The beginning of my transition into an awareness of independent music happened around the age I was being taught to parallel park. Some things come easier than others, and in the fall of that year begins a succession of memories involving being chauffeured to the Loop by friends, fanning out handfuls of CD’s across the tops of Vintage Vinyl bins, and carefully trying to decide on which I’d spend my money. It just so happens that the first of those was So Sudden, the debut album of a quartet from Illinois – The Hush Sound. Now, nearly six years later, I can still remember the benchmark excitement that came with the discovery of that album and vocalist/piano player Greta Morgan’s voice. I was pleased to recently discover her latest musical venture, group Gold Motel.
We talked to Greta in advance of their Saint Louis debut at The Firebird June 17th.
MOTH: One of the first things that I noticed about Summer House is its clear sense of geographic location. It absolutely feels like a bright and sunny California record, and I was wondering if during the course of your relocation you discovered any records that became a point of reference to that sound and possibly influenced the songwriting?
Yeah, well I think one of the main influences of living there was I studied with this piano teacher, Elmo Peeler. He was a touring musician who toured with the Beach Boys in the 60′s, and so a lot of those songs, it’s kind of hard to sound out the chord workings; it’s kind of hard to sound out the exact parts because there’s so much going on. But he was able to teach me all the parts, all the arrangements, all the organ parts, all that kind of stuff, because he knew first hand – he had played them all. So, between learning all of the Beach Boys songs, working with him, and then also just living in California and wanting to write something that was simple and happy, I think that kind of all collectively went into it.
“Between learning all of the Beach Boys songs, working with him, and then also just living in California and wanting to write something that was simple and happy, I think that kind of all collectively went into it”.
MOTH: No doubt as a working musician in independent music one of the first things you’ll notice about a new location is its music scene. What are some of the major differences you noticed going to shows in two metropolitan cities with successful independent music scenes like Los Angeles and Chicago?
I think that there’s a pro and con of a large music scene in the metropolitan city, and the pro is that there’s constantly something going on – there are shows every night, there are multiple venues. That’s the pro, there’s so much out there. The con is that people in major cities can be very jaded. Like, there’s kind of the stereotype of New York and Los Angeles audiences having their arms crossed and just standing still the whole time they watch the show, whereas when you go to places like Des Moines, Iowa, where we are right now, bigger shows don’t come through all the time and so the audience is usually really, really ecstatic to see a band coming through, and they’ll thank us for playing there and everything. So I think that’s the major difference – big cities have more available, but the audience can be more jaded. Small cities, there’s less available, but when something good comes the audiences are more excited.
MOTH: What are some of the new, under-the-radar bands that you’ve seen in either city that you’re really excited about?
We played with a band in, I think it was in New Jersey, called Givers, and everybody in our band really, really liked them. They just had a ton of energy; really great live show. And then we’re out with the band Skybox right now, who’s really cool. We have a friend in Chicago named Sars Flannery, and he has a record called “Fail of the Century”. It’s one of my favorites that’s come out of Chicago in a long time. I’d say those are a few of the best bands that I’m fortunate to have played with, or know a lot of them.
MOTH: The song “Safe in L.A.” is a great example of that readily accessible girl-group/Motown sound that’s featured on the record, and it caught my attention immediately. Was that influence something you had been looking to incorporate into your songwriting for some time, and was it a shared interest with your new band members?
It wasn’t something I really did consciously. I think a lot of people are doing that now as kind of like a kitschy thing. You know, like She & Him, where Zoe Deschanel’s singing 500 harmonies, and our friends are in this girl group, “The Like”, from Los Angeles, and they do kind of the girl group 60′s rock n’ roll thing. I wasn’t intentionally trying to do that. I just think, collectively, everyone in our band likes the Motown recordings so much that even without trying to organize it or consciously trying to include it, it just kind of seeped in through the music because of the nature of how our drummer likes to play and how our bass player likes to play, and how we like to arrange and how I like to hear harmonies, so it kind of happened on accident. It was a very, very happy accident for sure.
Definitely. Diana Ross and the Supremes, and the Temptations, and all that. When I was a little kid my dad had this jukebox in our basement that was full of all the old 45 records and we used to just dance in front of the jukebox all the time, and that to me is what I want to do for other people. I want to write music that’s so happy and fun that even a two-year-old kid gets it.
MOTH: I know that your current band contains members of the group “This Is Me Smiling”. With this project being an entirely new undertaking for you, what was it like coming into and collaborating with a group of musicians who had an already established dynamic as a band?
It was great. I mean, Dan, Matt, and Adam have been playing together so long and get along so well that it made the process really fast and fun, and the whole thing originally started with me and Dan. We recorded the first five songs for the EP together and called Matt in to play on them, and then when we needed a live drummer we called Adam in, and it was kind of like everything just connected. And then also, Eric Hehr – he’s our other guitar player – has been in Chicago bands forever and I’ve been wanting to be in a group with him since I was an early teenager, so I’m glad that we’re finally able to. It works really well. Also, in a way there was a group dynamic because The Hush Sound knew This Is Me Smiling really well – they had worked on some of our records before – and I just had a really good rapport with all the guys, so in a way the five of us already kind of had a group dynamic.
MOTH: Summer House was self-released if I’m not mistaken?
“There’s kind of the stereotype of New York and Los Angeles audiences having their arms crossed and just standing still the whole time they watch the show, whereas when you go to places like Des Moines, Iowa, where we are right now, bigger shows don’t come through all the time and so the audience is usually really, really ecstatic to see a band coming through, and they’ll thank us for playing there and everything, so I think that’s the major difference.
MOTH: Can you discuss the advantages/challenges of self-releasing music in this current stream of time?
Well the advantages are that firstly, we own the rights to the music. We can license it however we choose. We have complete creative control. We also make 100% of the royalties from every album sale, which obviously is important to keep a band afloat. A con would be, maybe, that we don’t have as big of a voice to reach – you know we didn’t have the advertisers and the marketing, and we didn’t have the merchandizing kind of infrastructure that a record label has. But I think the pros for us far outweighed the cons. Even the way we made the album, like we recorded it at my house and a close friend mixes and another friend mastered it, and it was just a total group project.
MOTH: You mentioned in answering that last question that you didn’t necessarily have the “voice” that a record label would have provided, but one of the crowning achievements of independent music is the fan base crossover you’ll have from one musical project to another. How have fans of The Hush Sound been supportive of Gold Motel as of yet?
I think for the most part everyone has been really supportive. I’ve actually have a lot of people come and tell me that they couldn’t – You know, there are a few people who want The Hush Sound back, I understand that as a music listener. When your favorite band splits up for a while you get upset. But, on the other hand, I’ve had more people tell me that they couldn’t get into The Hush Sound, but that they love Gold Motel.
MOTH: I wanted to talk to you about your album artwork.
I’m actually standing next to our designer right now, so that’s a good question to answer in front of her.
MOTH: Well, because of the proliferation of digital music, it’s not very often a conversation you get to have. I loved the aesthetic you carried over from the EP of the 8 photographs framing the title of the record in the center. How did you develop that concept, and is reiterating it something that you see as a point of continuity?
I don’t think we’ll do that same layout again, but I wanted it to be very obvious that the EP and the LP were very connected by the nature of the fact that they have five of the same songs. I also wanted to be able to have the LP pop with pictures of the guys to introduce and say hey, here’s the full band now. I think the fact that it was just me on the first cover, and then the full band on the next cover made people really interested and realize, “Oh, this is a band. It’s not just Greta’s solo project.” So I think what we’re trying to do is, every album will kind of fit within a theme in the way that The White Stripes do all their albums, where they fit within a theme, but we probably won’t use that eight picture square design again.
MOTH: What records are you listening to currently? And you how do you decide as a group what you are going to listen to while on tour?
I’ve been listening to the new Spoon album, the new Black Keys record, the Beach House record is really beautiful, the new Vampire Weekend album, and then also just a lot of stuff from the 60′s. Oh, also I just got the new Young Veins album which is great and the new Steel Train album. So pretty much I’m just plugging all of my friends right now. All those records are really great. Everybody in Gold Motel is constantly reading music blogs and trying to figure out what the next great record is going to be and getting ahead of times, listening and sharing and hearing a ton of new stuff. I’d say 95% of the great stuff I’ve heard recently is because they pointed it out to me.