Blake Sennett discusses The Elected, the possible end of Rilo Kiley, and more
BY DAN CAFFREY ON APRIL 14TH, 2011
Blake Sennett is a Californian musician in every sense of the word. His work in indie pop outfits Rilo Kiley and The Elected has often been compared to the sunny stylings of fellow Golden State brethren such as Fleetwood Mac and Jackson Browne (who guest-starred on Rilo Kiley’s last album – 2007′sUnder the Blacklight). Bury Me In My Rings, his stellar upcoming third record with The Elected (recorded with Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel and a handful of other musicians), is a collection of 12 ’60s and ’70s flavored gems, a distillation of his sprightly, yet introspective songwriting characterized by earnestly clever lyrics, bubbly upstroke guitar, and serene production. When calling from his California home, he was eager to chat about the new album, movie and book recommendations, and how band reunions are like Stephen King novels.
I actually saw you perform with Rilo Kiley back when I was an undergrad in Tallahassee at this place called The Moon. I don’t know if you remember.
I think I remember playing Tallahassee. We weren’t playing with M. Ward on that tour, were we?
No, I think it was a local band called Summer Birds In the Cellar that opened.
Oh my God, that sounds familiar.
I remember you gave out Oreos and oranges, if that helps at all.
That’s fucking sweet.
It was sweet. I got an orange.
Why did we give out Oreos and oranges? Like…to each person? How did that work?
You said you were from California, so you had a bag of oranges, and you just opened them up and handed them out. Same thing with the Oreos. I think it was you specifically that did it, too.
Yeah, that’s more my vibe. I’m like the asshole that would do that.
You’re the showman?
I guess. I don’t know if it’s like…I’m the guy who would hand out bullshit when nobody cares. I apologize for my oranges.
No apologies necessary. They were really good. So let’s talk about the new album. You’re probably getting asked this a lot, but it seems like there’s a little bit less of a country folk twinge on it. I guess it’s a little more…I don’t know, it has a little bit more of a ’60s-’70s pop songwriter thing going on. Was that a conscious choice or is that just what you’re interested in now? Or is that not something you noticed at all?
I think in the past I approached songwriting—particularly on Elected records—a little more self-consciously. In this case, I tried to be totally devoid, if I could be. I mean, that’s easier said than done, but I tried to remind myself not to think about the theme of the record or the aesthetic of the record or how the record sounds or if the songs went together or anything like that. I truly just tried to record songs that felt meaningful to me at the time and had some kind of truth to them. I tried not to listen to, like, songwriters that would influence me and make me feel like I needed to be them. I tried to just sort of, like, do what I can do and be the best at it. And if I failed, well then at least I failed on my terms. But that’s pretty much how it went down, man. It was just…I didn’t decide to go away from any particular sound. Whatever came out, at least I can say “well, if no one else likes this fucking record, at least it’s satisfying to me.”
The album has a very direct feel to me. It’s very to the point and crisp and really lovely. Do you have a favorite song on the record? I know what mine is, but I’m curious if you have one.
Oh yeah, I know mine. Mine is “Time Is Coming.” Let me think what yours is.
It’s something that immediately jumps out, if that helps.
I don’t know…”Babyface”?
You’re exactly right.
Oh cool. I like that one a lot.
I also heard that you recorded this after taking a break from music. Is that true or just hearsay?
No, by the end of the last Rilo Kiley touring cycle, I think I um…had become pretty unsatisfied and pretty…like in a way, even hurt, you know, like by the whole process, and sad. All these people that I started a band with because I loved them so much…none of us seemed to really care about each other anymore. And I had sort of falsely accused music of doing that. And it wasn’t music, it was us. So I stopped. Music and what surrounded music for me had become very sad for me and I didn’t want to participate in it anymore. I was done. I was…you know, it’s like when you break up with a girl and you say “I’m done with girls forever!” You know? I was done with music forever. But I think I’m an artist and I think music is a way that I express my art. I don’t feel that anyone is limited to any one thing, but it’s something I love and I enjoy doing and I take comfort in and I truly find it to be enjoyable. I truly find that I have a home in music. It’s some place I can go. And I got led back to that place after I met with Jason [Boesel] and I’m grateful for that. It was a nice record to make. It’s probably…I don’t know if it’s my favorite record, but I think it is. It’s definitely my favorite Elected record. But yeah, I had quit for a good couple years there. But…uh…well, I’m back!
It’s good to have you back.
Not to get too gossipy, but do you feel that the making of this record and your return to music has mended any of your feelings toward your other bandmates or is that something you don’t want to talk about?
No, I think taking the time off heals wounds. I don’t know if making a record made me heal any wounds. Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe on some other level that I don’t get. Maybe on, you know, a subconscious level that I’m not aware of…me making a record made me feel better about them. Maybe. I don’t think so.
Are there any future plans at the moment with Rilo Kiley, at least for you in Rilo Kiley, or are you taking a little bit of a break?
I would say that if Rilo Kiley were…hmmm…a human being…hmmm…he’s probably laying on his back in a morgue with a tag on his toe. Now, I see movies where the dead get up and walk. And when they do that, rarely do good things happen.
That is true. I’m a horror movie fan, so I do believe that it can happen, but maybe it won’t have the best outcome.
Right. It’s usually a bad thing when the dead walk, even when it starts out good. Even when the dead get up, and you’re like “oh, this is so awesome – he’s back to life!” Something usually bad goes wrong, right?
Most of the time, those things start because you want to reanimate someone for a good reason or because you miss them. Then it’s just not the same. Like in Pet Sematary.
Exactly! That’s a perfect example. Gage or whatever the fuck his name is…
It is Gage – you’re exactly right.
I was a big Stephen King fan as a kid.
Same here. Still am.
Gage – they reanimate that little son of a bitch, and at first everything’s alright, but then he turns into a little creep.
He starts killing people, biting ankles, doing all sorts of bad things.
(laughs) Yeah! While it’s possible…I’m never going to rule out the dead walking. But if it happens, it’s unlikely. And if it happens, we should be wary. We should be mindful. If like…if the monster starts eating brains and shit, we’ll probably have to like kill it, you know? Does that make sense?
That’s probably the most vivid way you could have answered that question. I read an older interview with you where you brought up a point that I sympathize with and agree with, but that people give me crap for all the time. Someone asked you who your favorite Beatle was and you brought up Paul. You said that although John Lennon made the best music, he seemed like kind of a dick. My favorite Beatle is George and when people ask “well, why not John,” I always bring up the same defense. I like his music a lot, but sometimes it’s hard for me to get behind it since he didn’t always practice what he preached. Do you feel that way about music in general? Are you able to separate the person from the art pretty successfully?
I think it’s hard to separate them for me. I think when you get a lot of attention, there is a tendency to become ungrateful, which happened to me. So I can’t hold that against people. As for my favorite Beatle, I don’t know. You know, it changes for me. I don’t know if it is Paul anymore. It may be George. He certainly seemed like the best dude…the dude I’d want to hang out with. Certainly as far as artistic output, John for me, probably. It’s so hard. They’re such a sum of their parts, it’s hard for me to pick. I don’t want to be like a fence-sitter, but um…I think it’s hard to separate. I think it’s hard to separate for me. That being said, Van Gogh is pretty sweet. I have read that Van Gogh could not excel in his lifetime, mostly because he was impossible to be around. So he dies. And everybody’s like “Okay, now that he’s dead, let’s give it a shot.” So I think you have to separate the art from the person. But ultimately, I want to hear that like Tom Waits is a nice guy. If I heard that Tom Waits was a total prima donna dick, I’d hate that. That would bother me. Part of what I’m attracted to in his music is his sort of drunk next door neighbor attitude. So I want to believe that that’s what he is in real life. If not, it just feels like a lie. I mean I want to believe that it’s kind of truthful. I know that’s naive, but I want to believe that. So yeah, I think it’s hard to separate.
The drunk next door neighbor is a good way to put it since he sings about these twisted things in a nice guy sort of way.
I’ve heard he’s a cool dude. I’ve never met him, unfortunately.
Yeah, and part of what makes Catcher In The Rye so engaging is that J.D. Salinger’s a fucking weirdo. Part of what makes A Confederacy of Dunces so sublime is that John Kennedy Toole was that dude, right? He lived with his mom, he was miserable and self-important and…you know what I mean, like that’s part of what makes it awesome. It’s like if Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise wrote A Confederacy of Dunces, it wouldn’t be as meaningful. It just fucking wouldn’t, right?
It totally wouldn’t at all. That’s one of my top ten favorite books.
Oh I know. It’s brilliant. Have you read any John Fante?
No, I haven’t. Is he good?
Oh dude, it’s incredible. Write it down. John Fante. Read The Road to Los Angeles. It’s so good. It comes from that same kind of voice. I don’t think this reflects most people, but I want to believe that peoples’ art is a reflection of their truth. So yes, it is impossible…it is very hard for me to separate the person from the art.
Have you read any Philip Roth?
A lot of his stuff is about the relationship between the writer and the audience and where those lines get blurred. I don’t know if he was the first, but he was definitely one of the pioneers of metafiction.
Gimme a book, man. Look, I’ll make a commitment to you if you make one to me. I’ll read your book, you read mine. Next time I come through your town, Chicago, if I see you, we can discuss it.
That sounds great. For Philip Roth, a good one is…he has this alter ego called Nathan Zuckerman that’s kind of like him, but…he has so many books, I’m trying to think of the best one to give you. Okay, one of two…if you want something really hefty, read American Pastoral.
I mean is it like 700 pages kind of hefty?
No, it’s like 350. Actually, scratch that. That’s not a good first one. Do The Ghost Writer. That’s a good one to start with. It’s the first Zuckerman book and he has a whole Zuckerman series if you want to keep mining his tomes or whatever you want to call it.
Fante is similar. He has the Arturo Bandini saga. That’s like his Nathan Zuckerman. It’s written from the first person, but from, you know, from the perspective of sort of his alter ego that’s very similar to the dude himself. He describes himself in great detail and it’s just the description of the actual author himself. It’s not so different. They sound similar. My iPad is about to get a new book on it.
Right on. How do you like the iPad? I don’t have one, but is it cool?
I love it, man. It took me a second to get used to reading on it, but I adjusted much more rapidly than I thought I would. I love it. I can carry like 500 books under my arm. I love that. And I love that I don’t have to eat that much paper to enjoy a book. I think the next generation is only going to be used to the e-Reader. I don’t think there will be that many books at all. And I think that’s a great thing for the planet.
Cool. So bringing it back to the music, or however you want to say it…
Yeah, time warp! Are there any plans for a tour behind the new album, and if so, are there going to be members who played on other Elected records or just you?
I think that there will be a tour, probably this summer. It will probably be me and some friends. Hopefully my friend Mike [Bloom] will come. He’s played on all my Elected stuff. Sometimes he’s available, sometimes he’s not. So hopefully he’ll be there and a couple of my other friends. But yeah, I think there’ll be a tour.
Do you have a favorite place to play in Chicago?
Hmmm…I like Schuba’s. I like The Metro. And there’s this place…what’s it called, man? It has like a restaurant in front? Like a bar-slash-restaurant? Abbey?
Oh yeah, The Abbey Pub. I haven’t been there in a while.
Yeah, I don’t even know if they still do shows, but I always really liked that place.
Yeah, I saw Crystal Castles there a few years ago. As far as I know, they still do shows.
The promoter was always really nice.
Cool. Is there anything else you want to talk about, either concerning The Elected, the record, or just anything in general? We can talk about movies, music, anything you want to say.
Yeah, man, I saw this one documentary that was called Tapped. It was about the bottled water industry and it kind of freaked me out. Then I watched another movie right after that called Bag Itthat was all about the plastic industry. And then I read a book called Bottled and Sold that was about the whole water industry, and I got uh…I don’t know, man, I got so freaked out. I felt like I had taken the red pill, you know? Like in The Matrix. Like I almost wish I hadn’t seen those things because I don’t think I can ever go back. It’s so shocking and so profound what the bottled water and the plastic industry, but particularly bottled water, is doing to our planet. It left me so scared.
Have you always been environmentally minded in some way or another?
Yeah, I grew up with my Dad explaining stuff to me about the environment and I think I’ve always tried to be conscious. But as I’ve gotten older, I think like, what I’m most focused on right now is if I can eliminate my single use plastic consumption…like bags from the grocery store, plastic cups from Starbucks, any plastic that’s literally meant for one use, then thrown away…it’s just kind of insane and the recycling industry is kind of an illusion to some extent. So I’m really, really making an effort to just stop the single use plastics.
In Chicago, I heard a rumor that there really is no recycling. Like you can put out your recycling and it gets taken away, but nothing actually happens to it. I don’t how true that is, but it really freaked me out in a 1984 kind of way. I’ve always wanted to get to the bottom of it, but never have.
(Laughs) Yeah, it really is like The Matrix, man. Like we truly do live in some kind of like Matrix world. We think that because we throw our stuff in the blue bin, everything’s hunky dory. We think that because the burger comes to us, the animal didn’t suffer. But if anyone were forced to actually follow the blue bin or go to a slaughterhouse, nine times out of ten, you just couldn’t take it. You know what I mean? You just fucking couldn’t take it, man. So I’m trying. And I’m far from the realized version of the dude who I want to be. But I’m trying to at least keep it in my mind and not crusade, just do my part, you know? Like I don’t bother people or bother my friends about it, but I’m just trying, you know?
Anything else you want to say?
No, I think that was the last question and that was my only thing. I thought, “You know what? Let’s talk about plastics.”
Bury Me In My Rings, The Elected’s third studio effort, hits stores May 17th (via Vagrant).