Blurt – 18 May 2011

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FIXING A HOLE (TO STOP HIS MIND FROM WANDERING…) BlakeSennett/The Elected

No longer a reluctant rocker, the former guitarist for Rilo Kiley guitarist opts to give The Elected another term.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

At the peak of their popularity, Rilo Kiley appeared to have it all: indie credibility; the backing of a major record label; a cozy relationship between the two musicians who were at the helm; a seemingly unlimited reservoir of good songs and a wealth of internal talent and a bright future still ahead of them. Then, for reasons unknown, it all fell apart last year. The two principals went their own ways – Jenny Lewis to continue her career on her own and Blake Sennett… well, he simply faded away, quitting the music business in disgust to pursue film writing and directing. His stint with Rilo Kiley had clearly come to an end, and even his ongoing side project, The Elected, had been abandoned along with it.

“I just started thinking music sucks and music people were insane,” Sennett says now, reflecting on those difficult times. “The situation we all had been in had become unmanageable.”

Given that pessimistic perspective, it seemed highly improbable that Sennett would ever re-enter a recording studio, much less wholly commit himself to making music with the passion he had before. It took the dogged persuasion of his friend and engineer Jason Cupp to coax him back into the studio. Nothing was planned, and no songs were ready and waiting. The process was organic in the truest sense, but eventually it all morphed and became Bury Me In My Rings, a lush, surprising effusive effort that marks a new peak in Sennett’s storied career. Although it’s essentially a solo album – he played the majority of the instruments and then recruited Cupp, his former Elected band mate Mike Bloom, and Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis to further flesh out the arrangements – it’s both instantly accessible and effortlessly engaging. Songs such as “Babyface,” “Look At Me Now” and “When I’m Gone” provide a steady pulse and a snappy refrain, while shimmering ballads like “Born To Love You,” “Jailbird” and “This Will Be Worth it” show off Sennett’s sensitive side and proven pop prowess.

Sennett recently took time to chat with BLURT from his home in L.A. The conversation covered several topics that clearly remain top of mind — among them, the cause for Rilo Kiley’s implosion, his decision to revive the Elected, and how he recharged his passion and found both inspiration and enthusiasm in the process.

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BLURT: So Blake, now that you have a new album in the offing, what are you doing to herald its release?
BLAKE SENNETT: At the moment I’m working on this music video and I’m trying to write the treatment. And I’m finding it’s hard to do.

Didn’t you just complete a treatment for a screenplay? A music video should come naturally, no?
Yeah, but this is different. I have to define what the song is about, and how the video is a metaphor for the song’s subject. So it’s kind of like an interview or something. It just doesn’t come naturally.

Don’t artists just hate having to explain their songs?
Yeah. I think that’s tedious and difficult to do.

The music should say it all, right?

Yeah, hopefully. But every song’s different. Some are more descriptive, and some are more narrative. This particular song, “Baby Face,” is a real strong narrative… like, “Oh, this thing happened like this” and so it doesn’t leave much room for the imagination.

On the album you play practically all the instruments – it comes across as a very rich production.
I wouldn’t say I played all the instruments. I’d say maybe 80 percent of them. I don’t want to take credit for everything, but yeah, I do play a bunch of stuff.

The first thing we have to ask is why you opted out of Rilo Kiley? It seems like the band had finally achieved a big break-through. You were a major label, getting all this attention… So why walk away?
Well… it was pretty dysfunctional in general. It was a pretty negative scene. Relationships were eroding. Ultimately, that’s probably a Jenny question.

But you’re the one that walked away. Jenny’s continued on her trajectory and you left the business.
Yeah, I stepped away, but not just from Rilo Kiley. When I decided to quit the biz, Rilo Kiley was already over.

So the obvious follow-up question is: what prompted your return to music?
Ummm, I guess what made me decide to return was a spur of the moment, impromptu decision to go back to it. My friend Jason called and asked if I’d be interested in doing some recording, and I explained I didn’t have much stuff to record, and what I did have was pretty old and not all that interesting to me. So he said, “Let’s give it a shot anyway and just go and have fun.” And sure enough, after about a week of working with him, I felt re-energized. I left because my feelings had been hurt and I was kind of depressed about the last musical endeavor that I had been a part of, and I guess I felt – what’s the word? – I guess I felt disillusioned. So when I came back to it, I began to think, “Oh, music’s not that bad.” I was blaming music for something that wasn’t music, as an art form’s, fault. It was a by-product of relationships that had soured, or been overworked, or had been the victim of overexposure. I think you can have overexposure in any relationship. That’s pretty common. You get sick of each other and it isn’t fun anymore.
So I found when there was no one to disagree with, it was pretty awesome and it was fun, and in fact, it was pretty great. I thought it would be great to keep going. So we sent out the songs to a couple of labels, and Vagrant was the first one to say, come in, let’s do it. We didn’t actively pursue them, but that got us excited enough to just keep going. So we did as much as we could, and I played as much as I could, but eventually it took its toll on me. God man, this is starting to sound like a broken record – literally! I thought, I can’t play drums like I’m hearing them in my head, and there’s some instrumentation I hadn’t been considering, so let’s bring in some people, some of my friends, who would suggest things that I wouldn’t think of. Bringing them in became the next course of action.

So what instruments did you actually end up playing? Our advance copy doesn’t give the credits.
No, the actual album doesn’t give the credits either. I thought it would look like self-aggrandizing. You know, like “Drums – Me! Guitar – Me! Everything – ME!

On the other hand, Paul McCartney and Todd Rundgren did records all on their own. In a sense, you were following in a grand tradition.
Paul McCartney is incredible, but he also doesn’t have the smallest ego in the world. I didn’t necessarily want to go through all that ego tripping again. We did that on Rilo Kiley records. When I read record sleeves, I really like extensive liner notes and to read the lyrics… but I don’t need to see every single person who played every single instrument. I played a lot of guitars and keyboards and ukuleles and bass and things…

You’re being modest but we’re still impressed. And what about the material? Had they been around awhile?
Almost all of them were created for the record. Most of them were recorded right as I was writing them, and they didn’t have any real essence early on. We worked up a few chords and played a drumbeat and created the final song piece by piece. But there were also a couple that had been lying around. “Look at Me Now” had been hanging around for years – that one was just sitting there – so yeah, there were a couple like that.

This sounds like spontaneous combustion. And the record being so lush and full-sounding belies the fact that it practically started from scratch.
Yeah, I think the trick with things like this is in knowing just how far to go with it. So hopefully we stopped before things got irritatingly lush and sounding too grandiose. I tried to pull back on the stuff when I needed to. There were certain songs that didn’t call for too much ornamentation. I think it was an exercise in recording and producing just as much as it was an exercise in songwriting. It was a different kind of songwriting in a sense. I really liked it. It was a fun and very interesting way to work, in most cases anyway.

Even though you signed with Vagrant, Sub Pop had been The Elected’s home for several years. Was there any thought about going back to that label?
I considered it. We spent time with the label up in Seattle, but I kind of liked the idea of being with a label that was in my city, which is Los Angeles. That sounded exciting. I really liked the people there and I really clicked with them because they were great guys, but I just didn’t want to belabor the point. Maybe Sub Pop didn’t hear the demos. Maybe they didn’t like them. And as much as I liked Sub Pop, I never truly felt at home there anyway. So it seemed more interesting to go with a new label. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to make a Sub Pop kind of record anyway. Does that make sense? I didn’t set out to make the kind of record that’s swamped in reverb. I think there’s a certain kind of thing that Sub Pop does really well, but I don’t think this record is it, so I don’t think that label would have been the right home for it… if you can see what I mean.

This record doesn’t necessarily sound like the first two Elected albums either. There are certain nuances that distinguish it from those earlier albums.
Yeah, I think the first two Elected albums, particularly the second one, are a little more self-conscious, a little more aware of themselves. On the first one, I was just kind of having fun. I didn’t necessarily know if it would ever come out or if I would self-release it and sell it myself. So for this third one, I tried to be as honest and truthful and as open as I have ever been in any recording process. I tried not to make it sound like it was pointed to anything, and if that meant it was going to be terrible, then it would be terrible. One of the things I think I’ve learned in making music is that the only thing you’re guaranteed about art in general is the process. The rest you can’t control. But the process you can more or less control, especially if you’re a solo artist. So I wanted to make sure the process was gratifying and honest, and that I could walk away from the process feeling that it was artistically fulfilling no matter what. Does that make sense?

Yes, very much so. But wasn’t The Elected more of a band project before, as opposed to simply you carrying it mostly by yourself?
It was always sort of a solo project, but my friend and guitarist Mike Bloom had always contributed quite a bit and he contributed on this too. He came by and we spent the last two weeks working on it together – him, me, Mike Mogis and Jason. He definitely contributed to it, but he wasn’t there the whole time like he had been in the past.

Was that scary? Was it weird being back in the studio, after you had walked away? And did you feel like you had to live up to the high expectations you had created with the earlier Elected albums, not to mention with the success you had attained through Rilo Kiley?
No I didn’t feel that much pressure. I didn’t want to feel pressured. I wasn’t up against anything. I wasn’t competing with anyone. I just wanted to be sure I made something that felt meaningful. As silly it as that sounds, I think this record was what was true for me. It was honest, and what just happened. I didn’t want to point it in any direction it didn’t want to go.

What’s the state of your screenplay at this point. Has anyone expressed interest?
I’m working on the rewrite now. We’re talking with some people, so sort of… but I don’t really know. (chuckles)

Is your future now firmly committed to music, or are you going to multitask and try to work on music and film simultaneously?
I’m literally digging a hole in my backyard with my phone on a headset as we speak. So I guess I’m multitasking now.

Digging a hole? Really?

Yeah, I gotta lay a post in the ground.

You’re denigrating the whole image of being a rock star, Blake. One would think you’d have someone to do that for you.
Maybe I’m not a rock star (laughs). I guess I can multitask after all. However, I think as an artist, it’s important to focus your efforts. I certainly want to focus on this record, but I also have a hard time sitting still. I’ll work on my screenplay and try to direct the movie and work on that kind of stuff, while also working on my music. I’ll try to do it all at once.

Living in L.A., how do you fit into the local music scene?
If there’s an L.A. music scene, I’m not that aware of it or a part of it. I’ve never felt plugged into an L.A. music scene. The first Rilo Kiley record came out on a Seattle label and the second one came out on an Omaha label. Maybe there is something of a scene here. There always seems to be some sort of evolution. I grew up in a show business scene.

You were a child actor…
Uh huh, yeah. So I guess that’s always in my blood. But maybe I’ll start trolling the Pacific Ocean with a big goddamn net to try to fish the plastic out of the ocean. Maybe I’ll do something meaningful like that someday. But until then, I guess I’ll just keep goofing around with illusion for a while, and stick with storytelling.

That’s why we asked about that L.A. connection. It seems like you’ve been a part of that show business culture your entire life, with the acting, then the music and now by writing and directing. One would think you’d thrive in that culture.
Oh, I do thrive in that. I’ve always had a strong imagination and the only thing I’m really good at is playing pretend. I couldn’t tell you how to sell cars or balance a budget.

It’s great that you don’t have to worry about all that now. By the way, how’s that hole coming?
I made a lot of progress! You were like my post hole digging muse!

If we had known you were doing that at the beginning of our conversation, we would have shared some words of motivation. Maybe like, “C’mon man, you can get past those rocks… dig deeper!”
Well, you said the record was great, so that was all the motivation I need.

It’s almost like in the movie “The Godfather,” where you wanted to escape from the music scene, but somehow it kept pulling you back in.
Yeah, I was like Pacino.