Walter Beck sat down with independent folk musician Eli Van Sickel to discuss his latest album Nightlife, his past records, what the future holds and many other sordid personal details cut from the interview in the name of Good Taste.
Eli Van Sickel’s newest album, Nightlife, is his first of the year and his eighth release since breaking into the folk scene in 2009. While strongly rooted in a traditional folk sound, Eli has experimented in other genres, releasing an album of solo poetry, a comedic single – ‘SJS (Seriously Jewcy Singles)’ – as well as a live album of blues & poetry. This experimental bent also feeds into Nightlife.
His work, as he talks about in the interview, is strongly influenced and inspired by the area of the Midwestern United States, its strange characters and its own haunting charm.
The interview started with some small talk about our mutual love for author Hunter S. Thompson and progressed after I had filled my rocks glass with ice and Early Times.
Eli, please introduce yourself to the fine readers of Polari Magazine.
My name is Eli Van Sickel. I’m a 24 year old Theatre History grad student at Illinois State University. I hail from Terre Haute, IN and I’ve been playing and writing music for almost 9 years.
When did your first record come out?
The summer of 2009. I didn’t have any money so I recorded it on the internal microphone of my laptop. Then I just burned a bunch of CDs and sold them for $3 each.
That was Songs of Ambition, right?
I only “officially” released it as self-titled then, but yeah, Songs of Ambition.
And what was the reaction to it? Did people dig what you were doing with it?
Yeah. In the Terre Haute music scene at the time, there weren’t very many folk musicians at all so I stood out as just one guy with a guitar doing simple stuff. But I think people dug the songs themselves too, as well as the novelty.
I noticed one song from your demo ‘John Wayne’ ended up on your album Middle West.
Yeah, I always liked that song a lot and I guess you could say that was my “hit.” Whenever I played a gig in Terre Haute, I usually knew people there and they always requested the song, even after I got kinda sick of playing it. (He laughs.) But it fit with the concept of Middle West so I put it on.
Do you consider Middle West to be a concept album? What’s the story line? What’s the inspiration?
I find the American Midwest to be a fascinating place and I’ve always loved literature and films that sort of capture the essence – Garrison Keillor novels, the film Fargo. I also love works that show you multiple stories about multiple characters and plots, you know? So I thought I’d try making an album with that concept. Almost every song is a story of a different character, all based in the Midwest.
Moving on to the newly released Nightlife, which you also consider a concept album, was there a similarity between writing that one and Middle West?
Only in that I wanted to make a concept album. And the first and last tracks on both albums are sort of two parts of one song, like a bookend. But with this one I wanted to try to make it a bit different from Middle West. Folk is still my base, but I think I experimented with it more than I have in the past.
Listening to it, I noticed that Nightlife seems to be a lot darker in tone and more experimental in places. Middle West was a straight folk record. This new one has droning spoken word with ‘Normal Midnight’, and the stark, haunting a cappella rendition of the traditional number ‘The Parting Glass’.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m always most lonely at night. A deserted street looks more deserted at night. Bad experiences are worse at night. But by the same token, those deserted streets are also incredibly beautiful. And good experiences are always grander or “epic” or bigger at night. To put it in much simpler, straightforward terms, I love the layer of Romanticism that comes at nighttime; and that in particular is what drove the album forward.
The beauty in the loneliness after the girl leaves, the beauty in the empty shot glass, the empty bar. Or am I way off?
No, you’re right, but also the beauty of being in the crowded bar and having an absolute celebration of life. The beauty of meeting someone and knowing that all you have to experience each other is the span of one night. The beauty of being in bed at the end of the night with someone you are mystically connected to. I wanted to try to show both extremes, that’s why we’ve got the dark sounding stuff and something like ‘The Wild Rover’. Though I agree, it’s more dark than not. I suppose it might’ve been a better album had I gone 100% in that direction, but I wanted the challenge of making an album with the mix n’ match, you know?
Actually I think it’s great that you’re fluctuating between two extremes, it shows you have artistic balls. Can I say “balls” in a feature interview?
As long as you’re not asking me a question about my balls, then yes. Well, I suppose I’d be thankful that anyone was showing any interest in that area…
Anyway, moving on to your musical influences on this record, obviously you covered several traditional folk songs, but who else inspired this?
For the folk stuff that I did fairly straight, it was primarily The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem. In terms of the other stuff, I’ve been listening to a lot of The Stan Laurels, a band from Austin, TX; I really love how they create an aura around their music. Also, it’s not a musical influence, but I was very much influenced aesthetically by Jim Jarmusch’s film Night on Earth.
I’ve not seen that one. I’ll put it on my list.
Do. It’s a bunch of vignettes about cab drivers from different countries all over the world on the same night. Excellent stuff.
So the burning question of the hour, how do you go about creating your records? I mean, is it just a jam type thing, strum until something sticks or are you a bit more formal in your creation?
In terms of writing the songs or in terms of the recording process?
Let’s start with the song writing.
I almost always think of a title or one key lyric line first. After that, it depends. Sometimes I’ll think of a melody and then figure out what chords go with it, sometimes it’s the other way around. Not all, but in most cases, I figure all the music before I really go to work on the lyrics.
So it varies from song to song, then?
It does, but that’s the most common order of events.
What about recording? One thing I’ve noticed about your records is that they all have a rugged, lo-fi quality to them.
I use one USB microphone and record all parts individually. I’ll just record the guitar track, then just record the lead vocal, etc. I use Sony Vegas as my software and that’s it. I’m not as good at mixing as I’d like to eventually be, but yeah, that’s it. A very simple recording set up.
Simple seems to work for you though.
I like it. It is just me playing all the stuff, so it fits. Plus, doing everything DIY and simple/minimalist like I do, it enables me to record albums quickly. It took about 5 days total to make this album.
Do you see yourself ever doing the whole big studio production gig or just sticking solo?
I do, if and when I ever have enough money to be able to afford that stuff. Although, it’s also time that’s a factor. Being a fulltime student, the DIY stuff can be done faster and looser and whenever I happen to be free. But short answer: yes.
So what’s in the future for you artistically? You’ve just put out a very solid album, where do you go from here?
I’m directing a play this semester. After grad school I hope to eventually get steady work as a director for theatre and film, but I’ll always be doing music on the side. I’ll try to gig out here and there but I’ll be writing/recording albums indefinitely.
So there are no plans to tour?
Someday, I’d like to spend a month or two on the road just to do a tour, you know, as kind of a Bucket List thing, but nothing’s in the works now.
It sounds like you have things working out. Any final words for your new legion of British fans?
Artistically, yes, but not employment-wise! Just that I’d appreciate a listen and I hope people find something in the work to enjoy.
Eli’s new album Nightlife is available for download at his official Bandcamp page: http://elivs.bandcamp.com/
You can also contact him via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/elivansickelmusic