The Fogged Clarity Interview
Eric Elbogen, conductor of the one-man band Say Hi, discusses heartbreak, growth, and the making of his latest record, Um, Uh Oh.
Ben Evans: Talk to me about the creative freedom making all these records by yourself affords, and is there ever a case where that much freedom can prove to be a disadvantage for an artist, when there is an absence of criticism or filter during the recording process?
Eric Elbogen: Yes, it’s awesome and terrible all at the same time. I mean it’s awesome because I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. I can play a drum part or a bass part that isn’t very exciting at all; that a normal drummer or bass player wouldn’t want to do because they’d feel it wasn’t showcasing their talents enough. But, yeah, it ends up taking me six, seven, or eight months just to make a record because I have so much freedom, and not having an extra set of ears can prolong the process sometimes.
BE: If you had to pin it down, what idea or emotion would you say is the central theme running through your new record, Um, Uh Oh?
EE: Heartbreak, definitely.
BE: Yeah, it seems that after writing your 2006 album concerning vampires, and subsequently, writing songs in 2008 about magic beans and truth machines, you have come down and taken a more earnest approach on this record.
EE: Yeah, I think that that is accurate. I’m older than I was when I first started making the Say Hi records, and I am concerned with different things in the world, and I conceive of myself in a different way, I conceive of my friends and my loved ones in a different way, and I’m into different music than I was when I began making the Say Hi records. So I think what your hearing is a reflection of that.
BE: What are you listening to, what are you influenced by now?
EE: These days, I honestly have gone back to all the classic rock: The ‘Stones and Petty and Springsteen and the Beatles. For a while, everything that was in rotation was current indie-rock bands, and now I’m just more turned on by some of the older 60’s and 70’s records.
BE: Well it has remained resonant for so long, and I think that that’s a testament to the lasting power of the music and why it’s important to listen still.
I know you moved to Seattle from Brooklyn a while ago. How has that shift contributed to the shape of your music?
EE: It’s hard to say, I mean The Wishes and the Glitch, the record that you mentioned that I did in 2008, that’s sort of a record about moving from someplace that I lived for a long time, to a new place. I mean I’ve been in Seattle for more than four years now, so I don’t necessarily know that the geography of where I’ve been, having been here for so long, really influences what I’m doing. I mean, I sit in a room and I think too much, and I don’t think it matters where that room is. I think that I’m going to think about some of, or most of the same things, regardless of whether that’s a room in New York or a room in Seattle or a room in the middle of nowhere.
BE: I hear that man. Do you find yourself getting trapped inside yourself? As you said, oftentimes, with me as well, geography doesn’t much matter. If I’m inside my head, I’m inside my head, and that’s where I am.
Is there any way that reflection manifests itself through other mediums, do you write, do you take photographs, or is it primarily music.
EE: You know what, I’ve dabbled in everything throughout my life, but music is the main focus of my creative medium these days. It just becomes hard…I feel like you can spread yourself too thin if you are putting that creative energy into too many things, and so, rather than having a thought or having an experience and thinking about the best medium through which to express my reaction to it… that’s not something that I do, I just filter it through the “Would this make a good song filter?” and I don’t foresee that changing anytime soon, if ever. You know, I’ve been doing this for a very very long time, and I still find it compelling and I still feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface in terms of what I want to do, and I feel like that’s going to be the case for a while.
BE: Where did the heartbreak come from? Do you want to talk about the impetus of the record and the relationship that spawned it?
EE: Yeah, you know, a lot of songs don’t come from concrete examples, they come from emotions and experiences based on a variety of concrete examples. The new record is about heartbreak and love with a few different people, but it’s also about heartbreak and friendship and heartbreak in a working environment and sort of the…there’s a lot in there about the depression involved with having to end a friendship, because I had a working relationship with someone, or several people that just didn’t turn out right, and sometimes I just try to distill what I’m feeling at that moment, at the moment that that situation either ends, or at the moment when I realize that it is going to end, and I base a song, or fictions around that feeling.
BE: Yeah, the press release that I received for this album indicated that you are quite the autocrat when it comes to your music. It spoke of you kicking out bandmates mid-tour, talk to me about that a little bit.
EE: Well, being in a band is hard. I’ve seen so many great bands over the years just call it quits because it has been a democratic situation, and I think more often than not, once you spend that much time with people you just start to hate each other. You know, people don’t talk about it a lot, sometimes they do, sometimes, you know, it becomes a reason why people like to go see them, because they like to watch and experience the drama. There’s the cliché “creative differences” as the reason for splitting, which every time I hear that I’m like: “Well, no, it’s obvious they just hate each other and don’t want to be in a band together anymore.”
I think that… You know, it’s been a different line-up for every single tour I’ve done over the past 7 or 8 years, and sometimes I don’t get along with people, sometimes people don’t get along with me. Sometimes people quit, sometimes I fire them…Sometimes it’s mutual, sometimes people just decide they want to spend more time with their family, or want to start a family, or they don’t want to be away from their girlfriends or their wife for that long. I’ve really experienced so many scenarios.
BE: I’d have to imagine that it’d be difficult for someone else, from the outside, coming in to Say Hi, to match your intensity and your conviction in the band, and I think that’s probably the challenge that presents itself.
EE: It is, I’ve revised my standards, I continue to revise my standards for who I want to play in my band. On the best day, I find people who are friends of mine, who are respected musicians, and they come on, maybe they have their own band going on, but they have some time to do a tour or two with me, and those are the best scenarios. And then sometimes those people just aren’t available and I make an educated guess about someone new that I find out about through a friend of a friend, or…the Craigslist thing doesn’t happen so much anymore, but there were a few tours that I did with random strangers I met through Craigslist. But I think that the situation that I have now…we’re touring as a three piece and some of the guys I have coming out with me are just great, were having a really good time, been rehearsing a ton, and we actually did our first show with this lineup last Friday and I was really happy with the way it went.
BE: Have you found yourself as an artist having to adjust to the increasing digitization of music, and do you ever find yourself compromising your aesthetic in the interest of a particular trend.
EE: It’s an interesting time for music and it has been an interesting time for the last ten years. It will continue to get weirder and darker I think. I don’t know that I’ve compromised anything. My most important belief is that I need to make art that I’m 100% comfortable with at the end of the day, otherwise I can’t sleep, or I can’t live with myself. But I’ve certainly made different business choices, different aesthetic choices for the touring band, because of the way things are. You know, it’s important these days, crucial even, to take whatever film and TV licensing opportunities that come your way because people are buying fewer records, people are going out to fewer shows. And so I guess that would sort of be an answer to your question. Perhaps in an earlier time I could just put out records and tour those records. But you know, even with all of those (media opportunities), it’s not like I have to pace back and forth and ask, “do I really wanna sell my soul to this corporate entity?” The offers we’ve gotten have been really inoffensive and really cool, and I thought that what they were proposing worked aesthetically, so it was kind of a no-brainer.
BE: You have a pretty intensive tour coming up, 30 or 40 dates in the next month and a half. Do you enjoy the road? We’ve talked about it a bit, but what does a Say Hi live show look and sound like?
EE: I enjoy the road half of the time, I love the hour that we’re on stage and I get to make music, and interact with the people who come to see us. But, as I’m sure you know, its long days and hard work. I end up doing most of the driving, which means 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 hours of driving a day, and you get to the venue and your already exhausted and you need to try to figure out a way to muster some energy to put on a compelling show 6 hours later. So, I like some of it.
The show right now is a trio, and I’m actually playing drum kit for the first time in my life, and singing and playing drums, and playing sort of drums with my feet on a few songs, and then I play acoustic guitar as well. My friend Luke is playing guitar and keyboards and my friend Trevor is playing bass.
BE: Well, I really like the song “Bruises to Prove It,” the last track on your new album. Can you talk to me about how that song came about, and what’s behind that particular piece?
EE: Yeah, it’s sort of about being at your wits end, being at the bottom of things. That’s an example of a song that is not intended to be listened to from a literal perspective, if you take it literally it’s about drinking yourself silly and getting in fights and waking up and doing it all over again. It’s really not about that, it’s about feeling beaten by the world and life. In the case of me, it’d be the past almost 3 and a half decades of chugging along, trying to figure out how I fit into everything, you know, trying to stay happy as much as I can.
BE: I definitely, after listening to your songs and just in talking to you, I definitely detect a resignation, and I don’t know, would you consider yourself an isolated person…someone who struggles with some existential issues, as we all do to some extent?
EE: Yeah, I don’t know, I have no way of knowing if other people my age in a similar situation think about the same things I do. But yeah, there’s a weariness in my head pretty frequently. And I think that it definitely comes out a little bit more when I’m talking about this record, because I can be a pretty fun person, and I do have a sense of humor and I joke a lot, but you know thinking about my headspace and making this record, definitely makes me shove that aside and think about the weariness.
BE: Do you feel that weariness can be a strength that you can use to create with?
EE: Absolutely, it’s actually my favorite thing in the world, as masochistic as it sounds… those days when I just feel dark, and I’ve just been dumped by someone… And it actually feels, physically feels, like my heart was punched— It’s my favorite thing in the world to pick up a guitar and take advantage of the emotion that I’m feeling. And I guess I’m thankful for that, I’m thankful that somewhere down the line I’ve learned that that can be a cathartic thing. Because I think that it’s important for me to capture that (feeling) in a song or on a recording.
BE: It’s scary to think that not everyone has that outlet, although I think that creative people are more prone to catastrophize things.
EE: Its true, like we were talking about before, we spend so much time in our heads. Yeah, but, your right, it is scary. I think that… I know people who cope with that sort of thing by drinking or ingesting various substances or taking it out on their significant other or their family or their coworkers, and I do my best to not take that sort of thing out on other people in my life, and use music and my creativity to channel that stuff.
BE: That’s really beautiful… I just talked to Fred Thomas of Saturday Looks Good to Me about two hours before I you, you guys are about the same age, and I hear a lot of the same sentiments echoed between you two guys. Not to minimize the individuality of it all, but its pretty interesting to me.
As of late I’ve been talking to people… You know catharsis has always been what I’ve been concerned with in the journal and I’ve been hearing more musicians and more authors turn around and say, “yes, this is catharsis and I embrace it for that…” And thank God, thank God you have it man…the results are beautiful…you make good music because your hurt, that’s what it comes down to.
EE: Well yeah, and it does bring me joy to think that somewhere, someone can be listening to what I’ve written and what I’ve recorded and relate to that, and maybe that will make that person feel less lonely, because they understand that there are other people in the world that are experiencing what they are experiencing or have experienced it.
BE: I quilt to cope with my depression.
EE: That’s awesome.
Eric Elbogen is the sole member of the Seattle-based independent rock band, Say Hi. Elbogen has released seven albums under the Say Hi moniker since 2002, the most recent of which, Um, Uh Oh, came out earlier this year.