Thursday night, Sleeping in the Aviary played a show at Bruar Falls. As I suspected from listening to their great new album, You and Me, Ghost, they are a very exciting live band. Coming out in matching red suits with black undershirts, red pants (or a red dress for keyboardist Celeste Heule), the band proceeded to rip through a dozen or so tunes. They had the perfect balance of being high-energy and very tight performers.
The songs get louder and faster live and were incredibly infectious. The set included 8 songs from the latest album: "Talking out of Turn," "Love Police," "You and Me, Ghost," "Someone Loves You," "So Lonely," "Karen, You're an Angel," "On the Way Home," and "Infatuation." They played older songs too, including "Sign My Cast," and the set-ending "Write On." The performance of the former found guitarist Kyle Sobczak and Celeste stepping into the crowd for a slow dance, while the remaining trio of singer/guitarist Elliot Kozel, drummer Michael Sienkowski and bassist Phil Mahlstadt played onstage.
I loved the activity of the band throughout. They were working up a sweat and playing hard. They jumped around, they knocked over mic stands, Elliot nearly lost glasses at multiple points, and no one held anything back. Many of the other acts throughout the night were self-professed "new" bands playing their earliest gigs, which only heightened the live prowess of Sleeping in the Aviary. If the band is going to be anywhere near you on their remaining tour (list here), I strongly encourage you to check them out. They are awesome live. Also, again, be sure to pick up their latest album too, available here (or on iTunes).
Before the show, I got to talk with Elliot and Michael. Here's the interview.
TWD: How's the tour going?
Elliot: It's ok. Some good shows, some bad shows.
Michael: We're like 2 weeks into it. We went down through Chicago and cut across, heading east. We've had some good shows and some pretty bad shows.
TWD: What's the difference, what makes it good or bad?
Elliot: No money and no people would be a bad show. People and money would be a good show. It's pretty easy to tell which ones are which. Oh, and fun. Fun, too, that factors into it.
Michael: There are definitely a lot of bad shows that we've still enjoyed playing, but obviously we prefer to be playing somewhere that's sold out.
TWD: I saw an interview you did recently where you were talking about how touring is kind of disheartening. I know that generally you are doing it because you love music and can't imagine doing anything else. When was it that you made that choice? What really solidified that for you?
Elliot: For me it didn't happen all at once. It just started where I was doing this and I wanted to keep doing it. It wasn't really like "I'm going to start touring now all the time." It's fun to travel, it's fun to meet people, and it's fun to play music every day.
Michael: When we put out our first album, what I think was exciting was our first tour. Just going out, we didn't know what we were doing or what to expect. I think once we did that we realized that was, at the time, the only effective way we had for people to find out about our music. So we decided to keep doing it and our label was insistent upon us touring if they were going to put out our album, essentially.
TWD: The new album, You and Me, Ghost, was intended to be all about girls, every song. That definitely comes through in listening to it. Was that an arbitrary decision or just stuff happening in your lives? What made that the specific goal?
Elliot: It was stuff that was happening. All the songs that came out of it, usually in most cases were about certain people. Specific girls. I broke up with my girlfriend, so that helps the old songwriting well fill up. But they look good and they're fun to hang out with, you know? It's hard not to be inspired.
TWD: Sure. It probably makes it easy to share something you've experienced. But at the same time, there must be an appeal as a writer or creative person to imagine things that you haven't experienced but that seem like interesting ideas. Does one approach attract you more?
Elliot: I think my songs are better when I write them from experience, but I've definitely written plenty that are totally made up and imaginative. They're both fun to do. I feel like with the personal stuff, people can relate to it better than some song about scuba diving or some bullshit like that. Everyone's gone through heartbreak so I feel like it's easier to relate to.
TWD: Absolutely. I've gone through that stuff, and when I listened to your music, there were things I connected to. Also, there were some details that struck me, whether or not I connected to them personally. For instance, I noticed the grocery store comes up a few different times. Have you ever picked up anybody in a grocery store or is that an interesting symbolic place to you?
Elliot: The first song ("Talking Out of Turn") where it mentions a grocery store is in direct reference to the girlfriend I have now. I was friends with her and she works at a grocery store. I went in there to give her a mixtape before I left town to play shows and I realized that I had pretty strong feelings for her at that moment when I saw her working at the checkout line. The other one ("Are You Afraid of Being Poor?") is about a girl that I was dating that ended up moving to LA to be an American Apparel girl and do all that kind of shit. I wrote about her before I actually started dating her, because I feel like that's one of the loneliest places in the world, going grocery shopping by yourself. You know what I mean? When you're going and getting food for just yourself and you're going to go home and make spaghetti and then just eat spaghetti alone. That's one of the saddest times of my life. So that's why I was thinking about that with her. The other reference to a grocery store ("Karen, You're an Angel") is made by (guitarist / vocalist) Kyle. You'd have to ask him more about that, but it's about the girlfriend he has now.
TWD: I see. Well, you know what they say about the produce section: it's very provocative. (Elliot laughs) Anyways, some of your other songs like the title track ("You and Me, Ghost"), and "Ain't So Bad" seem to me about being stuck or trying to convince yourself of the things you're saying to others. What do you find it is that gets you to really move on? Because it's easy to get into self-pity and it's easy to have those feelings of "I'm so lonely even with all my friends around," as the track "So Lonely" goes. What have you found has been good for getting out of that?
Elliot: Trying to pretend that you're in love with someone that you're not for as long as you can until it becomes real.
Michael: I would say keeping active. If you're just sitting around feeling sorry for yourself, it's gonna be hell. You have to use that negative energy and make something.
Elliot: Yeah, try to stay productive and stay busy. Being as busy as possible, you don't have time to sit and complain, that's the key factor. You gotta have good friends, too. You should talk to your friends about it, but not too much because they'll start getting annoyed as fuck. To a certain point, though, they'll take pity on you.
TWD: And I think everyone's been on both sides of that. Getting back to what we were talking about earlier, I feel like it's not hard to hear "Are You Afraid of Being Poor?" and think the lifestyle you have must be an impediment on some relationships becoming more serious. How do you decide between choosing music and choosing to be with somebody?
Elliot: Sure, that happens. It definitely affects all our relationships with others. Personally, I don't think I would be too happy if I wasn't playing music all the time. If I wasn't trying to do it, I would be worthless to someone else in that sense. I have to do this and it's either take it or leave it, that kind of deal. But hopefully after this tour we're going to be home for awhile, so we'll have time to be regular human beings.
TWD: One thing I like about your writing is that it's personal, as we've discussed, and it's detailed in such a way that's funny and clever and also thought-provoking. You're talking about things from a perspective maybe not everyone would have but they could still be like "Oh, yes, I see." "Infatuation" is a really interesting song to me for these reasons, and it also seems obvious that there's been some infatuation in your lives. Would you share a story about one of the crazier things you've done when you've been infatuated with somebody?
Elliot: The easiest example that comes to my mind is when I was after that American Apparel girl. I met her at a party and she wouldn't make out with me, so I became obsessed with her. I was like "Man, I'll show this girl!" I wrote a creepy note that said "Dear Lilly, I have a crush on you – Elliot." And then I went to American Apparel and I taped it on the door, I knocked, and then ran away. I forgot to put my phone number so I just waited for like a week. I eventually got her number and called her to ask her out. I set up this extravagant badminton date. I bought a badminton set, I set it up at the park, I brought a table with Hawaiian punch and Hawaiian music on a cassette player. I set all this shit up, I was really going for it. And then I found that, to be nice, we weren't that compatible.
TWD: She didn't like badminton?
Elliot: No, the date went fine. I let her beat me.
TWD: Oh, well that was your mistake (laughter).
Elliot: Yeah, I should've crushed her. That was one of the stupidest things I did.
Michael: There was a girl I was really infatuated with and I never saw her outside of work. I thought it was creepy to ask her out while she was working. So, I made up a fake questionnaire and printed it out with a fake name on it and I went to her with a clipboard and pencil and asked her if she had time to fill out this form for me. The first question was "Do you think it's creepy to ask someone out while they're working?" And then "Do you have a good sense of humor, yes or no?", "Are you single?", "Are you heterosexual." I almost lost my nerve but I went ahead with it.
TWD: I don't know if I would have put those questions in that order… (Elliot laughs)
Michael: Anyways, she was very flattered, but she was spoken for. I thought it was audacious though.
Elliot: That was a good move.
TWD: That's innovative, I like it.
Elliot: Don't steal any of our hot Sleeping in the Aviary dating tips, man! Well, no, you can use them. Go ahead and try them out. See if they work.
Michael: We get 10% back.
Elliot: Yeah, send us a picture.
TWD: If it works, I'll let you know. I'm always looking for an edge.
Elliot: Just so you know, the badminton one works. The questionnaire doesn't.
Elliot: But she was dating someone, so that's not fair. It could have worked.
TWD: The last track "Pathetic House Wife Remembering Her First Martini," I'm not sure if it's sung from the female perspective or not because there's the title yet it's from a male voice, but what I was most curious about is, in the situation of being really unhappy in a relationship, who are you saying is pathetic?
Elliot: Well, the title is related but I can't say exactly how. It came from a long list of song titles my friend and I made up one day. I took it and wrote a song I thought fit that title. I don't really know how they're related but they are.
TWD: My follow-up question then is why do you think it's so hard to change something when you are unhappy?
Elliot: It's usually about fear of change, I think. Life is much easier if you don't try to change things, if you just go along with whatever is happening. People don't like to rock the boat too much because then you don't know what's going to happen. You stay with somebody even if you're not in love with them because you're afraid of being alone. It's seems a lot of fear, fear of loneliness, for myself. (To Michael) You got anything?
Michael: No comment, no comment.
Elliot: These are good questions. Nobody asks us these kinds of questions.
TWD: Thanks. In regard to breakups – I don't want to go quite to the influences thing – but what is some of your favorite, go-to break-up, heartbreak music? Some of the music that really speaks to you when you're in those kinds of situations?
Elliot: The Beach Boys Pet Sounds has been helpful, I listened to that a lot. I listened to a lot of Spirtualized, that helps. Right after the breakup, I listened to almost only Hawaiian music.
TWD: A specific artist or in general?
Elliot: Just cheesy Hawaiian records from the 60s. That's pretty much all I listened to and that helped a lot. I felt like I was on vacation.
Michael: For some reason I listen to Louis Armstrong's greatest hits.
TWD: For those that aren't too familiar your band or you as people, could you pick some sort of pop cultural group to tell me which of your members equals which of the pop culture thing. Like if you guys were X-Men or something.
Michael: Oh my god.
Elliot: How about Sesame Street? That might work.
Michael: I'm probably Oscar the Grouch.
(About this time, Phil the bassist walks by)
Elliot: Which one's the drunk one on Sesame Street? That would be Phil.
Michael: I would say Phil would be…
Phil: The cutest.
Michael: What, Elmo? Or no, I would say that you guys would be Bert and Ernie together maybe.
Elliot: I'm Bert and he's Ernie?
Michael: Yeah. Pork Chop is probably Big Bird.
Elliot: That's true.
Michael: Celeste is…
TWD: Pork Chop?
Michael: Oh, Kyle.
Elliot: That's our other guitar player.
TWD: Ok, so to recap…
Michael: Celeste is our keyboard player and she'd be Snuffleupagus. Kyle, who we affectionately call Pork Chop, is Big Bird.
Elliot: And I'm Bert because I have a unibrow (laughter) and Phil is Ernie.
Michael: And I'm Oscar.
TWD: Ok, that's pretty good.
Elliot: Man, someone should be Gordon.
TWD: Gordon! The human.
Michael: Gordon was the coolest.
Elliot: Yeah. That was our old drummer.
TWD: Speaking of children's entertainment, I read that you have a project called Googly Man. Can you tell me more about that?
Elliot. Yeah. It's children's music. I superglued like a thousand googly eyes to an outfit that I made and I have a goofy hat. I decorate my keyboard and I bring a bubble machine to day care centers and sing a bunch of songs I made up.
TWD: That's cool. Do you enjoy that? It sounds pretty fun.
Elliot: Yeah, it's fun. It's just really early in the morning.
Michael: Tell him about our CD release show.
Elliot: After our album release in Minneapolis, I had to get up and play an hour's worth of shows out in the suburbs, so I had to wake up at 8 o'clock after partying all night. I briefly considered doing a bunch of cocaine and just staying up, (laughs) but obviously that's a horrible idea, so I didn't. Got some rest, went in and did the show and they loved it.
TWD: Have you ever found that the experience of writing for children has influenced writing for the band and vice versa?
Elliot: Oh yeah, definitely. We play one of the kid's songs quite a bit. It's about we dinosaurs. We play it live, just for fun. And yeah, songwriting is songwriting. Just subject matter changes.
TWD: You have a favorite dinosaur?
Michael: I would say the archaeopteryx.
TWD: Which one is that?
Michael: It's feathered. You know, transition.
Elliot: Dinosaurs are cool. Too bad they didn't exist (laughter). Their bones were just put here.
Michael: God put it here to trick us, to test us. That feisty Yahweh!
TWD: Ok, you got one dollar…
Elliot: How did you know? (Laughter).
Michael: I was going to make that same joke.
TWD: Sorry, shouldn't have paused so long. You have one dollar to play four songs on the jukebox. What are you playing?
Elliot: What's on the jukebox? What are our choices?
Michael: And where are we? Cause if we're at Waffle House… (laughs)
Elliot: …I know exactly what we're going to play: Waffle House theme songs. Have you ever listened to those at Waffle House?
TWD: No. I haven't been to one, actually.
Elliot: You should go to one and check out the juke box. They've got these old Waffle House commercials that they made. They're songs, full songs, about how awesome Waffle House is.
TWD: That's the only thing in the juke box?
Elliot: No, they've got other regular songs too, but those are the ones we put on. It'll be like a disco song just about waffles.
Michael: Or like a really heavy country western song from the late 50s.
Elliot: "Butter on my pancake," something like that.
TWD: I've heard of worse song ideas. And worse songs.
Elliot: Yeah dude.
Michael: I think those songs are pretty good.
Elliot: They were pretty catchy.
TWD: It's making me hungry. I mean, who doesn't love waffles?
Elliot: Nobody I know.
TWD: Nobody worth knowing!
Elliot: That's our answer: we would take that dollar and go straight to Waffle House.
TWD: Any recommendations of a good album, film, book, tv show? Anything that comes to mind that you think is worth checking out or your favorites.
Elliot: There's a band called Roar from Phoenix that's pretty awesome. That's a good band to check out, they're awesome. They only have like one EP, but it's really good. We played with them. Let's see, Austin Powers 3…is not very good.
Michael: Neither is Eight Crazy Nights, an Adam Sandler film about Hanukkah. Do not watch it. We got through like 20 minutes.
Elliot: These are dis-recommendations.
TWD: That's useful too. What about cities and public spaces? That's something I'm interested in.
Elliot: We had a cool time in Detroit. There's a place called the Heidelberg Project, where it's like a full city block of abandoned houses that's been turned into art. For example, one house just has hundreds of stuffed animals nailed to it; the entire outside is covered in stuffed animals. There's a huge boat out in the grass filled with stuffed animals and painted shoes.
TWD: That's interesting.
Elliot: That's definitely worth checking out. We went to an abandoned zoo.
Michael: Yeah, where was that, Belle Isle?
Elliot: Yeah. It was a zoo abandoned in the 80s. We snuck in there and hung out in the tiger cages with the ghost tigers.
TWD: That would be an interesting place to play a show, I would imagine.
Elliot: In Detroit, you could probably get away with it.
Michael: You'd have to bring your own power.