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Interview: Kelley Stoltz

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Quick! Name your favorite Sub Pop artists. Do I hear Wolf Parade? Iron & Wine? The Postal Service? How about Kelley Stoltz? Let’s put it this way: if your answer to that last question was “who’s Kelley Stoltz?”, then you’re seriously missing out. Stoltz, a suburban Detroit transplant turned San Francisco power pop wizard, might not have the high profile and the Pitchfork appeal of his trendier labelmates; but what he does have, and what is arguably more important, is a thoroughly solid grasp on ’60s-influenced pop song craft, culminating in Below the Branches, his third proper full-length and an early entry for 2006’s best album of the year. Plus he covered all of Echo & The Bunnymen’s first album – how cool is that?

The Modern Pea Pod caught up with Stoltz via telephone in the wake of his latest record’s release…and if this interview proves anything, it’s that there’s never been a better time to get into Kelley Stoltz. The bandwagon’s arrived. Now get on it, fer Chrissakes.

Modern Pea Pod: So Below the Branches is easily your highest-profile record yet…wasn’t the last one [Antique Glow] self-released?

Kelley Stoltz: Yeah, it started out that way, at least. I had one record out in ’99 [The Past Was Faster] and that one got panned…most people said it was just all right. But I recorded those songs on four-track cassette, just to sort of try it out. My friend had started a label in New York, and I think he helped me put the album out just to encourage me to keep writing.

After that, though, I got an eight-track machine, I got better with recording. That was the second record. Originally my friend with the label was going to put that one out too, but he’d gone into promoting instead; I ended up pressing a few hundred copies of vinyl myself. (wryly) I made the wise business decision to get a hundred records instead of a thousand CDs. But I thought this might be it. This might be my last chance, and I wanted a record.

It ended up getting picked up and released in Australia in 2002. The next year it came out in the US, then in England the year after that. So my record was “new” around the world for about three years…playing music, you always have to promote things you’ve done in the past, and I don’t like that. I’m always ready to go on to something new.

MPP: How did the Sub Pop connection come about?

KS: I was signed to a local label called Jackpine Social Club, which was mainly just singer-songwriter dudes and a band called Oranger who are relatively popular in the area. The guy who runs the label does a good job, but there’s not much he can do nationally. So I was reluctantly going to do it again this time and put it out on Jackpine. But my friend Ben [Blackwell] who plays drums for the Dirtbombs was a big fan of the last record, and he’d just stopped in Seattle to visit some people from Sub Pop he knew. He didn’t even mention the new music; they just talked about Antique Glow, and about a month later we were talking about a deal. They didn’t ask to hear demos or anything, it was just like, (puts on gruff promoter voice) “You’ve got a future, kid.”

MPP: Now I know you grew up in Detroit, and you also just recently put out a 7″ on Ben’s label, Cass Records. Did you guys know each other from when you were living in Michigan?

KS: Well, I’m 34, and Ben is what, like 21? He’s quite a youngster…so when I was in Detroit, he probably would have been about ten. I mean I’m not saying he wasn’t already in bands and touring at that point… (laughs)

But no, I didn’t know too many musicians in Detroit…I lived in the suburbs, so I definitely wasn’t “on the scene” at any point. I got to know a lot of those guys in California, actually. They’d come through on tour, and we’d get the Michigan connection, hang out.

(Kelley sits down to write Ben Blackwell a letter – photographer unknown)

MPP: As someone who writes music that’s clearly influenced by ’60s pop, do you think it’s a blessing that you never ended up in the whole Detroit scene? It seems like it might be too easy for people to do a Brendan Benson and brand you with the garage thing.

KS: I think it’s easy for somebody from outside to write about you and put you in a group – garage rock or whatever. But you think about Detroit music: there’s Outrageous Cherry, who are kind of a psychedelic ’60s band, His Name is Alive… I think it’s all cyclical. It became kind of fashionable to be from Detroit and play garage rock, but the Stooges were doing it in the first place. And the style, people were dressing like that in 1982 when it was definitely not cool.

But I don’t think it ever hurts for people to think you’re friends with Jack White or something. It’s far from the truth, but it didn’t really hurt me.

MPP: But you are someone who very much draws on the past for inspiration.

KS: Right, well, at least I finally pitched the English accent for the last record. (laughs) The first album I was just getting turned on to so much music, and I’ve always been good at becoming characters and mimicking stuff – maybe that’s an only child thing, I guess. But once I learned I could play guitar and sing and stuff, it was like, “Hey, I can sound just like Captain Beefheart!”

I think I’ve gotten better at it, though. I always write more from the heart than the brain, but now there’s less borrowing. Maybe on a song like “Ever Thought of Coming Back,” for the harmonies and stuff I definitely had the Beach Boys in mind. But you get better at absorbing and interpreting, rather than rehashing. Still, people judge me for that stuff and I just think, the Beatles and the Stones sounded like Chuck Berry for years before they found their own voices. And at the same time, the people who ripped into me for my first record probably had those artists close to their hearts…and I’ll do that, too, I’ll hear a song and be like, “That’s just like…”

MPP: Do you feel like there’s a double standard where whatever isn’t fashionable at the moment is “retro,” but something like Bloc Party, the whole post-punk revival, isn’t?

KS: Well I won’t ever be accused of sounding like Bloc Party, because I never listen to them. I’m kind of suspicious of stuff, actually…a record needs to live for about fifteen years for me before I decide if I want to listen to it. Because something might sound good for three months and that’s it. I don’t know if Bloc Party will be good in the year 2020. Gang of Four will.

But it’s kind of cool, too, because kids will listen to Interpol today at age fourteen, and then they might get into the Smiths. The Smiths to them are like an oldies act. When I heard Echo & The Bunnymen, I was like, “Wow, Television! Velvet Underground!” All these bands pop out and you can go further back from there.

(Stoltz and Spiral sing the Bunnymen – photographer unknown)

MPP: You recently covered an entire Echo & The Bunnymen album, right? [Crockodials, 2005]

KS: Yeah, I did their first record, Crocodiles. That album to me was what segued me out of whatever crap I was listening to on the radio – Duran Duran, whatever was playing. They and Bowie were the first real bands I got into. I had an older stepbrother who moved out but left a pile of records for me to take care of…he had a sort of Anglophile bent, so a lot of the early stuff I liked was English.

Anyway, I’d just finished Antique Glow and I wasn’t really inspired to write anything new, but I still felt like I should be working on something. I try to record at least a couple of hours every week. So I started playing this song, and I thought, “that sounded like Echo & The Bunnymen.” And that was kind of the beginning of it; first I figured out the song I’d started playing, and then the whole next week I worked on the rest of the album. It came really easily – I mean I’d air drummed those fills on my steering wheel in the car when I was a kid.

After it was done, somebody ended up passing it along to Spiral Stairs, who’d played in Pavement, and he’s also a big Bunnymen fan. So we’ve done the whole album live a couple times. Actually the Bunnymen dudes came to see us in New York – that was a really amazing night. Those guys were my heroes.

MPP: It’s a pretty cool idea – you don’t see many covers of full albums.

KS: Yeah. I figure I’m gonna do the first four records. Porcupine is kind of their Eastern-influenced, raga record…I just got a sitar, so maybe that will come in handy. Ocean Rain, I’ll probably need to get a synth for that – maybe just a cheap Yamaha keyboard will suffice.

But I like it because I can interpret and write whole new music if I want; it doesn’t have to be just a step-by-step recreation. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle, musically.

(In his natural habitat – photographer unknown)

MPP: Okay, so this next question is more of a personal curiosity thing: I know you collect records, and I was just wondering what some of the prizes in your collection might be?

KS: (laughs) Prize records… Well, there’s the Flat Earth Society – they’re a ’60s band. I’ve got an original one of theirs. And then I’ve got a copy of the Monks’ record which was signed by all the guys in the band. I interviewed them for a magazine a few years back, and I’ve gotten to know them ever since.

MPP: Black Monk Time is a great record.

KS: They were so far ahead of their time. You listen to that and it’s like, “Wow, this is Devo ten years early.” But there’s the autographed stuff, and then there’s all these records I still have that I bought when I was fifteen – Depeche Mode, stuff like that. I never listen to it, but it’s nice to have.

MPP: You actually made a living selling old records for a while, didn’t you?

KS: Yeah, I spent a lot of time in this local record shop…the owner and his wife sort of became a surrogate uncle and aunt to me, so I’d just hang around for like three hours and talk to them. They actually used to do the psychedelic light shows at the Fillmore, so they had all kinds of cool stories about the 13th Floor Elevators and Frank Zappa. And I also learned about record collecting and buying and selling from them.

So I’d just quit teaching, and I went to thrift stores to buy records for cheap and sell them to the record store where I hung out. This was right before eBay made people think everything they had was valuable, and San Francisco is kind of a transient town…there are a lot of weird people coming through and moving on, with weird tastes. So some day I would come in and find three great records, and maybe none the next, and then four days later it’s like “boom!” It was like the thrift store gods said, “this kid needs help.”

But you can’t really do that anymore…suddenly people realized they shouldn’t just donate them. I don’t blame them, I made a lot of money off of those records!

(Home recorder, homemaker – photo by Nikki Pratchios)

MPP: I’d like to go back to the music for a little bit. Below the Branches was recorded at home, right?

KS: Yeah, it was made in the same mode as the rest. The first album was on cassette four-track, and the last three – Antique Glow, Crockodials and Below the Branches – were all done on the same machine. I have an eight-track in a room with a piano and a drum kit. I fill up the tracks as much as I can, and then there are two guys I know who have studios; so I dump it all into a computer or a tape machine, take it to one of them and then do overdubs and a couple extra things. It starts at home, but if it gets out of control I take it somewhere else.

The new album is mostly home-recorded – I had a couple guys play a few more things, though. The last one was all me, this one’s all me except for a few guest stars.

MPP: Would you ever consider working in a traditional studio?

KS: I’ve never had a budget to go into studios. And I sort of make stuff up as I go along…I don’t sit down with a pen and a book and a glass of wine and a candle to write a lyric. It’s just messing around and going, “That’s a cool little melody.” Or “that’s a good Moe Tucker drum beat.” So generally for me, it’s better to work at home where there’s no one but me; no one to have to sit there and be patient.

Also, sometimes other people don’t move fast enough. You go into the studio with a professional engineer and it’s like, “Put that mic over there right now!” and they’ll be standing there figuring out which mic would sound the best. I just want to get it down while it’s in my head…it’s better for me not to have to be an impatient prick. You sacrifice sound quality, but the performance is most important.

[ADBLOCKHERE]MPP: So out of your records so far, would you say you’re happiest with Below the Branches?

KS: (pause) No. No, I’m happiest with Antique Glow. I mean I’m happy with this one too, but if I had to choose which one I’m most proud of… That was the first record where I really thought, “this is good,” from beginning to end. It was like all that air-guitaring I did as a thirteen-year-old kid finally led to this – I felt like, I’m not crazy, I really can do this.

I don’t know, it’s like a first child or whatever. But the last one sounds really cool and different…there are more piano songs, it flows from beginning to end. It’s similar but different at the same time, stylistically – it’s not just the same thing.

MPP: You said earlier you’re already wanting to record some new material. Have you started thinking about another album yet?

KS: Yeah, I’ve been recording all along since finishing the last album. A lot of songs didn’t get on that were good – lot of bad ones, too, so it might be a case of bringing those out and working on them and seeing what happens. I’ve been getting into the rock’n’roll thing a little more, too… I actually asked Sub Pop to let me make another one in six months, but they just sort of laughed. Realistically, I guess it would be hard to do with touring and all that…but I definitely want to make another one within a year. My last record was four years ago, and that made me crazy!

MPP: Not too many people get out an album a year nowadays.

KS: Well that was one of the things I really admired about the White Stripes when they first came out – they really did put out something new every year. But now they’re suddenly so big, they’ve got to tour the whole world before they can record again. Their last album [Get Behind Me Satan] was cool, though, because they recorded it and then like three weeks later it was already out. That’s the way to do it…it doesn’t give you a lot of time to wonder if you did it right or wrong. I mean, Antique Glow came out in 2001 – if you let me sit on that for four years, I’d have cut and spliced it in 200 different places.

MPP: So you’re thinking the next album might be a little more “rock?”

KS: Yeah, I mean it’s tough to tell this early. But I’ve been playing a lot more guitar. I bought a cool amp with great tremolo, so it’s got a lot of (imitating tremolo sound) ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma!” We’ll see what happens. I might end up sitting around and playing a lot of sitar.

MPP: Well hey, it’s been great talking to you. Is there anything else you want to say before we go?

KS: Only that I offset my carbon use with clean, green renewable energy to make this record.

MPP: (laughs tentatively)

KS: No, seriously. It’s the first record this has ever been done. You can buy into the electricity grid and get renewable energy credits… I’ve been using oil and stuff like that, glutins and war-causers – you can replace that with wind power and solar power being pushed into the system instead. For like $120. I haven’t been telling enough people about this. I wanted to get the word out.

Kelley Stoltz’s Below the Branches is in stores now.

Top photo by Nikki Pratchios

Interview by Zach Hoskins

This article is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.

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