Fresh off the release of his latest album, Akinetic, Chicago based one-man music box Erik Hall, known by his stage name In Tall Buildings, sat down with PATTERN to talk about exploring new sounds, collaborating on a project for the first time and what In Tall Buildings really means.
Euan Makepeace: The album’s been out for five weeks, how’s the reception been to the album from fans and critics, and how did that line up to your expectations?
Erik Hall: It’s been positive, I didn’t know what people who had heard my previous records were going to think of this one because to me it does sound quite different. Happily, people who have been tuning in and who have previously enjoyed Driver and the earlier music, they’ve been generally positive and super into the progression which makes me very happy.
EM: Compared to the first two albums, whereby you worked on them solo, you worked alongside Brian Deck for this album, how did that collaboration come about?
EH: It was pretty organic. We’re both from Chicago and we know a lot of the same people. We had never actually met before. I did some touring early on and we were opening up for a band, Iron & Wine, and I knew that he had produced a lot of their records back in like 2005. I was listening to those records and I was a big fan of some of the Califone records he’s done. So, we were kind of in each other’s spheres, but we never actually crossed paths and met personally. Then a mutual friend put us I touch, and he reached out and said, “if you ever want to work with somebody in a producer role I would love to work together.”
EM: How did that impact the process for creating an album? I guess when you’re working on an album solo it’s at your own pace, does having someone else there push you to get it finished?
EH: Yes, 100%. Usually I’m working on music by myself and sometimes it’s hard to keep within a routine, or the practice of just pushing things forward. It’s easy for me to just tinker for a long time. So, having him involved forced me to approach the album very objectively and just trust my instincts and trust his instincts. Thankfully, we had a lot of the same instincts. It was also as simple as knowing he was coming over on a certain day at a certain time that made me do my homework essentially. I had to get things ready for him to be there, I didn’t want him to show up and for me not to have any ideas or anything ready to work on. Or if I knew we were going to record vocals then I needed to finish the lyrics and make it happen. It was great. It was like many little deadlines, a few days here, a few days there throughout the year. But even then, each chunk of time that we worked together we got so much done. That was so exciting for me. I never get that much done on my own.
EH: That’s not true but it’s like a special day when I do.
EM: So that’s something you probably want to do, or look forward to doing in the future? Collaborating with him or other producers?
EH: Yes. I want to do much more of that. I want to work with other people too. I want to do it all on my own again as well. I’m just going to be open to anything at this point, I just want to be constantly working.
EM: As I mentioned before, stylistically, and sonically the album varies a little bit from your previous two records. Adding in more electro sounds and distortion. Is that something you intended to do prior to recording the album or did that just come about as a style you wanted to try or was it something that Brian actually brought in with him?
EH: I don’t really know. I think that there have been elements of those things all along and just with Brian’s involvement they’re just that much more present or highlighted. One of the main differences about this album is he didn’t only help produce it, but he also mixed it. So, the mix is the area where I used to do it and make certain decisions. With Driver, for instance, it was a little more gauzier and hazier and everything is kind of one unit, everything existed in the same cloud. Brian mixed this album and I of course was able to weigh in and make the changes I wanted to make, but it was his initial mix that we were working off of and he didn’t let anything hide in the shadows. The drums are here [gestures at himself] the vocals are here [gestures at himself again] it’s not like they’re down over there. The vocals are louder and there’s less reverb. Things are just very present and audible in a way that for my albums are new.
EM: Definitely, those textures really came out.
EH: Yes, that was really exiting. He’d mix a song and then send it to me and it was always a little bit scary at first actually.
EM: “Is that me?”
EH: Yes, but I’d always come around.
EM: What inspires you either during the process of making an album or is there a moment prior to that where you go “aha!, I want to make an album because of such and such” or is it throughout recording you take things you see and what are some of those things?
EH: Starting out there’s not really a cohesive narrative for me, it’s always just a matter of what comes to my mind and what ideas stick and what ends up becoming a song. But, sometimes in the process, mid-way through or towards the end as things start to really take shape, then I’m always able to see it as a whole and then understand how it all fits together. Sometimes it’s even surprising to myself. Some of the similarities or threads that are running between all the songs. That tends to happen on its own. I like that.
EM: I have to ask you about New Moon, that’s another difference on this album. You had that 1:33 track that is composed of sounds or tones, what was the inspiration behind that to create that break in the album?
EH: I love to have that instrumental moment on a record full of songs. And I’ve done that before too with Driver where there are a couple of short instrumental tracks. I love instrumental music and most of the music that I put on and listen to at home is what you’d call modern classical or ambient music. I’ve been working on a lot of music like that, but New Moon was a track that as the songs started to fall into place in the order I wanted them to on the album, I knew I wanted there to be some sort of set up for Days in Clover. I wanted it to serve as an introduction to that song, but it exists or stands alone as well. I just went about trying to create something that would fit that space.
EM: I’d like to get into the name as well, In Tall Buildings. I wanted to understand a bit more about what it is, obviously you’re the sole man behind In Tall Buildings, but I was wondering if that was a character or persona that you take on to create a certain type of music, or is it just the title you adopted?
EH: It was really just a title I adopted early on when I put out my first record. It’s the name of a song by John Hartford, a country singer and it’s a song about lament for country life. He has to basically give up farming and move to the city and work in an office building. That’s not really a direct connection for me but I love the song and I loved how it did kind of reflect my upbringing. I grew up in Chicago and lived in high-rise apartments my whole life. My first record that I recorded was living up on the 9th floor of a high-rise apartment so there was this literally element to it as well. But, I just liked it as a name, and once you put out one record you’ve pretty much picked your name.
EM: I know you touched on this already but looking to the future what can people look forward to coming up from In Tall Buildings?
EH: This tour is wrapping up tomorrow in St. Louis and then we’ve got a couple weeks off. Then we’re going to do a handful of shows later this month opening up for Lord Huron. Then we have one show in the summer time with Broken Social Scene out in this wonderful concert series that happens in Ogden, Utah, we might turn that into an opportunity to get out to the west coast and do some more shows in the fall. Things are coming together as we speak in terms of touring for the rest of the year and I definitely do want to work on some new music right away.
EM: You touched on this as well, but are there any other artists that you listen to?
EH: I’ve always been a No.1 fan of Neil Young. Everything he’s done has been big for me. It’s changing all the time. Recently I’ve been listen to Cass McCombs. I love his record Mangy Love. Stacy and the band tonight just turned me onto Lambchop, I’d never listened to his record FLOTUS, it’s totally beautiful. Also, Peter Broderick, he’s from Oregon but he’s living in Europe now. He’s on the label Erased Tapes, his sister is Heather Broderick who sang on my song Days in Clover, Peter does all sorts of amazing songwriting and instrumental music and piano music, weird music. He’s someone I’ve been listening a bunch of too.
EM: A question I like to ask artists is whether you listen to your own music? I know some artists are completely against listening to their own records, some artists love it.
EH: It takes me a long time to make a record and I’m definitely listening to it while I’m making it. There’s a couple of years when I’m working on stuff. I have to listen to it to process it and to help me understand where it needs to go and how to finish it. So, I do end up listening to it in that way. But no, once it’s done I don’t really tend to. For the most part I move on from a record pretty quickly and I’m trying to think up something new and then in that period I don’t want to listen to my recent stuff. Sometimes it’s fun to dive way back and listen to something you did a long time ago. Like our other band Nomo, we recently listened back to some of the records we did 10 years ago and that was really fun.
EM: Finally, are there any artists that you’d like to work with in the future? Either vocally or behind the scenes on production and mixing.
EH: Not really in the front of my mind. I always thought it would be cool to do a record with Daniel Landau but, that’s kind of a pipe dream. That would be fantastic.