Feb 9, 2015
Sitting on the Ground at Silent Barn, A Conversation With Brooklyn’s Eskimeaux
Gabrielle Smith, the main force behind Eskimeaux, is at once whispering to you from her closet and lighting up the room with the fire raging inside her. She is from New York and continues to be inspired by her surroundings–by her friends and by the city’s creative communal spaces. Although Eskimeaux is Gabby’s baby, her bandmates help nurture its growth. There’s a touch of extremism in most of these Epoch bands: they start as quiet, solo projects and morph into full bands playing contagiously energetic live sets. Eskimeaux’s music is bold yet understated; the lyrics are strange and visceral but there’s a common thread throughout: These guys understand the value of independence, but they find a genuinely heartwarming comfort in each other.
I sat on the floor in a Silent Barn side room and spoke with all the members of the Eskimeaux family.
How long have you been playing music and what made you interested in it?
Gabrielle Smith: I didn’t even realize you could be in a band until high school, so I started my own project right after.
Was it Eskimeaux?
GS: No. It was like a very primitive, entry-level rock band. This project started in 2007 with me just alone. And then it had like a billion iterations until the summer when we got this four-piece together. Felix and Oliver sort of joined in 2011. They went to Bard and I was living there. We did several different versions of Eskimeaux together, like Southern Belle, the 7-piece band.
F. Walworth: There were other more acoustic iterations of Eskimeaux – like there was a cello involved. There was always electric guitar and electric bass, but the drums were even more minimal sometimes and there were back up singers.
GS: It was a big family band for a minute.
How would you compare playing solo versus playing live with a band?
GS: I only recently started to enjoy playing solo. For like ever I was so mortified whenever I would have to do it by myself because all of my recordings are a lot of layers so I would just spend the whole time feeling like they were missing. I would just hear the other parts in my head and get really frustrated. But actually playing with the band has made me more confident with the solo stuff. Recently I did song a day project and there wasn’t a lot of time to put layers on the songs so a lot of them are very stripped down so its more geared toward playing solo. But I love playing with the band more because its such a powerful experience for me… I hope for everybody else too.
So you guys are all in the Epoch. I just interviewed Henry from Small Wonder. Are you guys all from New York City proper?
FW: Other than going to Bard, we’ve spent our whole lives here.
Do you find it inspiring?
GS: Yeah. I never wanna leave. We’re actually working really hard to figure out how to not leave right now. We’re figuring out where to move and we basically spend all our time thinking about our proximity to Shea Stadium and to Silent Barn. It’s totally inspiring, like this space [Silent Barn] is like the hub of me being inspired and I think I can say that for all of us.
O. Kalb: It’s definitely the most connected to a greater New York scene that we’ve ever been. There was a music scene at Bard that Eskimeaux and the other Epoch bands were part of but it was hard to figure out how to find that in New York. Like, even though we grew up here, in high school we would play shows and we would feel like we were on a different page from the other bands. Around 2008 it was sort of the chillwave time and a big surf-rock thing, which is not really what any of our bands do. So this is the first time it’s felt like there was continuity with the rest of the scene and we were belonging to something larger. And Silent Barn is definitely the hub of that… Felix is about to move in here.
FW: Yeah, I won the proximity to Silent Barn thing.
Would you define yourselves as being a particular genre?
GS: I guess the genre we’ve been rolling with in our bio is just an Epoch band, actually, which is cool that that’s actually a thing we can say. But to define the Epoch bands in general, we all write songs that are confessional but not overly blunt or oversharing. They’re very based on dynamic shifts that are more to me than just quiet and loud, like urgent or not urgent. Not sure I’m good at classifying it in a genre because I never wanna be like “we’re a pop band.”
OK: There’s so much baggage, especially with “rock.” Pop is like the new thing you’re supposed to say to be like “we’re definitely not rock” even if we have like a traditionally rock base.
What’s the distinction?
GS: I would say we’re totally a rock band live, especially because we have a rock outfit with keyboard, bass, guitar, and drums. But whenever I think of rock I think of a super male driven… 1, 2, 3, 4 kind of stuff. Whenever I think of pop I think of highly polished, super auto-tuned, radio ready hits and its definitely not either of those things; its somewhere towing the line of that. This record is way more polished than anything I’ve done before and way more upbeat but also not deathly rock or deathly pop.
JE: Do you feel like your new album is different stylistically?
GS: The older stuff is a lot more like droney compared to the new stuff. It’s way more about being really gothic than this stuff, which is really about trying to find lightness surrounding all of my weird feelings.
FW: There’s some of the gothic stuff still there. Eskimeaux used to be this two-piece with Gabby and this guy who played with a sample pad and a drum machine. Just the nature of the sounds that they were creating with that set up, everything was a lot darker and scarier and more doomy.
GS: Totally doomy.
FW: But now I think your songwriting is not entirely different from that but we just have a brighter sound. Even the most evil sounding song on the record doesn’t sound like an anxiety attack like it might have been before.
GS: That was the point of the older stuff. It’s meant to make you really nauseous and disoriented.
JE: You’re all in different bands. Do you feel like you have to switch gears drastically when you enter into other peoples’ projects?
GS: I think we’ve all spent a really long time knowing how to support each other musically. Before we were in this band together, I’ve been in Told Slant in different positions as the bassist then not the bassist then the drummer for one second. And I’ve been in Bellows for a really long time. We all know how to take a back seat and for me its really refreshing, like when I play a Bellows or Told Slant show I’m 100 times more relaxed than when we play an Eskimeaux show and I’m spearheading the operation. And I think that’s kind of what we all feel.
OK: We’re all projects with really distinct styles that started in really distinct circumstances and then over the course of time all of us just ended up being a single unit, which is sort of the touchstone of the Epoch – everyone is a songwriter and we all sort of support each other the way we can, but when one person’s band is playing its really clear whose at the helm and whose the support team – not that they’re lackeys or less important but there’s definitely different songwriters with different visions and everyone sort of bends to accommodate the different sounds.
GS: I think it’s really inspiring. When I was in Sharpless for a second I was like oh, shit I need to have cooler basslines. And then Oliver writes really insane chord progressions so I was like I want to try that, what does that sound like when I do it? Felix makes up the most insane beats so I write all of my songs geared towards Felix playing the beats. Now I would say that the way our band works is a lot more collaborative than it used to be.
OK: I think what’s different about the new Eskimeaux album than any of the ones before is that it’s really based on the way that the live band plays together. Like, Gabby’s been doing her own recordings since 2007 and a lot of the older albums are really solitary and not very percussion based, they’re more like noise or ambient. Or even folk. But this album sort of was the first one that we used drum microphones for and recorded a real drum set and had all the members play on.
J. Greenleaf: I think it was a learning experience for all of us, since none of us had really recorded live drums with more than one microphone before. We tried to set up a faux professional thing, so it kind of felt like pretending until we actually figured out what we were doing. I think this is the first Epoch band that works in a classical, linear way, where we’re a band that rehearses songs then records them. Most of us are doing all of it in our rooms and then showing the others and giving them instructions almost, like here you go, figure it out.
GS: Jack is our resident producer.
JG: I’m like the Diplo. I just need to get buff and blonde.
What are some of your musical influences?
GS: I would say that my roots are in really heavy music like Swans and Xiu Xiu. Recently, I had this really long dry spell where I wasn’t recording for a really long time. And then I met Greta from Frankie Cosmos and was just like, what am I doing? And I did this song a day project and I was super influenced by that and in turn, apparently, she was super influenced by me. And now I’m in the band. I’d say now a lot of my influence comes from the Epoch bands and recently, Mitski, who’s also on the record. Also, the Microphones are a huge influence on me. Jack, do you want to contribute, as having your fingerprints all over the album?
JG: Well, Diplo and… I don’t know. I was into a lot of early 2000s indie rock, which was really what got me super into music growing up. There was something about having all these tiny songs and ideas backed up by lush, orchestral – stuff like Stars and Arcade Fire, and like Belle and Sebastian – where there’s like cutesy lyrics with huge production or bombastic lyrics with tiny production. And all the songs that Gabby writes are either this extreme of this is the end of the world or its like I’m in my closet whispering to myself kind of thing; its like extremes of I’m telling you the real thing that happened and I’m telling you the things that are raging inside of me. And so I think it was really fun to push and pull and play with that.
GS: That’s why I have Jack.
JG: Well, Diplo does that a lot.
OK: It’s weird that you keep mentioning Diplo. What does Diplo mean to you?
JG: Almost nothing.
What kind of things do you find yourself writing about?
GS: Kind of exactly what Jack just said. Its like, this is what’s happening in my life and I use really dramatic metaphors to illustrate that. I like to make it seem really dramatic but then tie everything together with a really simple statement as a conclusion to my song essay.
OK: I feel like the Eskimeaux lyrics are really image based. Like, a lot of the songs have these extended metaphors where there’s some animal, like a sparrow and it shows up multiple times in the song in different contexts and the lyrics just play on an image that’s introduced at the beginning of the song. I definitely think you’re the most visual songwriter in the Epoch.
GS: Yeah, a lot of times, actually, when I’m really freaked out about a lyric being good or bad I’ll make it into a comic before I make it into a song. And if the comic is bad then I don’t use it. Sometimes, also the comics are too image based and then I realize it’s a better comic than song. So, it’s a process.
You guys said this [Silent Barn] is your favorite venue?
GS: We just shot our video here and I was like it has to be here, it can’t be anywhere else.
OK: It’s definitely the coolest place in the city.
What do you like about it in particular? You mentioned the people and the culture.
GS: And the fact that we can do this [interview]. That it’s an open space for people. There’s so much stuff going on too like there’s a recording studio right there and they’re constantly working on the show space.
OK: It has the same intimacy as a show space but there’s a lot more room and a lot more people doing cool stuff. And it doesn’t feel like you’re getting in anyone’s way, like you’re in someone’s living room and one of the roommates doesn’t know about the show. Silent barn is definitely very clear about being a community for artists that live there and who don’t live there. I don’t live here and don’t really know most of the people who live here but I feel really at home here and feel like it’s given a really good space for like-minded artists working in the city.
GS: Yeah, I feel so relaxed whenever I’m in this space.
JG: There’s so many routes for escape. Like if you can’t listen to loud music for a second you can walk upstairs and look at the records or get a haircut.
What do you usually do right before a show or day of?
FW: We have to make up something ridiculous right now.
GS: We jump rope for 10 minutes and then we down 4 eggs.
OK: We always have Korean food and we always jump rope.
GS: I think we always try to cook dinner and walk our dog and then bring the stuff over and then eat more. And then I hand out my drink tickets to everybody… that’s kind of generally the process lately. I want to say that I always warm up my voice and drink tea and do the things that I plan to do before a show. And maybe I’ll make some horrible noise to sound like I’m warming up. And not drink tea.
JG: I think your best vocal warm-up is when you turn up the radio and you sing along as best as you can as loud as you can.
GS: Yeah or like, make siren sounds for like 10 minutes.
Do you feel like there was one show that was your best ever?
JG: You guys liked The Wire.
OK: Probably Lost.
GS: I think that my favorite show that we’ve ever played was the Frankie Cosmos/ LVL UP/Little Big League show at Shea. It was so fun. We opened the show and I love playing first. We’re not a band that requires you to like jam out really hard or be like super involved with it. So, people can sort of lubricate into the show situation comfortably.
JG: It was like an all friends line up too. When you get into like those shows with all of your friends and it feels very family and everyone’s kind of laughing about it.
GS: Totally. Obviously Frankie Cosmos are like my BFFs. And now the LVL up people are our BFFs, cause we’re on their label. And Little Big League have been friends with us for a really long time. It was just really fun.
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