You could definitely say Ann Arbor’s Ella Riot is quitting while it’s ahead. Evolving out of a college experimental-music trio started in 2005, the band has become a carefully self-marketed operation, even coining its own name for its brand of electro-pop: “DanceThink.” The group has attracted a good deal of attention nationwide lately; it has played Lollapalooza, SXSW, and 10,000 Lakes Festival while maintaining a busy international touring schedule. Hell, Ella Riot even had a song in a promo for Melrose Place. And now the band is calling it quits, announcing in September that it was going on “indefinite hiatus,” with touring to stop after Halloween.
The band has certainly come a long way since its early days. Fellow U Of M students Tyler Duncan, Theo Katzman, and Christian Carpenter formed the instrumental group Toolbox, which provided the springboard for an expanded lineup, more vocals, and a new name: My Dear Disco. With the addition of vocalist Michelle Chamuel, the group began to change directions again, shedding all its founding members except Duncan and adopting “Ella Riot” as its new moniker. The band is currently tearing into its final pre-hiatus gigs, including its last Ann Arbor show Friday at The Blind Pig. As the band’s tenure winds down, The A.V. Club rapped with Duncan, Ella Riot founding member, keyboardist, and bagpipe maestro, about the best moments in the band’s history and why the DanceThinkers decided to go their separate ways.
The A.V. Club: It seems like Ella Riot and My Dear Disco have survived a lot over the last few years, with lineup changes, stylistic changes, name changes, etc. What was it that finally drove you to call it quits?
Tyler Duncan: There was actually no specific change. It’s sort of that indecipherable moment when you’re sleeping, and there’s a point between when you wake up and when you actually sit up and get out of bed. And you just get out of bed. You decide at a certain point that you’re done lying and you’re going to start sitting. At some point, you just kind of sit up. That’s what you do. It’s hard to say exactly what it was. We’ve given like 110 percent, not to be cliché, but we’ve put a lot into this project that has kind of prevented us from doing other things with our lives. After five years, we’ve come to a point where it’s like we’ve got to do other things with our lives, figure out where we want to live, how we want to feed ourselves. You can’t live the way we’ve been living indefinitely. It kind of hit us simultaneously. Things have been going pretty well. All the things that you want to see in a band have been happening, and interest has been going. But we all feel like we need to spend time developing other aspects of our lives.
AVC: The band has generated quite a bit of buzz nationally over the past couple of years; you’ve played major festivals, toured extensively, and had some songs on TV. How do you feel about leaving behind that possibility to take the band to a bigger level?
TD: It’s tempting on one hand, but it’s not what we feel like we’re being called to do in our lives right now. We fully know what we’re risking, and it’s all right; it’s okay. It’s awesome that we got as far as we did. We never really had the perspective of looking back on what we’ve done and seeing how far we’ve come; it’s always been about how far we can go. But now we’ve gotten to a point where we can stop and look back at how far we’ve come, and it’s cool. I can look back on that and feel very proud and grateful for all the experience we’ve had.
AVC: What are some of your favorite band memories, or stories, from over the years?
TD: A highlight for me would be Lollapalooza last year. Just an incredible moment, to be surrounded by so many amazing artists and thinkers. Just aesthetically challenging and musically inspiring. Professionally, it was hugely educational. Lolla was a big highlight for me. The first time we got to be a part of the scene we’d been trying to be in, to be immersed in it for three days, it was a great time. We played in Alaska, and we were there for, I think, a week, and we had shows almost every day. They were actually day shows. So we had a lot of time to explore as a band, hiking and checking out the wilderness out there. Alaska is surreal, so it was a real experience to be out there playing, but also exploring. We were hired by the university as welcome week entertainers. We also just got off the Rombello Cruise. That was definitely a highlight. They have like 35 bands on a luxury cruise boat in the Gulf Of Mexico, and you can’t beat that.
AVC: What’s the best show you ever played?
TD: Oh, wow, I don’t know. Shit, it’s hard to say. I don’t know if I can say. We’ve had memorable experiences. We’ve had some shows where I think we were terrible and the crowd just goes crazy, and some where I think we do well and the crowd just doesn’t care at all. A lot of the recent shows have been good, because there’s some sense of history or nostalgia, so the emotion behind it is a little different. It’s bittersweet. There was a show at a bar in Atlanta where we had the whole crowd come onstage with us. There were like 30 people there.
AVC: What are you proudest of about the band?
TD: I think I’m proudest of the fact that we just went into it not knowing anything about it, not having contacts, not having anything. And we created a business and a band where we were able to tour from Alaksa to Texas to Cozumel to Maine. And we did it all ourselves. We ran the business ourselves. We were self-managed. We started a business on paper, and that business was the band, and we just threw ourselves into the shark-infested waters and managed to make it. We jumped into the industry, and it can be a pretty cold, harsh reality.
AVC: What projects are you planning post-Ella Riot?
TD: Michelle, the singer, and I have a new album out, and that will be continuing once things kind of wind down. That’s a project called S/he. I also have a project called Angry Man. A friend of ours just made a music video of one of our songs. Other than that, I’m really working on my own stuff. I’m talking to various musicians. I just did some mixing, mastering, and post-production on songs for [Brazilian Girls keyboardist] Didi Gutman. That’s so exciting for me to work with someone like him. I’m getting out there. I’m excited for a lot of different collaborations and new situations to challenge me.
AVC: Although the band is breaking up, the separation has repeatedly been called an “indefinite hiatus.” Will we see you together as a band again anytime soon?
TD: I think there will be moments when we come back together to play shows. That’s definitely not out of the question. It really is a hiatus. The question mark is not whether we’ll ever play as the group Ella Riot in our lives again. It’s whether we’ll make this our primary livelihood again. I’d be surprised if we didn’t ever play a show again.