Q&A With Eric Elbogen of Say Hi
Say Hi has undergone some changes of late. Eric Elbogen, who for all intents and purposes is Say Hi, shortened the name of the project, which was previously known as Say Hi to Your Mom, and has taken what he considers to be a more serious approach to the music, as he outlines in the following Q&A.
The conversation, which informs a March 13 Westword profile, begins with Elbogen’s acknowledgement that he hasn’t always been forthcoming in previous interviews. However, he notes that he’s been shooting straighter of late, and his aim proves true as he discusses The Wishes and the Glitch, his latest CD. Along the way, he talks about his move from New York to Seattle; the shift in his songwriting away from tunes about vampires and robots to more personal material; his one-man-band recording techniques; rules he set for himself, including a prohibition against “whisper singing”; his decision to release the recording digitally before putting it on disc, supplemented with his insistence that he didn’t steal the idea from Radiohead; his preference for vinyl over plastic; and misunderstandings about his latest work that even his new earnestness hasn’t been able to prevent.
And so, without further adieu, say hi to Say Hi:
Westword (Michael Roberts): One of the most challenging things for me in preparing for this interview was the large number of quotes from you in the past that can be read facetiously – where I couldn’t quite tell if you were sincere or not. Does that come naturally? Or is just you having fun with the whole interview process?
Eric Elbogen: You know, the longer I do this and the older I get, the less facetious I’ve become. A lot of times, it’s really just a response to the situation and whoever’s asking the questions, and what questions they’re asking. I tend to be a bit looser when I do e-mail interviews, just because I have a little bit more time to be creative with my answers. But if there’s anything specific you’re wondering about, I’d be happy to clarify it.
WW: Maybe we can debunk some of the myths you’ve created – although I don’t think we’ll ever get to the bottom of the bio on your website. That’s probably the least informative bio in popular music history…
EE: Well, that was actually the intention (laughs).
WW: I also liked your frequently asked questions list, and it made me wonder: Would interviews be more fun for you if “What is the state fish of Hawaii” really was one of the most frequently asked questions.
EE: It probably would be (laughs).
WW: A lot of people see the new album as being less facetious, too, even though the first song on the album [“Northwestern Girls”] includes kind of a wink in the lines, “I’m all grown up this time/I swear.” Did you go into the album with the idea of being at least a little more straight-forward? Or did that develop along the way?
EE: I think the record – it was definitely intended as a lot of stuff that happened in my personal life between the last record and this one. I guess the intention was indeed to make somewhat of a more serious thing. I turned thirty in between the last record and this one. I moved to Seattle. And I don’t know: I was just starting to feel like singing about robots and stuff like that didn’t quite interest me as much anymore.
WW: Some of your fans probably won’t be happy to hear that.
EE: Well, we’ll see. It always just sort of depends on where I’m at when I start making a record. I’ve started sketching out some stuff for the next record, but I haven’t completely decided which way it’s going to go. And it’s more subtle this time around, but I think on the new record, there’s still a little sense of humor.
WW: The word “maturing” is one of those double-edged-sword kinds of terms, since “more mature” can often translate into “less fun.” It sounds like you want to mature without losing your sense of fun.
EE: Yeah. At the end of the day, you have to have fun, and you have to not take yourself too seriously. I know that’s what turns me off about other bands. You can just hear it in the lyrics and in interviews and when you watch them play – that they’re trying so hard to come off as cool, self-important people. I always tend to like the bands that have a little bit of fun with it.
WW: When you were making the new album, how did you go about capturing that? Did you try to be as spontaneous as possible?
EE: Well, the longer I go on, the more self-editing I do. It used to be the sort of thing where, like, I would sit down with my guitar and for whatever reason, I’d decide that I wanted to be writing about a vampire or a robot. And for something as lighthearted as that, the lyrics do come very quickly. But I think when you’re attempting something a little bit more personal, you need to be a bit more careful. It’s a fine line between being too personal and being too heart-on-your-sleeve. I know on the new record, the songs had been written for many, many months and I had recorded most of the instrumental music, and I really did spend a lot of time fine-tuning and tweaking certain lines, much like a book editor or a poetry editor would.
WW: Is there a song on the new album that took a particularly long time?
EE: I think all of them did. I think there are very few songs on this record that came very, very quickly. I know that with a lot of them, most of the lyrics came pretty early. But then I just spent lots of time micro-tweaking little lines here or there. I guess the difference between editing words in a vacuum without music is you still have to make it rhythmically interesting as part of a song. So sometimes the right word just ends up being too clunky to fit in with the melody. In those cases, I’ll spend days and days just singing the song over and over to myself in the shower or when I’m cooking breakfast, just trying to wait for the right phrase to come.
WW: Was the recording process different this time around? I know a number of people assisted you on it, but it’s still mostly just you, right?
EE: Yeah. The previous couple of records I had actually had some musicians involved a lot more, as well as doing part of the recording, like drums, in actual recording studios. Not super-big, fancy ones, but more like semi-professional project studios. But this time, except for the three people who came in briefly for two hours at a time to sing some backup vocals, it was really just me in my room. And that has its advantages and disadvantages. But it’s something I wanted to do for this record.
WW: What are some of those advantages and disadvantages?
EE: The advantage is that you can work at your own pace, and playing the role of the producer, there’s nothing lost in the communication – if you’re trying to convey a certain feel or a certain sound to another musician. But the disadvantages, the biggest one is just cabin fever. I lose touch. I have no way of being objective about whether what I’m doing is good. And I think it would have been a very, very different record if four musicians with a say in the sound and the songwriting had made it. It might have been a better record, it might have been a worse record. But there are not a lot of things in my life where I consider myself to be very Zen, but that is one of them. When people ask me questions like that and I think about it, I think, it is what it is. Whether it would have been better with other musicians or another producer involved, that’s kind of a moot point, because this is what I have to offer right now.
WW: Did the decision to make the album the way you did feel right in part because the lyrics were more personal this time around?
EE: No, I think that ended up fitting into the equation. But really, I was just sort of looking forward to doing it all again, as a challenge to myself. On each record, I make little rules for myself that probably aren’t that significant or noticeable to anyone else. But for example, on this record, I said, “No synth bass,” like I have on all the other records. All of the songs are going to have real bass guitar. Also, “No more whisper singing like you do on the others. You’ve got to force yourself to belt it out and sing in a higher register as much as possible.” And making those rules for myself make it interesting for me, because it’s like filling out a crossword puzzle – trying to break what I’m used to, what I’m comfortable with. And also, I think it makes it so every record isn’t exactly the same.
WW: The changes in regard to singing: Did you discover anything new about your voice as a result of the rule? Was your range wider than you thought it was, or anything along those lines?
EE: No, I’ve always sort of known what I was capable of. And let me preface that by saying, I definitely know I’m not the greatest singer in the world, and I know I have some pitch issues sometimes. But there are two things involved. Sometimes I think I can hit notes better when I’m not belting them out. And also, I don’t always love the timbre of my voice when I am belting it out. There are some vocal exercises and tricks that I’ve not about for a long time, but I don’t always practice them. And like anything, the longer you do something, the harder it gets, because you’ve trained your body and your reflexes to work a certain way. So I guess I tried to pay a little bit more attention to that kind of thing. There are still moments on the record that I cringe at, but I was happy for the most part. The other thing is, it’s really difficult performing songs live when you sing as quietly as I do on some of those records, because the sound man can never get your vocals loud enough in the mix for the stage sound. Part of it was just a response to having toured so much with this band and having played hundreds and hundreds of shows and just knowing what I’m comfortable with, what I’m most comfortable doing on stage. And it’s easiest for everyone involved if I’m singing in a slightly higher register and if I’m singing louder. So that’s something I kept in the back of my mind when I was attempting this record.
WW: So that particular role has a practical benefit, but it also has a creative benefit, too.
EE: Yeah. And taking a step back, what I did learn, and what I do learn every time I make a record: Those little things, like taking practical experience and using it for the songwriting… Before this, I never really paid attention to the key of the song, the key that I was writing the song in. It was just whatever I came up with on the fretboard of the guitar or based on the keys of the piano. But having played live, like I was saying, I discovered certain keys and certain registers that I can sing in and they work better as a performance. So I used learning those little things to stretch myself. If I wrote a song in a key that really hasn’t worked for me in the past, I would transpose it before I’d actually record it, because once you’ve recorded the instrumental music, it’s really hard to go back and change the key.
WW: I came upon a reference that said you’ve been playing live for fifteen years and you’ve made eleven recordings, including the Say Hi discs. Are those numbers in the ballpark?
EE: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. I started playing music when I was in junior high and started playing in bands when I was in high school, and I made a number of records I really am not a fan of before I started this band.
WW: Were they records that got released? Or are they in the archives somewhere?
EE: They’re in the archives. At the time, I really had no conception of how the music industry actually worked, and I imagine like many kids, I thought, “Oh guess you just write songs and make a CD and you play your hometown as often as possible and then one day, magically, an A&R guy in a nice suit will show up with a cigar and be like, ‘Hey kid, I really like your style. Here’s a million dollars.’” Then I moved to New York and I figured out what style of music I wanted to be making – and I made the first Say Hi record. I sent that record to every indie label I could think of, and nobody wanted to put it out. So at that point, I started to do a little research and discovered what a record label actually does in terms of the marketing and the distribution. It took me a few records to get it all in place, but I think by the third record, I think I had a pretty good sense of what it actually means to be the record label.
WW: Over that period of time, a lot of artists in all areas of music have realized that being signed to a record label isn’t the panacea they may have thought. Do you look back and feel fortunate that you’re in charge of your own destiny instead of being locked into some hideous contract where you’re making a tiny percentage on each disc?
EE: Yeah, definitely. And I also think this band happened at exactly the right time. Because had I started to do what I did five years ago now, I don’t know that it would have worked. I know it’s a cliché to say it, but the industry right now has taken a horrible turn for the worse. People have stopped buying records. And yeah, I think there are still some really great record labels out there, and I’ve never been opposed to signing to the right label. But at this point, having done it for so long, I know what I’m capable of myself, and I think there are very few labels out there that could do a better job. So it’s like, why would I give away half or more of my earnings from each record sale if I can do it myself just as well?
WW: On this record, I understand you’ve taken a little bit of a different approach: It’s been available as a download for a number of months, but it’s only recently made its way into stores. How has that worked out for you? Have people found it online? And are you pleased with the way it’s gotten out?
EE: Yeah, it’s been great, actually. We intentionally downplayed all of the marketing. Like, the only announcement that was the case was made to people on the e-mail list and the MySpace friends. Having a record in stores is so important to the overall scheme of things, and obviously, journalists need to get a record with enough lead time to decide whether or not they like it and want to do a review. But I was just tired of having a record mastered and sending it out to the press outlets and it automatically appearing on file-sharing sites. And I thought, you know, there are a solid group of music fans out there who enjoy supporting the bands they like – and I know that’s the case with this band. So I’m not going to penalize them and make them wait four months where every other jackass can get online and download it right now. So I wanted to make it available for people who did want to support it. And it was great. It wasn’t nearly as successful as the Radiohead thing, and it was very funny. I’d been planning this for a while, and of course, about four days before I sent out my e-mail, Radiohead sent out theirs for their new record, about pay what you will. And automatically, people were like, “Oh, it looks like Say Hi is doing the Radiohead thing.” But it’s all in good fun, and I immensely respect that band for doing it that way. But it’s also been nice for the past few weeks having the record in stores and all of the marketing and the radio play come to fruition, and to see the entire release in its full glory.
WW: Are you one of those people who enjoys having an actual disc – something to hold in your hands? Or does that seem like an antiquated mindset to you?
EE: I’m both. Again, I know it’s probably the cliché thing to say, but in the past year, I stopped buying CDs. I either buy stuff on iTunes and it goes directly to my iPod, or if it’s a record I really like, I buy it on vinyl.
WW: And your record is available on vinyl as well, right?
EE: It is. This is the first time a Say Hi record is on vinyl, and I did what I think what every record label should be doing, which is I included a coupon for a free download of mp3s of the record when you buy the vinyl version of the record.
WW: Is it vinyl’s sound that makes the medium so appealing to you? Does it sound warmer? Or is it more the physical appeal of it?
EE: It’s mostly the sound. I’m a bit of an audiophile nerd, and it’s all in the mastering. A lot of bands/labels will use the exact same master they use for a CD to transfer to vinyl, and you dumb down a lot of the signal that way. But if it’s mastered right, the sound of vinyl in my opinion is far better than a CD. But there is also something nice about having to make time to listen to a record. Having the physical experience of taking it out of its sleeve and putting it on a record player, and having to change sides. It makes you pay attention more than just hitting play in iTunes or popping a CD in.
WW: Have you been gratified by the response to the record that you’ve gotten from people? Because it sounds like because of the way you put out the album, you’re in very close, personal touch with a lot of your fans.
EE: Yeah, I’ve been really, really happy with the response. I was doing another interview today, and he asked me a similar question, and I said, when I finish a record, there’s really no way for me to be objective anymore, because I’ve spent so much time with it. By the time I’m done with it, I really have no idea if it’s good at all. The only way I can tell that is based on the responses of listeners once it’s out. And yeah, I’ve been really, really happy so far about the way it’s been received.
WW: There hasn’t been a big backlash from the where-the-hell-are-all-the-vampire-songs people?
EE: No. I know that a lot of the younger kids, especially, were really upset with the change of the band name. But people have been enjoying the actual responses so far?
WW: What kind of objections have people had about the name change?
EE: It was always sort of obvious to me with the old name that it was split down the middle. Half of the people really, really liked it and half of the people really, really hated it. So I guess all of the people who really, really liked it are upset now. And I also think that people often don’t really know or understand the reasoning behind a decision like that. And in this case, I know I’ve read a lot of stuff and gotten a lot of e-mails – like, “That’s really horrible. You finally got signed to a record label, and the record label made you change your name to something more mature.” And I’m like, “Well, no, I just decided that myself.”
WW: It sounds like some of your fans aren’t as fond of change as you are.
EE: Well, I do my best to make records as well as I can. And again, it is what it is, and people can listen or not listen as they see fit. And based on past tours, I’ve sort of made an effort to include as much as possible some of certain older songs in the live set. So if people are fans of some of the other record, hopefully they can still come out to a show and enjoy it.