Exploring Madison's Music Scene
Aug 8, 2014
11:40 AMLocal Sounds
Erik Kjelland: Balancing Life, Music and the Mascot Theory
PHOTO COURTESY OF STONE AFTER STONE RECORDS
Every now and then a journalist has one of those wake-up moments, an epiphany in which you realize there has been significant subject matter right under your nose, and that it’s been there for some time. Maybe it’s one of those stories that has made its presence known but it just never seemed like the right time to pursue it. Recently I was filtering through some local CDs and I came across Lost at Sea Looks Like Rain by Erik Kjelland (you can read a review here). The cover art is eye-catching and I suddenly realized that I’d let this one get away. Almost.
Recorded in 2011, the collection of songs was at least partially inspired by a film and was, in fact, a soundtrack for a yet-to-be-realized movie titled Cloistered Honey. Then I checked the one-sheet that came with the disc, which I had saved for over three years, and noticed a discography in the lower corner. That was my eureka moment. There were twelve recordings listed.
I have known Erik Kjelland (pronounced “chelland”) for some time. He first contacted me while his band Fallen Roadies was active in the Platteville area. He later became a distributor for my Rick’s Café newspaper, the printed antecedent of Local Sounds Magazine. When Fallen Roadies disbanded he formed another group called Crimson Vim. Currently he is fronting another group called The Mascot Theory which also includes Nick Fry (bass, vocals), Paul Metz (drums, percussion, vocals) and Adam White (guitar, vocals).
It was the fact that Kjelland’s 2011 recording was his third solo release that surprised me, and made me question whether I had given him enough attention.
It’s always seemed odd to me how things happen in their own right time. After more than thirteen years of recording, touring, songwriting and promoting, I’m sure Kjelland wishes his time had come already. But if there’s any point in his career where it looks like a payoff may be imminent, it is now. Poised to release the third Mascot Theory album—Kjelland’s fourteenth release for which he wrote nearly all the material—he still possesses a drive and an enthusiasm that reinforces the notion that perseverance does have its reward.
Kjelland was born in 1980 in Dodgeville and grew up in Mineral Point. He was in a high school band in which he was the singer (“We were horrible!” he said). His parents were both musically inclined and both they and Kjelland’s grandmother were involved with their church’s music program.
EK: What did it for me was when the Beatles’ Anthology came out in the early '90s. That was it, I knew I wanted to write songs. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I resisted my grandmother’s attempts to get me into piano lessons and my father’s attempts to get me into guitar lessons. But I knew I could sing so I just got together with this band and started writing songs. I was so into the Beatles and Pink Floyd that I totally missed the grunge and post-grunge era. That’s how the Fallen Roadies were born. I just wanted to play Beatles songs.
While attending UW–Platteville, Kjelland started the Fallen Roadies with Art Ranney, who was actually one of his college advisors. Thirty years his senior, Ranney taught Kjelland guitar and still works with him as tour manager for the Mascot Theory, in addition to being his partner in their joint record label.
EK: I met Art and we just started getting together and playing Beatles cover songs and I thought it was great. We were singing harmonies and I was learning how to play acoustic guitar and Art and I started writing songs. Fallen Roadies became a real college rock band. I guess it was indie-rock when that really meant something and wasn’t just a catch-all term. I graduated in 2002 and came to Madison, but the rest of the band was in the Platteville area. We did some Madison shows but mostly played in the Platteville area and Dubuque.
After relocating to Madison another band began to coalesce.
EK: I graduated and moved to Madison and so did a bunch of guys that were playing in different bands in Platteville. We all ended up here and got together to form Crimson Vim. We played straight-up rock and did a lot of late-night bar gigs. Madison-Baraboo-Freeport (Illinois) was our area. While I was doing that I was doing the Roadies thing too, but after a while it was all too much. Especially once I had married Sara and the kids started popping out.
Kjelland got married in 2002 has three kids, ages two, four and six. The turning point for Kjelland was in 2007 when he released his first solo LP, Everybody Falls, as part of a unique fundraiser for the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America involving several different artists.
EK: That album was what I call my first dip into the music industry. It was not a local thing. I had a real producer (Jilladair Carlson, formerly with WKOW in Madison and now in Seattle) and we went to Seattle to record it. We had a CD release party in New York City. That was a big one. We sold about 2,000 copies of that, which is way more than I’ve sold with anything else, but it was tied to the charity aspect. The music itself was quite compromised. It had to fit what the charity wanted and what I was doing at the time didn’t really fit, so it had to be dulled down. I love the music on it—it’s a lot of wedding songs—but hard to perform in front of an audience. I missed being in a band, so we came back together and did the last Crimson Vim studio album (2008’s Stars Collide). Then I did another solo album (2008’s However, Coma) that reflected on the first solo album and some of the situations involving it, like a producer who wasn’t around enough and who over-promised to a lot of people.”
Crimson Vim recorded two studio albums, one studio EP and two live EPs. The stress of family life and full-time employment was becoming too much, however. Kjelland had taken a full-time position with Alpha Graphics and currently does production management for them.
EK: I just couldn’t do the band gigging thing with the little kids around so I started doing solo shows and a duo thing [with Art Ranney—they were called Goodnight Nobody]. We did coffee shops and whatnot. That was allowing me to get home at a reasonable time instead of the late-night bar gigging that Crimson Vim was doing. The Mascot Theory got started almost by accident with some guys that I knew and we were not planning to make a band of it. We got together to do a show at Tuvalu Coffeehouse [in Verona]. Art couldn’t make a gig there and so I brought the bass player from Crimson Vim up and he brought his other band mates at the time. We did some of their songs and some of mine. We did a few more shows like that and the Mascot Theory was born.
Kjelland then took some time off from songwriting. His duo Goodnight Nobody was for the love of playing. He and Ranney went back to their roots doing Beatles covers and Ryan Adams material. He even led a church group where he leaned back into acoustic guitar. They allowed him to do alt-country versions of hymns and that led directly into the sound that became the Mascot Theory. In 2012 the Mascot Theory released their first recording titled Under the Borrowed Moon. The album deals largely with death and loss, and momentous events inspired it.
EK: I had written a few songs around the time the Mascot Theory first got going and then I had two significant deaths that occurred at the same time. My good friend and lead guitarist for the Fallen Roadies, Tony Thomas, took his own life. Then my grandmother died. It was due to natural causes, but she was very significant to me in my life. She was a music teacher. That caused me to think about the completely different kinds of deaths that they were. The songs on that album were all solo songs I had written about that. “Meet-Your-Maker Tavern” was about drinking shots with angels with a don’t-mourn-for-me attitude written from the aspect of my grandmother. Then there’s “Everything Left to Lose” which is about suicide. I didn’t want to write sappy, completely depressing songs, and since we were doing alt-folk I combined the sad lyrics with a beat that could be toe-tapping. “Asphodel Meadows” is a Greek term for the afterlife. It’s a place where people go who weren’t great but who weren’t bad either. It’s in the middle, which is where most people I know seem to be.
[Read a review of Under the Borrowed Moon here.]
Despite the pressures of family and work life, Kjelland still has high musical ambitions. The Mascot Theory are currently mixing their second studio recording for a September 2014 release. These aspirations come at a price for many Madison musicians. Frequently it means moving to another city where there are more industry opportunities: studio work, session gigs, publishing, labels, distribution and, most importantly, people with industry-wide connections who can make things happen for up-and-coming artists to whom they take a shining.
EK: This new album is an answer to what my first solo album should have been. I knew I wanted to go to Nashville and do it. I knew with Jack White going there and the Black Keys that something else is going on there; it’s not your usual country or pop stuff. I went there with Art as Goodnight Nobody, and I fell in love with the city, the culture and the music business as a make-it-or-break-it proposition. There are people there who are making it and there is a culture there where if you say to someone, "I’m a musician," they are not going to say, "Okay but what do you really do?" There is a part of Nashville—the Broadway area—where there is a lot of tourist attraction. I went there and discovered that there was a drummer in every window but the bands were all playing cover material, the same stuff I could hear in Madison. But once I got into East Nashville I discovered a whole scene where indie music is really big. It’s centrally located in the U.S. and a lot of people are going there, but also culturally they’re just open to it. And the industry is there so you’re not trying to create something out of nothing. Do I need to go there in order to make it? For me, I would do it. You don’t have to play all the time. In Madison you’ve got to get out and do the shows and I can’t do that all the time. Madison has got some incredible musicians but what’s always been disappointing to me is the college culture. I’ve never felt they supported the music. Madison’s strong suit is that there are so many great musicians here. And there's the Madison Area Music Association and the Nashville Songwriter’s Association and other songwriter guilds. You really have to get out there and get connected with the other bands in Madison in order to get your crowd built up. If you do it on your own you’ll only have your immediate friends and family. In Nashville there are people there—tourists, too—who go to hear the music. You’re playing to packed houses. There are a lot of people from Madison there now and they’re doing well. There are big-name artists there and there is a degree of separation there that could end up with you working with them. There have been bands that have come through Madison—look at what Smart Studios has done—but no one ever took a Madison band out on tour with them. I could say that for Garbage, too. They never came back to Madison and took Madison bands out on tour with them. PHOX is doing really well right now and I hope they come back to Madison and make good things happen. I hope that whatever band might make it out of here stays true to Madison and is always talking about Wisconsin. I have a very good feeling about PHOX. Look at the Mile of Music festival in Appleton, which we’ll be playing at. You’ve got Cory Chisel who came back and is giving back to his community. There’s a lot of cred in that and it’s great for the community and the community is behind it.
Hand Me Down Miracles will be released in September and it is the most adventurous undertaking Kjelland has been involved with up to this point. It was recorded in one hundred hours in a Nashville studio. The recording was produced by Sean Giovanni at his Record Shop studio and will be issued on Stone After Stone Records, which is a joint venture between Kjelland and Ranney. The Mascot Theory also just completed a successful Kickstarter program that raised over $6,000 to cover costs.
EK: It was not that expensive to do even though we spent a hundred hours in the studio. The Mascot Theory is basically a nonprofit so everything we make we put back into the band. It really was no more expensive to make than it would have been to make it in Madison. There are some amazing studios in Madison. The reason we decided to do it in Nashville is that we were going there to do four shows and we had a ton of time in between. Instead of just hanging around we decided we would record there. We just hit the studio to do some drum tracks on four songs we had and we had no intention of doing the whole album there. We found Sean who agreed to produce and he really liked us and gave us the rate we needed. There was just something there at the Record Shop and a great collection of microphones. So we just decided we would come back and finish it there. Literally, on the ride home, I wrote all the lyrics to the remaining eight songs on the album. I completed the music and we hammered them out and played them live for a while. We made several trips separately or in small groups and the full band went twice.
Kjelland is confident that Hand Me Down Miracles is the best thing he’s ever done. Should the cards fall just right, it is likely both he and Ranney would relocate to Nashville. Currently Kjelland is working with Beth Kille and an EP is possible later in 2014. Kille has sung with the Mascot Theory live and the two groups frequently team up for local gigs. They are also collaborating on the first ever Flannel Fest. Should the Mascot Theory make the leap, one thing is certain: Kjelland will not soon abandon his hometown, and he will be back to do what he can and to give back to the community that brought him up musically.
EK: I don’t know what it is. I’ve tried to stop but it’s like an addiction. With a full-time job and a family it’s not easy to do music. I admire and am sort of jealous of those who can do it full-time. I went a different route and I’m not ready to give up the full-time job yet. Yet.