Sleeping in the Aviary
A conversation with Elliott Kozel
Interview by Adam McKibbin
On their debut album, Madison's Sleeping in the Aviary grant the wishes of any listener suffering from a short attention span, gleefully tearing through their hook-filled pop-rock at a pace of 13 tracks in 23 minutes. Sometimes they didn't even both with proper song titles, opting instead for helpfully summarized titles like "Pop Song" and "Love Song" (fine songs, both).
Frontman Elliott Kozel fielded some questions from The Red Alert about the four years in between the band's formation and its debut record, their feelings about noodly guitar jams, and finding inspiration in unusual and disturbing places.
Sleeping in the Aviary was formed in 2003, but the debut record is just coming out now. What was happening in the meantime - just continued fine-tuning, or were there some periods where it seemed like the band’s future was unstable? I know there were some lineup changes, et cetera.
The lineup changes definitely had something to do with it and it took a long time to learn how to write a song properly. We were a four-piece (with a changing lineup) for two years and we went through a lot of different stylistic changes. Our first incarnation ended up being basically a grunge band. Our second incarnation was by far our drunkest and most broken, and songs would sometimes go on for 10 minutes with us jamming out-of-key and suddenly we found ourselves playing those new hipster disco beats. By the third lineup (the first 3-piece) we finally were focused on the short pop songs that eventually made it onto this album. We recorded most of the songs for this album with a different drummer in 2005 and we weren’t satisfied with the recording so we scrapped it, got a new drummer, went on our first tour, came back and started re-recording the entire thing with a few new songs and a few old ones cut out. Oh yeah, then I screamed out my voice for awhile there and couldn’t play shows or record for five months. Then we finished the album in late 2006. So I guess it took us three years to make 23 minutes of music. That’s 7.66666666666666666666666666666666666667 minutes of music per year.
Now that you’ve been fully through the cycle, are there things that you know you want to do differently next time in the studio?
Next time we will listen more carefully.
Along those lines, when does the work on the next album begin? Is it underway already, or do you compartmentalize and focus on playing and promoting this one?
We’ve already got 20 songs for the next album written and we hope to begin work on it during July or August. It’s going to be a lot different. Kind of like John Prine without a sense of humor. All of the songs will be over two minutes long and the chord changes will be less fancy. We hope to employ less computers and robots next time. Less ProTools cheating. The old cut-and-paste can be a little too easy sometimes.
A lot of the songs draw on relationships - or, more specifically, damaged relationships. I don’t want to get into what’s autobiographical and what’s not, but in general, do you find it easier to write or that you’re more compelled to write when times are bad than when times are good?
It’s easiest to write when things are bad but you don’t know it. I fucking hate The Smiths.
One of the striking things about Oh, This Old Thing? is indeed its runtime. Is that brisk pace something that you guys were conscious about maintaining - did you have to trim the fat sometimes - or was that just how the songs pop out?
Those songs just came out that way. One thing we have always been opposed to is the extra chorus. So we don’t have those. Also: the forced bridge. We try not to have those either. Guitar soloing is kept to a minimum so as not to display my lack of technical ability. If I could shred, our songs might be longer. Like I said, our newer songs are much longer, sometimes five minutes. I can’t really consciously control how long or short the songs are. The good ones decide that for themselves.
And does that carry over to your taste in music as a listener, too, or are you smitten by the occasional 15-minute noodly guitar jam or epic post-rock instrumental?
Sometimes we will sit around and listen to Pink Floyd’s classic “High Hopes” and just rock out. Sometimes I play “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” on the jukebox at the bar to get my money’s worth. You gotta stretch that dollar. Sometimes we record the washing machine cycle from start to finish and then listen to it.
Are the songs on the record translated pretty faithfully in a live setting, or do you tend to take expansive creative liberties with them?
I have found that the drunker we are, the louder my guitar amp gets. When we play acoustic sets, we reinterpret songs from the album so they fit in with our newer folky numbers. But for the most part, yeah, we play the rock songs just like on the record.
The hidden track is “Pop Song” reworked as a sensitive pop ballad over piano. Do songs sometimes originate as stripped-down pieces like that? I guess for all I know the second version of “Pop Song” could have been the original.
The piano version of the pop song is indeed the original version. Most of the songs originate from just writing by ourselves on the piano or the guitar, and then we work on the arrangements together. It’s nice to be a 3-piece sometimes because it forces you to discard shitty songs. You can’t dress them up in fancy outfits of Nord synthesizers and pedal-steel to make them passable. We never really write songs by getting together and jamming out and finding parts we like and then trying to sing over it. We leave that to Interpol.
I geek out a little bit when I get a chance to interview someone from my old stomping grounds - actually, I think the only time that’s happened so far is with Carl Johns from Charlemagne. The requisite Madison questions, then: first, can you hype any other good bands making their way up the scene?
The Pale Young Gentlemen are definitely our favorite band in town right now. Their first album, which they just released, is solid all the way through. It’s oompah-pah pirate piano type stuff. Our friends A Paper Cup Band from Minneapolis also just put out an amazing album of bastard-folk tunes called Midwestern Post Sarcastic. The leader of that band, Andrew Jansen, used to be in Sleeping in the Aviary during the early Madison days but then moved to Minneapolis. So that one might not count, but the music is really good.
And since I’m a sucker for homesickness: What’s your ideal Madison day? If someone is visiting who’s never been there before, what do you try to make sure they experience?
Staying home and making music all day. I guess you could go to the zoo or something.
Moving on to even more random questions for the close: Who drew the cover for the album? Can we check out more of his/her work?
I drew the cover. Some more of my art is on the website under the “artwork” section.
Your band’s website is a bit of a rabbit hole - there are all sorts of wonders awaiting. Let’s start by talking about the Horny Teens section, which could be the inspiration for a whole series of concept albums (move over Sufjan Stevens and the 50 States Project). The horny teen named Nick has a Paul Simon poster on his wall and a Rolling Stone on his floor - what were your posters and magazines of choice during that era in your life?
One poster I had in my bedroom was of two kittens dressed up in little suits smoking cigarettes in a miniature bathroom. The cats were supposedly skipping class to smoke in the boys room. I also had life-sized Darth Vader and Yoda cardboard stand-ups. And a fake fireplace. It made for quite a romantic make-out chamber. As far as magazines, I mostly read Entertainment Weekly.
Finally, we’ve got my favorite hidden gem - the savage work of Cold Cut Combo. For the uninitiated, can you explain the genesis of the Cold Cut Combo repertoire?
We saw this sweet movie about the song-poem industry called Off the Charts where people (hoping to make it big) send in song lyrics to these Nashville session musicians to record for a small fee. Some of the tunes that came out of this odd process of music creation were about Jimmy Carter and kung-fu bicycles. It’s great to watch professional musicians just crank these songs out as fast as they can. We got inspired to try to do the same thing ourselves, so we went on the internet and looked for poems by teenagers who cut themselves. We then took the poems pretty much word for word and put them to music that we made mostly with a Casio keyboard. We did six songs over the span of three or four days. The results are pretty strange. You can find them on our website.