What Sharp Teeth They Have: The Elysian Fields Interview
The Brooklyn-based so-called “noir rock” band Elysian Fields has been filling our ears with dark, sexy tunes since 1995. Though the band has gone through some lineup changes, the vocals of Jennifer Charles and the intricate guitar work of Owen Bloedow have remained constant pleasure throughout. Having recently released Last Night on Earth, the ‘Fields were gracious enough to take some time to chat fairy tales, John Zorn, and the sexiness of chandeliers.
ELM: As someone who’s interested in fairy tales, I’d love to hear more about your take on “Red Riding Hood.”
JC: Ultimately I think fairy tales and folklore can give us insights into the human psychology, but they are also some of the first places we discover adventure, and our own unleashing imaginations. The song, my take on the classic fairytale, can be interpreted many ways, it’s really up to you. But I like the idea of the classic roles reversing, everyone thinking the wolf is the one leading Red down the garden path, when actually it could be the other way around.
ELM: Speaking of “Red Riding Hood,” that’s a really interesting video. What
can you tell me about that?
JC: I had found these finger puppets in Paris shortly after writing the song. Their beauty and naivete struck me, and I thought they could be incorporated into something later on. The fun aspect, the childhood aspects to be incorporated into our mature selves, to integrate the darknesses we have within. Lance Scott Walker, the director, wanted to incorporate the natural play that Oren and I have between us naturally, and he saw us bathed in red light as we performed, cutting between our adult selves playing/playing music/telling the listener a bed time story, and between the fairytale world of the puppets on a miniature set he created.
ELM: Your lineup has changed a lot over the years. Who makes up your band now, and how did you find those members?
Oren: Well, we come from a promiscuous scene. Everybody is always taking different jobs and vacating chairs, creating the need to forge new relationships. Even from the very beginning we had to have two or three drummers and bassists. The last record had five drummers on it and five piano players. Lots of string and wind players. I found Ed Pastorini, who is our most important band member/collaborator, by playing in his own band, or rather, he found me, starting in 1985. Drummer Matt Johnson we got to know through Jeff Buckley, although I already knew him casually from when I was the elevator operator at Context Rehearsal in the East Village, which is also where I met bassist James Genus, who has worked on all of our records. Parker Kindred is another Buckley connection, but really that’s a shallow way to put it, Parker and I played in the band Black Beetle together for three years. Met a few of the other players at Tonic, which was an incredibly important music venue for us in NY, and a few through Antibalas, with whom I have a playing involvement through the Broadway show Fela.
ELM: You made an album with Steve Albini that was rejected because of your label’s expectations. Since then, have you had an easier time holding onto your vision of your music?
JC: We’ve always held onto our vision, and not compromised ourselves. That is precisely why we didn’t care to change the record we made with Steve just to give the major label we were on something they could more easily digest. It’s easy to hold true to one’s vision; trying to convince others to see what you see, hear what you hear, is a different story.
ELM: How did that experience with the Albini record change the way you approach your music-making?
OB: Sure, it must have and I believe it has, but not sure exactly how. Steve has or had a lot of particularities, for instance he likes cutting tape more than punching in on a track. But all our records have been mostly digital since then… Anyway Steve is always with us in some way for sure. I certainly think twice before putting in anything that ‘Sounds like Kansas’!
ELM: Jennifer, you sing in a lot of different languages. How did you get to be such a polyglot? Also, how do you decide when to switch between languages?
JC: I don’t know, It just kind of happened. I like language. I like sound. Diverse inflection. In EF I just sing in English I think.
ELM: What was it like working with John Zorn?
JC: It’s great working with John. He knows exactly what he’s doing and yet he can maintain a kind of freedom in how he works. He knows when he’s got something and when he doesn’t (when he’s recording you), and he’s very organized and fun to work with.
ELM: If you feel comfortable talking about it, what is “Chandeliers” about?
JC: It’s a balls out, being crazy about someone kind of song. The lyrics pretty much explain themselves.
“You got me swinging chandeliers, sliding down bannisters, stripping my gears…” Sounds like fun, huh?
ELM: What are your live shows like? Do you play older songs as well as the new material?
OB: We do play the newest, unrecorded songs as much as possible; It’s fun and it gives them a chance to grow for when we eventually record them. But another thing that’s more and more fun as we get older and record more is going back over all of our albums and choosing tunes we haven’t played in a while for a particular night. It’s kind of like, ‘We haven’t eaten at that little Greek place in ages!’
ELM: You have quite a following in Europe. What is it about your music and European culture that mesh so well?
Oren: Well Europeans support a lot of diverse arts and music. There’s avid listeners over there for styles less central to our own like reggae, metal, dubstep, whatever. Just like here. But they do have a greater consensus that performing arts are a social value worth paying for: I read that the Paris Opera spends more every year than the entire National Endowment for the Arts distributes here in the US.
ELM: When you start working on an album, where do you begin?
OB: Always with the songs.
ELM: Who are your favorite writers?
JC: If you mean book writers, there are too many to list now. Next time!