Pale Young Gentlemen
A conversation with Michael Reisenauer
Interview by Adam McKibbin
'Tis the season for year-end lists, and while it's still a tad early to fix the spots (no offense to the magazines that did that weeks ago), Madison's Pale Young Gentlemen surely deserve consideration from anyone with a weakness for smart indie-pop with a cinematic, orchestral flourish. Forget the sophomore slump; the Gentlemen have grown up on Black Forest (Tra La La) without hitting that dreaded awkward phase - and critics are taking notice. A quick look at the review aggregator Metacritic.com shows Pale Young Gentlemen sitting in the hallowed 80+ category, currently alongside giant names like The Clash, The Smiths, Bob Dylan and B.B. King - as well as blogosphere favorites like Deerhunter, Marnie Stern and TV On The Radio.
So who are these Gentlemen tunesmiths? Singer/guitarist/songwriter Michael Reisenauer checked in from the road to discuss the construction and conception of Black Forest - as well as the sinister shadow of Coldplay, the challenge of bringing an orchestral and nuanced album into bars and clubs, and the not-always-disastrous decision to be in a band with your siblings (his brother, Mathew, is the Gentlemen's percussionist).
The history of rock is strewn with fightin' siblings. Are the Brothers Reisenauer a peaceful lot? What's the secret to fraternal harmony on the road?
Luckily, Matt and I have always gotten along really well. Maybe like twins. We still have our little spats or whatever, but we understand each other enough now that they don't build up and turn into bigger deals. Without getting too sentimental or preachy, maybe the secret is to remember that he might just be your brother, but he's also your band mate and business partner and deserves the accompanying amount of respect and patience.
Do you have the full seven-piece out on the road or are the songs scaled back a little bit? I'm sorry to have missed you in LA, but I was busy making a whisky-addled fool of myself; it was my birthday.
Congrats. Drinking for an occasion such as that can be hard work. There are five of us touring on the record right now- piano/guitar, drums, bass, cello and viola. Our actual numbers are smaller than the recording, but the songs themselves seem to have gotten bigger. The arrangements and performances are a bit more in your face and certain embellishments have swept them into "pop/rock" corners.
What kinds of bills are you finding yourselves on? Any hilarious or confusing mismatches?
Lots of hilarious and confusing bills. In the interest of respecting other struggling artists I won't make any specific fun, but we've played with sixteen year-olds, with bands playing their first show, house parties and art spaces, bars and full on clubs. Heard songs called "Elephants on Acid", heard heavy breathing into microphones, and heard requests to "do Shakespeare". All of it was anticipated, none of it was expected.
Nuance and subtlety aren't always properly appreciated by the average live audience – except in cases of very well-established headliners, of course (i.e. I went to see Antony a few weeks ago and you could have heard a pin drop). Have you gathered any tips for how to warm up a more neutral crowd? Particularly since you're not bludgeoning them into submission (or at least silence) with AC/DC riffs, etc.
Well, we've certainly re-worked some of our songs so that they'd come across live better. Sped them up a little maybe, my singing becomes a little more aggressive. We exploit some sections a little more, dramatize them so that they require less patience. Generally, a neutral audience responds more to the uptempo stuff- so we indulge them and mix in the quieter things when they're not expecting it - or when they are expecting it. We really should include more bludgeoning. We'd probably sell a shitload of CDs if we finished our set with an ironic, string-laden cover of "Back in Black"... Too bad I'm too damn proud and artistically pretentious for an ironic, string-laden cover. Maybe I'm not. Actually I'm not at all. Not even close.
The Dadd piece [that appears on the album cover] is perfectly suited as album artwork. How did you "discover" him? I think it's interesting that the same piece inspired Freddie Mercury to write a song.
Yeah. It's a piece I've always liked and was inspiration while I was writing the record. The colors and the detail just seemed exactly appropriate and fed into a lot of the aesthetics for the sound of the record. I didn't know that Queen had a song about that painting until we were recording and our producer, Beau, put it on. It's a pretty accurate musical depiction of that painting! At the same time, it's the kind of song I can only listen to once. Ok, maybe twice because it's the kind of song you have to show to at least one other person.
As with any band, there are a number of comparisons that get tossed around about you guys. One that is definitely recurring is Coldplay; one reviewer even suggested that listeners would have to make their peace with Coldplay before fully enjoying PYG. To me, Coldplay appreciation is definitely not a prerequisite, but I was wondering where you guys stood on Chris Martin & Co. Kindred spirit? Annoying fleeting resemblance? Totally unrelated?
Honestly, it's something that came as a huge surprise to me because I've never really listened to them (other than the occasional radio passing). It used to really bother me, but I've made peace with it.. We're both miners in a similar emotional territory who are not afraid to jump an interval more than a major second into our falsettos and back. I wish the comparison pertained more to record sales, but what the fuck can we do?
Black Forest is one of the most album albums I've heard all year. It just makes more sense and carries more weight as a whole – and I think it's sequenced very well. Is it safe to assume that you're an album kind of guy – not an iTunes single kind of guy? What are some of your favorite top-to-bottom albums?
I am as bad at listening to music as I am at reading books. I just don't make time for it. My favorite top-to-bottoms are probably the same as any other joker: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Kid A, Homogenic...I'm also a fan of just single, solitary songs. "Lovefool" by the Cardigans, that "No Good" Winehouse tune, or Big Star's "Stroke It, Noel".
When you're writing, do you start from a skeletal, stripped-down place and then add on the embellishments, or are they conceptualized as the orchestral versions we wind up hearing?
Both occurred on this record. "Goldenface, Morninglight" started with a melody and some chords and then got treated with strings, etc. "Kettle Drum" and "Wedding Guest" were born as MIDI files on my computer and weren't really played for the first time by everybody until they were recorded. The true starting point for all these songs was a simple and contrasting emotional idea.
Were there songs that didn't make the final cut because they didn't fit with the album?
Yeah, there's a song called "I Am A Weapon" that didn't make the cut. We still play it live because it's pretty fun and works in our set really well. There was also a handful of other musical interludes that I cut out for streamlining purposes. I don't plan on putting them out on anything else. They're just too specific to this album.
Do you think you've been helped or hurt by geography at all – or does it have no effect in the modern online era?
I think it mostly helps us. Writers seem to think it's interesting backstory. For some reason, it's weird to them that Madison, WI exists and that people play music there. Sometimes I wish we were a little closer to the major music markets, but so far it's worked for us just fine.
In the press for the first album, there was a emergent theme that the album had been made in almost a sort of vacuum – that you'd never really listened to The Arcade Fire or these other bands who were defining the indie zeitgeist. Has that changed now that you guys are touring nationally? Does being out on the road and sharing bills make you more plugged in than you were in the past?
That is mostly true. My fandom of music pretty much stopped when I was 18 or 19- just like most music listeners. That first album was written by someone who just wrote some songs and had people interested enough to play along and enough money to record them. That doesn't mean that I didn't take it very seriously, because I did and do. It just means that I did it without any greater understanding. I'm still bad at really listening to new music, but I am definitely aware of it. I still have moments where someone in the band says "Mike, that melody sounds exactly like this one song by Arcade Fire or whatever." So it's rewritten. I don't think that the road has increased that too much. It has made me more aware of what not to do.
If you were giving a tour of Madison to an out-of-town friend, what would you want to be sure to include?
I'd take them to Lazy Janes on Willy Street for lunch, would probably have to do the State Street Mall thing, probably do some bike riding as Madison is very friendly in that way. Have a beer or more at the Crystal Corner Bar and play some pool. If it was winter, I'd have them shovel my fucking sidewalk.