Interview by Deirdre
The Knitting Factory
June 7, 2003
"I got my first guitar when I was eight," Chris Higdon tells me, "but my parents didn't show me how to tune it. I tried to play but it made no sense. It was absolutely impossible,so I smashed it."
In the backroom at New York's Knitting Factory, Chris shows that he has learned how to tune his guitar. Chris, frontman and the last one standing from the original Elliott, has stuck through turnover in every other position (especially bass, they go through bass players like there is no tomorrow. In fact, their soon-to-be bass player is there while the current one prepares to depart). As the guiding force of the band, Chris clearly is the one ready to talk to the interviewers while sitting on the nondescript ratty couch tuning up methodically. Benny Clark, the lead guitarist, meanwhile leans against the wall acting like he's not going to say anything to me. Pale and ethereal Chris with his bald skull and dark-framed glasses looks like an intellectual while Benny seems like the guy who works at the local indy record store"and that is just what he is, if the record store guy wanted to talk about Eric Satie, Philip Guston and Saint Paul.
Deirdre: Tell me about your music "Song in the Air" is quite epic.
Chris: Well, basically it took a really long time to make, about a year and a half. Maybe it was a bit of laziness, but we were very particular.
Deirdre: Were you too particular?
Chris: No. What do you think, Benny?
Chris: Well, I guess at some points we were.
Benny: When you say it took a year and a half, remember that most of the time we were there we weren't really working on it.
Deirdre: What were you doing?
Benny: Living other lives---gotta eat.
Chris: The original vision was only an EP. We knew what we had and we wanted to get it out fast, but once we got to six songs we realized that the premise had changed. And then with the new songs, the old ones had to change to fit.
Deirdre: How do you feel about the final product?
Chris: It's something that you have to listen to it a couple of times in order to get into it.
Benny: There ain't no hits.
Deirdre: How do you feel about that?
Chris: We definitely wanted to write what we wanted to write--
Benny: It sucks. I need a rich old uncle to pass away.
Deirdre: But listening to this music, I can tell you have the capability to make money if you wanted to. You have the talent ¦
Benny: Yeah, I could recite garbage over and over.
Deirdre: Isn't there a certain stubbornness about it"
Chris: I'm fine with being poor, but I'm not particularly happy about being poor and in debt. None of us are looking to be driving Mercedes.
Deirdre: Have things changed, do you see success coming?
Chris: I see it coming and then I see it going. I see it coming all the time, but it's usually with other bands. And you see why it's coming for them, and you see how that translates for what you do and so it's useful. You see what you could do; how you could achieve these goals if you had them, but we kind of are ¦.well, I guess we are stubborn about what we do.
Benny: If we were 'on' every night¦at our best, we'd be famous. But sometimes we're really great and sometimes we're not. I don't know why that is.
Chris: Well, we could all go out and buy Diesel jeans and dye our hair black ¦
Benny: MAE [the opening band] is on all the time, they aren't like us.
Chris: They're nervous tonight. There are industry people in the audience. It's spooked them a bit.
Deirdre: You see yourselves as artists?
Chris: I don't consider myself just a guitar player. What we do goes beyond. There are more pieces to me and even more"these are pieces that are about my emotions and experiences translated into music. One thing I really want to do is to connect with people.
Deirdre: What about you, Benny? Do you want to connect with people?
Benny: I've just been doing this since I was sixteen; I don't know any other difference. Ask me a question “I don't know what you are saying.
Deirdre: I wanted to know if you were like Chris and you wanted to connect with people.
Benny: Do I want to connect with people? No. I don't connect with anyone. Obviously. You can see that by our interaction right now. I'm definitely looking for a certain kind of audience
Deirdre: Who would it be?
Benny: People like me
Deirdre: Which would be?
Benny: Long story ¦
Deirdre: Describe your music then ¦
Chris: Well it's atmospheric.
Deirdre: Good for listening to in the rain.
Benny: It's emo. I call it emo. Write that down.
Chris: He's probably right, but it's not the kind of music you can listen to everyday. You have to be in the right mood.
Deirdre: How is it playing it every day?
Benny: I experiment a lot on an average day, I'm pretty Indy rock and it's pretty sad. He has a great philosophy, that you give everything every show.
Deirdre: You are lazy?
Benny: No, I'm not lazy. I'm being real to who I am. It can be a strain to be on the road.
Chris: It must be easier for me than the rest of the band. I can pull in different directions. I'm lyrically in the middle and pulling from all the parts. I can't expect Benny to be as connected to the lyrics that I'm writing. Hopefully, at some point he'll find something in it. People would say that our lyrics are cryptic. Sometimes there are two or three different story lines.
Benny: My thing is pretty emo. So emo. It's hard to do it every single day. If you pay attention, it's just too much. You find different outlets. I'm drunk right now. At the beginning of the tour I wasn't drinking at all.
Chris: We're close to the end now. We started in February and then in two months we go out again. Pretty much the big markets are great. In the middle especially, the southern middle, it's dead.
Deirdre: So what are you listening to while you drive all over the place?
Benny: Here, this is what I'm listening to--that's today's menu.
Chris: Benny has a suitcase that he brings on tour that is just full of CDs. He doesn't bring very many clothes.
Benny: I'm really into punk rock right now. (As he shows me a handful of CDs) That's just all junk--
Deirdre: Who are you loving right now?
Benny: Do you mean influences or things you listen to? The things that influence me, I don't think I could listen to every day, I don't think I could handle that. It's so hard to get away from the songs. The weight of everything is too much ¦
Deirdre: So you have to get drunk"
Benny: I don't have to. By the end of the tour am I big lush you mean? I am listening to Nikki Sudden. Write this down, I'm looking for the first CD of Swell Maps. I had it but I sold it for rent and to go on tour---tell them how I sacrificed for my audience and that I've been all over this damn country looking for it. Someone should send it to me.
Deirdre: So when you get home--
Benny: We're all homeless and miserable. We gave up our apartments.
Deirdre: So you will go back to Louisville and there's no place to go?
Benny: I've got a girlfriend.
Deirdre: Is she expecting you back?
Benny: I guess I had better talk to her, huh?
Chris: Because we were going for so long, we all just moved out. Kevin still has a place.
Deirdre: So you'll all be living with him ¦
Chris: He hasn't offered. I think he's sick of us by now.
Deirdre: What next? Are you going to spend another year and half on the next album when you get back?
Benny: It's all done. It's right here in my notebooks.
Chris: Life is all about the search for the right notebook.
Benny: I like this one. I got in Borders. I normally hate Borders, but this was six bucks and it's just right. (As he shows me a plastic bag with a notebook and other books and scraps of paper inside it) It's all there. There's songs every where.
Deirdre: And books, I see you are reading ¦
Benny: I got a bunch of books, all drug books and philosophy. I'm reading DeQuincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater.
Chris: The only thing I've read on this tour is Kurt Vonnegut.
Benny: I'm also reading a book about the apostle Paul. He's a tormented dude. I can really relate to him. It's a great book.
(The new bass player in training enters and says. "This is a long interview.")
Benny: It's not an interview, it's more a cry for help ¦
(Benny asks for a double vodka and the newbie asks, "Are you sure, Benny?")
Deirdre: What do you want to happen?
Chris: Make good music.
Benny: They make you tour. But I hate this stuff. I hate New York. But I love New York bands right now"they all sound like old British bands. I don't care about any of this stuff I hate magazines and all this shit. I'd rather be home reading and listening to music. I was done with music: I was a lost soul working in a record shop.
Deirdre: Like in "High Fidelity"?
Benny: Just like that. I saw part of it and it was so right on, I had to turn it off. But this is how it is, I've known this dude for like ten years, half the band quit, and I was best friends with the bass player of this band, and then he got married and had two kids, and he asked me to come on, so what could I do? I hate touring.
Chris: Benny came on board right after False Cathedrals. He was with us for that tour.
We had to change stuff to work with his style.
Benny: Yeah, you should see the hate e-mail we got. I mean it was still recognizable ¦
Deirdre: How you want your music to be?
Benny: It should make someone feel as if they are just about to faint. Fluttering heartbeat, superimposed images, but with a raunchiness of reality. Dirty and torn, but with plastic furniture.
Deirdre: Have any of you ever fainted while playing the music?
Chris: Kevin vomited once. I think music should breathe. It should be somehow organic and the idea of us as individuals should melt away. That's where the name "Elliott" came from. I wanted something that was pure of any associations. It's not anyone's name in the band and it doesn't tell you what to expect in any way.
Deirdre: You wanted to be somehow impermeable?
Benny: Let me show you my tattoos.
Deirdre: Uh oh.
Benny: Well, actually I don't have any tattoos, but here in my notebook are my plans for six tattoos I'm gonna get"The Rolling Stones lips"you know no one knows who really designed them?"a tribal design, a phoenix, a symbol from my guitar, an angel.
With that the opening band finishes and Chris and Benny suddenly mobilize. The room becomes alive with the ebb and flow of the band leaving and Elliott coming on and I go off to melt into the audience and wait to see if this is going to be a good night for Elliott. It is.