Saturday, June 2, 2012

21ish Questions with Bryan Ranney of Following the Water

If you go to the Venice Café on Tuesday nights, you have a 50% chance of walking in on an evening with Bryan Ranney.  In fact, Bryan is a busy working musician in St. Louis between teaching lessons, raising a toddler, gigging solo and playing multiple bands.  One of those bands, Following the Water, the joint brain child of Bryan (guitar, mandolin, vocals) and Sean Bennight (guitar, vocals) will be releasing their debut album in roughly 12 hours from this very post.  This past Wednesday, May 30th, Bryan and I met at Hartford Coffee to talk a little bit about his music and influences, the album and its creation, the St. Louis music scene and his personal creative philosophy.

A St. Louis Sound
LB- We’ll get started with the most inane question an artist can possibly answer.  Who would you say that Following the Water sounds like?  If you had to compare yourself to something what would it be?

Bryan Ranney- Well that’s a pretty awful question.  Way to get the interview flowing with that one. 

I like to start things off by completely derailing things.

Bryan- (Laughs) I don’t know what we sound like.  I know what I like to listen to and I know what I like to play.  I don’t know that that makes us sound like anybody in particular.  I think an interesting thing about being a musician in St. Louis is that you have an opportunity to be around so much fantastic blues and jazz and alt-country and hip hop and the genre list goes on and on—the great folk music here.  And everyone listens to each other if you’re out and about playing and you can’t help but to have that sort of creep into your sound.  I think more so than I expected I sound like some of my compatriots about town.  They brought me in… they lured me.  Something about that blues thing creeps on in.

I don’t know if you guys do this in your set, but I’ve seen you do ‘The Thrill is Gone’ a couple of times.  So it’s like you were talking about—the blues creeping in.

Bryan- That one is because Sean totally digs that tune.  I don’t even know if he’s mimicking someone’s version of that in particular because I don’t think we do it like BB King particularly…

It’s pretty unique.  In fact, I do a cover of that now and yours influenced mine.

Bryan- Oh did it?  Awesome.  Yeah, I just like jamming to A-minor blues tunes.  That’s all there is to that.

A Brief History

So I know you play a lot of music.  You have your thing you do on Tuesday at the Venice and you have Elemental Shakedown.  I just wanted to hear a little bit about your musical back story before Following the Water.

Bryan- My dad is a singer songwriter who plays around town.  My mom is a singer songwriter.  My aunt is a singer songwriter.  My uncle plays the mandolin with a bunch of impressive bluegrass people out west.  My other uncle plays the piano around town. And they all had friends who would come over to my parents’ house and sit around in big circles and play guitar, sing songs and harmonize.  So there’d be 13 guitars in the living room. That’s pretty much the image I get when I think of my childhood.  And that’s sort of like the event based big deal thing of it but even on a daily basis my immediate family—my parents, my brothers and I—communicated with music in a big way.  It’s our point of reference for one another’s lives.  It’s the medium for our conversation.  For me it’s not about having made a choice to play music.  It’s something that was always present and then it was just an artistic choice to present my career in that way.

How did Following the Water come about?  How long have you been together?  How did it start up?

Bryan- Funny you should ask me.  We’ve been together 4 years today.  Our first gig ago was 4 years ago, 2008, May 30th.  We opened for Brewer and Shipley at the Focal Point, which is why we came up with the name.  We knew we needed a name cause we had that gig.  So Sean had written this song called Drifting.  We went over it to spruce up the chorus a little, fiddled around in the verses.  We just changed the chorus very slightly.  I remember it having a really powerful hook and wanting to work on it right away.  We wanted this concrete image to come in and I wanted it to be related to water because the song was about drifting.  I was picturing floating down the stream or floating through the ocean waves.  Came up with following the lake, following the stream, following the water.  I was like we need something like following the water, so somebody said, ”How about following the water.”  Then we needed a band name the next week.  That was kind of the first line we wrote together—our first co-creation—so that became the name of the band.  Seemed appropriate.  And whenever we say the name of the band to people they go “Oh.”  I don’t know what they’re thinking when they say that but that’s what they do.

It’s very profound.

Bryan- Oh, is it?  I guess.  I like it.  Other people seem to like thinking about it.  So that’s good enough for me.

That’s the most important thing—that other people like it!

Bryan- That’s the number one thing.  If I’ve learned anything about being an artist it’s that you should make sure that everybody always likes what you’re doing.

So you guys, in the last four years have played a lot around town.  Just rattle off some of the places you’ve played.

Bryan- We play the Venice Café, the Shanti, Beatniks out in New Town, St. Charles, Off Broadway, El Lenador.  That’s the bulk of it I’d say.  There’ve been some other spots too.  We’ve played in Belleville here and there.  We’ve played at the New Ground Floor. Gone out of town a little bit.  We play at the TOCO Festival every year, which is a big event for us.  We played at the Festival in the Clouds out in Alma, Colorado last summer.  We’ve done a few dates with the Bottoms Up Blues Gang.  I can definitely tell you we’ve spent at least 90% of our time in 63118.  Just can’t get out of that zip code.

Is there any venue that you’re partial to—that you really love to play?

Bryan- I’ve got to say the Venice Café.  It’s just a beautiful place to make music—just a wonderful, inspirational place just to hang out.  The people are just so open—your audience is so naturally receptive there.  The room itself does something to the people there.  And that’s not even any sonic quality in particular, not that there’s a bad sound to the room, but it’s really more about the visual experience.  It’s like playing in a sculpture.  But, there are a lot of great spots around town.  We’ve enjoyed our time at the Shanti very much.  I’m doing so many solo gigs at the Venice right now, that really is what comes to mind right away.

 When I first met you, you were gearing up to go to Colorado.  Where else have you guys been expanding your footprint beyond St. Louis?

Bryan- We went down to that Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival in Winfield, Kansas one year and passed through Kansas City.  We’ve played a little bit here and there.  We haven’t toured extensively because we haven’t had a record.  So now that we have that and can be more focused on having that additional revenue stream it’s a little more feasible to be out and about and have something to hand to people.
So before it was more just playing wherever I go.  I play whenever I go somewhere, and whenever I go somewhere, I play there.  And whenever Sean and I have traveled together, we’ve played together.
I went to Milwaukee and auditioned for American Idol maybe two summers ago.  I was about to be too old and my wife was like “You gotta do it.”  It was the most fun I ever had standing in line.  But I was up there so I played a show.  I just like to do that.  Whenever I know I’m gonna go somewhere I like to go be among the people and sing a little bit.  And Sean has a very similar attitude.

Creating a Sound

Following the Water is officially just you and Sean.  So, unofficially who else are you working with to fill out the live sound?  Who appears on the album?

Bryan- We made the record with Billy Engle who has got a great studio, and more importantly is just a very skilled engineer with a lot of experience and a great personality.  It’s just easy to be very comfortable with him.  I’ve spent a little bit of time with him when he did my family's records.  And just the quality that he gets is pretty astounding.  He plays pedal steel on the record.  He’s a really prolific player at large; he blows me away.  He plays some bass for us too on there.  Alyssa Avery from Elemental Shakedown plays violin on a couple of tracks.  Adam Andrews who plays around town with Bryan Currann and the Bottoms Up Blues Gang played some harmonica.  Matt Reyland who plays with Stank Nasty and Ellen the Felon.  Miles Long from the Venice Café open mic.  And my brother Stephen plays the bass on a couple tracks.  It was sort of an organic process.  We did a few sessions with Matt and Stephen and then we worked on it a bunch without anybody and then we did one session with Miles, rounded out the rhythm tracks, and then added in some nice lead players at the end there with Alyssa and Adam.

Who are you using live?

Bryan- At the CD release party on Sunday all of those people will be playing.  Live it could be anybody.  We change the line up based on the nature of the gig.  We base it off of the duo and then we play with it from there.

What do you draw inspiration from?  This could be musical influences or it could be what inspires you to write music and lyrics as you write them.

Bryan- I don’t know, ultimately.  I have a fairly spiritual outlook on it.  I have a process that I do on a daily basis to make art in general.  I write in a journal and I try to do creative thing on a daily basis, sometimes that’s writing a song, sometimes that painting a picture, sometimes that’s playing with my son.  He’s just one big ball of creative energy of course.  I don’t know where the songs start really.  Sometimes it’s a melody, sometimes it’s a rhythm, sometimes it’s an idea.  You start with one or the other and the other elements just show up as I start to work.
That’s sort of like the epic question.  Everyone’s trying to figure out where they get inspiration from and how to make it kick in when they want it to…But I really think that inspiration is mostly something that you should not worry about so much as try to just encourage generally.  I think if we have everything flowing it’ll work itself out.  It’s just like getting your groceries when it comes down to it…certainly there’s a miraculous element but you really have to engage in the mundane to make it work too.

The Album
I want to shift to talking more specifically about the album.  You’ve already talked a lot about the instrumentation and who has appeared on the album.  What should people expect from the album?  Is it like what you do live?  More grand?  More minimalist?

Bryan- It’s pretty similar to what we do live.  It sounds like us.  Tonally it’s very similar to what we’ve been doing live lately.  If someone’s reading this a year or two from now, that might be out the window.  But we’ve been working with these particular tones and sounds and used them to make the record too.
I hope that people can view it as a story with a beginning, middle, and end.  We tried to really construct it in a conceptual way—to make a little emotional story.  It starts off with ‘Already and Ever After.’  The first line is “Déjà vu, I think I’ve been here before,” which is really fun after you get to the end of the record if you’re listening to it on a CD player that starts over from the beginning.
There are a lot of songs about fighting, drunken fighting especially.  There’s a little motif called ‘Stick in the Mud’.  Then ‘This Town’ is about fighting.  And then after that comes ‘Drifting’ which is also about fighting.  There’s a lot of that conflict element in it.  And a lot of it is coming of age tunes we’ve been writing since we were teenagers.  
The record is called ‘Confluence Blue’,  Confluence is the flowing together of water, the coming together of ideas and people.  And then Blue is a color… a very moody color.  When you combine these ideas and people in this place you get this feeling.

How many tracks are on the album?

Bryan- Eleven.  Comes in at about 42 minutes 20 seconds.

Talk to me about the album release party.

Bryan- It’s at Off Broadway, this Sunday, June the 3rd, at 2:00pm.  The show will be opened by Pierce Crask of The Falling Martins.  He’ll just be performing solo, doing a bunch of his original tunes.  He’ll play for about an hour.  Then after that, we’ll have a rendition of what the record sounds like with all the players who played on it including Billy Engle, Alyssa Avery, Adam Andrews, Stephen Ranney, Miles Long, Matt Reyland, Sean Bennight and myself.  We are collecting canned food at the door.  You can get half off your ticket price if you bring three cans of food.  Or if you just want to donate too, that’s great.  That’ll be going to St. Louis Area food bank.  We’ll have a bunch of merchandise for sale—fun, new Following the Water stuff no one has ever seen before.  We’ve got a print maker on board named Stepjen Kuppinger.  I’m just a huge fan of his work.  We’ve been friends for a long time and he’s making the CD cases himself.  He’s printing them each individually so they’ll be a unique piece of art and numbering them by edition.

Did he design each cover?

Bryan- Yeah!

The mentioned emblem.  Following the Water's first sticker design.
Did he also do your emblem?

Bryan- No that was Julie Burge back when we were doing that El Lenador show last year.  She came up with a poster design for us and we based that theme off of that poster.

You guys have been together four years.  Why release the album now?  Why not earlier or later for that matter?

Bryan- If I had an answer for that, it’d be a different world.  It just took us a while to figure out how to do it.  We’ve been recording over the course of the last four years.  We did a demoing process.  We continued to develop the songs live.  At a certain point it became the highest priority so we got in the studio and made the record.  We’ve spent about the last year on it in the studio recording.  I guess that gives us three years of pre-production.  Yeah, it was just time.  Time to get the ideas down so we can move on.  And part of it was just to allow ourselves to finish it.  You know, it’s so easy to become a perfectionist.  Ultimately, perfectionism is just an excuse not to do any work.

What’s your favorite track on the album?

Bryan- It keeps changing as I listen to it more and more.  I can tell you the moment that I’m enjoying the most on the album right now is the end of “There was a Time”.  There’s a certain dramatic swell of violin, chaos, and drums, vocals.  I’m pretty happy with that right now.  It makes me feel good when I listen to it because it’s so dark and depressing.  I like it.

The St. Louis Scene
As I understand it, you’re a life-long St. Louisan, correct? 

Bryan- Yeah, I was born at Forest Park Hospital there when it was Deaconess right off of Highway 40 and I live a mile from there now, less than a mile probably.  Which is also 5 blocks from where my great grandfather lived.  So, we haven’t made it very far generationally on my little line of the family tree.  Yeah, but, I lived in Chicago for a few years and I spent some time in Columbia, MO, but, yeah, St. Louis!

As a person who’s lived here most of your life, and who’s been involved in music here a lot of your life—I’m hearing a lot now about this being a special time, that something’s happening in the music scene—do you feel like that’s accurate?  If so, what’s happening and why?

Bryan- Having never existed in any other time, it’s difficult for me to make that judgment, but yes I hear that buzz as well.  I wonder if everybody in every scene—that isn’t already Austin or New Orleans or New York, Chicago, LA—doesn’t feel something similar to that.  I’m almost hesitant to discuss that.  I feel like this might be an underground conversation not ready for the public forum yet.  I’d hate to show our cards too early. 
But there are a lot of people in town who do really good work.  I mean you can wander into a corner pub and have your face melted off by some of the most amazing players I’ve ever seen in St. Louis.  If you don’t know to look for it, you won’t see it.  But if you keep your ear to the ground…I mean there are some incognito people who are super stars… literally rock stars who live right here.  And the people who are working the pubs and playing the bar scene and playing the club scene and the people who tour from here are of the highest caliber that I have run into any other place.

Do you feel like the scene has changed much at all since you first started playing around town?

Bryan- It’s hard for me to say.  I just sort of immerged somewhat.  I only just now kind of know my way around.  I don’t know that I have enough perspective to make that call.  It’s nice to see Pokey [LaFarge] doing well.  And it’s nice to have run into so many people who are working so hard and playing so hard and who really get it.  It’s something that as a teenager you feel isolated and you don’t ever expect to run into anybody who thinks just how you do and wants to do just what you do, but I’ve had that experience over and over again here.  And I learn so much for the people who are working here, who’ve been doing it longer than I have, who have different ideas than I have.  Everybody does it just a little differently.

It’s a confluence.

Bryan- It is a confluence.  You’re on to me.

Bryan’s Playlist
I don’t like to stay too deep for too long, so let’s get back to something just a little bit silly.  Who are you listening to right now?

Bryan- My students have me listening to ‘You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful’ by One Direction.  So that’s probably the most horrible answer I can give.  It’s a much better song than that other one…let’s not talk about that.  I’m still really digging on that Wood Brothers record that came out a year or two now.  I listen to a lot of Jack White.  I think he’s just on top of his game.  Pretty much anything he’s touched I’m now going back and trying to listen to all of it—exploring him in reverse just because he blows me away every time.  I’m finding out songs that I love are written by him and I’m like “Oh, of course.”

I wanted to ask you about local musicians?

Bryan- I’m a big fan of the Bottoms Up Blues Gang record “Handle It”.   I love that record.  Tony Esterly engineered it and Jeremy Carry and Adam and the whole gang—so many great people on that record, Benny Smith, the late, great.  Fred Friction’s record that came out last year, “Jesus Drank Wine”, I absolutely love.  Aaron Kamm and the One Drops keep putting out good records. 
It’s so cool to know people and to really like their record.  I’m not listening to it just because I know you, but because I like your record.

More Info
Last question—this is the promotional question—where can people find out more about Following the Water?

Bryan- We have It is brimming with information of course.  And if you come out to one of our shows, we can tell you a lot more too.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Barons of Tang are Here

Word association is a powerful thing.  Before last night whenever I heard the word ‘tang’ the first think that came to mind was the orange, just-add-water refreshment created for astronauts and kept in business by working mothers for whom the powdered drink was a more practical solution than actual fruit juice.  But my mental landscape was changed for good, the meaning of ‘tang’ forever re-established, when I stepped into El Lenador last night. The Barons of Tang had taken stage.

Imagine the scene.  The stage at El Lenador is essentially just a platform for the drum kit around which all the other musicians set up.  So, around this small stage, you have six musicians in addition to the drummer, and they are energetic, theatrical, and masterful at their own particular brand of off kilter presentation.  Between pulling off beautiful duets and solos, the horn section, Anna—alto sax and trombone— and Aviva—clarinet and bass sax—danced and jumped about.  Anna jabbed at the air with her instrument as if fighting of some invisible monster. Julian, the bassist and lead singer, slaps his upright and growls the lyrics in his thick Australian accent.  Annie bounced from bongos and congas to corbel and an array of cymbals, adding perfectly timed flurries of percussive virtuosity to Sean’s steady thunder on the kit.  Occasionally the entire band shouts lyrics slightly off cadence from one another creating the exact kind of riotous cacophony they seem bent on inciting. Carlos’ accordion and Jules’ electric guitar made for a melodic glue for otherwise disparate sounds. In a word, magnificent.   It was magnificent to behold.

This is the type of band that breaks up the regular boxes we put music into and makes you ask what exactly you’re experiencing.  At one point, I hit the bar and turned to Johnny Vegas, the man behind the mayhem at El Lenador , and asked him “What is this?”  A guy next to me overheard.  “It’s hipster punk,” he said. 

I see where he got punk.  The energy of the band certainly reminds you of a punk act doing it well.  And there was an element of ‘hipster chic’ to the band’s look and presentation.  Still, I didn’t quite agree with his characterization of the sound.  There was much more to it than that.  There were elements of the big band jazz of the early 20th century, a strong folk influence, bits and pieces of prog rockers like Frank Zappa and Jethro Tull.   In short, the music defies simple explanation and conventional labels.  The Barons are exciting precisely because they bend and resist the normal constraints of genre and in doing so create something entirely new.  On their website ( they call their style Gypsy Deathcore.  Something gets lost even in that description though as this music, in my opinion, is accessible to a far broader swath of people than deathcore typically is (perhaps it’s the gypsy part).

The best way to understand what I’ve been rambling about above is to get out and see the band.  If you’re reading this within a reasonable time of when I’m posting it, you’re in luck.  The Barons of Tang are in town for one more night and they are playing at 9pm at the Black Bear Bakery (, 2639 Cherokee St., St. Louis 63118.  Be sure to get out and see them or you’ve missed the show of your life

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

21ish Questions with Ellen the Felon

About 2 weeks ago, before the holiday madness, I sat down with Ellen Cook at the host location of her wildly successful open mic night, Foam Coffee and Beer.  The following is a transcript of our roughly half hour Q and A, in which Ellen talks a little about her sound and its roots, her projects of the moment, her thoughts on the local music scene, and the journey from Ellen Cook to Ellen the Felon.

The Music
I think the first question I want to ask, I mean the first set of questions are about your music.  If you had to describe your music to someone who had never heard it, what words would you use?  How would you describe it?

Ellen- I’d probably say that it’s jazz, cabaret, rock… passionate sometimes comical.  Tom Waits meets Fiona Apple maybe.

I’ve heard you do covers but I know that in your shows you do original music, so, in writing music, what do you, what subject matter do you tend to write about?  What stories are worth telling to you?

Ellen- Everything.  I’ve been through a lot.  I’ve had a very crazy life at the young age of 26.  And I’ve got songs about my first love you know and I also have some funny songs.  Like I have a stalker song called “Oh Timothy” and that was inspired by a voicemail.  And, you know, I lost my boyfriend last summer in a car accident so I’ve got a lot of songs about him.  I mean, it’s all very honest.  I don’t try too hard to go too deep.  I just try to lay it out

So you lay it out, you lay out what it is.  Do you tend to filter, you know, I feel like when I’m writing songs I say to myself “This is good.  This isn’t as good.   I’m going to work with this.”  For you what separates a good song from a bad song—a song that you’re going to run with immediately from a song that needs more work or a song that might get tossed out?

Ellen- I like my songs to have a lot of depth to them.  And I think once I feel comfortable playing it out is usually when I’m ready to make it an official song on the set list.  And if I enjoy playing it.  There’s some songs that I write and I’m like why did I even do that.  And they have to be very dimensional—lot’s of changes.

You’ve already talked a little bit about this about your background, but what would you—just talk to me a little bit about what you would want people to know about your background and about just Ellen Cook, not so much Ellen the Felon.

Ellen- I’m a very fun person.  I’ve got really great friends.  I love St. Louis.  I’m pretty ridiculous.  I can be a little over the top at times—my dad calls me a diva, which I’m sure I am at times.  Like I said, I’ve been through a lot.  I was raised in University City and I went to Webster High School and I got expelled for some stuff.  My first relationship was a really abusive relationship.  I lost my mom last February.  So I’ve been through—it’s just been up and down.  But music has always been like the one constant in my entire life—the one thing that I know will always be there for me.

So how did Ellen Cook become Ellen the Felon?

Ellen- Back to the high school part.  I got into some trouble when I was a kid and I spent a lot of time in juvy and institutions from probably 15 to 18.  So, yeah, it became a nickname.  And I just ran with it.  It’s catchy.  People actually remember it.

Musical Interests and Influences
So I wanted to talk a little bit about your influences and your interests and who you like, what you listen to and that type of thing.  Sort of the “Who’s on your ipod?” question.  Who are you listening to right now?

Ellen- I love The Dresden Dolls; I love Amanda Palmer, Fiona Apple.  Let’s see Andrew Bird, Scout Niblet.  And all the classics, like I grew up on a lot of Motown so definitely Diana Ross and Aretha, Stevie Wonder.  Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Ani DiFranco, she’s a great writer.  Roger Miller is one of my favorites too.  My dad’s a truck driver so I get a lot of Roger Miller.

Roger Miller.  Is that “On the Road Again”?

Ellen- Yeah.  He wrote that song and he was also in Robin Hood, the cartoon.  He was the rooster, the sheriff.

So, would you say—do you feel like your music is derivative of any of those artists?

Ellen- Yeah definitely.  I’ve got a lot of soul—and yeah, definitely The Dresden Dolls I’m really inspired by them because it’s like cabaret and sometimes funny and dark, you know, it’s just great.  Tom Waits for sure, I like his creepy quirkiness.  And I like Ani’s writing.  I think she’s just such a great lyricist and her voice and guitar is really good too.  I can’t play guitar.

So, I’ve seen you do a lot of duets.  And you have a real knack, I think for vocal harmony, I feel like.  Who among all those people—or add some people in there—who would you just love to harmonize with—to do a duet with if you could?

Ellen- Probably—I don’t think I mentioned Dolly Parton, but if I could just meet her, maybe have some coffee, a glass of wine and just like pick her brain, that’d be great.  And then, obviously to play with her.  I did play with Amanda Palmer, she played the drums and I sang.  That was probably the highlight of my entire life.

As far as—because you get to see a lot of local artists with just being out in the community but also running an open mic—who, what local artists are you into?

Ellen- I love Sleepy Kitty, they’re great.  Old Lights, Middle Class Fashion, anything that Jim Malzone puts together is great.  Tight Pants Syndrome.  Paper Dolls.  What else, there’s so much!  I really like Magic City too.  Warm Jets USA, they’re great.  Mustard Rob.  Pancake Master, he’s awesome; he’s hilarious too.  Langen, of course—my facebook wife.  She’s great.  Irene Allen is—oh my God, her voice like… the last time I quit smoking, I wrote down three names on my hand and it was Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Irene Allen to stay motivated.  Because you know sometimes, you hear somebody singing you’re like “Man, if only I quit smoking I could hit those notes like she does.”  I feel like I’m forgetting so many—there are so many great bands here.  St. Louis is just a great music city.  Oh, Cassie Morgan, Beth Bombara, Celia, Firedog.  Firedog, we’re great friends, we’ve collaborated before.  There’s too many to name.  I know I’m forgetting some.  Fattback was great too—my late boyfriends band.

Open Mic @ Foam
So, just kind of keeping in that vein of local acts and that kind of thing, running the open mic here, you all hear a lot of up-and-comers and get to hear their tunes.  Are you generally able to tell who has a lot of potential to make some waves in the area?  And if so, what sets those acts apart?

Ellen- You know, I think stage presence is huge.  You can definitely tell when someone is a more seasoned musician—someone that can like really hold themselves well on stage.  Also, you know, the song writing.  If the songwriting, lyrics, all of that definitely plays a part.  I always say this, being a musician is like 30% talent and the rest is promoting yourself constantly, recording, working.  You have to think about all the people who have made it that absolutely suck.  It’s all work.

So you and Langen run what the River Front Times called the number 1 open mic in the area.  How did you get to that level of popularity?

Ellen- We started in—we’ve only been doing this for about a year.  And you know I think Langen and I just have really great chemistry on stage.  We try to make it as fun as possible and we’re really open to everything.  We have comedians and we have people who read monologues here you know and everything in between.  We had an eleven piece band from Colorado come.  It’s such an inviting atmosphere.  And I feel like, as opposed to other open mics where everyone’s just getting wasted and like talking over the music, I feel like we actually have some really great listeners.  I think that just Foam itself—it’s not quite a bar, it’s not quite a coffee house; it’s somewhere in between.  That really lends to a better audience.

Girl Power
I want to kind of switch gears a little here in a second.  I wanted to ask you this.  This is just kind of a miscellaneous question.  I wasn’t really able to put it with anything else.  The show you guys did a couple of weekends ago, it was a Sunday, where the group came from Austin and there was a couple other groups.  Part of the whole build up  for that was that it was all front women—all female fronted bands.  And I’ve seen you get really excited when my good friend Allie Vogler or other female singer/songwriters come in with their guitars and play and sing.  Would you say that the whole girl-power aspect is something that’s important to you?  And if so, why?

Ellen- It is important to me, definitely.  I was talking to my friend, Catherine Kustelsky, she runs the Chippewa Chapel open mic sometimes too at El Lenador.  She was telling me when she first hit the scene back in like the late 90s or whenever that there were no women.  There were no chicks out there doing it, here in St. Louis at least.  And she said that to see so many of us thriving and doing well is amazing.  But like, in another way, I do get sick of female being a genre because it’s not a genre.  I play jazz cabaret.  I don’t play chick music.  That can get a little… one time I played a show with three other chick bands.  We had nothing in common.  There was one chick that sounded like freaking horrible, techno, Evanescence stuff, and then there was like a folk country band… we didn’t sound anything alike.  We were just put together because we’re chicks.  It can get a little ridiculous at times.

Does that make it more difficult?  Do you think it’s more difficult for women at this point?  Is it like what Katherine was saying?

Ellen- Well no.  She says the scene is easier to break into than it was when she started.  No, I don’t think… in fact, I think sometimes people just pay attention because you are a chick.  My friend Irene always says “You’re good, but you’re that much better because you’re a girl and most girls suck. (16.28)

Ellen the Felon and the Mattronome and the Business of Music
You talked about the importance of promoting—it being only 30% how good you are and the rest is work.  I want to shift to talking about that and talking about where Ellen the Felon and the Mattronome or where Ellen the Felon in general goes from this point.  So, if somebody googles Ellen the Felon, which I actually did, what will they find?

Ellen- Tons of videos, our website, RFT stuff, lots of press, pictures probably.

I want to talk a little bit about your band set up.  It’s a two-person band.  Is it you and the Mattronome against the world type of idea?  How did you two get started playing together and are you looking for a guitarist or for other things, a saxophonist, that kind of thing?

Ellen- Matt and I actually have known each other since we were twelve, since the sixth grade and we started playing together I guess 08.  It was just for this one show at the Way Out club which I still, we still, think was like our best show just because we were so pumped up for it.  We practiced like all the time for that one show and we barely had like a 35 minute set together.  And there was no one there.  It was like the bands and like 3 people.  Plus…you know, first a show at the Way Out kind of thing.  I mean I’d been playing solo.  Matt and I, we’re just great friends.  People always think we’re dating but I would never touch him.  He loves it when I say that.
Yeah, and next we’re finishing up our album, first debut like real album not like live performances or anything.  And then we plan to hit the road.  We want to play everywhere.

What’s the album going to be called?

Ellen- It’s called “Bang, Bang, Bang.”

Do you have a projected day for when you want to release it?

Ellen- We keep on—I wanted it to be done by October and now it’s going to be like February.

Is it, like the performances, going to be piano and drums or are there other musicians involved?

Ellen- My friend Abbie Hainz, good friend and violinist Abbie Hainz, will be coming in and we’re going to have some back up vocals for the title track “Bang, Bang, Bang.”  And that’s about it.

This is kind of getting back toward that idea of work.  As a working artist, are you self-contained?  Do you do your booking and your promotion and all of that type of thing?

Ellen- Yes.  At this point.  We can’t afford, you know, to hire someone to do it.  Yeah and at this point I guess we’ve made enough of a name for ourselves that we’re not even booking ourselves, I just get emails asking us to play.

At what point did that start?

Ellen- You know it’s been a little over a year that people ask us.  We have to turn down a lot of shows.  Because you don’t want to overbook yourself.

So how often are you playing at this point?

Ellen- At least every other week.  Our next show is this Thursday at El Lenador for the A Very Burt Dax Christmas release.  So yeah, I cannot wait… Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.  It’s four shows.

So you’ve come to a point where a lot of the booking comes to you but promoting is still probably a big part of what you do.

Ellen- Oh yeah, definitely.  You don’t ever want to slow down on that.

What do you find to be the most useful promoting avenues like for yourself and the type of music you do?

Ellen- I think honestly word of mouth is the best way to get anybody.  You just got to that the shows…don’t sell something that people aren’t gonna want.  Make sure it’s a fun night.  I think KDHX is great at promoting.  It’s a great tool for St. Louis musicians.  Facebook is alright. I mean, I feel like I get so many invites for everything everyday that it’s probably almost useless anymore, but I still do it, you know. 

The Future of Ellen
So I want to ask a few questions about what’s next.  You talked a little bit about the album, you talked a little bit about your upcoming shows.  So what else is in the immediate future for Ellen the Felon and the Matronome?

Ellen- We want to shoot more music videos, like actual music videos.

I’ve seen the one down at City Museum.

Ellen- He did a great job on that.

Who did that?

Ellen- Bill Streeter, he did… he’s done a lot.  He did Sleepy Kitty’s, The Blind Eyes, Pokey LaFarge, the Monads, Beth Bombara, Cassie Morgan, Irene.  It was definitely an honor when he asked me to do one.

So, do you have…are you going to do the next one with him or do you have something set up otherwise?

Ellen- I really want to wait until it warms up a little bit and I want to get like 60 or 70 people to do like a flash mob music video.  I think that’d be awesome.

So there’s that…

Ellen- Yeah, music videos, album, we just got a new web site.  It’s  We’re still working on it a little bit.  Touring!  Really just getting out of our comfort zone.  We’ve got our cushy little thing here in St. Louis.  I think we need to play to you know three people in a different town or whatever.  And I think it will be a good bonding experience for Matt and I.

So, are you already thinking about where you want to go?

Ellen-  I want to go everywhere.   I want to go to Seattle, Portland, Boston, New York—anywhere in New York.  I’ve been told that the east coast is perfect for us.  I want to go to New Orleans, even Tennessee, Chicago, Kansas City, Austin.

Do you as an artist have anything like a five year plan or do you just kind of take things as they come or do you take things at smaller intervals than five years?

Ellen- We just kind of do it—we just take it as it comes, I guess.  We definitely don’t want to be just a St. Louis band.  We want to go beyond that.  We were talking about that at practice last night.

How often do you guys practice?

Ellen- At least once a week sometimes twice.  And it’s not just practice, it’s kind of like a meeting.  We talk about our shows and catch up and stuff.  We never practice too much.

To Wrap Up…
So, just a couple more questions and I think we’re going to be done.  I want to know, what would you be doing if you weren’t a musician?

Ellen- I don’t know.  Probably be one of those mall walkers and just walk around in circles.  I use to really be into painting.  I’ve always been just the creative type.  I’d love to design dresses…own my own bar, something like that.  Something creative.

We’ve already talked a little bit about how the persona of Ellen the Felon coalesced.  But, how does Ellen the Felon, as this creation for the stage or even as this ghost of the past, how does Ellen the Felon differ from Ellen Cook?

Ellen- I don’t know.  I guess they’re pretty much the same… Ellen the Felon’s fancier, she drinks a lot more, she might get into a bar fight.  And Ellen Cook has a sweeter side and might write a love song.

Ellen the Felon and the Mattronome will be performing at Plush ( on Friday, January 13th.  You can check her out, along with Langen Neubacher at Foam Coffee and Beer ( as they open the show for their Open Mic Night every Wednesday starting at 9pm.  Be sure to check out Ellen's website,, for more information.