Interview with Nate Eiesland of the Scattered Trees
An Interview with Nate Eiesland of Scattered Trees
Music illuminates emotions that people are already feeling…we listen to records to not feel alone. Music recognizes things in people. These are the words of singer/songwriter Nate Eiesland. You won’t find them in any of his songs. Rather, they are Eiesland’s personal expound on the statement, ‘music is.’ The Windy City native has been a breathing testament to this ethos since 2003, illuminating his chapters through a series of recordings, under the artistic guises “Hollohills” and more recently, five-piece alternative troupe Scattered Trees. The band’s sophomore release Sympahty, due out April 5, succeeds Eiesland’s most trialing of times, helmed by the death of his father. Drawing strength from his wife and bandmate Alissa, Eiesland turned late-night reflections into a powerful album of love, loss and rebirth. Sympathy is an enlightening tragedy; the type that, at its darkest moments, reminds you of the bright, fulfilling light that once overpowered it and can once again, triumph in a peeking dawn. The man with the undefeatable heart took a moment to vivify my musical perspectives with an intriguing discussion of his father, an upcoming South by Southwest performance and Starbucks Coffee’s unlikely role as indie music saviors. (Okay, maybe not that unlikely, but I guarantee you didn’t know they were this cool until now.)
What different methods did you use in producing Sympathy as opposed to Songs for my Grandfather, the Scattered Trees debut?
I’m pretty autobiographical when I write; the first record was written when Alissa and I were really in love. We grew up together and I’ve been in love with her since I was a kid. I think I was probably 20, 19-years-old when I wrote those songs. [Sympathy] was more like therapy for me. It was within five months that my Dad had passed away; things you can’t fully grasp until you’ve gone through that significant loss. Again, it’s this autobiographical snapshot of what I was thinking.
Do you hear your father living through these songs?
It’s interesting; some of those songs were written as hypothetical conversations and things that I think he would say about what I learned from him passing away. In a way, that is him living on. He believed in me so much; in whatever I wanted to do. With this record, I just had to prove him right; that was my one goal. Not to be a success or whatever, it had nothing to do with anything but making this art. The experience kind of dissolved down to this concept of ‘do you really turn into a story when you die?’ When you leave, you are the story; immediate people to you tell that story to their kids. Alissa and I, our kids will never know my Dad. We’ll tell them stories, that they will have this sense of knowing, but in reality they’re probably not going to tell their kids about my Dad. There is this second, more permanent death, when people stop being told, stop getting to know you because of the things that you stood for. This record is an attempt for me to be able to tell my father’s story and make him ‘forever’ in a way. If I can make something of value that people can pour themselves into, it has the possibility to hopefully never end. It’s the one thing that I could think of to do to honor his memory.
You have a deep history with your wife Alissa, including her presence in the band. What does your relationship add to the band as a whole?
On a practical side, she’s just awesome, so that helps the band. (laughs) When you perform these songs on stage, songs from your record, it’s a whole new piece of art that you’re actively recreating in front of people. You have to leave blood on the stage emotionally and be sincere so that people can connect with the art. Alissa has this monopoly on my heart and emotions; her being there gives me more to lay on the line.
You two are like a regular John and June Carter Cash.
I don’t know if I’d put us up to names like that. Sure, she’s an incredible singer and musician; her intuition musically is such a cool compliment to mine. I don’t mean to sound rosy, she’s just really that important to me musically.
In 2003 you moved from Minnesota to Illinois and pledged to write a song a month. What prompted such a bold beginning in your quest to become a musician?
The songs I was writing when I was 21 or 22, they weren’t that good and that’s okay. It took all those songs to get down to my own voice and confidence as a songwriter. I came to a point where I wanted to write less, but write better songs, so I put that stipulation, an exercise, on myself.
In your songs, I notice you have a soft spot for the build-ups; those U-2ish moments when the hair stands up on the back of your neck; it’s like Bono and Chris Martin having a baby.
Oh, absolutely man. Its not necessarily just what I like to do, but I think part of that I owe to being raised up in church. That’s what that music was for. The stuff I was playing when I was a teenager in church was all from the emotional chaos. I think it’s from things like frustration and loss; people relate to that yearning for it to not be that way. It builds up and it sucks; so it’s an honest reflection of how people operate emotionally. The build up, release and recovery. I don’t look at it as a tool in my writing “tool belt” at all, but there is a natural tendency towards writing songs like that.
Your song “Sparrow” was included on Off the Clock Vol. 1, a Starbucks Entertainment sampler featuring selected music composed solely by employees. How did that process unfold?
I was working at Starbucks at the time; my manager knew I was a writer. I’m not really one for contests, so I was a little hesitant. He sort of forced me to submit a couple songs and “Sparrow” was chosen. I completely forgot, because they didn’t announce until months later. I was called in my manager’s office and told the district manager wanted to speak to me. I thought I was being fired. (laughs) They told me they loved the track and I was really flattered. To have people you’ve never met hear you song and believe in you, it’s great.
What a brilliant move on Starbucks’ part, to sieve talent from their own family! Do you now see new potentials for this friendly middle ground, between these corporate empires and their indie cogs?
It was a really good move. It was kind of the brainchild of a few people; more power to them for hiring people who think that way. Creative people do good things. It was a win-win for them, they sold a lot of CD’s and it was cool for us to hear from people abroad who heard our music. Props to Starbucks for doing that.
Your band has been a mainstay at Schuba’s in Chicago. What is special about maintaining that devout loyalty to a particular venue or stage?
It’s so important. Schuba’s in particular, is a really special place for us. They, more than a lot of places that we play, put such a high value on the performer. The sound there is really great, the sound guys are friendly and super knowledgeable and capable. There’s a ton of venues to play and you really remember the ones that feel really good from every angle. We’ve definitely played our fair share of dives and places that treat you like shit, but you really learn to appreciate those venues that stand out.
Scattered Trees are playing a show at the Ghost Room as part of South by Southwest’s 2011 showcase. How did that feel, knowing you would be a part of one of the biggest displays of emerging musical talent this spring?
Incredible. I think you’ve caught us in a part of our career when it’s the pulling back of the slingshot. I don’t mean that in a ‘success’ or in people knowing us, but things just actually happening. The work we’ve put in in the last six or seven years actually starting to pay off. The only thing I’m concerned about is putting on a great show. At a festival like SXSW, at a venue like the Ghost Room, it’s just an incredible opportunity that we’re so grateful for.
Thanks Nate. Looking forward to the album release.
Interview conducted by Patrick Gipson for Blank Newspaper, Knoxville, Tennessee.