“What have we been up to?” Chris Ziter wonders aloud.
Twelve years have passed since the release of the Essex Green’s last album, Cannibal Sea, and it’s only fair to ask how the singer-guitarist and his bandmates Jeff Baron and Sasha Bell managed to fill that time.
The answer turns out to be some spectacularly ordinary life shit.
Formed in 1997, the Essex Green spent its first decade as a Brooklyn band, before being a Brooklyn band was a well-trodden career path. Over that span, the Vermont transplants released an EP and three full-lengths of ornate, ’60s-inflected indie pop. And then they scattered to the wind. Ziter moved to Cincinnati to go all-in on a long-distance relationship. (They are now married and living back in Vermont). Baron went to Pittsburgh. Bell headed west: California, then Montana.
Unfortunately, geographical distance poses a bit of a challenge for a studio band like the Essex Green. So, the band simply sat on ice. Bell studied elk rutting. Baron built a houseboat. Ziter started a tech company. Each played in various other projects. The songs they wrote for the Essex Green were stowed away indefinitely.
“We were just trying to understand how we can work together without being in the same space,” says Ziter. “We knew the technology was there, because we mixed Cannibal Sea without us all being in the same place, but in terms of actually writing and recording music, it became really difficult without that sense of presence and being together in the same physical space.”
As we speak on the last Sunday afternoon in July, Ziter is in Vermont, as is Baron. Bell is currently en route from Montana. The Essex Green is gathering to rehearse for a two-week tour in support of Hardly Electronic, the band’s recently released fourth LP. The big chill is over. As Ziter discusses below, the band convened in Vermont several times last year to record the album after an extended period of trading demos across the internet.
It would not be accurate to call Hardly Electronic a return to form – that implies some previous dip in quality. The Essex Green have just picked up where they left off. Over 14 songs (10 if you procure the abridged vinyl version), the band explores the darker edges of its sound while imbuing each tune with an unmistakable verve and harmonic warmth.
Tonight, just a few days after I chat with Ziter, the band begins its East Coast jaunt. As he sings on ebullient opener “Sloane Ranger”: “Pack it up / Let’s take the circus out on the road.”
Was there any rust in getting the Essex Green back together?
I don’t think so. There wasn’t rust, but we hadn’t solved the location problem when we started making the new record. It was just really about finding the time and figuring out the resources to make it happen.
You know, people got busy with their lives in the interim. There’s a vacuum, and it starts to fill up with stuff unless you’re carving out time specifically for all of it. That was it, though. By the time we started working on this record, we knew we were going to be into it for a while because that’s the way we make records. It’s not an overnight thing. We don’t go into a studio and pump out a record in two weeks.
You can probably hear there’s a lot that goes into the songs. We spend a lot of time working the arrangements out. Sasha, Jeff, and I are the main writers, and we’re sharing that responsibility, bringing these ideas in. There’s a lot of work in basically taking somebody’s raw idea and building it out into a song and then ultimately a complete recording.
We had plenty of music, obviously – it had been a while. It was just about the details of how are we going to record it, where is it going to happen, and all of the nitty gritty details with files sharing and whatnot.
Sasha had moved to Montana by the time we started the record, so she flew out here to Vermont multiple times in the space of a few months and start laying down basic tracks with us. That part – the logistic bit – was the only thing we had to deal with. In terms of relationships and jumping back into playing and record together, there wasn’t really any rust there.
Given the passage of time, did you talk about the type record you wanted to make?
I think the hope was that we would make a record that was still recognizable as our band, something that sounded like we hadn’t lost anything and had sort of kept moving along, and that the gap wouldn’t be relatively noticeable. At the same time, we didn’t want it to sound exactly like our last records. I don’t know what we did or didn’t achieve – that’s really up to the listener.
It felt different than the other records. Part of it was the geographical component. I mean, a lot of these songs had been around for a little while. Like any of our other records, I don’t think we’re going to go in and try for a certain sound or anything – we’ve got enough diversity between the songwriters and the styles that we each like to write in. All we’re trying to do is even it out between everyone’s input.
How would you describe your relationship with modern technology? There’s obviously a sense of conflict embedded in some of these songs.
It’s a catch-22. There’s a dichotomy between our ability to create the record – what record is named – and some of the content and themes of the songs. We couldn’t have produced this record without technology, but at the same time you find yourself getting lost in to a certain degree.
We’re definitely old school in a sense. We like older music – we like the sound of it, we like the nature of how it was produced and how it was bought, the equipment that was used to make it. But at the same time, you can’t turn away from the ability to build a record like this, in the basement of my house, like we did.
We’ve always done the recording ourselves. Recording is essential to our band. Building those layers, there’s always tech involved, but being to do it remotely like we have, there’s no getting away from it.
But many of the songs, like you said, are about us relating to other people through their eyes or ears or bytes of technology.
In the dozen years since Cannibal Sea came out, indie pop has sort of shifted to the periphery of critical and commercial focus. Do you think about the Essex Green’s music in that larger musical environment?
There’s a lot of great music being made right now within that genre, but the question is whether those bands can make lives out it, because it’s not necessarily the popular pop music.
It’s challenging for musicians to produce music the way they did before and make a living out of it. I mean, we would probably all gladly dump our regular, bringing-home-the-bacon jobs to go on tour full-time and devote ourselves to this, but we need to find out if that’s sustainable.
Wasn’t Pitchfork talking about the death of guitar rock three or four years ago? And that’s so sad. Obviously, it would be great to get in a time machine and go back to an era – an era we’re influenced by musically – where we would have a chance of becoming a band that could be professionally sustainable.
It’s a tough thing. We didn’t plan for anything. We just made music the way we were going to make the music, and hopefully the environment will embrace it. It’s hard to tell if that will happen. We’re about to go on tour in four days in the U.S., and it’s like, “What are we going to run into?”
Speaking of time machines, I wanted to revisit Brooklyn in the late ‘90s – when the Essex Green formed there. It’s a time and place that’s been romanticized a bit lately, although there’s been a bit of a narrow focus. What do you remember most about it?
Well, we moved from Vermont in the late ‘90s to Brooklyn to really start the Essex Green. We had another band up here, and we kind of made a clean break of it. Most of us moved down to New York and decided we wanted to go in a stylistically different direction. We wanted to expose ourselves in that larger city to see if we could get a little bit further than a small town like Burlington allowed us to.
Before we moved down, Jeff and Sasha were both playing in The Ladybug Transistor, and that was sort of already established as a Brooklyn band. The Essex Green was sort of under Ladybug’s wing, although we didn’t play together as bands, because Jeff and Sasha would have been performing double duty.
It was really exciting right off the bat. There was so much more music in New York. There were so many more of our heroes playing in town – like, all the time, because it’s New York City and anybody is going to go through there on any tour. So, it was immediate that we started to play and get feedback and find ourselves with some of the groups.
We got to meet and hang out with a lot of the crowd that was around at the time. More specifically, there was the Elephant 6 crew that we had already been somewhat connected with. We’d hang with them whenever they came through town, and we would go to Athens a lot. Our first label was Kindercore Records in Athens, so we were down in Georgia quite a bit. We just connected with that whole scene, which was really having its whole heyday.
We were single, and it was younger times, and it was certainly cheaper to live in Brooklyn. All of the action was actually happening in Manhattan at that point, though. Now there are so many great places in Brooklyn to play, but when I think about Brooklyn, it was the place that we lived and worked and hung out with friends, and it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that we actually started playing in Brooklyn.
And then there was also the mid-90s more indie rock kind of stuff, like Pavement, which is definitely having a resurgence now. Look at Courtney Barnett: Her records are basically just taking all of the ‘90s and mushing it into a big, awesome sandwich. It’s fun to hear that stuff coming back out and being received well again. I don’t necessarily associate our sound with that sort of loose rock, but we really grew up on that stuff and loved listening to it.
At this point, most of the Essex Green’s discography in on Merge Records. It’s nice to think there’s a stable of Merge bands that’s decades deep, and that whenever one makes a new record they’ll at least consider putting it out, but did it always seem like that would happen with Hardly Electronic?
I don’t think Merge operates in a way that they would for sure put a record out unless they were really into. That’s probably one of the reasons why they’re such a great label. They’re also amazing people and hard-working musicians at the core, and they understand the flow of these things.
Originally, Ladybug Transistor was on Merge, but before The Long Goodbye there had been certain solo things that people in the band had submitted to the label, and it hadn’t really responded to them. So, I didn’t think that we were going to be on Merge because Ladybug was; it was clearly going to be a reaction to the music itself.
We didn’t even try with the first record. It was really The Long Goodbye that we submitted to them. And we actually didn’t really hear back for a long time. We were on speaking terms with them through Ladybug, so we were surprised we didn’t get a cursory hey, we got the record but we’re not interested at this time. There was nothing. We were like, “Ugh, now we need to go submit it to other labels and figure this out.”
But apparently Laura Ballance from Merge had written us back almost immediately, saying that they wanted to put it out, but that e-mail went into Sasha’s spam folder. And then Sasha found the response in her spam folder and it was total elation.
For this record, we were not sure at all, because we were technically out of contract with them. And I know even if we sent them a record within contract, they have an ability to refuse it. I man, Merge is a strong label, and they’re very selective and professional.
So, we were a little on pins and needles. It had been ten years since we put a record out, and we didn’t know what to expect. And they wouldn’t know what to expect out of us. But after we had finished enough mixes, we heard back from them pretty much right away, and there wasn’t a spam folder problem. They were interested in putting out the record.
This time, though, there was a little bit of a caveat. They were like, “We’d really like to put out the record – we think it’s great – but are you guys going to tour on it? Because that’s a big factor.” It goes to show where the music industry has gone in the last ten years or so. However great a record is, if a label can’t depend on the band to go out there and sell copies and promote it, ultimately it becomes too expensive for them. You just don’t make enough from streaming services.
It’s funny story. We were kind of on the spot with them. We were like, “Well, we could definitely commit to six-to-eight weeks in the next six-to-eight months.” And Laura’s response – she’s so dry – was like, “Ahhh, adult touring.”
So, that’s Merge. They’re awesome folks. It’s amazing to see that label able to survive all of the shake-up of the music industry. I don’t know how they do it.
Is there a song or two on the record that you’re most proud of?
It’s really hard to say. When we finished this record, we sent it to Merge, and once we started getting into the down and dirty of release dates and all of that stuff, they were like, “OK, we’re definitely going to put this out on vinyl, so you guys are going to have to cut some songs.” And we were like, “What are you talking about?” We hadn’t even thought about that.
When we released The Long Goodbye and Cannibal Sea, we did not make vinyl. Vinyl was second fiddle to CDs in terms of actually selling stuff. Now, of course, they’re making vinyl for everything because it’s the only physical product that’s really out there. So, we had very little idea of the actual physical constraints of producing vinyl length-wise. We were like “Oh my god, we have to cut songs.” And that was a really hard thing to do. We talked about it, and they’re sort of like your children.
When I think about your question in that context, I don’t know. There are probably songs that I like more than others. I like the “Hands” songs quite a bit because I think the stretch from that song through “Catatonic” has some bigger moments, and there’s a little bit of a movement where we’re yelling a little bit more and playing around with that side rather than just always being completely melodic and reserved. We’re pushing that a little bit more. So, that’s been fun. It’s certainly fun to play live.