The Essex Green Louder Than War exclusive interview and album review
The Essex Green
CD/ Ltd Ed Vinyl/DL
The Essex Green are about to release their brilliant new summery pop album Hardly Electronic on Merge Records after a break of over more than 10 years away from recording. Matt Mead chats exclusively to the band and reviews the album for Louder Than War.
By chance I bumped into The Essex Green after a tweet from Carl Hunter, bassist from Liverpool indie legends The Farm, who was proclaiming his love for the band. Intrigued by the 60/70’s hippy type sleeve of the album I delved into the back catalogue of the band and was kindly sent the band’s new album Hardly Electronic. The album title aptly describes the album, being a full-on merry go round of organ, catchy choruses and all the fun of the fair song arrangements. Singles, Sloane Ranger and The 710, kick things off in great fashion. Punchy instrumentation, hypnotic organ and tight rhythm section, matched with sultry vocals from Chris Ziter and Sasha Bell bring the listener up close and personal as the album joyfully gallops forward into song after song of smooth grooves and happy songs full of love and the joys of life. The album is already being championed by BBC 6 Music and seems more than likely to gain a further bevy of fans.
Interview with the band
LTW: What was the first music you each remember hearing?
Sasha Bell: Every Sunday night for the past many decades my father has listened to WRPI’s Mostly Folk show out of Troy, New York. My earliest music memories are of lying on the green carpeted floor of my childhood home, after dinner, absorbing the folk sounds of the mid-1970s. Many times after the show wrapped up, my father would segue into his fond memories of hanging with Joanie (Baez) the time or two she visited our village of Cooperstown (pop. 2,000). I’ve realized only recently that Mostly Folk left a strong imprint on me, and influenced my early songwriting style. Recently my father lamented that he’d steered me wrong because the adult version of me is neither an engineer nor a physicist. In fact, I think he steered me just right.
Jeff Baron: My paternal grandparents were musicians in West Virginia and had a Tamburitza orchestra with their siblings (Croatian mandolins). They sang together all the time and harmonized beautifully. This was the first music I ever heard. And my mom is a huge music fan. By the time I was about 6 I had commandeered her record collection and was playing The Beatles, Everly Brothers, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Beach Boys back to back. The Zombies and Bee Gees were in there too. Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary were on constantly. My mom would decipher all of Bob Dylan’s lyrics to me on long car trips as we listened to him on the 8-track.
Chris Ziter: I don’t have a particularly proud musical exposure background. 70’s soft rock and disco (a la 5th of Beethoven) and obscure musical theatre albums filled the early years. Bad 70s-80’s pop generally ruled the roost due to a pretty limited family album selection and not a heavy focus on music in the household. I was always a bit behind that way.
What were your early musical influences?
Sasha: My two older brothers and I are 8 and 4 years apart, so my early childhood was imbued with their classic rock tastes, The Stones, Jackson Browne, Springsteen, Kiss, the Dead. And my mother found space to wedge her Beatles and Beach Boys in between making dinner and cleaning up after dinner. My Dad would take over in the car with Arlo Guthrie and Waylon Jennings, just those 2 artists, over and over until the tapes wore out. By the time I had any autonomy I was into moodier things thanks to hanging out with the older kids, who were listening to Eno, The Smiths, Velvet Underground, Roxy Music, Joy Division, etc.
Jeff: Well, besides my parents’ 60s record collection, I was a real new-wave/punk rock kid growing up. In fact, that music saved my life in a way, because it’s where I found acceptance. A lot of kids in my school were listening to suburban metal like Bon Jovi and Van Halen, but we played The Cure, The Clash, Smiths, Replacements, Stiff Little Fingers, REM, Femmes and Velvets. My cool Aunt from the 80’s got me into New Order and Joy Division. And some surfer dude my sister knew made me a Sex Pistols cassette and it blew my mind.
Chris: It goes from the limited early stuff mentioned above to MTV inspired stuff through high school. U2, Cure, Simple Minds, Depeche Mode… It wasn’t until I got to college that I really dug into the 60’s-80’s that Jeff and Sash were exposed to early on. I guess it would be only fair to say that Jeff was a big musical influence – certainly when we first met. He was the one who could play an instrument really well, had been in real bands, and had owned a TON of vinyl.
What instrument did you first start playing?
Sasha: I started the piano in kindergarten and the flute when I was 9.
Jeff: I started piano at 7 and then played drums in elementary school band. I preferred trumpet but had just lost my baby teeth, so it was drums. I migrated to guitar at 10.
Chris: First instrument was a Casio PT-1. I don’t remember why I was given that (birthday, Christmas) but, thank goodness. Something to do! I just hunkered down and figured out the basics of music/theory. Then I was loaned a synth (can’t remember the brand) from my musical cousin that could record 8 tracks of keyboard sounds. My next obsession was centred around recreating what I was hearing. I would faithfully recreate instrumental versions of questionable material – the one I am remembering in great detail at the moment is U2’s “One Tree Hill”. Yeah… that happened.
Were you all in bands before Essex Green were formed?
Sasha: It never occurred to me that I was qualified to be in a band until I was actually in one at age 22. I auditioned for a Black Sabbath cover band, Scornflakes, in college, but in hindsight I think that was more for the band’s entertainment. I mean, how funny to have a little chipmunk voiced girl sing Ozzy tunes? My first band was Guppyboy which later became Essex Green.
Jeff: I had a couple of bands in junior high, but my first serious band was in 10th grade, The Hester Prynnes. We played punk, new wave and doo-wop. Our singer/bassist was ridiculously gifted for a 15 year-old and could move between Johnny Rotten, Morrissey and Sam Cooke with an innate talent. Incredibly enough, we got a gig opening for Nirvana in Pittsburgh, and changed our name to Worm Mart because the booker said we needed to sound less pop and more muddy (a precursor to grunge). But that was lost in translation because when we arrived at the show, the poster had a worm wrapped around a paintbrush wearing a beret and said, “Worm Art.”
Chris: My band history was limited to every kind of singing group that high school could offer. Chorus, Madrigals, Barbershop… musical theatre. I did State and New England choral competitions. I even auditioned for States one year as a Soprano (dressed as a woman) – apparently it was my choral director’s dream to have one of her male student’s audition as a Soprano. And, yes, I made the cut. My first band was Guppyboy.
How did Essex Green form?
Sasha: Essex Green formed in the primordial soup of late-90s New York City. Jeff and I met as interns at Zero Hour Records (Space Needle) headquartered in Times Square. We shacked up pretty quickly, and I followed him about the city to his Ladybug Transistor shows. It wasn’t long before I met his Guppyboy bandmate and best friend, Chris Ziter. Chris and Jeff had been playing music together since college. Guppyboy needed (needed ?) a keyboardist and that’s when I entered the musical picture. Eventually, we admitted that Guppyboy needed a name change and we became The Essex Green.
Jeff: Sasha is exactly right. Chris and I met in college and we started playing music together. We had a lot of fun writing youthful songs. I was a big fan of the Morrissey/Marr collaborations and Chris could really sing! And when Sasha came into the mix with her baroque training, it really took off.
Chris: We formed the band, in a way, as a line of demarcation from Guppyboy and our lives in VT. I remember it also as a way to dive deeper into a bit more vintage stylings and arranged music than what we had been doing with Guppyboy.
What were your plans when you formed Essex Green? Was it just a bit of fun or did you want to go onto record records?
Sasha: Playing music with Jeff and Chris in the early Guppyboy days (or late Guppyboy days as it were since I joined at the tail end) was both obsessively serious and obsessively fun. Recording on the 8-track was part of the everyday experience of being in a band together. You’d write, you’d run down to the basement and record, you’d practice the song and play it live. Getting the songs out on a label wasn’t the point of making music but it became a huge goal.
Your first release came back in 1997. Can you remember any stand out memories about recording your debut recordings?
Sasha: I have a terrible memory. I recall getting my bike stolen that year and reading Jon Lee Anderson’s Che: A Revolutionary Life but that’s about it for 1997.
Jeff: Our first release was actually 1999. I also read Che that year and was immersed in the Elephant 6. I remember making the record and hoping Robert Schneider and Bill Doss might hear it. We also had some wonderful times recording with Gary Olson at Marlborough Farms in Brooklyn.
Sasha: That explains why I don’t remember a release in 1997! Thanks, Jeff!
Chris: I have fond memories of all the different recording spaces. We were pretty mobile with it early on. Finding unique and inspiring environments to record has had a profound effect on the music. So intimate. It’s like going to recording camp. To this day, the BEST feeling is packing up a ton of gear and heading off to some remote location where we will live with the songs and each other for an undisturbed period of time.
You have gone on to record a further 3 albums up until 2006. Any stand out memories of recording each of the albums?
Sasha: Memories of recording those albums all kind of run together. We were so busy back then, playing in multiple bands, touring, recording, rehearsing all the time. There was hardly a day or an evening that didn’t centre on a band related activity. I miss that era.
Did you tour extensively through these years? Any tour highlights or escapades you can share from these times?
Jeff: We toured a lot between 1999 and 2008. I think our fondest memories were of Sweden, Norway and Spain. We had some escapades but mainly we just swam, rode bikes and went thrift shopping.
Sasha: I used to bring my vintage nightgown collection on tour and dress the boys up at night. The flowing gauze really suited them. They were less hairy then.
Chris: There was an Easter egg photo of Jeff in one of those gowns I had as a hidden link on our old website. Jeff’s grandmother is the only person who actually ever found it. Oops!
You are about to release your latest album Hardly Electronic. Why has there been such a big gap between your last album until now?
Sasha: I call that period the Great Wait. For ten years it felt like life was running on two parallel tracks, the But Surely Tomorrow track and another where we enthusiastically pursued other life changing interests like elk rutting, river navigation and making kombucha. I can only chalk up the convergence of these tracks to the rising of the blood moon in 2016. We are three mystical Libras and not everything can be rationally explained.
Chris: The Great Wait – is it too late to change the album name?
How does the material come about for the band. Does someone have an idea and then they bring that to the rehearsals? Do you often jam out songs???
Sasha: I avoid jamming in general, as my mystical Libraness just doesn’t allow for it. To make up for this, I write my songs in great detail from start to finish then begrudgingly take criticism from Chris and Jeff regarding arrangement. They are almost always right and wise in their suggestions and the songs are always better for their input.
Jeff: Yeah, we’re not much of a jam band, although we do sometimes stumble upon something really interesting just by messing around. But as Sasha said, we usually bring song ideas to the table and then let each other pick at them. Each of us has a different strength when it comes to arranging and there’s a mutual respect that allows us to really work the songs.
Chris: For me, material is worked through a process of playing and recording early multi-track ideas (now it’s so easy with something like Garageband on phones). Structural and instrument arrangements are definitely fine-tuned in some early group sessions. Much of the final parts are really defined through the recording process.
What are you plans to promote the album? Will you be visiting the UK for a tour/festival dates?
Sasha: We don’t have any UK dates planned yet, but that IS the plan to plan those.
Jeff: Yes, we definitely want to tour the UK. We love the old country and have some great friends there.
Finally, is your favourite colour green?
Sasha: I’m not sure what Pantone would call it but the Spring green of Montana is spectacular.
Jeff: The colour of the trees on the north-eastern slope of Camel’s Hump during mid-summer.
Chris: Click here
All Words by Matt Mead. Further articles by Matt can be found at the Louder Than War author archive pages.