LouFest 2010 Preview: Interview with Eric Enger of Gentleman Auction House
Formed here in St. Louis in 2005, Gentleman Auction House self-released its first EP a year later, following up with two other EPs and 2008′s full length disc, Alphabet Graveyard on Emergency Umbrella Records. GAH has performed at South By Southwest and Daytrotter, and the Riverfront Times named the group Best Indie Band of 2009.
The band, led by Eric Enger, performs euphoric pop songs that aren’t afraid to take some chances and some left turns. In addition to the expected sounds of a band (bass, drum, keys, guitar), Gentleman Auction House has a knack for using all kinds of instruments to keep its horizons open, from horns to an instrument you might have played with as a kid, the omnichord. The music is fun, distinctive and adventurous. It gets even better on repeated listens.
Nick Cowan: How did Gentleman Auction House start?
Eric Enger: The brief version is that Steve (Kozel) and I were in a band together, just a college thing.
Where did you go from there?
After that, I moved to Tucson to take a recording internship. The studio I was interning at was working on Calexico and Neko Case records. The Iron and Wine and Calexico collaboration was happing then. I got to be around a lot of really great musicians and studio people that really had their stuff together. It certainly stuck with me as a good example of how to record.
How long did you do that?
Less than 6 months, but it seemed like a lifetime. There’s a huge music culture in Tucson, a very communal vibe. I learned a lot from how they all operated and their devotion to craft is something I can relate to.
Then how did everyone you have now come in?
Steve and I were in that band before. Steve and I have known Kiley since college. Ryan Adams joined, Eric Herbst and Stephen Tomko were the last two. We’re all really close.
Has everyone with you now been in the band since recording Alphabet Graveyard?
Yeah, almost everyone. The six people in the group now are all devoted to the same thing.
They all play at least a couple of different instruments, right?
I don’t think there’s anyone that can’t play something else.
I love Kiley’s voice in the boy-girl chorus on a few songs — one of the Christmas songs, “On The Rooftop” comes to mind. Do you keep that dynamic in mind when writing vocal harmony?
That’s an element I’ve always really liked in music. Choosing the spots where there’s a female counterpart can be really effective and get the emotion across. I’ve always loved a female vocal of any kind.
What was it like recording the full-length album?
Alphabet Graveyard was a weird recording experience. It was really great but came with unforeseen stressors: There was a problem in mixing, so the tail end of the recording process was really hodgepodge; I flew back out to mix, and a couple of the final mixes had to be done by phone. In the end I’m pretty happy with it.
Did you learn how to play through any formal training?
I took guitar lessons for about six months, a year tops, when I was 14 and it got to the point where I had enough. The lessons started to get too mathematic.
How did you develop your musicianship after that?
I started learning what kind of chords and vocals I wanted. It started that simple and got more complex. My favorite pop music is a mix of the intuitive and the ugly and trying to combine oddities within some sort of cohesive package.
Is this where the omnichord and other stuff come in? Those little elements give the songs a little edge.
Yes! I was kind of looking for something new. The omnichord can do four things. I learned which two I liked. I grew up really liking heavily arranged hip-hop groove or drum and bass that had odd elements that jumped out of the song, or some sound that colored the song and gave it a personality. Odd sounds, omnichord or otherwise, are things that perk your ear up and when you really hit it sounds fresh and timeless too.
You’re working on a new record at your home studio. Tell me what you’re excited about.
Our last record was more groove based. Our next record has a lot that stuff going on too. Rhythm has always been really important to me, but the album will definitely be rooted in pop and the songs will have some energy behind them.
My life kind of got uprooted last year so the lyrics have some of those experiences in there. Some are probably going to be more vague than others. I was able to really hunker down and work on it a lot.
Did you start this project with any ideas?
I’ve always written and recorded at the same time and it’s a good indicator for what’s working and what’s not. But I’m not wired to play acoustic guitar for people. I’m wired for arrangements, sort of hip-hop bass production but also sort of indie rock. Sometimes it ends up being more guitar based than others, more piano creeping up in others, sometimes the rhythm section gets more attention. I like non-traditional arrangements. It’s a constant learning process.
Do you like working on the record at your home?
Oh yeah. Yeah. I’ve got enough gear to do what I want. It’s not great gear, but for me I’ve gotten to the point where it forces me to work hard and be creative, pushes me to teach myself through trial and error, mostly error. [Laughs.] I’m getting better at arranging and am very comfortable from an engineering perspective. I’m also getting better at keeping an objective point of view, you know what I mean. Just look at the song as a whole and not feel attached to certain things as the person writing it or singing it.
How do your influences affect your songwriting and producing? Do you find yourself going back to those while you’re recording?
Yeah, and the thing about all those groups is not only the songwriting standpoints I continue to relate to but production standpoints. Bands like Public Enemy and Soul Coughing. So as an engineer those are the records that still excite me. I’ve definitely found the last couple of years there are still those core elements I identify with.
What are some of the songs you’ve written that you listen to and think, “Man, we were hitting on all cylinders”?
My favorite songs are the ones where we never question anything in them. “New Moon” from Alphabet Graveyard, is one that they captured perfectly, and everything I wanted to be it became. The last two tracks on the Book Of Matches EP are probably two of my favorites.
When do you think your next record will come out?
I’m purposefully not working with a deadline, but put to one I’d say about a year. Maybe less.
Eric, thanks for taking some time. When you get close to releasing the record we’d love for Gentleman Auction House to perform in our studio.
Gentleman Auction House performs at 3 p.m. on Sunday, August 29 at LouFest. 88.1 KDHX is a media sponsor of LouFest.