An Interview with Zelienople

We discuss the band’s “new” sound, their new member, and what it’s like to record in a haunted apartment.

Zelienople recently released their second album, Sleeper Coach (Loose Thread Recordings), which takes the already lush, atmospheric sounds of their debut, 2002’s Pajama Avenue, in a decidedly drone-oriented and even more atmospheric direction. The band was gracious enough to respond to a couple questions via e‑mail, touching on the band’s “new” sound, the recent addition of a new member, and what it’s like to record in a haunted apartment.

Let’s get the basic stuff out of the way first. When and how did Zelienople start?

Matt: Brian (clarinet, guitar) and I (bass, vocals, etc.) used to do a lot of 4 tracking and jamming. At some point we decided to take it a bit more serious and rented a practice space. At around the same time we took a road trip and ended up in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, and we always thought that it would make a good band name. Mike (drums) had a practice space in the same building and we eventually started playing together. Mike and I played in another band together while Brian was in Boston being a bohemian (I think that’s the right timeline). Mike and I met Neil while in that band. Mike, Brian and myself started recording together after Neil and I quit the band. Blah, blah, blah, “new artistic directions”. I smoked a lot of pot around that time. Zelienople was born!

If I remember correctly, you originally started playing music because you were dissatisfied with your previous musical projects. In what ways were you dissatisfied, and how has Zelienople allowed you to make more rewarding music?

Matt: The mystery band mentioned above was the first “real” band for Mike and I. We got booked for good shows right away, had fights over people’s playing, recording ideas, etc. It was a crash course in rock band politics. I quit over a lot of that stuff. I was pretty naive in thinking that it could be different with different people, but it has been. I think the reason Zelienople is more rewarding is because we can be pretty frank about things with each other. We also compliment each other’s motivations regarding music.

Mike: Me, Matt and Neil were in a rock band for a very short time with some notables from the Chicago scene (we’ll keep the incriminating details a mystery). The two leaders of this band were fairly well known and well-connected so I think that there was an expectation on us before we even played our first show. We had great gigs, opening for The Cranes to a sold-out crowd on only mine and Matt’s second time of being on a stage, so it was pretty tempting to stick with it.

But eventually this project became more of a chore than an outlet for creativity. We were more like the backing band so Neil left, than Matt left, and that was it. Matt and I retreated to our practice space with Brian to plant the seedlings for Zelienople. Immediately, we had a ton of ideas of what we wanted to do and just as importantly we also knew what we wanted to avoid.

It was definitely a great learning experience to play with others, but it’s become more rewarding to work with your close friends on something that continues to keep us excited and keeps us generating new ideas. Since there isn’t one person dictating our direction and since there aren’t any preconceived notions for pandering to an audience or whatever we’re able to keep that limitless attitude.

Although originally a trio, you’ve recently added guitarist Neil Jendon to the line-up. How did he come to join the band, and what sort of influence has he brought to the music?

Matt: Neil was in the unnamed band from above. Neil has an impressive knowledge of sound technology, and definitely adds a strange “glitch” to the outline of the sound. He really keeps up on the avant-garde scene and keeps the rest of us updated as well. In general, a pretty smart guy.

Mike: Matt and I met Neil through that other band and after it broke up we remained friends with him. He’s always been very encouraging and has helped us along the way with a lot of technical support (this guy builds most of his equipment himself). Meanwhile, Neil was being very prolific with recording and performing solo and with another guy in a project called Reliable Sound Products. There’s a very active improv/free-music scene here in Chicago and Neil is pretty involved with it so through him, we were turned on to a lot of abstract, experimental stuff.

But Matt and I always thought that Neil’s projects were usually the best of the lot, especially when some of that left-field noise is more about process than emotion. Neil’s drone and noise pieces were always warm and compelling. When it came time to try to accomplish live what we were doing in our studio we thought it would be best to add an extra hand. So initially, Neil would just help us out with a few shows here and there. It was all very casual and natural and now we can’t get rid of him! His influence is more apparent on the new material that we’ve written with him since the completion of Sleeper Coach, although there’s traces of him on those recordings as well.

It’s readily apparent that the new album delves deeper into the dronier, more atmospheric side of your music. Was this a conscious decision on your part, or more of a natural evolution for you guys?

Matt: We (actually I) used to start recordings with a premise, and this was no exception. As usual though, the record starts to make itself, and you find yourself following it’s lead. So, I guess that sound wanted to be on the record. Drones are the bedrock for us. It’s sort of our “blues” — a reference point or building block.

Mike: It’s been a natural evolution. Anytime we conceptualize we end up scrapping that idea. We work best on an intuitive level and just sort of feel our way through our recordings. We’ve discarded probably three times as much material as we’ve kept, so this intuitive working method can be time-consuming, but it’s really the only way we can work.

I’m not sure how this album became more heavily droned-out than Pajama Avenue. We seem to get bored with the material that we write that is more thin and more structured and that satisfies an instant gratification urge. Close friends of ours complain that their favorite Zelienople hits never make it on our records! Personally, I want to be able to return to these recordings and be surprised by something that I’ve previously didn’t hear before. So I think it was more of a natural development for us to create more complex, textural layers and more open-ended song structures.

On your previous album, “Pajama Avenue”, you integrated a lot of song-oriented structures into the music. With “Sleeper Coach”, the songwriting is much looser and more ambiguous. How did you go about composing these pieces?

Matt: It’s funny, I think it’s the opposite. But that just goes to show that I’m too close to it to see the big picture. We composed this new record in the same way as the last, but we were less afraid of?“ugly” (best adjective I can think of) sounds. I was trying to emulate George Harrison’s/Phil Spector’s “All Things Must Pass” sound a bit in the haziness department. We also recorded Sleeper Coach to tape, Pajama Avenue was digital, and everything was intended to groove a little. If there is a jazz influence I think that it’s more apparent on Sleeper Coach.

Mike: It’s hard to recall really. I guess it’s just whatever worked. Like I said, we don’t really work with a rigid preconception, but we do work off of simple ideas that generally gain momentum and head off into uncharted territory. Actually, only “Ship That Goes Down” was the only song that was written before we recorded it and we kept it intact. Most of the other songs were?skeletal ideas that formed out of a recorded improvised moment between me and Matt or Matt and Brian and then built up from this foundation. Some songs were just totally collaged loops and melodies from a variety of sources, especially “Curtains”. Others were pieced together from multiple recordings in a variety of ways.

For instance, the drums for “Softkiller” were originally recorded for another song that we trashed, “Corner Lot” was an ambient piece that Matt originally recorded for his Western Automatic project and we just added more and more layers and a beat to it and the song “Fortune” was slowly deconstructed from a Talk Talk-like arrangement to a floating drone piece. It’s all coming back to me now. I guess I just de-mystified Sleeper Coach.

How do you go about transferring this music to a live setting? What sorts of challenges does the band face?

Matt: We don’t! You’re limited in both mediums in different ways, and we try to use both sets of limitations to our advantage. You can trick the ear in different ways. I have a challenge in that I can compose a bassline and then do vocals for a recording. In a live setting I have to learn to do both at the same time. Since most of our recorded takes are spontaneous, we spend some time transferring our recorded versions to live and relearning them. I also have a hard time remembering lyrics (but who can tell what I’m saying anyway).

Mike: For the most part we don’t transfer our recorded material to a live setting with the exception of a couple of songs. The effort that it takes to figure out how to recreate this stuff live, we could use that time to write a new song. So our live sets usually consist of one or two songs from the album and the rest is new material that may appear on the next record or may just vanish if it fails to impress us. I suppose this doesn’t promote sales much but it keeps us movin’ on. The benefit to this is that we already have about ten new songs waiting to be recorded. Since we’ve added Neil and since Brian switched from keyboards to guitar the live material is becoming as dense as our album recordings have been so hopefully we’ll be able to transfer our live sets to tape with relative ease like the way “Ship That Goes Down” was recorded.

In the one-sheet that accompanies the new album, there’s mention of all-night drone sessions in a haunted room? I have to ask… what’s that like? And what are you trying to capture or explore in those all-night sessions?

Matt: Mike and I know that the room was haunted (Brian disagrees, Neil probably has no opinion or thinks that after-life musings are irrelevant). Tenants from the building reported seeing a phantom man inside and outside of the building. The building was once an office center for doctors and small businesses. Rumor has it that a fire burned out the offices and the former occupant of the room next to ours.

I wasn’t trying to capture shit (I don’t think that Mike was either). I was afraid to venture to the bathroom down the hall. I relish in maintaining a healthy adolescent fear of the paranormal. We left that practice space, but if you listen to the record, you can hear the poor soul paying homage to Lamonte Young as he holds down one key.

Read more about Zelienople.