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Stage Buzz Q&A: Emmett Kelly (The Cairo Gang)

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It doesn’t take a psychologist to tell that Emmett Kelly is frustrated with the music business. In fact, he’s livid: “It drives me crazy. The music industry is one of the most retarded things imaginable.” The California-Chicago transplant has been around the block enough times to figure it out. On top of seven years and four albums as founding member of Chicago-based indie-rock outfit The Cairo Gang, Kelly’s resume boasts dozens of guest spots and collaborations, including chief compositional duties on Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s The Wonder Show of the World. Kelly serves as a prime example of free-willed prolificacy; despite his clear and justifiable biz-weariness, the idea of calling it quits doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind. When I ask about the lo-fi recording sessions behind Tiny Rebels, The Cairo Gang’s July release, he chatters away with the boyish excitement of a kid plucking his first-ever guitar riff for Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.”

Illinois Entertainer: Tiny Rebels came out less than a year after The Corner Man. What accounts for the quick turnaround?
Emmett Kelly: I was super interested in the way [The Corner Man] was presented. Making the record itself took a really long time, and then getting it actually released took over a year, and by that point I was like, ‘fuck this, I want this shit to be fast.’ I didn’t necessarily think I was going to go record a new record or anything, but as I was working on some new stuff [material that would become Tiny Rebels] I was enjoying what was happening and I was going to keep playing with it until it seemed finished. It was finished not even within two months of when The Corner Man was out. The Corner Man was an expression of something really specific and varied—I moved into the studio. That was me being expansive, and [Tiny Rebels] is me streamlining how I do things.

IE: Does that account for the album’s six-song length?
EK: Honesty, the length of the record is the thing that seems to be most in question, and to tell you the truth, I just consider it to be a completed thing. It’s just under twenty minutes. I think that’s a pretty logical span, in this day and age, for a complete thing. It’s way rarer as time goes on that someone will actually sit and listen to a forty-minute album. People aren’t listening to music that way anymore.

IE: Did it take a lot of artistic restraint to keep it short?
EK: No. I didn’t have any plans as it was being made. It happened totally organically.

IE: There’s a major late ’60s vibe to the record. What prompted that?
EK: Two things happened when I was making this record: I got my twelve-string, and I got a tape machine. I really love the sound of the electric twelve-string. It’s been sort of ‘owned’ by the sixties—I think, obviously, of The Byrds and George Harrison and The Animals, that chiming sound—it’s cool because the twelve-string is really clean. There aren’t any effects on it, but it’s super dreamy and full of complexity. I’m not really into effects. The idea of using [effects pedals] to wash your sound out bugs me a little bit. The tape-machine was really instrumental in the sound quality as well. The concept of using compression and recording on the tape and hearing a clean electric twelve-string—I love it because it’s super simple. In reality, [Tiny Rebels] is a guitar going straight into the tape machine. I didn’t use any amps.

IE: What kind of twelve-string is it anyway?
EK: It’s an old Vox twelve-string (Ed note: Vox V223 Mark XII) from the ’60s. It’s a really ugly guitar. It looks really bad.

IE: A lot of the bands that influenced you musically on this record were writing in response to the political climate of the late ‘60s. Did America’s current political climate influence Tiny Rebels?
EK: The political climate of the world is definitely part of this album, but I don’t think it’s directly related to world politics. It’s more [related to] the political nature of how anything seems to…work. The subject matter of this album is almost entirely in response to trying to work as a musician and get this band moving. I made [Tiny Rebels] by myself, and the idea was to get a band together that could play it. The whole idea of the band was, ‘Okay, we’re friends and we all play music, but we don’t play together—which is kind of weird.’ The songs are basically responding to the dull nature of, ‘fuck, okay, we’re trying to do stuff, everybody’s trying to do stuff, we’re trying to do things, we’re nobodies.’ It drives me crazy. The music industry is one of the most retarded things imaginable. I don’t know where it comes from or why it functions the way it does. Right now, the shifting of what actually matters [regarding] being a musician seems entirely purchasable, which returns to, y’know—‘What the fuck? Why are we doing this?’

IE: Why are you doing it? What keeps you writing honest music when you’ve got to pay rent? How do you work as a musician right now?
EK: The Cairo Gang doesn’t support me financially. Most people that I know who work as musicians do the same thing: they have somewhat of a hustle. There are some things that bring money in and there are some things that bring less money in. It’s about striking a good balance. I’m lucky; my ‘work’ stuff has become massively involved in my creative process. I have a studio, I’ve recorded a few albums [for other bands] in there, I’ve done session-type things, I play in a Japanese band which is totally unknown of. Obviously it’d be really cool if the Cairo Gang made a living, but honestly, the only reason I think that is because it’d be cool if my friends didn’t have to spaz out at the notion of going on the road and having fun. It’s fucking impossible to get on the road right now. Everyone is totally spent and there’s no offers on the table for gigs outside of town. That has to do with the industry as well. We’re trying to do all this dumb networking bullshit, and I’m so bad at that. I don’t want anything to do with that. In everything I do musically, I’m trying to reorient myself with some sort of core value that is important to me in my life, and I generally get to a boiling point where I’m like, ‘Come on, we’ve gotta do something,’ and then I try to get something going and it proves to be the really soul-sucking experience, and then I go back to the drawing board and realize we’d be better off if we could just be a bar band or play somewhere and have people actually enjoy us.

IE: Really? Playing in a bar band would be better than touring with your own stuff?
EK: I mean—I don’t know. I’m trying to think about what it is that we’re actually doing. The point of [Tiny Rebels] was to make rock ‘n’ roll music that we could play so that people could have fun going to rock ‘n’ roll shows. And, in all actuality, that’s what bar bands are. It would make a lot of sense to me if we were just a bar band and people came to see us, or [came] because there was live music happening and there was a good band—that’s another angle I’ve been trying to figure out… The standardized, systematic touring thing doesn’t really pan out. The infrastructure of the business is changing, and a lot of things about it don’t make sense for a new band. Of course it’s fun to go out on the road, but we’re trying to figure out a new way to exist and be a little more flexible—trying to figure out a way, financially, to make things work.

IE: What makes it worthwhile these days?
EK: That period of time when you’re with your friends and you’re all able to break through some sort of personal dilemma. Musicians have that relationship—that’s their outlet. That’s the reason why you keep doing it.

The Cairo Gang and Big Search appear at Burlington (Chicago): Saturday 9/7/13, 9pm.

-Matt Pollock

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