Eli Chartkoff, one half of hibernating duo The Monolators, returns with the new solo record Obliteration City on April 28th. Based on interviews with various people, some famous, some not, the record is ultimately a verisimilar meditation on the human condition. At the risk of being hyper-meta, I interviewed Eli about the process behind Obliteration City and being a mainstay of the Los Angeles scene for the last 15 years. Enjoy the video for "Donatella Versace" and check out Eli Chartkoff live April 26th at the Hi Hat. The show is co-presented by Defend LA and benefits the Trevor Project, a non-profit dedicated to assisting at-risk trans teens.
CL: Obliteration City is a concept record in the truest sense of the term. Explain the concept and the evolution behind it.
Eli: Sometimes I think the whole idea of a 'concept album' is kind of hokey, but I guess this is one, all right. All of the lyrics for all of the songs on Obliteration City were adapted from interviews with various people, some famous, some not. Some of the interviews came from magazines, some came from books, some were TV interviews I found on YouTube, some came from documentaries, but they're all real things that real people said.
This idea, like so many other good ideas these days, originally came from Gwyneth Paltrow. I was on Facebook one day and someone posted a link to an article called "The 20 Most Obnoxious Gwyneth Paltrow Food Quotes," which I had to read. One of the quotes was from a Red Book interview where she was asked what she'd want for her last meal. She said: "oysters, cocktail sauce and then a baked and stuffed lobster," things like that, and then she added: "I drank like crazy when the kids were babies. How else could I get through my day?" That sounded like a song to me, so I set it to music, word for word. Thanks Gwyneth!
Also, at my job (I work in the archives of a college library) I was working then on a project to digitize a big collection of 1950's and 60's tape recordings of choral music, pieces by Brahms, Bach, etc. etc. While I listened to these tapes it occurred to me that none of the composers I was listening to had actually written the lyrics to their songs. They'd taken lines from the Bible, or poems, and set them to music. So while (say) Franz Schubert wrote the music for "Ave Maria," the text came from an older poem.
I decided that if they could write songs with words taken from poems, then why not write more songs with lyrics taken from interviews? So that idea evolved pretty quickly. Finding more interviews that would work and actually recording the songs is what took me so long, almost two years.
CL: The stories of these people are at times heartbreaking, but you always treat them with the utmost empathy. Did you find yourself relating to these people when working on the songs?
Eli: I have to admit that I wasn't thinking about empathy at all in the beginning. The first couple of songs were adapted from interviews in Vogue and Bazaar Magazine with famous fashion/celebrity types, like Gwyneth and Donatella Versace, people who are maybe a little eccentric and removed from reality. They'd say outrageous, crazy things that only make sense to other famous fashion/celebrity types, it was easy to make fun of them, and the songs were easy to write. But even with the Gwyneth song, when she said "I drank like crazy when the kids were babies," yes, I can relate to that. Anyone who has kids can relate to that! So there was still a tiny bit of truth amidst the delusion.
Later on I decided to start using non-celebrity interviews with people who weren't super successful or powerful, and a lot of those were on the grim side. There were a lot of themes that would pop up, loneliness, regrets, fears about being broke, all things that I had tried to write about myself in the past but couldn't really pull off. I feel like the people in those interviews were able to say things that I had wanted to say for a long time but couldn't figure out how to do it. So yes, I definitely relate, and it was also a "I wish I had thought of that" kinda deal.
CL: You are one of the most prolific artists I know, but this your first true "solo" record. How was the experience for you, as someone so accustomed to working in a band environment?
Eli: Actually I've done a bunch of solo records over the years, it's just that I either never released them publicly, or I just threw them up on my Bandcamp page and didn't really tell anyone. In the past I'd go and make a little "solo" record on my own if I needed to write a bunch of new songs in a hurry, and then any of those songs would be up for grabs for whatever band I played in. There's an old solo record that has early versions of about half the songs that ended up on Our Tears Have Wings by The Monolators, for instance. Obliteration City is the same thing, some of the songs have already been re-made by two of the bands I play in. This is the first time that one my solo records has come out on a label, though, and the first time that I've put as much effort into the production on a solo record as I would on a "band" record.
CL: What active projects are you currently involved in?
Eli: I'm in two active bands now with my wife Mary. One is Dawn of Sequins, which evolved out of our old band, Monolators, except it's just the two of us instead of a full band. We use drum machines and backing tracks, and Mary plays saxophone and sings and writes more of the songs than before. We put out an album in 2013 on the Vanity Projects label and are almost done recording the follow-up. I'm not sure what it will be called, but it will be out in 2017, and on that album there will be Dawn of Sequins versions of a couple of the songs from Obliteration City.
The second band is called Madame Headdress, which is a sax/flute/tap dancing/choral singing group. We used to have a band called Cobra Lilies, which was sort of folk-y, there were 12-13 members, and along with singing and playing we'd do elaborate dancing and roller skating routines. When that band broke up some of the Lilies reformed as Madame Headdress. We're finishing up an album for Madame Headdress that should also come out in 2017 on the Mental Illness Recordings label. I think it's currently called Vouvray, named for our favorite kind of wine to drink at rehearsal. It's got sax/flute/tap dancing versions of the Donatella and Gwyneth songs from Obliteration City. MH also recently made an all-piñata video for an anti-Trump song called "Cats Against Trump" that came out pretty well.
Mary and I also do what we call "Mini-Bands," which are temporary bands we form with friends to write and record records. Then we play a single show and break up. We have lots of people we'd like to play music with, but nobody we know has time to commit to more bands than the ones they're already in, including ourselves, so this is a way to do something that is low on the commitment scale. We've done two of these records in the past year or so and have plans for more, including with [cough cough] some of the Chain Letter Collective staff, I believe?
Finally, I also play in my friend Tom's band, Shirley Rolls, and there's a new record in progress for the Rolls, as well.
CL: When you write, do you write for a specific project?
Eli: Sometimes. Especially for the mini-bands, Mary and I might say "we need to write a couple of songs for X band," and then we'll try to come up with something that sounds like it will fit. Mostly I'll just write something that interests me and then we try to find a home for it.
CL: Let's briefly revisit the past. You and Mary were an integral part of creating the scene that so many big East Side bands came out of, Henry Clay People and Airborne Toxic Event to name a couple. Were you aware of this at the time? Do you think back to 2001 when Monolators was just getting started and recall wanting to start some sort of scene?
Eli: In the beginning I don't think we had any plan other than trying to find places to play. When we started in 2002 we played absolutely anywhere we possibly could, all over Los Angeles, mostly at places that are long gone now, and I look back at a lot of those shows and think "what were we thinking???" It was kind of chaotic. Sometimes we'd meet bands that we liked, and yes, we'd make friends with them and go to each others' shows. Later on, when we started being able to book shows at Mr. T's Bowl and Pehrspace, we did consciously try to give shows to other bands that were having a hard time finding places to play, but I think that was the extent of our influence on the East Side scene. We were just trying to help our friends out and play whenever we could.
CL: I'm fascinated by the idea of lost bands; the idea that some amazing thing existed for a short time that very few people got to experience. Having played hundreds of shows, can you name a band or two that may qualify as such?
Eli: Apart from a couple of people who ended up signing to bigger labels or getting national attention, I think that almost all of our friends' bands count as lost. Venues in Los Angeles are ephemeral, so are the bands. Even the 'next big thing' bands that I thought for sure were going to make it nationally are mostly forgotten...at least we've got a stash of everybody's homemade cd-r's at home, because otherwise they didn't seem to leave much of a trace. So I think the answer is "too many to list."
CL: You've been in the local music game for as long as anyone I know. What's changed since you started? And where do you see it going?
Eli: The biggest change in LA I've seen in the last few years is the drastic rise in rents and the cost of living. It's driving away venues and musicians, DIY all-ages/experimental venues especially. Everybody's worried that there's going to be a crackdown on venues following the Ghost Ship tragedy, people are leaving the city because it's not affordable any more. It's a struggle to find places to play, now more than ever. Maybe Los Angeles will just stop being a place to be in a band? I hope not.
CL: Is there any hope? I mean, in general, about the world we live in now.
Eli: I re-wrote my answer to this four or five times because everything I said sounded either flippant or like a slogan off an inspirational "you can do it" poster. I'm not sure that I have anything useful or insightful to say, I wish I did. Mary and I talk about politics and the future endlessly. Things look bad right now, it's overwhelming, but I do hope that the sheer awfulness of the (Trump) administration will galvanize more people into fighting back, demanding changes. People can start by getting involved in their local elections. I think that's possible, so there's that kind of hope.
OK, here's my inspirational poster moment: I think about the Gia Carangi interview, the last song on the record, where she says: "I'm gonna show you motherfuckers what I can do. I'm still in shape, everybody, I'm still alive." That's my motto now. I'm gonna put that on a poster with a picture of a tiger or a crab or something. A tiger fighting a crab.
CL: What was the last thing that inspired you? It can be anything.
Eli: My family does sing-alongs when we get together for the holidays. We do folk songs, Christmas songs, Beatles songs, stuff like that. In a sing-a-long there's not much call for guitar riffage or extended sax solos (much as I love both), it's just drinking raspberry liqueur and belting out songs like "They're Moving Father's Grave To Build A Sewer." Not every song works as a sing-along. The tune & lyrics have to hold up on their own with zero embellishments, and it's not easy to write that way. That's what I aspire to, and doing the sing-along reminded me of that.
Oh, also: we were listening to a record by the Carter Sisters the other day and they had a song that went something like "I ain't leaving without my bay-beeee." But Mary thought it went "I ain't leaving without my bike," which is better. So now I think I need to write a song about my bike.