The Chicago band on making West Coast music in the Midwest
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In the year Gold Motel has existed, they’ve toured the U.S. at length and released a really great record of Cali-pop ditties, Summer House. What’s not obvious from those sunshine-soaked melodies, though, is that Gold Motel is from the Third Coast, not the West Coast. Made up of members of The Hush Sound, This Is Me Smiling, and The Yearbooks, the band is Chicago through and through. The A.V. Club caught up with band members Greta Morgan and Eric Hehr before the group’s appearance at Popsickle 2010 on Saturday to talk about making it in the Midwest, their coastal influences, and how they were almost called Fart Bucket.
The A.V. Club: Greta, the big story behind this record is that you wrote a lot of it in L.A., when you were living out there. What made you decide to go west?
Greta Morgan: I left Chicago just because I’d been in [The Hush Sound] for four or five years, and we were breaking up. It was a bad, emotionally tumultuous breakup. I had some really close friends living in L.A., and I thought I would just move out there and try to figure out the next step. It was good. I was working on new songs. I’d go see shows four or five nights a week. I studied with a few awesome teachers. I just started developing this idea of what the new band could sound like, and that’s when I came back to Chicago.
AVC: And what happened when you came back?
GM: I’d really wanted to work with the dudes from This Is Me Smiling for a long time. They’d opened for The Hush Sound on our national tour in 2006, and Eric [Hehr] was in The Yearbooks, this other Chicago band I really liked. The dudes were all my dream bandmates from the beginning. Anyway, I came back to Chicago to demo “Perfect In My Mind” and “Make Me Stay” with Dan [Duszynski], and it went really well, so I decided to finish the material with Dan. Then he just kept bringing in other guys, and it all just kind of worked.
AVC: You guys are definitely making it. You’ve grown pretty exponentially.
GM: We were really fortunate that literally a week after our first show, Butch Walker asked us to open his Chicago residency at Schubas. He’s an amazing songwriter and producer. My expectations are just so high for the band. I mean, I’m coming out of a band that was playing big tours with OneRepublic, OK Go, Phantom Planet, Fall Out Boy, whoever. Now, with Gold Motel, we’re getting really lucky and playing with other awesome people like Kate Nash. We’ve been headlining a lot of college weekend shows and small tours, but hopefully in 2011 we’ll get on tours with people we love musically, and respect.
AVC: You mention Phantom Planet, and in other interviews you talk a lot about being fans of Cali-pop like that. What draws you to that kind of stuff?
Eric Hehr: When Greta and Dan were working on Summer House, the vision was straightforward pop music. Greta was living in California, and she was exposed to that lifestyle and music scene and just brought it back to Chicago. All of the rest of us guys played in pop bands growing up, and it’s ingrained within all of us, that sensibility, the hooks and melodies, making sure we don’t exceed certain time limits. We all listen to offshoots of pop music for the most part, too, like power pop, or pop punk. I was just listening to the Sound Opinions podcast on Best Coast, and they’re doing a really great job with their modern take on that West Coast sound, and taking it national.
AVC: Do you mind the comparisons to other bands? Or to lady-fronted pop bands like She And Him?
EH: All these comparisons we get—Rilo Kiley, She And Him, Nancy Sinatra—they’re never anything that we haven’t thought that we sound like. I can always hear them. They’re all true. We’re not trying to emulate those artists, though.
AVC: Eric, you wrote “Safe In L.A.” in Chicago during the winter, right? How do you think winter affects your songwriting?
EH: That’s the story behind that song, yeah. At the time, Greta was in California. My cousin Eddie O’Keefe—who directed our videos—was out there, too. I was going to Columbia College for film at the time and playing in The Yearbooks, and I was at this crossroads where I didn’t know if I should do music and bands in Chicago, or go to L.A. and work on that film degree. I think deep down inside, I knew it was music, but I’d been in bands that did well for years—the first time I played downtown, I was 15—and I just felt like I was at a standstill and stuck in Chicago. I had all these friends pursuing what they loved and were passionate about, and they were doing it in L.A. That song’s a bittersweet look at what I was going through at that point in time.
GM: You know, people talk a lot about how Summer House is about California, but more of the record was done in the winter here in Chicago than in the summer in California. I mean, we finished recording in the dead of winter in the suburbs of Chicago. We were working on the title track, and our bassist said, “Are we really going to call this Summer House? It looks more like a Winter Lodge.” If you looked out the window of the house, it was all gray skies, snow covering the ground, whatever—and that’s the atmosphere the record was made under.
AVC: What are some of the West Coast-style pop records that you guys really admire or that have influenced you?
GM: One album Eric always references is So Much For The City by The Thrills. They’re from Ireland, but it’s a total love album to California.
EH: It’s a great album. They’re all from Ireland, but they grew up listening to West Coast pop the same way we did. It’s an outsider’s take on it, and they’re emulating bands from yesteryear.
GM: I love Phantom Planet. The Hush Sound shared a tour bus with them for three months, and we played 84 shows together. They’re great melodically, and great live. I also really like Jenny Lewis in all of her reincarnations.
EH: When we did this last West Coast tour, I went to the library and got this gigantic The Mamas And The Papas box set. That’s a great example, to me, of L.A. in the ’60s. For us, that band is really good to listen to, too, because there are both male and female vocals, like us. I like that band Love a lot. They’re one of the most underrated bands of the ’60s, in my mind. People don’t talk about them as much as they should, and they’re a great example of what was happening on the West Coast then. They were spearheading the pop scene!
GM: The Beach Boys are a given too.
AVC: Is it true that you picked your band name by drawing words out of a hat? Do you think you’ll ever regret that?
GM: I was with a bunch of friends doing demos in Santa Fe, N.M., and we were just pulling adjectives, nouns, verbs, whatever. Gold Motel was the first one that sounded good and didn’t have a disgusting amount of potty humor in it.
AVC: What was one that did?
GM: The one I always remember is “Fart Bucket.” You know, Eric and I talk about this a lot, like how a band name eventually disappears. Like, when you think of The White Stripes, you think of their collective sound, look, artwork—and not their name. Gold Motel is a good name for a lot of reasons, I think, and hopefully eventually it will disappear, and people will just think about us as a band. I mean, when you say The Beatles, people don’t think about beetles.