biography - page 8

viii. "recollections ... half erased ..."

A complicating development at this time was Virgin's offer of a major contract to Heatmiser. After some discussion, Elliott went along with the others in the band (now with Sam Coomes in the role of bassist) to sign the contract, though he had misgivings about Virgin's demand that they be given first refusal for any future solo material he produced. The "Heatmiser house," in the Irvington neighborhood in Portland, was an interesting test for some of Elliott's ideas about expanding his understanding of the technical side of music recording. (Heatmiser member Tony Lash was a gifted engineer, who assisted in the mixing of Roman Candle.) The producers of what would prove to be Heatmiser's final effort, "Mic City Sons" (eventually issued in 1996 on the Caroline label) were Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock, with whom Elliott continued to work in the more complex circumstances of producing his first album with Dreamworks in 1998.

It was around this time (1995-96) that Elliott's relationship with musician Joanna Bolme began. Like so many other important individuals in Elliott's life, Joanna played bass, working at various times in such cutting-edge bands as Calamity Jane, Jr. High, and the Minders. She is also a talented engineer (she wrote an amusing essay about the Abbey Road sessions for Figure 8, in London in the Summer of 1998. At the end of their stint at Abbey Road studios, she was given a "supercute baby tee" as a souvenir, "which," she commented, "would look great if I didn't have shoulders like Greg Louganis.") The relationship went through a stormy period; it was in part because of breaking up with Joanna that Elliott decided to move to New York City in 1997. However, Joanna's importance in his life a year later is clearly and succinctly stated by Elliott in an unusually candid conversation he had with photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders in Interview magazine, during the Summer of 1998.

TGS: What's important to you right now?
ES: My girlfriend.

(In the video for Baby Britain, produced around the same time, Joanna's role in his life is stated visually by the way the editing and camera angles keep coming back to her at Elliott's side.)

At the same time that the Heatmiser album was being finished, Elliott was also slowly recording material for his second Kill Rock Stars LP, eventually to be titled Either/Or. He commented in a subsequent interview with Larry Crane:

"It was a really stressful time. Most of it was done at my house. Some stuff was done at Joanna's house on a four track, a couple of songs at Mary Lou Lord's house on her four track, some on 16 track in California ... all over the place."

About the experience of producing his own recordings, he explained: "It's hard to wear all the hats, but it just makes it more hard if you get bogged down in sweating the small stuff, which I did for months. I like it as long as I don't really get frustrated. I follow a few simple, provisional rules: don't while mixing keep the mix up for more than twenty minutes or thirty. Don't drive yourself too crazy with mic placement when all you're doing is an acoustic guitar track that's gonna be overlooked for the main melody of the song. When you're doing drums by yourself and you got three mics on them, you have to be extremely patient to play and then playing it back and seeing how it sounds. I just watch the lights. If there are too many red lights coming on the compressor, I make it so only three come on. I make sure some signal is getting to tape. If I had more patience, I'd be very concerned about tape levels." (Tape Op interview)

More generally on the period of work on this album, Elliott confessed: "I spent like a whole year with my head spinning around because I had a name for myself. I considered myself impenetrable to having any sort of notoriety turn my head around. What little notoriety that I've gotten, which is not even on the same scale with someone like Beck, bummed me out bad. It made it almost impossible to get Either/Or done. I recorded 30 songs for the album, and I couldn't pick out any that I liked. I thought they all sucked, because it was like a little germ of what other people see me as infected everything. It was extremely easy for me not to care what people thought about me when no one knew who I was." (Rocket interview, 4/9/97)

Despite his typically self-effacing tone here, and the intentional little lo-fi touches, Either/Or has a clean, glossy, almost sultry sound that's extraordinarily intimate and has the effect of being casual and spontaneous. In fact, close to a year of work went into the album's production. (In an interview he gave in Boston on March 1, 1996, Elliott speaks of beginning to record the new album once his current tour is done, so the first sessions must date from later that month. In a July 1996 interview he mentions having produced "a bunch of songs, all with a fatal flaw," for the new album, and needing to hunker down in the studio and figure out the final mix for the album. He played two of the tracks that wound up in the final sequence in Jem Cohen's October 1996 film, Lucky 3.)

The soundscape he wove from song to song on Either/Or provided his richest, darkest, most intricately devised web of textures, emotions, and flavors yet. In some ways, he has never surpassed the flawlessness with which he married his own vocals to the backdrop of chords, counterpoint melodies and percussion on this record. The record's production, the source of much agony and many long distracted nights for him, proved to be "sure as fate and hard as your luck," to quote the lyrics of the record's opening track, Speed Trials.

It's tempting to see a muted autobiographical reference in the protagonist of Alameda:

looking at the cracks in the sidewalk
thinking about your friends
how you maintain all them in a constant state of suspense
for your own protection over their affection
nobody broke your heart
you broke your own because you can't finish what you start
if you're alone it must be you that wants to be apart

Between the bars, which Gus van Sant used for the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, is one of his most poignant songs, one that has been interpreted as a love lyric sung by a whiskey bottle to the writer:

drink up one more time and I'll make you mine
keep you apart deep in my heart separate from the rest
where i like you the best
and keep the things you forgot
the people you've been before that you don't want around anymore
that push and shove and won't bend to your will
i'll keep them still

No Name no. 5, with its vivid image: "got a broken heart, and your name on my cast," was written and recorded in a form of open tuning he promptly forgot. At least, this is his frequently stated excuse for refusing to perform the song at concerts.

2:45 a.m. is a difficult song, one that contains some of his most powerful, harsh imagery. It paints the dark despair that attacks nearly every mortal under the moon in the wee hours, struggling into sleep like "a naive unsatisfiable baby," trying to ignore the widening cracks in that carefully crafted facade called life:

it's 2:45 in the morning
and i'm putting myself on warning
for waking up in an unknown place
with a recollection you've half erased
looking for somebody's arms to
wave away past harms
i'm walking out on center circle
the both of you can just fade to black

Cupid's trick etches a portrait in acid of "the stupid kick that makes me real," and contains the pitiful demand: "so, kick me, cane me, then I'll know why," leaving unspoken the likely conclusion for this nameless individual's existence that the only "why" is the next high.

The unexpected thing about Either/Or, like Elliott's other records, is how these bitter, even vitriolic images lurk within chords, melodies, and vocals that are often caressingly beautiful, warm, and englobed with a sense of inner light literally beyond words to describe. It is as if the music points the way to a redemption that the words-the rational mind-could never possibly grasp: a universe that is loving, forgiving, and endlessly compassionate.

One of the pivotal songs in Either/Or's line-up was Pictures of Me. Elliott explained that when he uses the word "picture" in a song lyric, he means a thought about a person, an event, or a thing. "The song is kind of about when you see someone doing fucked-up violent things. It's a drag because that person did that, and also, anything that somebody else can do reminds you that the potential to do that is in you, too. People are very similar. It's just that the flipside of everybody being equally human is, that everyone can be equally inhuman, too." Worth remembering these comments, given how frequently pictures, photographs, and other forms of image-making figure in his song lyrics.

Perhaps the most successful song in terms of sheer mass appeal was the work of an inspirational blitz. On the composition of "Say Yes," he said:

"It's an insanely optimistic song. I'd just broken up with my girlfriend. I'd never been able to stay with anyone before, and I couldn't handle it, but then I really wanted her back. I'd fucked everything up and I wrote that song while we were broken up, and it was kind of a fantasy. It took me about five minutes, music and words."

"Life pretty much dictates what's going to happen," was how he summed it all up that day. When the crowd roared their approval of "Say Yes" at a concert in New York City later that year, he commented with only half mocking irony, "You only like the cute ones."