Annie Clark is inspiring on a number of levels. First of all, she has a wonderful gift for arranging music. Finding the right instruments to put into a song—and making those instruments work in harmony with each other—is really difficult, and Clark just seems to have an amazing sense of how to make arrangements work for her songs. But she also has an incredibly strange point of view; the sounds contained in her songs are just so bizarre, but structurally when you boil them all down, they’re pop songs. And that voice…
Favorite songs: I always gravitate towards the creepiness of “Marrow,” and the levity of “Champagne Year” (which was an enormous influence on a song from our record called “I’m Always Somewhere Else.”)
Similarly, how do you think Brian Eno has revolutionized the experimental music scene?
Personally, Eno helped reinforce the idea that pop songwriting and experimental music are not mutually exclusive. The word “experimental” can mean a lot of things, but for me, I appreciate the idea that Eno has made rock albums, and classical-leaning albums, and electronic-based albums, and they all seem to work within the context of his career, even if those records sound nothing alike.
You also cite the Talking Heads as a major influence. They are very instrumental in the development of the new wave/progressive music movement of the late 70s/early 80s. Do you think today’s experimental music, especially with the influence of electronics, is experiencing a similar movement in changing the scope of the indie/alt music scene. How do you think your music fits in with this movement?
I’d like to think that City States is fitting in with a contingent of artists who are making strange, intricate, unusual-sounding records. I suppose that’s a wide net to cast, but with specific reference to Talking Heads, their influence on my music really comes down to their use of rhythm and repetition, the de-emphasized role of the electric guitar within their songs, and their willingness to manipulate and deconstruct the sounds they make. You’re right that those qualities made them as much of a progressive band as they were new wave, which I actually find more attractive than the synthy, ’80s nostalgia aspects of their sound.