Ellen Kempner of Palehound
debut EP, Bent Nail
, was released just after the young band’s successful stint at CMJ 2013
. It’s a tightly packed effort, full of winding lyrics and delicate instrumentals that’ll probably leave you with some existentialist feelings. The band—Ellen Kempner, Max Kupperberg, Thom Lombardi and Ben Scherer—is still working out its niche in this twisted, wild thing we call the music industry, but it seems like they’re off to a good start—as long as they have time to study for midterms. I called up Kempner this week to talk about writing the EP, where her wacky lyrics come from, and Skittles vs. Sour Patch Kids.
So you recorded the Bent Nail EP your freshman year of college. Did you find it difficult to balance school life and music life?
At the time that we were recording it, I didn’t actually. But this year has been definitely a challenge for managing school and everything with the music, because we’re playing at least once or twice a week and it’s a pretty constantly demanding my attention. But it’s looking like I might take next semester off, just to kind of figure out how things are gonna go from here.
So what inspired you to write the EP when you did?
Well, I wrote it my first semester of my freshman year of college and it was just kind of, being in a totally new environment with a bunch of new people and having this new set of expectations. Not living at home and not being in high school anymore, and that was really kind of motivating, but also terrifying, and that was the combination that led to me writing a lot to cope with the transition.
You’ve been playing music since you were pretty young, right?
Yeah, my dad actually has always played. He was a really, really good drummer in college and then started playing guitar and writing songs. I always hate this answer cause I feel like Miley Cyrus, but it’s true.
Probably not exactly the same.
But yeah, I just grew up listening to him, and having him play me music that I really liked and I just started playing guitar because I thought it was cool. He was giving me lessons at home so that was pretty easy, because when I’d be bored I would be like, “Why not just have a guitar lesson?”
So your dad taught you how to play?
At first, yeah. And then I started taking lessons. I started when I was like seven and he was teaching me then, and then I started taking lessons from a local music store. Then started writing songs when I was about ten.
And since then you’ve been in a couple of different bands?
Well I mean I‘ve only been in one band before this one, and that was Cheerleader
when I was in high school. It was just composed of me and our current drummer actually, Max Kupperberg. It was just the two of us at the time, so that’s the only other band I’ve been in. But after that I kinda was doing the solo Kempner stuff, and then Palehound came together last year.
I saw the music video that you filmed in CVS for your solo song Hey Mr. Where did that idea come from?
Yeah that was a solo thing just kinda for fun. Our friend Elliott did that. Elliott was kind of our manager/best friend who we really liked just being around, so I guess one day we were like, “We might as well go to CVS and make a video.” It would just be kind of an experiment rather than trying to get anything out of it.
Did anyone who worked there say anything to you?
Yeah they told us to delete the video, so we made a quick, short thing to look like the real one, and deleted that one instead.
So you had like a decoy that you gave them?
Pretty slick. So how would you say that Palehound differs from Cheerleader or your solo work?
That’s an interesting question. I guess I’m kind of a different person now in a lot of ways, so my writing has taken a different turn just because, like I said, the music from Palehound definitely comes from a transitional period, so it’s just a different style of songwriting. But also, I guess with Cheerleader, Max and I collaborated on how we wanted everything to sound, and it was a poppier, more upbeat, raw thing just because we were angsty teenagers that needed to just let that out. I’m in a more content place in my life now I guess, so the Palehound music is coming more naturally and less aggressively.
You say you just played your EP release show last week. How did that go?
It was really great. It was like a dream bill to be playing with all those other bands, Krill
and Bad History Month and Celestial Shore
. It was just really fun, we had a pretty good turn out, everyone was very supportive and seemed to be having a good time. And Death By Audio is a really fucking cool venue. I’d never been there before.
Let’s say you could create a dream tour line-up, who would you tour with?
Oh man! I need to think about that. I’m trying to think of who I can tour with, and who can also give me a guitar lessons. Someone I could learn from.
That’s very practical.
But that would also be fun. I guess, some of my all time favorites are the Breeders,
and they’re still playing. I saw them recently and they’re amazing and seem like really awesome people, so that would be ideal. I guess St. Vincent’s
Annie Clark just because she’s a fantastic guitar player and I could just like, pick her brain. There are plenty of others I’m sure, but I can’t think of them right now. I could go off on a tangent and I’m sure you don’t really wanna hear that.
On the Bent Nail EP you have some really interesting lyrics, like on Pet Carrot. Where did those lyrics come from? Did you actually have a pet carrot?
I did not actually have a pet carrot. This is a difficult song to explain, mainly because I don’t really remember writing that song so much. I mean, I remember writing it, but it was not really one that I was expecting to ever really use. I write very often, but don’t use everything, obviously. But I ended up playing it on campus and people responded to it way better than I thought they would. It was just a songwriting exercise where I was playing with lyrics that weren’t exactly entirely revealing, but it was basically I guess about a friend of mine who was hovering a little bit, but we had a bit of a falling out. But I mean you really can’t pick up all that from the lyrics.
It’s very subtle. Were there any set goals you had with the EP before you started writing? Was there something specific you wanted to do?
Not at all, actually. It was pretty organic. At the beginning of my freshman year of college I did not see myself having a quote, unquote “music career” at all. It was just something I always enjoyed doing, writing and producing music. So it really just came from that. I had these mixed songs that it would be really fun to record, so then I just recorded them with Julian Fader and Carlos Hernandez, both friends of mine and it just went from there.
Where did you record the EP?
Gravesend Recordings. It’s in Silent Barn in Brooklyn. It was super fun! Just one of the best, most creative musical experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve always been a really big fan of their band, Ava Luna
so working with them and working on the EP together and making a lot of the decisions was an awesome educational process for me.
Do you have anything planned for 2014?
We actually just finished recording four songs and we’re going to be releasing a couple 7-inches, but also we’re planning on going down to SXSW. We’re planning on using the next few months to play a bunch of shows, release these 7-inches and just see what happens.
I have one more question. What would you put on your tour rider if you had one? It’s a list of things you want on your tour bus, like “All red Skittles.”
Oh man. Well, I feel like I should mention candy. Sour Patch Kids are pretty awesome, that would be pretty sweet.
Well, sour and sweet. Kinda like life.
They’re a metaphor for the human experience.
And that’s why I want them on my tour rider.