Near the end of their reunion tour (and right after a post-soundcheck meet & greet with VIP fans), Michael Eisenstein & Kay Hanley of nineties alt-greats Letters To Cleo sat down with QRO. In the conversation, Eisenstein & Hanley talked about the band’s reunion, the tour, their new PledgeMusic EP Back To Nebraska (QRO review), future plans, now vs. the nineties, appearing on Parks & Recreation, what their kids think of the reunion, and more…
QRO: How has this tour been going?
Michael Eisenstein: It’s been really great. It’s a limited tour, and we’ve been kind of doing weekend warrior style, but it’s been super-fun. The crowds have been awesome.
QRO: Have you done other of those VIP soundcheck meet-and-greet things?
ME: This is our first tour doing them. I’ve done them with other bands.
QRO: Have you done them on other dates on this tour?
ME: We have. We’ve done them on all the dates on this tour. It was all set up through our PledgeMusic with the pre-order. So they set that all up.
I was on tour last summer with Tonic. We were out with Toad the Wet Sprocket and Smashmouth, and we did them every day. It’s kind of part of the new thing, you know?
QRO: Especially with sort of ‘older bands’…
ME: Not a lot of high schoolers are gonna buy a seventy-five dollar ticket.
QRO: Of course you end in Boston – did you add a second date there?
ME: We did. But that’s like a special date, as well. There’s a fundraising component to it, and there’s a few sponsors, and it’s an expensive ticket with a limited crowd. And there’s food sponsors kicking in, so it’s more like a party. People pay big money, and then there’s some people who donated are involved.
I think like 100, or 200 tickets went to regular people who could buy them at a premium price for this charity. The rest is guests and…
Kay Hanley: Contest winners.
QRO: What is the charity?
KH: Girls Rock Boston. It’s an organization that teaches girls, basically uses the band dynamic to encourage girls to collaborate and create, be loud…
ME: Be confident.
KH: It’s pretty cool.
Our just complete jealousy of all the other bands that have reunited…
QRO: What brought about this reunion & specifically the new material?
ME: Our just complete jealousy of all the other bands that have reunited…
‘What, Veruca Salt’s playing together?!?’ [laughs]
QRO: [laughs] I had thought it was Veruca Salt…
KH: Like, ‘Fuck those guys!’ [laughs]
ME: ‘We can do it too…’
No, actually, what it was, was Stacy [Jones, drums], more than any of us, has been a touring musician kind of from the day the band broke up, with band after band. Especially the past ten years or so, he’s been on the road constantly, with a number of bands. And I’ve been, the last three years or so, doing a lot more of that, too.
Stacy was always kind of the one who’s been, ‘We should do something,’ but he was never around. I ran into him in a club around this time last year, and he was like, ‘Hey, you know what, I’m gonna take most of next year off the road. I’m gonna focus on writing, producing, and we should really do something this time.’
And I’m like, ‘I’m cool with it – ask Hanley.’ And he asked Hanley, and then we texted Greg [McKenna, guitar], and Greg immediately sent us mp3s of little song ideas, and it was off to the races…
QRO: So the new material started with Greg’s mp3s?
KH: Work tapes.
ME: The first song in particularly [“Can’t Say”], we remember, it was like, ‘What does he got?’ He sent us these little things. They were just him on a guitar, playing some little riffs. And we were like, ‘That one seems cool…’
So I figured out, and we played it, and Stacy grabbed the acoustic, and we fleshed it out into a song within a few hours. And then we didn’t listen to it for a few weeks. Got back together, tried to write another one, listened to that first one, ‘Hey cool, that’s a good song!’
And then we wrote [“Hitch a Ride”]; we wanted to have a good rocker, so I just made up that riff on the spot.
QRO: Were you at all worried, after you’d done the first song, that you had to separate from it, because maybe you only liked it because it was your first time back together?
KH: It was the opposite, I think.
ME: [laughs] I thought it was maybe not good.
KH: When we walked away the first day, I didn’t remember the song. I didn’t think it was ‘bad’, but I didn’t think, ‘Oh man, that was awesome…’ It was when we came back the second time and we listened to it again, we were like, ‘Oh, that’s good!’
ME: It’s pretty cool…
QRO: How much of the old songs did you automatically remember, and how many did you have to relearn?
ME: It wasn’t that I had to ‘relearn’, it was there are little ‘tricks’, usually, in our songs. There’s little things, like this little riff will happen after the first chorus, and it’ll happen twice the first time, three times the second time, and then once the last time. It was all those little things, where we just put little curveballs into the songs – that’s all the stuff I couldn’t remember. More training the brain…
QRO: Are there songs you can’t do, like at the VIP soundcheck a fan requested, “Anchor”?
KH: It’s a particularly complicated arrangement, which is hard to pull off, even if you’ve been practicing it.
ME: Though someone posted a video of us playing that at Lilith Fair in 1998 or something, and it sounded killer!
KH: Really? Maybe we should revisit that…
ME: It sounds great!
KH: But you couldn’t just pull it out of your ass. It requires process.
Letters To Cleo playing “Anchor” live at Lilith Fair in Boston, MA on August 11th, 1998:
QRO: You all have been doing various other musical projects in the twenty-first century. Is this tour more like those, like the Cleo days, or just something completely different?
KH: I mean, it feels Letters To Cleo-y…
QRO: Does it more remind you of the nineties?
KH: Well, the nineties were pretty, uh… We definitely indulged in all the excesses of the nineties. And, you know, rock ‘n’ roll’s a young cat’s game, so we acted young.
ME: The other thing, too. In those days, there was an equal combination of excitement and fear, pressure. And this, to us, now, is like no pressure at all.
KH: There are no stakes.
ME: We put the record out. We wanted people to like it, but if no one liked it, it was no big skin off our back, like, move on.
We booked these shows, and we wanted people to show up, and have them be successful, but we didn’t care…
KH: Our careers weren’t riding on it, you know? Our ability to make a living wasn’t riding on it.
I said this to somebody earlier: it’s been stripped of all the – like you were saying, the stuff that creates fear, the pressure – stripped of all of that, and we’re left with pretty much only the good part of it, which is showing up and rocking, and hanging out with fans & friends, going to different cities.
That’s the other thing, too. Back then, we would be on the road for months & months, really for eight years straight, we were on the road. And we obviously don’t do that anymore.
It’s just more chill.
The stuff that creates fear, the pressure – stripped of all of that, and we’re left with pretty much only the good part of it, which is showing up and rocking, and hanging out with fans & friends, going to different cities.
QRO: Is part of that from doing the PledgeMusic thing, that you don’t have to deal with a label, that make it less stressful?
ME: Well, it makes you understand the business side of it, and be more aware of it.
ME: Like, I didn’t ever really think about the business, aside of seeing what our Soundscans were for the week, I never really paid much attention to our business, know what we’re doing in merch each night. Maybe once in a while, if we had an outstanding night, our tour manager would tell us, ‘We did this much in merch.’
But now, we’re doing everything from collaborating to design the shirts to making sure the orders get out. Knowing how much we sold per head at every show…
KH: Now that there’s social media, we can promote it ourselves.
So we’re very much – we’ve cut out all of the various middlemen. So PledgeMusic is the warehouse where we can connect with all of our fans.
QRO: I really liked the t-shirt with Letters To Cleo made into the Cubs logo. Did you come up with that before or after they won the World Series?
ME: About the day after they won the World Series.
KH: Because we were playing in Chicago.
ME: We did a gig in Chicago on November 4th, and on November 3rd, on my way to the airport, I was like, ‘We need to make shirt that says Cubs, that says Cleo, or something like that.’
Greg drew a picture, and took a photo with his phone, sent it to me, and, ‘That’s close.’ We got a graphic designer guy to hammer it out. He knew a guy in Chicago that makes shirts.
Basically, within about thirty hours of the initial idea, we had fifty shirts of those to sell, in Chicago, at the gig.
QRO: Wow, that’s cool.
KH: So that’s the kind of stuff that you can do in the digital age.
I think there will be some kind of additional concerts happening, and that will be the main thing we plan next.
QRO: Was making Back To Nebraska EP more like how you recorded back in the nineties, or was it all on a computer and such like recording these days?
ME: We did it on a computer, but we ran the computer pretty much as if it was a tape machine. We pretty much pressed record and played, and then said, ‘That sounds good. Let’s overdub the bass, re-sing it, add some background vocals, put a guitar solo on there, and you’re done.’
KH: Very few edits, no pouring over the files, the stems, editing the drums and vocals. Very little tuning.
QRO: Are you planning on a full-length album, and perhaps a longer tour to go with it?
We’re not against it, but we literally have no plans after this weekend.
ME: The plan after this weekend is to enjoy Thanksgiving, and then try to discuss some consensus about what everyone’s willing to do for next year.
I think there will be some kind of additional concerts happening, and that will be the main thing we plan next. Have those happen, and then take a break again, and then, if we want to set aside time to make a record, I think this time I would rather do it – I said, ‘write a song, record it; write a song, record it,’ just write ten songs, and go record them all in a month. Again, the old-fashioned way. Not take six months making a record…
QRO: What was it like playing on Parks & Recreation?
ME: I couldn’t go – I had another gig.
KH: Oh, it was amazing!
Everything leading up to it was – the appearance of Ben Wyatt’s character in the shirt was kind of surprising to us. We knew that they were doing something that required a Letters To Cleo shirt, so when that happened, when he started wearing it, was a total surprise to us. We were just tickled…
It was a kick. And then actually being on the show was amazing, ‘cause you know, Yo La Tengo, Jeff Tweedy, Ginuwine…
The appearance of Ben Wyatt’s character in the shirt was kind of surprising to us.
QRO: What do your kids think of this reunion? Were they sick of hearing how you were cool in the nineties?…
KH: Other people tell them [laughs], so we don’t have to…
ME: Our son is pretty disinterested in it. Our daughter thinks it’s cool. She goes to an arts school, and she knows the music a little bit more.
KH: They came to see us at the Troubadour, though, and even though Henry wouldn’t say, “Oh, I loved it!” or anything, after the show, he came over and put his arms around me, and would not let go. He wouldn’t let go. He hasn’t done that in maybe ever. He buried his head in my chest. It was amazing.
ME: He was proud…
QRO: Were they at all happy that they can no longer be blamed for their births ending the band?…
ME: I don’t know that they were ever aware that that was a contributing factor.
KH: And it’d kind of run its course. I don’t think anybody would have expected us to stay together. We weren’t really at the ‘height’ of our careers by the time we broke up. ‘Things are starting to peter out,’ and it was a good time for us.
ME: And we didn’t have – bands that stayed together, like Nada Surf, they always had this huge following in France, and they could always do that to keep them going, so they were kind of able to soldier through, by milking that. Sloan in Canada – we never had a thing…
KH: Anywhere else. Boston?…
ME: Other than a movie soundtrack, we never had a real thing, ‘We’ve got Japan. Let’s go back there.’
So it was kind of we just needed to move on, and do other things.