ISSUE #3 / March 21, 2018
in tall buildings
In Tall Buildings is the one man indie-rock project by Chicago’s Erik Hall. His latest album, Akinetic, is a bit of a shake up, as Erik allowed someone else into his process. We loved the end result, as you can see in our review. Before his return to Chicago’s stage this weekend, he took a call with us while on the road to pick up a band member from the airport. We talked about the new record, his approach to playing songs live and where to grab a bite to eat if you’re coming off a great show. Before reading what Erik has to say, get the new album here.
Chicago Crowd Surfer: Let’s start off with the inspiration and the process of making the new album, Akinetic.
In Tall Buildings: It was kind of the right record to make at the time. I was contacted by Brian Deck, who produced the record with me. He’s a guy, who at the time I hadn’t crossed paths with, but was an admirer of his work. He’s done a bunch of records for Califone that I love and the earlier Iron and Wine records that I listened to a lot of when they came out. Anyway, he reached out and said he really liked what I’m doing and that we share a sonic sensibility. He said if I ever wanted to have someone in a producer role, he’d love it. He said he felt like he could help me heighten and hone the songs and help them reach the most people. And honestly, I was totally down. I immediately said yes. I said ‘Yes, let’s do that. I wanna make that kind of record.’ I was really willing to try that and excited to let somebody in on the process.
CCS: So, was it kind of fate that you were ready to let someone in and then he reaches out?
ITB: I wasn’t really leaning heavily one way or the other. I had been kicking around a handful of new songs and as I always do, they’re in the works for months or even years, just sitting on my hard drive. I’m tinkering with them, so when he reached out it seemed like the perfect time to just get it happening. It was the right collaboration and motivation to get the record made in a way that was really appealing to me.
CCS: You know, I remember reading a few years back you had described your songwriting style like painting, where you would let songs marinate while you decided which brush stroke to make next. Do you think that Brian Deck comes in and he’s like the photographer, capturing the song when he thinks it’s the right time?
ITB: That’s a great way of putting it. You know, with Brian being there – it forced me to be much more decisive and less precious about each little decision. So it’s a little bit of a plunge and taking a leap to decide when a song is done and just executing it. Luckily, he and I had a lot of the same impulses and we agreed on most decisions. A lot of times, we had the same ideas which was really cool. And we became good friends over the course of making the record. It was a lot of fun and it worked really well. And then the whole mixing process was entirely different this time, in that Brian did it. Well… it’s been different every time though. The first record I did literally by myself, sitting at home. The second record I mixed with an engineer, Benjamin Balcom, but I still made all the executive decisions. When we were mixing Driver (2015), Benjamin did kind of urge me to do things like “turn up the vocals” or “turn down the reverb.” He only had so much sway over me, and ultimately, I think that record ended up with the appropriate level of mix that it had. This new record I left entirely in the hands of Brian. He took all the songs and one by one sent me mixed songs. And, of course, there were revisions – he didn’t force anything on me. We made all the changes that I wanted to make but I really allowed myself to succumb to his style. It was really exciting, but always a little bit scary at first. Inevitably, every time I came around and was like “no, no. this is great.”
CCS: How does this adjust how you prep for a live show? Do you come in differently knowing that someone else helped with creating the record?
ITB: That’s an ongoing art in and of itself. I’m getting the band together. I’m actually going right now to pick up my bass player. Over the next few days, the band will come over and work out these new songs at my house. It’s a balancing act. Sometimes, the inclination is to really be faithful to the recording because the songs’ essences exist in all those layers. But the other side of that coin is, letting the song stand on its own, letting it be completely different and be stripped down. I’ve done shows as a trio and I’ve done shows by myself, and just let myself just totally reinvent the songs. And that’s gone with mixed results, if you ask me – I’m my own worst critic. This time around, it’s somewhere in the middle. I’ve got three guys joining me, so four of us on stage. I do have a dedicated keyboard player which I’m excited about because there are so many keyboards on this record. Ultimately, what I’m really happy about at this stage is letting go of the recording and just letting the band become a new format for these songs to exist in. I’m lucky to play with incredible musicians that are also my closest friends. It’s just such a joy. I like to bring in people who I trust to bring their musicality to the song and in doing so, inevitably, there’s new life breathed into the music that I wouldn’t have planned for.
CCS: Sidestepping a bit, some of your lyrics kind of dive into the current state of technology. What kind of advice do you have with bands in the age of Spotify where there’s a new song every week, and people lose interest quickly.
ITB: (chuckles) I don’t know what advice I have. That’s a good question. I am very much in the school of making records. I like albums, and I like to make albums. I do agree that the industry looks very different from even five years ago. If a band is trying to use Spotify to its greatest capacity to advance their platform… I’m not being very eloquent here and keep cutting myself off, but it’s honestly what you make of it. I’m not on some soapbox championing one format over another. They’re all good and all important. If it weren’t for Spotify, I’d probably be reaching far fewer people and it’s a great way to listen to full length records. Singles, obviously, are at the top of the page. They’re broken out from their tracklisting and in ranking of popularity, which is cool as a frame of reference. Sometimes, I’m looking up a band and I need to know what they’re known for. But I like to go down and experience an album the way they intended.
CCS: It makes sense, though. Someone like you makes a great record and then has a single like Curtain that people will see at the top of your page - they’ll go in and listen to the rest of the album.
ITB: Yeah, you know it’s funny. Right now, the title track is at the top of the page which is awesome because we didn’t push that as a single and didn’t make a video. Part of me was worried that not as many people would hear it. Somehow that one has risen to the top, which is really cool. And honestly, these days, what is a single when you’re not talking Top 40 radio? When you’re existing in the major label paradigm, singles are a very specific thing and you have a team that is pushing a song hard to the radio. Outside of that model, we choose singles so they can exist on their own and make videos for them. But once the record is out, there are so many ways in which people can access different songs on the record and how other songs are highlighted. Once the record is out, all bets are off. It’s weird and cool.
CCS: I also wanted to get your thoughts on the different types of venues you go to. You’ve played with Wild Belle at places like Aragon and Metro, and it seems like when you’re doing In Tall Buildings – you seem to really enjoy playing the smaller venues like Hideout or Schubas. Do you approach shows differently based on the size of the audience?
ITB: It’s really no different in terms of the show we’re putting on, but it feels very different to play smaller rooms. Especially in Chicago, where I come from, you’re playing at The Hideout or Schubas, as a Chicago band – you’re playing to your friends. It’s like having a big party and having your own band play, which is really fun but can also be an odd social experiment to put yourself through. When you get up on stage at the Aragon, opening for Band of Horses, you may have all those same friends in the room, but you’re not really aware. You’re much more detached, and in a sense it’s very comfortable actually. It seems counter-intuitive, but the audience and the band exist in much more separate realms on a very large stage or at a festival. There’s something about playing at The Hideout or at Schubas. There’s no hiding. There’s no escaping whatever vibe has been created in the room that’s sitting in the air. You’re creating it, and the audience is creating it, and everyone is in it together. I love that, but that’s very much like an emotional thing. It’s how it feels. But in terms of the approach to show, it’s really the same show. It ought to be.
CCS: Alright, last question. Real quick. Since you’re a Chicago guy and you’re playing Chicago on Saturday. What’s the best pre-show meal?
ITB: In Chicago? Oh my goodness. Honestly, it’s venue dependent. There’s never really that much time to get whatever dinner you want. So, for Schubas, we always used to eat at Harmony Grill but there’s this beautiful new restaurant at Schubas which I’m really excited to try. But, theoretically, we can go anywhere and time is of no concern… I’m gonna tell you the best post show meal, which is Avec. No better place to go, later for dinner, when you’re feeling good and coming down off a show.
In Tall Buildings plays Schubas on Saturday, March 24th, with Gia Margaret and The Father Costume opening. Tickets are only $12, and you can find them here.