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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Jonathan Caws-Elwitt (of The Silly Pillows) Interview

I got to interview Jonathan Caws-Elwitt who used to have the band The Silly Pillows that I have been so in love with for the last couple years.

The Silly Pillows were a band from 1986 to 2000. At first it was just Jonathan making homemade recordings and eventually turned into a larger band. You can read all about them at http://home.epix.net/~hce/sillypillows.html There you will find almost everything about The Silly Pillows and hear Jonathan's new songs that he has been recording.

And here is the interview.

Birdy: Hello, thank you for agreeing to do this interview

Jonathan: My pleasure! It's fun.

Birdy: How often are you writing and recording stuff now? I read something online in which it said you were a bit burned out from making music and stuff after the Silly Pillows broke up, so it's definitely nice that you are getting back into it.

Jonathan: Thanks! Writing/recording music is certainly not a constant focus these days, but it's back in the picture. For so many years the music was a huge part of my identity, and then when the band came to an end and I was burned out I realized it was time for me to steer my identity away from that, at least for a while. Eventually my interest and motivation for doing music returned -- on a smaller scale -- and I cautiously integrated it back into my world. Most recently I did the 6-song project this winter, and that felt like enough for a little while, butI'm guessing I'll probably come to back to music later this year. I have some song ideas stored up, and at a certain point, when the time and inspiration come together (right now, over me, here come old flattop . . .), I'll develop those ideas further and get in gear for another set of recordings. All of this assumes that I'm just doing it at my own pace for my own website. If a label entered the picture, then I might do stuff sooner/faster to keep to their schedule.

Birdy: What groups are you really liking these days?

Jonathan: Loch Ness Mouse, Marykate O'Neil, Nicola Conte.

Birdy: Are you planning on playing any shows in the future perhaps? The Silly Pillows never got to really tour, was it because of jobs and stuff? And would you be interested in doing like an extensive tour around the country sometime?

Jonathan: It's true that the Silly Pillows would not have been available for any extensive touring because of our various jobs and family commitments. But, to be perfectly honest, no one ever asked us to tour! The offers we got were almost always just one-off gigs in the northeastern U.S., and we were lucky in that we hardly ever had to turn one down.

In theory I think that I, personally, might enjoy a little bit of the touring experience (I'm talking like 2 weeks, not 6 months!), if the circumstances were just right. By "just right" I mean that Hilary (Jonathan's wife and for a time a Silly Pillows member) and I would definitely have to be travelling together, and ideally we'd be more or less getting enough sleep and eating balanced meals and sleeping in a bed . . . . We're in our forties, and our bodies can't take all-nighters and junk food and sleeping on floors! So, in the idealized world, a short tour now and then sounds like the kind of thing that could be fun -- we like to travel, and it would be neat to combine that with the thrill and ego gratification I get from gigging. But of course in the real world it might not work out so perfectly. But since right now I don't have a live act and no one's asking me to play, it's all just hypothetical, so we might as well imagine the ideal mini-tour, since the whole thing's just in our minds anyway.

So let's see . . . the ideal mini-tour: San Francisco, Miami Beach, Montreal, Amsterdam, and Providence (we have friends near Providence). Travel between these destinations would be free and instantaneous in the ideal mini-tour, of course.

It's kind of funny in retrospect that the specific reason why I turned the band into a live-ready ensemble in 1996 was that I'd been told it was likely we'd get invited to play in Japan. Everyone who was part of, or became part of, the band at that point agreed that we'd make ourselves available to go over there for the 10 days or whatever when the offer came. Well, it never actually came . . . but in the mean time we'd been rehearsing this live set, and so we decided that as long as we had an act, we'd start playing in New York when we could. So the live Silly Pillows were Japan's gift to New York City. Sort of like the Statue of Liberty from France, only louder.

I loved performing live -- I'm a natural extrovert, and though artistically I care a lot more about laying music down for keeps in the controlled setting of a studio, I always had a blast in front of an audience. And so this semi-accidental evolution of our studio band into a studio-and-live band was one of the best things that ever happened to me. As for the future: though I don't have a band, what I could do at some point is re-mix some of my recent material "karaoke style" and sing live over my backing tracks. Sounds very uncool, huh? Well, hey, I'm middle-aged now so I'm supposed to be uncool, right? Seriously, it's not the kind of thing I could get away with at a club, but I might try to do that at one of the local community theaters or something -- you know, in more of a "variety show" setting. Very cabaret, and I'd wear my new blue fedora with the red feather. Like I said, I love being on stage, and though I've acted in a lot of plays these past few years, I definitely miss doing the live pop music thing.

Birdy: I do not think it's uncool to have pre-recorded tracks to sing along to. Many bands are more into using parts that are pre-recorded and use laptops for that sort of thing. I've had the same idea that when I actually get around to start writing songs, and that I ever play in front of people almost all of it would be pre-recorded since it would most likely just be me. And it would just be really fun to do it that way, I've even thought of maybe having like stuffed animals or manneguins up on stage, as a joke as if they are part of the music making, with me. And the way you describe it, makes it sound even more fun. I think the only people who would have a problem with it are probably the same kind of people who think drum-machines are inferior or not as "real" as having a drummer or something.

Jonathan: I would love to see that!!

Birdy: What kind of job do you have these days, if it's okay for me to ask? and would it be easy for you to take time off to tour and stuff and for Hilary to come too? I'm hoping you could because it would be great if you could play somewhere close to me.

Jonathan: Thanks! Hilary is a public librarian, and I've worked for many years at a college textbook store. We both have what you'd call "management-level" positions, so it's not the kind of situation where one can just pick up and leave for a few months at a time, as a serious touring musician would have to do. But we do get a few weeks' vacation every year, and so the "ideal mini-tour" we spoke about could theoretically be accommodated, depending on the time of year. (And of course the Ideal Mini-Tour would always occur at the ideal time!)

Birdy: Are you planning on releasing any of your newer recorded stuff on cd?

Jonathan: If there's label interest, I'd love to release it. Otherwise/meanwhile, I'm always happy to make someone a CD-R if he/she prefers that to the downloads. My policy is just send me a check/money order for the estimated cost of a blank CD plus postage (or else mail me a blank CD and an SASE).

Birdy: Do you still see the other members of the Silly Pillows around?

Jonathan: Whenever possible! Some of them live nearer than others, but every one of them is my friend, and most of them are my close friends. One of them (in addition to Hilary) is even a relative. (:v> I rely on email a lot to keep the friendships active.

Birdy: Why can't you convince Hilary to keep singing? You really should because her singing is so nice.

Jonathan: Hey, Hilary loves all the positive feedback she continues to get regarding those old recordings, and of course I'm always very pleased too to see her vocals appreciated. But she really didn't enjoy being a singer, and I certainly wouldn't dream of trying to convince her to do something she's not happy doing. When I first invited her to sing on my recordings, she looked on it as an interesting challenge, and for about 7 years of fairly prolific home recording she kept at it -- she stayed motivated that long, I never pushed her -- but when she came to the realization that it just wasn't a rewarding endeavor for her, we both realized that she should stop doing it.

Birdy: Was it weird that The Silly Pillows were big in Japan?

Jonathan: I can't pretend to any expertise regarding trends there. It's like it's a whole different country or something!! We'd really have to ask a Japanese pop-culture maven, I guess, if our (relative) popularity there was strangest of the strange or just typical of their enthusiasm for twee-pop and "cute".

Birdy: How are things different now that you are making songs and recording them on your own as opposed to with a band? Is it like how when you first started out with making home-made tapes and trading them with people?

Jonathan: Artistically, it's a lot like when I started -- I'm limited by the technology and my own skill level on the various instruments, rather than by the process of compromise and the omnipresent time constraints that characterized the band/studio version. So it's all tradeoffs, isn't it? But to put it more positively: working with those other people vastly enriched what I was doing, while working alone gives a purer expression of my musical personality.

Hopefully I know what I'm doing a little more than I did in 1986, and maybe I can sing a little better and play a little better (or at least know my limitations as a singer and musician better) . . . but, on the other hand, I can't claim as much of that fresh, youthful, open-horizons, out-of-left-field attitude which is so much of what the charm of pop music is often about. And my friend Geoff, who turned me on to punk rock 25 years ago, might say that knowing whatyou're doing is a liability, not an advantage, in making underground music. As for songwriting -- the big advantage of when you're starting out is that you haven't already written all your best hooks!(But later in life, maybe you can render them a little better when you self-plagiarize them into "new" songs.)

Unlike when I did tapes in the 80's, I'm not doing a lot of trading now. I get easily overwhelmed by that -- though I think it's a great culture for the people who are really into it. My thing these days is more in the "put it up on the web so people can grab it if they want it" vein.

Birdy: As to the many home recorded songs that you have made but haven't put out. Is there a chance that you would go through them and release some, some day like what you did with the Silly Image Pillowhead album?

Jonathan: I don't personally want to act as a label again -- too much expense and hassle. But if an outside label ever wanted to do something like what you're describing, I'd do pretty much whatever they wanted.

Birdy: How did you and Little Teddy first get in touch with one another and have them put out your stuff?

Jonathan: The first Silly Pillows vinyl release was a 7" EP from a then-new Little Teddy "subsidiary" called Hoppel di Hoy. The visionary who started HdH had mail-ordered some SP cassettes and decided to make us his debut release. (I remember how, when he first ordered tapes, I almost decided not to get involved in selling cassettes overseas -- wow, I was sure glad I'd decided to go ahead and do it!) After the "When She Gets Home"EP came out (early 1993), I believe HdH split off from Little Teddy; but LittleTeddy proper expressed interest in continuing the relationship with the Silly Pillows. And the other indie labels we worked with, Perfect Pop and Rover, were exposed to us via the Little Teddy releases, I believe.

Birdy: Was it sad when the Silly Pillows ended and was it a difficult thing to decide?

Jonathan: It was very sad for me, and probably for some of the others. But really I think it was remarkable that that band -- in its real "band" form --lasted as long as it did. We didn't all live in the same city, people were in other bands concurrently, some of us had demanding jobs, there were kids coming into the picture, raising the funds to do what we wanted to do was a chronic problem . . . and there were definitely some different artistic slants on things within the band, not to mention different ways of approaching the whole process. There was sort of an illusory sense of stability from 1996 (when we upsized to 6 members and began regularly rehearsing for live as well as studio) to 2000 (when it all unravelled), but I think we were always aware that if one or two things changed it could fall apart, and luckily that took a few years to actually happen.

The decision, though emotionally a hard one, wasn't what I'd call a difficult one -- for me at least -- because things had reached a sort of tipping point at which various band members clearly knew that they didn't want to go on. At that point the decision sort of made itself. Likewise, my personal decision -- as one of the people who didn't want to go on -- was the result of a concatenation of factors that added up so clearly that I hardly had to think about it.

Birdy: Was working with some of the record labels a bit difficult with the Silly Pillows? I read an article in which they said that some of the labels you were on were going under because of financial troubles and caused problems with some of your releases.

Jonathan: Actually, I didn't mean that the labels caused problems for the releases, but rather that the releases ultimately caused problems --financially -- for the labels. One or two of the labels we worked with ran into trouble, as far as I could tell, because the bands they"invested in" -- by putting them out and putting their limited resources into promoting them and so forth -- didn't always sell enough records to keep the label solvent. The Silly Pillows, at times, were I think a band that didn't earn back what the labels were perhaps hoping for. They put us out because they believed in us -- these labels cared about music, not money, and I love them for having cared about us -- but if you're a little label and the bands you believe in are costing you money instead of making you money, it doesn't take long before you've got problems.

Birdy: And what type of label interest would you prefer in order to have your music put out by someone? And what things would you look out for perhaps to make sure that you don't put yourself in any bad situations since that can happen sometimes with labels and being sure that they can put out your music efficiently?

Jonathan: Well, I don't think I want to be too fussy. You're right that sometimes you can get involved with a label, and then things don't happen the way they're supposed to. I think in most cases that's not due to any dishonesty or insensitivity, but just to the fact that a little label is usually just composed of one individual who's not even making a living off of it and who is maybe also in a band, and so things can fall behind -- or even not happen at all -- due to time and money issues. But what're you gonna do? That's the indie music world. I think the best you can do is try to steer clear of anyone who has the reputation of actually trying to cheat people, and then just hope for the best with the well-meaning but possibly-overextended folks.

Ideally, one thing I would hope for as an artist is a label that makes a habit of getting stuff distributed in Europe and the Americas and Asia, instead of just a single region -- I don't mean on a grand scale, but just so that a fan in Brazil or Philippines or Netherlands or Cleveland can hopefully mail-order your record from somewhere in his or her own currency. But depending on the size of the operation, I know that a label might not really be set up to get stuff out there to that extent -- they might be lucky if they can get a carton or two off to one mailorder company in their own country, and I certainly understand that.

Birdy: What was the most fun or enjoyable experience that happened with the Silly Pillows?

Jonathan: We had a lot of fun times -- even the average rehearsal was full of "band-collapses-with-laughter" moments -- but if I had to pick one event that was the most fun for me personally, I'd probably pick making our"Time Zones" video. Some of the recording experiences would be a close second.

Birdy: What happened with the life-size pillow that made an appearance at your Mercury Lounge '96 show? I'm hoping that there's a chance it will end up on Ebay some day.

Jonathan: Ha! Well, I'll let you in on a couple of band secrets: (1) "Mr. Pillow"isn't really a pillow, he's just a pillowcase! It didn't matter what pillow was inside him -- that could just be whatever pillow was handy. (2) There were actually two Mr. Pillow pillowcases. I don't remember why. I think Hilary and I have one of them somewhere and the other one lives at Dave Joachim's house.

Birdy: And about Silly Pillows Unstuffed (Jonathan and band member Charlie Zayleskie performing live piano and vocal renditions of Silly Pillows songs). Was that during the Silly Pillows time or like afterwards?

Jonathan: Those appearances (there were only two of them) occurred during the final year of the band's existence. At that time the full band didn't have any gigs scheduled (as it turned out, the full band never played live again), and things were moving slowly on our recording project, so Charlie and I decided to keep busy with this scaled-down local twist on the SP experience.

Birdy: Also, you have been working in theater lately? What kind of theater projects are you involved with and do you get roles in plays and if so, are there any roles or plays that people would be familiar with that you have worked in?

Jonathan: Hilary and I got involved in a community theater company here in rural Pennsylvania in 2001, and since then I have tried to do one or two plays every year. (Hilary's involvement is more occasional.) We do comedy -- I personally specialize in comical little guys, such as Hysterium in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum". Once we were into the theater thing, I also began writing plays, and I've now written about a half-dozen comedies of various lengths. Three of them have been produced to date -- two with our local amateur company, and one as part of a program in Scranton put on by a professional group. (For anyone who's interested, my scripts and other humor writings can be found at www.epix.net/~hce/jhumor.html .)

My other theatrical project these past 5 years has revolved around a street-theater character I created called Manny Tikitz. I've used this character to work the crowds at local festivals and host variety shows, and for a while Manny also ran an offbeat improv show around here.

Aside from Hysterium, the one role people might be familiar with is the obnoxious bandleader in "Tony n' Tina's Wedding" (though our company made him a DJ, since we didn't have a band).

Theater pics are at www.epix.net/~hce/emtc.html .

Birdy: And I just wanted to say that "Silly Image Pillowhead" is such a special album to me. So many perfect songs on it. Thank you for putting it out.

Jonathan: Wow! Thanks!! I chose those tracks from the dozens and dozens of home recordings we did. When I look (or rather listen) back on all the old tapes, they're a real mixed bag to me -- stuff I'm proud of, stuff I'm embarrassed by, stuff where I like the song but not the performance, stuff where I like the performance but not the song . . . I'm really glad that the ones I chose as the "best", work for other people too.

Birdy: And thank you for answering all these questions, I've probably been a bit obsessed with the Silly Pillows since hearing about them two years ago. I hope I don't come off like a creepy stalker or something. lol

Jonathan: No worries! I really appreciate your interest and enthusiasm.


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