If you were to make a family tree with all the bands that the three core members of the Essex Green are involved with, it would make a pretty large tree. We have Sixth Great Lake, the Ladybug Transister, Finishing School… well, you see for yourself. But now, Christopher Zither, Jeff Baron and Sasha Bell have taken some time to record their third album as the Essex Green, ‘Cannibal Sea’, the follow-up to the fantastic ‘The Long Goodbye’, that was released back in 2003.
Pennyblackmusic tracked down Chris from the band, and chatted to him about the band’s musical history and his thoughts about the new record among other things…
How did you get into music? When did you start playing an instrument? What kind of music did you grow up with?
– I grew up in a household without much musical taste. I seem to remember a lot of bad musical soundtracks and cheesy things like ‘Hooked On Classics’. I started on the clarinet when I was around 10 years old because my mum was convinced it was the easiest instrument to learn on… that may be true but the collection and cleaning of spit always grossed me out. I always wanted to play the piano. I taught myself on a cheap little Casio several years later… plucking out tunes from TV shows like ‘Cheers’, ‘Hill Street Blues’ and ‘Charlie Brown’. Once I got into high school my instrument was my voice. I was in any and all the singing groups that existed in the school: musicals, madrigals, choirs, and barbershops. I learned the guitar in university when I first met Jeff Baron. That was 15 years ago.
How did The Essex Green come about? I understand you formed the band after your earlier band Guppyboy split up.
– Essex Green came directly out of Guppyboy. It was born out of a move from Vermont to New York City. One member of Guppyboy, Zack Ward, didn’t want to move. Once that became clear, we decided we were going to start another group and rearrange things a bit. The personnel changed and the sound changed.
What were your major influences when you started out, and how have they changed over the years?
– Um… well, when we were starting out we listened to the Zombies, the Kinks, Dylan, Fairport Convention, Os Mutantes and a lot of Elephant 6 bands… it’s moved through a number of phases over time. Everyone listens to slightly differently things now. Nowadays we are listening to a bit more country music… some folk music.
How do you write the songs in The Essex Green. Is it a team effort, or do you write on your own? And what comes first – the lyrics or the music?
– We all write separately nearly 100% of the time. The process is probably quite different with each person and even with each song. I personally tend to write the music first. But some lyrics may guide the direction of a compositon from the outset.
If you get to choose one song you wish you had written, which one would it be?
– Today it would have to be ‘Come On Eileen’. Could there be a better song? I challenge you…
Well, I think should be able to come up with something…
I read somewhere that you were planning a solo album. What happened with that? Is it still coming out?
– I read that too. I’m not sure what the answer to that question is. I imagine that everyone in the world is working on a solo album of some type or another… Completing a project like that is something that would take me a while to let go of…. It is much easier to set loose something into the world for inspection and digestion if you are one of many parts of the creation. To be the only name on it is a different story. Short answer – most of the songs are written and strong, but it’s going to be something that I am in no hurry to finish.
How would you describe the Essex Green to someone who have never heard you?
– 60s and 70’s inspired folk/pop. That’s my best guess.
Do you have ”regular” day-time jobs, or can you make a living out of your music?
– I do freelance webdesign. Sasha works in documentary filmmaking. Jeff works in recording. Not necessarily ”regular” jobs ‘cos we need to be able to take time off for touring and recording. But the cost of living in New York does restrict how much time we can take off. We would definitely tour or record more if we could afford it. We are far away from making a living in music. The industry is one of the most financially depressed in the arts for a multitude of reasons. I could go on for hours about that but I won’t.
On your new album, you give a special ”thank you” to Sweden. I understand that you like Sweden a lot, which is mutual, as the Swedes like you guys a lot too. What do you think is the reason why you are so successful there?
– Sweden is a country that has embraced our music and had the ability to embrace it. By that I suppose I am referring to the previous answer when I talk about the state of the music industry. Sweden was a country whose national radio was able to allow smaller bands like ourselves to be played in primetime and reach people’s ears. It just doesn’t happen anywhere else that we have been to. Even your Norwegian neighbors seem to have a similar hierarchy of corporate control in the broadcast arena. It’s refreshing to be a part of a community that has the ability to reach beyond that and dig deeper into the cultural strata without such a concern over money.
Plus we have a lot of friends in Sweden and they just wouldn’t have all fitted in the space we had alloted on the album credits.
I want to believe that, were our record able to be given the same spotlight in other countries, there might be a similar reaction. I suppose what Sweden did for the Essex Green is install a bit of confidence in the fact that our music is enjoyable to larger groups outside the indie realm. That’s an exciting prospect.
What Swedish bands do you listen to? I heard that you have toured with Shout Out Louds…
– Yes… we honestly hadn’t heard much from the Shout Out Louds before we went on tour. We are now good friends and fans. Let’s see… I am a big fan of Bjorn Olson’s music. Love Is All has some members that we are friends with. It’s great to see that band is starting to take off. Swedish music is really getting some notice… that makes me feel all good inside.
Your new album is a lot less country-orientated than ‘The Last Goodbye’, apart from songs like ‘Rue de Lis’. Was this your plan, or was it just an unplanned direction of songwriting? Tell me a little about the recording of the album…
– No specific plan. There were two songs that were a bit more country that didn’t make it on the the record. We just ran out of time. They will most likely appear on the next record or an EP or something. This record was recorded in a somewhat similar fashion to ‘The Long Goodbye’. Over the course of 12 months, we recorded in many different environments with different musicians on drums and bass… as well as strings and guitars. But a larger portion of the record was completed at one studio in Manhattan called Great City Productions. This is the home studio of Britt Myers who mixed our last record. He was a bit more involved in the recording process for this record and has some amazing gear… really nice vintage amps and guitars. Jeff, who handles most of the guitar work, was loving it. The result is a record that has a similar sound to the last record but I think the production has been bumped up a notch or two because of the quality of Britt’s gear. As always, Britt did a great job mixing the record.
Would you like the Essex Green to be the biggest band in the world, or are you happy the way things are?
– I would love our music to be be played on national radio in the states like it was in Sweden. I don’t want to be a 4 tour-bus pyro-technic stadium 360-out-of-365-days-on-tour-a-year type band at all. I just would love to have our songs appear in a number of movies or play tours that might bring in enough money so that we could spend a lot more time with music than struggling to keep the Brooklyn roofs over our heads.
Finally, I must ask about the song ‘Chester’ from your first EP. Is it about a cat? And if so, is it that cat that can be heard in the song ?
– Yes and Yes.