El Sportivo is a country-rock band based in L.A. and New York. Conceived by Daron Hallowell, who runs the scoring and music production company Black Iris and puts out albums on his record label White Iris, the group plays melancholy music that calls to mind Gram Parsons and Gold-era Ryan Adams, with professional precision and a palpable love for the traditions of the genre.
I saw them play on January 30th at Glasslands in Williamsburg. While watching, I got into a bit of a contemplative mood, pondering what seems to me like a resurgence of country music in recent years. The week before I’d gone to see Widowspeak, an up and coming country band.
El Sportivo’s music inhabits the same slightly sad, musically virtuoso atmosphere of classic rock and country music, and the band has generated a good deal of buzz in the process. Maybe the fact that I find this noteworthy comes from a flawed assumption that country music isn’t still vital, when logically, it should always be coming back into fashion. The combination of tight musicianship, lap steel guitar and multi-part harmonies drew me back to a previous era in my musical appreciation, drawing out hints of Neil Young’s “Tired Eyes” at times. I was eager to chat with the band about their influences and where they see themselves in the musical landscape of 2013.
I sat down with Daron Hallowell in his van after the show and chatted about the band and the West Coast inspiration for the album.
What’s El Sportivo doing right now?
We have an album coming out on February 26th. I recorded it about a year ago. It’s my project, but I recruited these guys in L.A. that I work with through one of my companies.
So there are two bands with whom you play this music, right?
I lived out in L.A. for a couple of years, and the guys I play with out there are just guys who work with me. So I recruited this band, we did an EP in 2010, and then we recorded an album last year. The Blooz, who are in L.A., are Lewis Pesacov, who’s the guitar player and also the producer of the LP, then Luke Top plays bass, and is also in a band with Lewis called Fool’s Gold, Garrett Ray played drums and is also in Fool’s Gold, Matt Popieluch who played piano and Max Hart is the pedal steel player, who also did some organ and Wurlitzer. Max is also the touring keyboard player for Katy Perry.So we’re doing some New York shows and we’re going to head down to South by Southwest.
The New York band is a totally separate band. Sean O’Brian on guitar, also a producer and engineer guy, Chris Bordeaux on bass, Chris Egan on drums and Max Hart.
I noticed that Har Mar Superstar was there tonight, which was interesting.
Har Mar’s a friend of mine from L.A. Chris Egan plays with him here. L.A. is interesting, this band and this project is very L.A. in spirit.
I heard some Flying Burrito Brothers in there . . .
That’s definitely in there. When I was living there, you know everyone has these preconceptions about L.A., that it’s very Hollywood and very glitzy, and all of that is definitely there. But it’s a huge city, and very spread out, and a lot of the guys in the band who played with me are born and raised there, and when you know people who are born and raised in L.A. and really know it well, there’s such an underbelly there of really interesting stuff. It’s gritty, and when I was working on these songs, the grittier, darker part of L.A. really influenced the spirit of what I wanted to do with this.
I realized while I was watching you guys that the last three shows I’ve been to have been country or country-influenced bands.
I’ve lived in New York twice, and I feel like when I lived here the first time it was around 2005-2008, and there was very little of that. It was very New Wave, and it almost felt like people were still stuck in this era of the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And now I feel like there are some bands that are trying to tap into something different, a little bit more heartland.
For us there was always a bit of a country vibe to that L.A., California music in the 70’s.
Well, what’s the dividing line, really? It is the southern part of the country . . .
Well, I lived in Richmond for a while, so I think those influences did creep in, but I got my start in hardcore bands, and I think that hopefully part of any artistic endeavor is an attempt to connect with the audience. To me, country is not that different from hardcore. Hardcore is about one emotion, basically anger, but it’s very much about connecting. And country is a different style but it’s also very much about wanting that connection to be there. I think classic rock is classic for a reason. I think it’s good territory to mine.
Tell me about the song “Waking World.”
That one was interesting. That one came really fast. I was writing these songs in Brooklyn before I went to L.A. to record. I just wrote that one on my couch. I had this daydream about visiting an old girlfriend, imagining if I could see her and have a conversation with her.
I had read this thing where Joan Didion, when she’s working on a manuscript, retypes a lot of the book that she’s already written, to get into the flow of writing again, and when I wrote that song, I tried that experiment where I played every song I’d written for the record right there and then that song just came out. So I think it was just the natural result of being in the mood of the other songs I had written.
I think that song is about telling a story. A lot of my favorite songs do that, where you feel the physical space that these people are in. You don’t need a full novel or a short story to do that; you can do it with a poem or lyrics. I wanted to make it a visual thing in your mind. So it’s about showing up at her doorstep years later and some it gets abstract from there, but that’s where the scene starts and you realize you’re kind of in a dream, but the idea of it is romantic and appealing.
You have these two companies that are launching pads for your musical projects . . .
I think my companies are just an extension of my idea of a creative culture and a creative, collective group of people that are built around doing multiple things in music. So it’s essentially the same core group of people I’ve known since playing in hardcore bands, and then in indie bands after that. And it was just a process of recruiting these people to do different things that are musical but are all connected to the same core. And we try to create a culture based around that, the studios that we use are about that, and we produce everything we put out ourselves.
And if you do it the right way, the Internet is a way to let other people connect to that culture, to get a piece of it or a window into it. As far as my music is concerned, I’m not as interested in the quick rise of a blog band.
Running a record label, it’s all about maintaining a steady output of good material. We do singles mostly, on our label. I mean, there’s so much out there. And in order to break through that, you need to continue to consistently create things that people can view or listen to, and that’s the way you can use the Internet correctly.
A band that did that really well, who we worked with, is a band called Best Coast. Bethany was a master at that. I mean just her Twitter feed alone. And that was new for me. I’m a little bit older, and watching her, working with her in the studio and then watching the way she let her fans into her world, her personal world and also her musical world, and continued to sort of have a conversation going, that had a huge part to play in how they were as successful as they were.
What do you think of the value-added approach that some artists are taking with their albums? Adding more features like original artwork, innovative packaging and DVDs to make albums more like collectors’ items?
We’re following a similar model with the label in 2013. We’ve always had consistent artwork on our albums, much like Sacred Bones, where the records all look basically the same, though we’ll change color combinations for the bands. But we’re taking that a lot further in 2013, and we’re pulling from fine art to do that. The photography for each album is shot by the same photographer. Many of them are more like fashion photographers than they are music photographers. All of our press photos are shot by the same photographer and treated in a certain way. And at the end of the year, we want to put that all in a book, which we’ll publish and print ourselves and then sell.
And for the albums themselves we’ve worked with this designer to come up with this really nice packaging where we’re using linen stock with a flap that comes over with info on the outside that we pulled from these Japanese graphic books. So we’re using that same concept to create this really premium object that you want to hold and are willing to spend more on. It costs us more to create, but our two-song seven-inches are going to retail for $10.99. If the music is good and we put the time and effort in to make something people want to collect, then the value is there.
If there’s no value to music because it’s just digital and you never hold it in your hand, let’s reverse that mindset and have bit be about something you really want to have.
El Sportivo will be playing Piano’s in the Lower East Side on February 27th. Their LP Nights and Weekends comes out February 26th on White Iris Records.