The Eli Young Band is living proof that slow and steady can win the race. Rather than strive for immediate fame, the Denton, Texas-based country-rock four-piece took the time to hone their skills and develop their relationships with one another.
"We make a joke that we're a 10-year overnight success," drummer Chris Thompson said. "But we had the time to develop ourselves as performers and learn how to write songs, just do the things that you don't get to learn if you're just thrown out in front of an audience."
Their approach worked. Since forming in 2000 the band has had two singles chart on Billboard and received a nomination for the Academy of Country Music's Top New Vocal Group award.
Their latest album, 2008's "Jet Black and Jealous," debuted at number 5 on Billboard's country chart. It's an amped-up blend of pop rock songs with a country twang. Mike Wrucke and Frank Lidell, who've worked with fellow country star Miranda Lambert, produced the album.
The long road to "Jet Black and Jealous" wasn't an easy one, either. During their early years, the guys of Eli Young Band had to juggle classes and jobs while trying to break into the music industry.
"It's just what we had to do to survive, you know, work two jobs while we're going to school and make it to band rehearsal, play until 2 in the morning and then get up at 5 to go to work," Thompson said. "We just accepted that that's what we had to do to make it."
Thompson said he and the guys are not taking their success for granted and hopes their music conveys their happiness.
"We're living our dreams," he said. "Even if you're talking about breakup or heartache or loss, it's kind of hard not to have that hope, at least in the back of your mind."
Eli Young Band takes the stage at Lake Winnepesaukah for two shows Sunday on the Jukebox Junction Stage.
IF YOU GO
* What: Eli Young Band in concert.
* When: 3 and 8 p.m. Sunday.
* Where: Lake Winnepesaukah, Rossville, Ga.
* Admission: $5 adults; guests under 18 must be accompanied by an adult, purchase an all-day ride pass for $21 or value strip of 14 tickets for $12.
* Phone: 706-866-5681.
* Web site: www.lakewinnie.com.
2002: "Eli Young Band"
2008: "Jet Black and Jealous"
"I don't know if we've ever written a song the same way twice. There's no formula that anyone adheres to." -- drummer Chris Thompson on Eli Young Band's songwriting process
Brittney McKenna, lifestyle reporter, spoke recently with Chris Thompson, drummer for Texas-based rock/country group Eli Young Band.
BM: Can you tell me a little about how you guys met originally?
CT:The four of us went to the University of North Texas in Denton, right outside of Dallas. We were all friends and we were all interested in music. In high school, James and Mike started playing acoustic sets together at a local bar in Denton. They did that for about six months and started writing songs together. After about six months they invited Jon and I to come onstage with them for about four songs-- they were doing a two hour set. Then Jon and I sat back and drank beer the rest of the show. So that was the first time we were all four onstage and we never stopped after that. We'd go to Fort Worth and Dallas and do shows, then we branched into Oklahoma. About the time it took for us to graudate, which is roughly between four and six years (laughs) we started developing a fanbase in Texas. That was in 2000. In six or seven years that following grew up into Oklahoma and Arkansas, down y'all's way and over into New Mexico. In 2005 we released our second studio album which is called "Level," and there's a song on that CD called "When It Rains." We released it to radio in Texas and it got some play but months after all of that happened we started to hear that it was getting played around the country. It was independently, we weren't promoting it or anything like that. Then we got a call from a friend who said, "Hey did you guys know 'When It Rains' is on Billboard?"
After that we started going to Nashville. Then we met Frank Liddell, who ended up producing "Jet Black and Jealous" and also produced for Miranda Lambert. He'd been bringing us up to Nashville, getting us some distribution through companies up there, basically taking us under his wing and mentoring us in the ways of the music business. Around the time "When It Rains" began to chart, we had started talking with major labels. We talked to Universal South, who we ended up signing with, and said, "Hey, right now 'When It Rains' is on the charts. How about we put it on this new album we're about to put out and give it a real chance at being a national song?" They were totally on board so we moved the song onto "Jet Black and Jealous" and released it as our first single. That gets us to the beginning of our relationship with Universal South.
BM: The University in Denton, isn't that a pretty big music school?
CT:Yeah it is. It has one of the most highly-ranked jazz music programs in the world. Three of us started as music majors but then we all ended up getting different degrees just because our interests were dual.
BM: I go to a music-heavy school, so I know that environment can be very beneficial. How did your college experience affect you as musicians?
CT:Yeah, you can't ignore it. You know that there are always players out there who are going to be better and you can learn from them. You could be hanging out at a bar and have a great guitarist sitting right next to you, talk shop with them for a while and pick something up. To me it seemed like in most of the places I've lived there is a slight competitive edge among musicians where they desire to go all the way, to get as big as they can get, whereas a lot of people elsewhere are happy just playing their hometowns. But there were a lot of people in Denton who were like, "I'm going to make it in the music business." That was a new thing, and a very inspiring, competitive thing to be around.
BM: In your early years, how did you guys deal with having jobs and trying to make it as a band at the same time?
CT:That's a great question. I have no idea (laughs). We just did it. I think it was out of sheer passion. When we started out, and we still do, we loved what we were doing together, as far as the music we were making and the opportunities to get to play and actually be in a band that was starting to do something and starting to mean someting to other people and ourselves. It's just what we had to do to survive, you know, work two jobs while we're going to school and make it to band rehearsal, play until two in the morning and then get up at five to go to work. We just accepted that that's what we had to do to make it. Thinking about it now, I'm like, "I can't believe we did that for years and years." But at the time it was just what we had to do.
BM: How do you feel, personally, that the economy in the last few years has changed the playing field for smaller, unsigned artists?
CT:It's funny, I think that the industry and the economy have probably most majorly affected major label artists, if anyone. Leading up to the hard economic times was the establishment of MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, Facbook-- all of the ways to get your music out online without having to be on a major label. And with all of the home studio equipment that's available for cheap, bands can pretty much record on their own. Right now is probably one of the best times in the history of music to be a new artist, because there are just endless avenues of how you can get your music out there. You're only limited by what you choose to do or not to do.
BM: It seems like over the years you've evolved in smaller advances than some bands. Was that intentional?
CT:Oh yeah, definitely. It's funny, we make a joke that we're a ten year overnight success (laughs). Right now, we're just getting this national exposure but we've been doing it since 2000. People are like, "Oh did you just start six months ago?" and I just laugh. But we did, and you don't see that very often these days in mainstream acts but I think that it is totally necessary. I know that none of the four of us would change it for anything. Like we were talking about earlier, we had jobs and we had to get up and go to work which built this desire within us to push harder and make music what we were going to do for a living. We had the time to develop ourselves as performers and learn how to write songs, to just do the things that you don't get to learn if you're just thrown out in front of an audience because you had a number one single and all of the sudden you are on a world tour. We did our own artist development, to an extent. Also, through that our friendships were formed and were strengthened because we went through all of these trials and tribulations before money was involved or fame was involved, before press pictures or writing credits. We became true friends and brought that to the table when those things started coming into the picture. So none of that became a big deal, which seems, to us, can be something that can really kill a band.
BM: You mentioned earlier that "When It Rains" charted on Billboard while you were still independent. Would you consider that a turning point in your career, or was the turning point another moment?
CT: It definitely was. "When It Rains" changed our lives completely, and to this day it still does. That song, God bless it, it's the song that won't go away. It was written within the band-- James, our guitar player, wrote it and it was actually one of the first songs he ever wrote. He just wrote it on the guitar one day and he came up with a melody. It was a rainy day and he was driving in his car and the song just came to him. It's funny, because I remember the first time he played it for all of us we sort of listened to it and were like, "Man that's cool, what else do you have?" (laughs) Not just like, "Oh my gosh, we're going to play that song for the rest of our lives!" Sure enough, we ended up doing two music videos for it and it was on two albums. The video was nominated for an award. To this day, it gets played on radio throughout the country and it's just kind of one of those songs that's sticking around, which I'm proud to be a part of and the whole band is definitely proud of, too.
BM: Is there a lot of collaboration on songwriting between the four of you?
CT:It's funny, we were talking about this the other day, I don't know if we've ever written a song the same way twice. There's no formula that anyone adheres to. We all write, and we all had writing credits on various albums. But we go into the studio and look for the best of the best songs that we have and those are the ones we record. We'll go to Nashville or to wherever and meet up with other writers to do writing sessions. Or two or three of us will sit together on the bus and work on an idea. Or in soundcheck we'll start jamming something and then something will come out of that. Or somebody will be at home by themselves and make a demo tape out of something. It comes out of everywhere We're a song and melody band, which is, I think, why we're a country band (laughs). I think that when we hear a strong song with a strong melody, that's the song that is going to make the album. We say in the band that we don't ever want to write the same song twice. We're always trying to push ourselves, and that leads us in all of these different directions.
BM: A lot of your songs are very character-based. Are these characters based on real people?
CT: It depends on the song, it really does. There are some songs that we have that are definitely about a specific person and then there are some that sound like they are but they're just about experiences that we've had. We try to make honest songs that have a strong melody that people can relate to. And that's really it. Once you start trying to write a song that's about something you don't know, then it's just going to come off sounding false. I can't tell you how many times we've sat down and were like, "Well let's write a song about being in the army" or, "Let's write a song about people who were in love in the '20s." You can't do anything with it because it's just not true.
BM: One of my favorite songs on the album is "Throw and Go." Can you tell me a little about that one?
CT: Excellent. James and Mike wrote that one back in Denton a couple years ago, and at the time they wrote it the band was really starting to get busy. All of the sudden we were on the road for three weeks solid, instead of playing a week and going home for a week. It seemed like these shows kept popping up at the last minute and it was just like, "Alright, just get laundry done, throw your stuff in the backseat and hit the road, man, it's time to go." That was really the premise that song was based off of, that rush of life happening all of the sudden.
BM: I've really enjoyed Jet Black and Jealous. One thing that stood out to me is that even your sadder songs have an underlying sense of optimism. Was this intentional, or more a product of your outlook?
CT:I guess it's intentional, I've never thought of that before. We try to be positive people. It's definitely not forced, but I guess it just reflects the people that we are, without sounding cheesy. We're hopeful people. We're living our dreams, and we've been living our dreams for years now. Even if you're talking about breakup or heartache or loss it's kind of hard not to have that hope, at least in the back of your mind.
BM: How did working with Mike Wrucke and Frank Lidell affect the final product of Jet Black and Jealous?
CT:We had known Frank for a couple of years. He had recorded Miranda's album, her first album which was one of our favorite albums of all time. He was a shoe-in, man. We had to have that guy produce our record. He and Mike had done Miranda's record together. Mike was sort of his prodigy, his partner. We wanted to work with that team, so we got together with them and started talking about music, what they like and what we like. It just made perfect sense to do "Jet Black and Jealous" with them and we'll more than likely do our next album with them, too. It was a lot of fun, and we click as people and click as musicians. Mike Wrucke, to his own right, is a phenomenal musician and in the studio he will push us o new heights. He's familiar with our old work, familiar with our story and what we've done. He's not scared to shove us in a new direction. That's exciting as a musician. Being a band that tours like we do, you can get stuck in ruts or think one thing is really cool but it just ends up being repetitive. It's nice to have those fresh ears and a fresh knowledge of music come at you.
BM: How do you go about trying to capture the energy of a live performance when recording in the studio?
CT:That's a good question too. That was our number one goal for recording "Jet Black and Jealous." We had studio albums done. We had stuff that sounded like studio albums and we were cool with it, but we wanted to capture this live sound. We felt like we had come to a really good place musically in our careers when we started recording that album and we felt like we knew, to be honest with you, how to play our instruments better than before. We had been in the studio enough to know how it works and how to use the studio to make good albums. So we felt like we were in a really good place to do that but we wanted that energy. So it was just kind of one of those things where we set out from the beginning to do it and always kept that in the back of our minds, to just push it and play with energy. Somehow, I feel like it made it across. We wanted to make a record that sounded live but wasn't a live record. I feel like we accomplished that, but I'm excited to see what we end up doing with the next album. And it's just part of the band. We have a lot of rock influences, we go see rock shows. We did some bits with Jason Aldean and his whole show is high energy. We're just attracted to those sorts of things and want that to be part of the Eli Young Band package.
BM: When listening to your music I picked up a lot of bits and pieces of artists that may have influenced you. Which musicians do you feel have had an impact on your career?
CT:This is a fun question to answer because the four of us are so different, and we come from really different places musically. So there is no one answer, because we all grew up listening to everything. We all get into Alabama, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Garth Brooks, Rodney Crowell and stuff up to Keith Urban or Lady Antebellum, newer stuff that's just really cool and hip. Counting Crows and all of that alternative rock from the '90s comes out in our sound and influenced the way we play and hear things. When we all met, one of the first things we started doing was sharing music with each other. Those of us who came from more specific backgrounds were exposed to new kinds of music. Over the years, we've all kind of melded into liking each other's music, or not liking each other's music (laughs), but understanding where we each come from.
BM:You've opened for an impressive list of artists, including Sheryl Crow and Dave Matthews Band. What did you learn from playing with veterans of the industry?
CT:I'm so glad that you brought up Dave Matthews because I think that one of the biggest lessons we've learned came from him, and it's just to stay humble. We did a couple of dates with them and those guys are more down to earth than most people's neighbors are. They're millionaires. They're excellent musicians. They're icons in the music industry, and yet they'll sit down and talk to you like you're one of their friends and just one of the guys. To see those people at that level dealing with us at the level we're at, which is much, much lower, was a great lesson to always be humble and always be cool.
Then we did a couple of shows with Alan Jackson and he told us about just how to survive in the industry and what it's like to really work and how important that is. Guys like Jason Aldean who are coming up and really making a name for themselves taught us to keep it going and stay true to the music you want to make. We take from wherever we can and always cherish the opportunity to learn from somebody and try to get something new across. We're still so new and young ourselves.
BM: With everything that's happened for you guys, from the ACM nomination to charting on Billboard, what would you say has been your biggest accomplishment so far?
CT:Oh man. We got to play the Ryman. We got to play the Grand Ole Opry for the first time at the Ryman. To be a band that for eight years has been considered on the fringe of country or not country enough for this but not rock enough for that, to be invited there and to stand on that stage, be a part of the true history of country music was probably one of the coolest things that's ever happened.
BM: There's something in the air at the Ryman, it's such a cool place.
CT:Yeah, it's like ghosts of country music past. So that was really a cool moment for all four of us. But there have been a ton. Getting "Always the Love Songs," playing bigger shows and selling seven or eight thousand tickets, those moments never get old. Just the other day I was driving around and heard "Radio Waves," our new song, on XM. It was the first time I've heard it on the radio and that just never gets old. Those things just keep you going.
BM: What do you guys have coming up? Are you writing, or focusing on touring?
CT:We're touring and writing. Right now we're in Kendallville, Indiana. I'm sitting on the back of the bus in the pouring down rain and there's mud everywhere at this rodeo thing. But we're still on the road trying to do as many dates as we can do, which means we're gone for weeks on end. Right now, like you said, we're writing like crazy. We're going to bring more songs to this album than we've ever brought to any album before. I would say we have our next three albums already written. In the fall also, we're going to go back into the studio. The most important thing out of all of this though is that we just released our new single. "Radio Waves" is out there on your radio waves (laughs).
We're all doing the Twitter thing, I don't know if you're doing it. We're all on it and we have a band one, too. We have a lot of fun doing it. The coolest thing I've found about it is that it lets us stay connected with the people we don't get to see ever anymore-- fans who have been around for ten years. And the new fans get to know who we are, see our personalities. Then we always do our video blogs, that kind of stuff.