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Interview with Eli Young Band’s lead singer Mike Eli



With Tuesday’s release of Eli Young Band’s Jet Black & Jealous, the Texas quartet that established itself as one of the most successful acts on country’s indie scene is poised to bring its high-powered version of Texas Country to the national stage–and, if the band has its way, bring its high powered live show to stages all across the nation.

In this interview for The 9513, EYB lead vocalist Mike Eli touches on the band’s passion for playing live, the new record on Universal South, and, of course, a somewhat snarky mini-review of the band’s 2007 Big State Festival performance (courtesy of one Jim Malec).

Jim Malec: First of all, I’ve got to ask—what’s up with bands from Texas naming themselves after themselves?

Mike Eli: When we started the band back in ’99, it was just James (Young, Guitar) and I playing acoustic sets. At that point, we were just focusing on school—we were putting ourselves through college, so we were also working two and three jobs—and when we first started playing together we didn’t worry about a name, we just went and played. We’d do four hour acoustic sets where we’d play all kinds of covers, and we had just started writing so we’d add in three or four of our own songs. Some of them were good, some of them were not so good.

At that point we just had friends that were coming to see us play, and everybody called me Eli, which is my middle name. Young is James’ last name, so everybody just started saying, “Hey, we’re gonna go see Eli and Young play.”

And then they started putting it on posters.

JM: I know that you and James were friends with Jon (Jones, Bass) and Chris (Thompson, Drums), but tell me about what it was like when they started joining you on stage. Did you instantaneously know that they needed to become part of the act, or was it something that built up over time?

ELI: Yeah, it was over time. We eventually realized it was perfect, because James and I were roommates and Jon and Chris were roommates, and we lived next door to each other, so it was a perfect union because Jon played base, Chris played drums, and we were all really tight. It just worked out. Then time progressed and we all started writing and started trying to find what kind of sound we were going to end up with.

I grew up on country music. That’s all I knew before I went to college. James was the same, but he also went through this phase of 80s hair bands, etc., and so when we started writing, that’s where we started. John and Chris were bringing in these other types of music, anything from Simon & Garfunkel to alternative rock. So we just started absorbing each other’s music. Back then, I was discovering a lot of music that I had missed out on growing up. I grew up in somewhat of a small town and we didn’t have a lot of money, so a lot of the music that I was getting was from my parents. My dad listened to Conway Twitty and Charley Pride and Charlie Rich. I was a huge Rodney Crowell fan growing up. I bought every Rodney Crowell record that came out and I still do to this day.

JM: Have you had a chance to listen to his new record, Sex & Gasoline?

ELI: Yeah, I just bought it—it just came out this week. I’ve listened to it one time through. I haven’t gotten to figuring my favorites yet, but it’s a really cool record. And, you know, I think that Rodney now has the freedom with his music to…he’s at his best when he’s just upfront and just says what he needs to say. That’s when something really special comes out of that guy’s mouth.

JM: You spoke earlier about your country influences and about some of the other guys’ more diverse influences—would you say that Eli Young Band makes country music, and what is country music these days, anyway?

Eli: I couldn’t tell you what country music is these days. Obviously, we all know that there are all kinds of things happening in this genre now.

The best thing that we can do as a band, to be true to our fans, to be true to music, and to be true to the genre, is to do what we do. And hopefully that comes across the way it needs to come across. I think lyrically and melodically, our stuff is country. That’s all about our definition. I think it’s always important to have a story, always important to have a really strong melody, and that gets lost outside of this genre a lot. If you want to make country music, you have to start there. You have to start at that core. Of course, if you listen to our records you’re going to hear—we can’t help it—influences from all kinds of music. Because we just love good music. But at the end of the day, when you listen to the stories and you listen to the melodies, that’s our definition and it includes our music.

I mean, who’s gonna ask Rodney Crowell if he’s country? You listen to his records, especially Sex & Gasoline, listen to the kind of content, the kind of stuff that’s in his music…but nobody’s gonna question Rodney Crowell ‘cause he’s Rodney Crowell. We’re not Rodney Crowell. We are a new band, and we’re just trying to put our stamp on the country music scene.

JM: Do you feel like that’s a question that has been raised by people—other than me—about Eli Young Band? Is there a lingering sense of doubt about your ties to the genre?

ELI: We face that every day. And I by no means would ever compare ourselves to Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson or even Ronnie Milsap or Charlie Rich, but these guys, you know, they put some records where there were definitely questions. And if you’re not being questioned, you might be doing something wrong. About whether or not it’s country music, about whether or not it’s commercial, whether or not it’s Americana. If you’re not being questioned, and if people aren’t wondering what exactly you’re doing, you may not be able to stand out in the crowd.

JM: Right, because you’re not pushing any boundaries. And you guys have done a little bit of that in an industry sense. I understand that you’ve sold 40,000 records independently—is that true?

ELI: I don’t know the exact numbers. I think that 40,000 is what’s official on SoundScan.

We had records that we sold out of the back of our trucks. I mean, you’ve heard that cliché over and over again, but we did. That’s how we started the band—we were selling records, sometimes just giving ‘em away. We probably sold more than that 40,000, but officially that’s where we are.

JM: Even that number…that’s a huge number. What are some of the essential ingredients that lead to your indie success? I mean, there’s a lot of people in the game today who would love to sell 40,000 records.

ELI: Obviously, the music industry is changing. And everyone knows that. And there are a lot of cool things happening in the music industry, and there are a lot of not so cool things. And who am I to say what’s cool and what’s not. I know that it’s all about work ethic. When we started this band, we made a decision just to keep going. And as things began to happen, we had, you know, 300 people coming to see is play in Denton, 300 people coming to see us play in Ft. Worth, and we would just slowly expand.

JM: Tell me about “When It Rains.”

ELI: We finished most of the new record, Jet Black & Jealous, about a year and a half before we even started talking to Universal. We had nine songs done, including “When It Rains,” which ended up on Billboard. There were a few stations that picked it up and started playing it in medium to heavy rotation, and it kinda started doing its thing. We weren’t even pushing it as a single. We had no promo staff. At that point, there was no marketing money anywhere.

Back when we recorded that song it was 2003. We were young and in college and we didn’t have enough money to really go in and spend a ton of money in the studio, so there were a lot of things we were doing live that we hadn’t done on the record. So we went back in (for the record) and added some of that stuff.

We asked Universal, being that “When It Rains” was on Billboard, what the possibility of the song being included on the new record was. Because it’s been such an important song to our story. I mean, this song was our foundation for everything we had built so far. So it was important to us that it be on our first national record.

JM: How did the deal with Universal come about? Who noticed you, or how did you get their attention?

ELI: One of the guys from Universal in New York, a guy that works for Universal Republic—the head of A&R there—had heard about us and heard that were selling some records and drawing some crowds down in the south. So he flew down to a show at Gilley’s in Dallas and saw us play, and later flew us up to New York and said, “Look, Universal Records wants to do something with you. We understand that you’re a country band and that’s the kind of songs you write, and blah blah blah.” He said that if we could all figure something out, that they wanted to sign us.

At that point we said, you know, our roots are firmly planted—to sound cliché and say exactly what’s in our bio—we’re a country band and we want to be with a country label. And so that’s when we started talking with Universal South, which came up with a co-label deal between the two of them to put our records out.

JM: There are arguments—good arguments I think—being made today that the major label business model is fundamentally broken. And some would say that a successful indie act which is able to go out and sell the kind of units that Eli Young Band was able to go out and sell, that those artists would end up being better off, financially, by remaining independent. What do you think about that, and what ultimately made you decide to go ahead and sign with Universal?

ELI: I think the people that may say that are the people who don’t have record deals. I’m curious about, when you crunch the numbers and when you go over the possibilities and figure out what kind of resources you’re going to have to your disposal…those are the kinds of resources indie acts don’t have. I mean, as an independent band, yeah, we can go out there and make a great living. We’re making a living now.

But our goal has always been to get out there and play all over the place. I wanna be playing in Washington, and I wanna be playing to Europe, I don’t want to set my sights on just being a regional success. And while we have done great independently, being on a major label gives us the resources to take it a step further.

As the music industry changes, I don’t think it’s going to dramatically change so much that it’s going to completely flop, where being on a major label is of no help at all. We’re lucky because of Universal South and Universal Republic. The team we have together, they understand our vision and they see where we’re going with it. They get us. We don’t have to worry about those horror stories about, “I signed with a major label and they tried to change everything that’s special about me.” We haven’t had to deal with that. We were able to go in and they liked the record we’d made. And they told us to just go in and finish it. “You’ve got three more songs to do—go do ‘em.”

JM: Let’s talk about Jet Black & Jealous.

ELI: We’re extremely proud of this record. We feel like Jet Black & Jealous is more “us” than anything we’ve done so far. When we recorded most of Level, I wasn’t even old enough to drink yet. My understanding of life was probably extremely jaded. I feel like this record just has a very good grasp on life.

JM: What would you say the record is about? Artistically, what did you hope to achieve?

ELI: I just wanted it to be us, man. I think it was important for us to make a record that was different, but still fit in…

JM: Are there any recurring themes or motifs, or anything that you’re dealing with as a songwriter that shine prominently on the album?

ELI: We fight this struggle of living a normal life while touring nonstop. We do 200-plus dates a year, and so, you know, you hear that frustration in those songs; of struggling with living a normal life. And being that we are “new” at this, at the same time, we’ve been doing this for eight years. And there are times in your life when you kinda wonder, will I have time to go to the grocery store and get milk? Now, on top of the touring, there’s radio touring, there’s publicity, and there’s a lot of things. Sometimes you’re working several hours a day, and then going out on the road. It’s a very time consuming job right now.

That comes across in the songwriting—trying to figure out how to deal with your love life, and so on. There’s a song on the record called “Guinevere,” which is my favorite song that I’ve been a part of writing so far. It’s about this lost girl who is struggling. She’s obviously not happy with where she’s at, but as much as she pulls away from it, she doesn’t ever quite get away. Which I think has a lot to do with us.

JM: How will you judge the success of this album? Sales? Exposure? When you look back a year from now, what do you want to be able to say has happened?

ELI: First and foremost I want our fans to like it. I really, really love this record. And I want our fans to love it as much as we do. Second, I want new fans to like it. Am I lookin’ to sell a million records out of the box? No. I know, realistically, this industry is a tough industry. Every step we’ve taken in the past eight years has been a baby step. And I feel like the timing has been perfect, because we learned how to get on stage and entertain, and sometimes we get in bad situations, like at festivals, where you have to learn how to try to entertain through bad issues like sound, etc. And so, this eight year period was much needed. We learned to be singers, songwriters, entertainers.

Hopefully, this album is another baby step.

JM: I saw you guys at last year’s Big State Festival—which, evidently, has been canceled this year—and I was really surprised at the crowd you pulled in. It was definitely one of the biggest crowds I saw there for any of the non-headline acts. How did you manage to draw so many people at that stage in your career?

ELI: Aside from Big State…well, let me say first that I did read your review, by the way. But I understand where that came from. We played that night at Texas Hall of Fame, and so we didn’t have a lot of our gear. And then the monitors went out at the beginning of our show. So we were playing without monitors, which was not an easy thing to smile through and entertain through and play through. And you have to learn how to not freak out when that happens, and just play your show, even if you can’t hear your guitars or you can’t hear yourself. All you’re doing is guessing, listening to the drumbeat and hoping that the ambiance from the house is coming through.

Anyway, the songs on Level were songs that for some reason people just related to. There’s honesty in our music. We’ve gone out there and just done what we do. And we’ve written the songs that were important to us at that time in our life. With Level, obviously, we were writing that when we were young, and so a lot of those frustrations of trying to figure out what the hell you’re going to do with your life, we were feeling that. There was this battle with us of trying to figure out where the band was gonna go—I mean, we weren’t making any money, we were all working two and three jobs, while also going to school. It was an extremely hard time in our lives. That came through on the record, and I think that a lot of people really related to that, and are drawn to music that talks about that.

JM: During that extremely hard time, what made you and the rest of the band decide to keep going?

ELI: Everything happened at the right time. We were all friends before we started the band, and there’s something about our relationship—we’ve been really close since the day we met—that led to us feel like there was something big around the corner. Whether it was another gig, whether it was getting a new van, a new trailer. We always had this feeling that there was something around the corner, and we wanted to get there together.

Jim Malec is a journalist whose work has appeared in American Songwriter, Country Weekly, Denver Westword, Slant and others. He is the founder of American Noise and former Managing Editor of The 9513.

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