In Tall Buildings is the solo project of Erik Hall, a Chicago-based singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and general jack of all trades. Last week, he released Driver, In Tall Buildings’ pristine and kinetic sophomore record, and first for Western Vinyl.
BYT recently connected Hall with Fred Thomas, the Ann Arbor indie rock mainstay and Life Like Tapes head honcho whose on-again, off-again band Saturday Looks Good to Me once featured Hall. (Thomas also remixed In Tall Buildings’ “Flare Gun” late last year.)
Hall recounts how the two first connected in Michigan a dozen years ago: “Fred was this local legend. I met him through mutual friends. He was part of this world that I was just starting to learn about, which was called ‘indie rock.’ Fred had this amazing band, Saturday Looks Good to Me, and this record called All of Your Summer Songs that my friends kept playing for me. It just quickly became our anthem. I got to know Fred a little bit, and then he invited me to play drums in the band when he took our other band, NOMO, on tour. It was the first tour that I ever did, and it was just extremely fun on every level. We just became fast friends. ”
As a side note, there was one wrinkle to the interview below: Thomas didn’t know in advance that he would be the one asking questions. What follows is a transcript of their impromptu conversation, along with an introduction from Thomas, whose own new solo record, All Are Saved, is out April 7 on Polyvinyl.
Both In Tall Buildings and Thomas perform next Thursday at Schubas in Chicago.
I met Erik over a decade ago when he was going to school in Ann Arbor and constantly recording in his basement room of a large communal house lots of my friends stayed at. He seemed to be working on his own songs tirelessly but almost never sharing them. We eventually would play music and tour together, as well as share bills in our various projects over the years. Seeing In Tall Buildings emerge as the long-labored culmination of all those years of refinement was super exciting. The same spirit of considered, excited composition, and a beautiful blur of experiences gave way to his new album Driver, a record that I consider his best work so far. I was put on the spot a little bit for this conversation, having no idea I was going to be doing the interviewing, but hopefully my spontaneous questions shed a little light on how my really good friend made some really amazing sounds. – Fred Thomas
Fred Thomas: My first round of questions is going to be about the linguistics and entomology of In Tall Buildings. The new record is called Driver. How real is that? Is that title about something or did it just sound cool? Is it because these are driving songs?
Erik Hall: You know how often something becomes a title simply because it sounds cool?
Thomas: Yes, 98% of the time.
Hall: [Laughs] I was flipping through this notebook that I’ve had for almost ten years, and I found a page where I had written possible titles for an album that I was working on at the time, which became the first In Tall Buildings album. That album ended up being self-titled, but on that list was the word “driver.”
So, the knee jerk answer to your question is that it sounded cool, but the truth is that it’s also about the energy of the music. If it were to be one literal meaning of the word, it’s “driver” as a force or a cog that’s influencing the rest of the machine – more so than it referring to a person behind the wheel.
Thomas: It’s like the power behind the motion?
Thomas: That’s interesting, because with In Tall Buildings, you record all of the songs in your own studio; you sing everything; you play everything. For the albums, it’s just you. In a sense, we’re talking about a self-contained machine, which is just Erik Hall. You’re assigning that driver role to a cog, which is you, which is also the product, which is you.
Hall: It’s pretty directly applicable. When I decided that I wanted to finish this album once and for all, I really lit a fire under my own ass. I decided to actually make it my job to write and record music each day until this thing was done. It really became a touchstone for the record. There was an energy about it. Even the songs lyrically started to come together with that theme of motion and moving forward and getting into the next thing – just growth, really.
Thomas: There is a sense of urgency to the record, more so than your other recordings. It seemed like it developed in a vacuum – not overnight at all, but in a very singular way that sets it apart from your other stuff. It’s strange that the title comes from a word in a notebook from ten years ago. Would you agree that there’s been a stylistic leap forward?
Hall: I think so. It was definitely a choice to hone the songwriting and make things a little more focused in terms of the sonic palate and how the songs would come across.
Thomas: The first album, which came out almost five years, was a great, but when you hear it, you think, “OK, this song leans towards an Americana thing, and this other song is a direct pop thing.” With Driver, all of the songs have a similar color but they explore different shades. It’s a lot more subtle, and a lot more single minded.
Hall: I appreciate that. That was one of my goals: To make something that was more focused and more direct.
Thomas: What were the things motivating these songs? You took some time to make this album, and I know you’ve been traveling a lot with other projects like Wild Belle. Coming back to In Tall Buildings, did you feel a sense of “now or never?” Did being on tour for a long time, away from your loved ones, make its way into the album?
Hall: It did. It was very much a choice to really go for the completion of the record, and to make into something that would really resonate with people. As you described, my first record was almost a portfolio of all the disparate stylistic recordings that I had been working on. It was like, “Hey, check it out. I can do this sort of thing and that kind of thing.” It was kind of scattered. I love it, and I’m still proud of that record, but it was a sprawling document of the things that I had been working on.
But I spent the last three years working in Wild Belle, a band that is almost the complete opposite of that approach: It’s pop music for pop music’s sake. It’s very direct songwriting – like, the craft of a song. Natalie and Elliot are so apt at crafting a song that will get the message straight across to the listener. That was a big influence. I spent the last three years observing how that goes, and how that fits into the continuum of bands and songwriters and labels and shows. I thought a lot about it.
In Tall Building was never meant to be just a fun hobby. I always wanted it to be heard by as many people as possible. I decided that with my new record, I wanted it to be a couple of notches more towards pop music. I wanted it to be more focused.
Thomas: It’s interesting that you talk about Wild Belle, and how it makes pop music for pop music’s sake. It’s such good music and so well-crafted, but the songs don’t really keep any secrets. If the song is about “Hey, I’m done with you” then the lyrics are “Hey, I’m done with you.” If the song is about “I really want to go back out with you,” then those are the words of the song. I feel like with the new In Tall Buildings Record, there’s a much different approach. It’s definitely saying something, but it’s up to the listener to get wrapped up in the record and figure out what the secret is. Can you relate to that at all?
Hall: Absolutely. That’s ultimately the only song that I know how to make. I didn’t mean to say that I simply tried to do what Wild Belle does, but I took a cue from them in terms of honing things a touch. But, lyrically, I’m still going to be me, and I have a lot of guises. I certainly don’t put my heart on my sleeve like some of my best friends who are songwriters do. I want to maintain some mystery there.
Thomas: It’s not vague, though. There’s definitely an emotional transference that happens even if the lyrics are not the loudest thing in a song. Even if the lyrics aren’t immediately understandable, the guises that you speak of are not distractions; they’re actually clues as to what’s going on in the music. It’s a very enveloping sound. The music is not convoluted. There’s a lot of simplicity to it. There’s a distant tone to songwriting, but it’s never lonely. I feel like there’s something really important to that, because you’re actually saying a lot in the negative space. What created those songs? Were you reacting to something? Give us some clues.
Hall: I don’t have a home run answer. These are just the songs that I can make. I was reacting to being on tour so much with other bands in that I recorded a ton more. I made it a priority to finish my own record. But as for the music itself, I don’t ever start with some sort of continuous narrative or theme or concept. I’m really just trying my best to finish eight to ten songs so I can put them on a record.
Thomas: Have these songs been sitting around for a long time? Is it like, “This is a song that I started in 2007, and I really need to finish it”?
Hall: it is like that, except the oldest song is from 2010 or 2011. But it is essentially that. And then as things start to come together in the final stages of recording, you start to program it as a record and think about how you can tie everything together in the mixing stage. In that sense, it becomes a cohesive entity of its own.
But with the songs themselves, I’ve always started with the music as opposed to the lyrics. There’s so much emotional content in the music itself. The energy and emotional quality of a song exists in the music, whether or not there are even lyrics yet. Maybe that’s something that you’re touching on; the songs are resonating before I even decide what I want them to be about lyrically.
Thomas: There’s definitely a connectivity with the songs, which implies an overarching narrative, even if there isn’t one. It feels like one larger statement rather than a portfolio. Whether or not you intended to, it takes a command. That’s more of a critique than an interview question.
Hall: Well, thank you.
Thomas: You make the record by yourself – completely alone. Do you have people that you sound ideas off of? Or is the process completely just you and your instruments in the studio, and you emerge with a record four years later?
Hall: This time around, after I had finished tracking everything at home, I actually brought the record into MINBAL studio here in Chicago and I worked with the engineer Benjamin Balcom. I expected to have him help me mix the record and make it sound great. It ended up being much more than that. He ended up being a really big influence in helping me fine tune things and make some big editing decisions. He helped me hone the songs even further, in a way that I hadn’t even expected. It was hugely beneficial. It was helpful for me to bring someone into the fold and shape the songs before the record was actually mixed. And then we mixed the record together. That was it, though. He was the only person involved other than myself throughout the whole process.
Thomas: You’ve been playing live with your band for about as long as you’ve been making records, right? Has it always been the same line-up?
Hall: It’s mostly been the same. Quinn Kirchner plays drums, and he also plays in Wild Belle. He and I have played music together since we were in high school. And then there’s Matt Ulery, who is this amazing Chicago bass player and composer. Over the last couple of years we’ve also had my friend Mike Thollen play guitar and keyboard and help fill things out a little bit. He records under the name Talons and is incredible. I’ve really been lucky to have amazing musicians involved with the live show.
Thomas: Do you ever take new songs to the musicians after you’ve made a record and they’re like, “Oh my god. We have to change these. I gotta drop a dup-step breakdown into here.” [Laughs] Do you ever have those moments?
Hall: I probably should, but I don’t. I don’t really think too much about what we’re going to do live while I’m making the record – for better or for worse.
Thomas: But have you had moments where the band is at odds with the song that you’ve created on your own?
Hall: There are definitely some songs that are more challenging to make happen live. But when we’re working on it as a band, it’s only ever positive. We pretty much figure out how to make it work. There have been one two cases where we’ve just decided, “Well, this isn’t going to work.” We just won’t do it.
Thomas: Both you and I have played in bands where we were back-up players in someone else’s project and they’d made a record that was completely unreproducible in a live setting. We’ve both played in His Name is Alive, and Warren [Defever] would make records like that. His response to that was to completely change the arrangements. If he made a folk song, we’d be playing a minimal funk version of it that was unrecognizable. How far does the band diverge from your recordings when you go live? What changes?
Hall: To my ears, it’s so very different, but I think that all in all, we’re able to convey all of the necessary content of each song. Each one is coming across with the same impact. I’ve thought a lot about this over the past couple of years. During the first chapter of In Tall Buildings – 2010, 2011 – we were playing a lot more shows as a band, and I was so very caught up in thinking, “Let’s make it sound just like the record.” I was looping my guitar and I was layering things up. I was so caught up in it.
I’ve realized more recently that doing so was keeping me from enjoying the show, because I was so distracted. Now I’ve let myself step back and be part of a band – just a group of dudes playing music together, each with his or her own voice. That’s why you have great musicians in your band: You just want to play. I’ve allowed myself to get more into that mentality, and let the music take on sort of a new form. Maybe it’ll have a slightly different energy from the record – that’s completely OK. I think they have the same impact.
Thomas: If you’re trying to replicate something on stage every night, and it’s a boring – or tense – feeling for you, your audience will feel that as well.
Hall: Absolutely. That’s the first thing that comes across to an audience. I think that I’ve finally learned that. [Laughs]
Thomas: Are you going to be doing a lot of touring? What’s the plan for taking Driver to the people?
Hall: We’re working on that right now. We’re working on some tour dates for the spring time. We’re going to take things as they come, and let the record exist for a little while before we make any big decisions.