Interview with Letters to Cleo
Letters to Cleo got the band back together and they've got new music on the horizon! In anticipation of their upcoming album, we talked to the band for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. Lead singer Kay Hanley, guitarist Michael Eisenstein, and guitarist Greg McKenna detail the band's reunion, their new songs, and the secret behind their Midas touch when it comes to cover songs.
NoiseTrade: First off, to what do we owe the honor of new Letter to Cleo music? What got the band back together?
Michael Eisenstein: Stacy was coming off of several years of heavy touring and we ran into each other at a Johnny Pilonsky show in LA last fall. He asked if we should get together and write with Kay. So we agreed to get together after the beginning of the year and give it a crack. Greg sent us some MP3s of guitar ideas he had and the first one became "Can't Say." We wrote that and "Hitch a Ride" that first day.
NoiseTrade: Once everyone got back into the studio, how was the vibe playing together again?
Did it take a moment to kick back in or was it like riding a bike for you guys?
Kay Hanley: When someone mentioned that it had been 17 years since the band’s last recording
session, I was really taken aback. Even though we were trading tapes back and forth with Greg in Boston, the process of writing and recording this batch of songs was so focused and easy. It seemed like we’d never stopped. I guess we all just speak the same language.
Greg McKenna: I remember listening to the iPhone takes of the initial writing session recorded on the west coast and just missing the camaraderie we had as a band. So the next writing session, we agreed that I should be there. It was a little spooky how easily we slipped back into writing as a group. But a nice kind of spooky!
Eisenstein: It was even easier than back in the day because we have all been doing so much other music for the last 15 years that the confidence level is so much higher. We didn't feel like we needed to overthink anything or worry too much about any musical decisions. We would record a basic track pretty much right after the song was written with Stacy on drums, Kay singing, and me on electric guitar. It was a few runthroughs to get the arrangement down and then get a take. We would then send that to Greg and he did his overdubs in Boston. Then a month or so later, Greg came to LA and we got together and wrote the rest.
NT: What new songs are you most excited about unleashing on Letters to Cleo fans and playing live for them?
Hanley: There’s a song called “Back to Nebraska” which is probably the most personal and literal song I’ve ever written. I’m excited to play it because it’s the kind of warm, mid-tempo driver that Michael and Stacy are really great at. I’m nervous to play it because I will cry. “Four Leaf Clover” is going to be a blast, too. 100% Letters to Cleo, no striving for maturity.
Eisenstein: All five! If there's one thing I've learned about our fans, it's that just about every song is someone's favorite. So I'm really excited to release them and play them all at every show and see what people respond to. But I think "Hitch a Ride" will be a live favorite when we start gigging.
NT: During your initial run in the ‘90s, the band played some pretty big tours with bands like Sponge and Our Lady Peace. What do you think will be some of the biggest differences between touring life then and when you guys hit the road in the fall?
McKenna: I think everyone has gotten so much better at performing. When we started, we were raw, enthusiastic and didn't really know what we were doing. Everyone has gotten so much better as musicians and performers. That and earlier bed times.
Hanley: More airplanes, less Cracker Barrels.
Eisenstein: Well, even those tours were all clubs and some smaller theaters, so it won't be too different. The biggest difference is that we won't go out for a solid year and cover the county 2-3 times on a bus, as well as Canada and Europe. We will do short regional runs with long weekends here and there and fly and stay in nicer hotels.
NT: Finally, the band has always had a knack for releasing some incredible covers like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” The Cars’ “Dangerous Type,” Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me,” and Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind.” What do you think is the key to crafting a good cover song and do you guys have any new ones you’re working on?
Eisenstein: Thanks! I think the key to a great cover song is to have Kay Hanley sing it. In all seriousness, she's the main reason those covers are great. She is able to take something like "I Want You To Want Me" which we didn't change at all (other than the key) and make it her own despite the fact that the original is sung by one of the great rock voices of all time. I had an idea for a new cover the other day. I won't say which song, but it's a solo song by a former Beatle.
Hanley: What a nice thing Michael said! As I think back to the when and why of our cover song choices, I’m struck by the total lack of self-consciousness we had back then. I think we approached those songs with enough reverence to stay true to the source, enough balls to try and do it better, and enough humility to know when to quit.
McKenna: Along with Kay's vocals, are the songs themselves. We were careful to choose great songs that we could do justice to. The real credit goes to the original songwriters that wrote such amazing songs!
For an additional '90s flashback while we wait on the new EP, here's Letter to Cleo playing on Late Night with Conan O'Brien in February of 1995.