Standard Sounds

On the Night of the Show with Eleanor Friedberger

A year and a half ago, after the release of her second solo album, Personal Record, Eleanor Friedberger moved from New York City to upstate New York. The first winter was harsh, and she decided that the bleakest months weren’t for her. “8 months of the year it’s fantastic,” she says, “I just don’t think I can do it, so I’m not going to if I can help it.” So this winter, she set off on a string of West Coast dates with her band.

Standard Culture caught up with Friedberger by phone at The Standard, Downtown LA, the night of a one-off at The Echo. Photographer B. O'Brien captured the vibe. We wanted to know how she goes about getting ready for a performance — the rituals, the priorities, the mindset on the way to the stage. Friedberger also told us about some of her most memorable shows as a spectator — including an unforgettable karaoke night with the performers from Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films, featuring Martin Rev of Suicide, Bradford Cox of Deerhunter, and Dean Wareham of Galaxy 500.

STANDARD CULTURE: What draws you to LA?
ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER: I grew up in Chicago so California has a real exotic charm to me — seeing palm trees and the Pacific Ocean. It feels very wild. Of course the weather. In LA, just being surrounded by mountains is really dramatic. I’ve lived in NY for 15 years. It’s a nice change of pace.

SC: What is the experience of one night on the night of a show?
EF: I find that if I have a show that night, I get absolutely nothing done during the day. It’s this waiting game. Which is something that I’m annoyed with, myself, for being that way.

If I’m on tour, most of the day is spent in the van driving to wherever we’re going, and getting to the venue hopefully right on time to load-in and sound check. Then you kind of scramble for a few hours trying to find the best thing to eat.

And if you’re really lucky, you have a little bit of time to go to a bookstore or see a friend or buy a new shirt or something fun like that. And if you have friends in town, it’s a juggling act of who you’re going to see — that sort of social game. Some people maybe ignore that, but for me, part of the fun of traveling is getting to see the people you don’t usually see. And then after the show it’s like, are you gonna go out? Or are you gonna be good and go straight to bed? Tonight I'll probably go to the bar and have one more drink. That’s usually the way it goes.

SC: It sounds stressful.
EF: I’ve been doing this for over 10 years. At least I know how to do this. Some nights are harder than others. Usually if you’re on a tour, you’re in the swing of things. The playing part is the easiest and most fun. It’s all the other stuff that can be kind of exhausting.
Sometimes eating is the hardest part. You want to eat something good. And then you’re in a bad mood if you eat something bad. If you talk to anyone in a band, that’s what they’re going to tell you. Getting something good to eat is high up on the list.

SC: Are you more excited by recording albums or is it the live performance that got you into the game?
EF: It’s definitely both. The one happens so much less frequently than the other. I’m going to start recording now, but it’s been over two years and I’ve played dozens of shows in the meantime. Being onstage and actually playing music with people is definitely the best part. And then it seems weird that that’s what you do most, and it’s all surrounding this thing that you make that takes a week, or a month, but it’s all for the purpose of playing the songs in front of people. So it’s kind of a weird situation. It’s so unlike other kinds of art. The traveling can be tiring and a drag and boring, but getting to play is the best part. And making a record is so different each time. For me, it’s really about performance.

SC: Have you always been a performer?
EF: I wasn’t a musician as a kid. I didn’t do school plays. I was a jock as a kid, so I was comfortable in front of an audience. I think team sports is a very similar sort of feeling for me. And I think that was a good foundation. It was a performance. But I didn’t start playing music until I was 18, and I didn’t start playing in front of people until I was 23. I starting touring a lot when I was 27.

SC: Who are some performers who really inspire you?
EF: I was lucky to have an older brother who guided me. I grew up watching a VHS tape of The Kids Are Alright, the documentary about The Who. I probably watched that 100 times because my brother watched it 100 times. It was just on. When I was a teenager I became obsessed with Scorsese, and I watched The Last Waltz 100 times. That’s the stuff that really influenced me the most.

I also saw my brother play in bands when I was a teenager. These were bands that never played outside the town, but to me it was like going to see The Who. It was really exciting.

And then I went to college in Austin, Texas and I had a fake ID and I could see bands five nights a week. At that time, as a freshman, I saw all my favorite bands: Dinosaur Jr, Flaming Lips, Guided by Voices, John Spencer, Pavement. I saw every show. And that was a really exciting time.

The best show I saw when I was that age, like 18, 19, the most exciting was the Jesus Lizard, and seeing David Yow singing and just spending half the show in the audience was really thrilling - it was like seeing Iggy Pop. It’s all kind of a blur.

I remember seeing John Fogerty when I was 19 or 20. Just hearing him sing perfectly. The first concert I ever saw was Robert Plant when I was 13. And I remember that very well because these promoter reps moved us, this group of ten 13-year-olds, to the front row.

SC: Has your approach to performing changed at all?
EF: It’s so hard to remember, to put myself back there. I think I used to drink more. Maybe I was nervous. At the time, I don’t remember feeling nervous. But I would have more to drink before shows. I just remember feeling a lot more out of control. The music was very out of control in my mind. We played very aggressively and loud and fast. The music I’m playing now is a lot less so. Maybe it’s just a part of getting older. I feel a lot more confident. I just remember always having a hard time hearing myself. Everything feels a lot more controlled now. Which I know sounds lame, but for me that feels a lot better.

SC: Do you have any particularly noteworthy stories from nights on tour?
EF: It’s more just about the people you’re surrounded with. Like, if it’s a strange combination of people. Sitting in a dressing room with Tom Verlaine [Television] and Martin Rev [Suicide] and Bradford Cox [Deerhunter] is…weird. Nothing happened, per se. Except actually, now that I think about it...when we did the show in Pittsburg, we stayed at a hotel right around the corner from the venue. They were having a karaoke night in the hotel bar and I think there were maybe three people in there. And these two guys were there doing karaoke together, and if no one else was singing they would sing, or if you were having trouble one of them would sing along with you. So all of us from the show, except for Tom Verlaine, did karaoke. And Martin Rev just sat there the whole time, very much enjoying the show, just sitting and watching everyone do karaoke. He kind of looked at the book a few times, and I thought for sure he wasn’t going to do it, and then suddenly he just got up and sang the song “Kansas City” and he did a whole performance, like, dancing — it was amazing, he sang so beautifully, and then he just put down the mic and went “Good night, everybody!” and walked out the door super casually. It was just for like, 7 of us.

SC: What’s one song that you go back to again and again?
EF: I just sent the guy who plays keyboards in my band a song this morning called “Santa Cruz Mountains” by Eddie Callahan. I want to say the album came out in the 70s, or maybe it never came out. Someone from Rough Trade sent it me a while ago. There’s this amazing synth part in the song. And I’ve listened to it a lot ever since I got it, maybe three years ago, but I’ve been listening to it more and more. We played in Santa Cruz last week and it was the first time I’ve ever been there. It’s cool to finally go to a place that’s referenced in a song you’ve heard many times. I just think it’s a really cool sounding sound. And there’s this epic synth solo. I’ll never get tired of it.

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