Kelley Stoltz: Interview
“Yeah, songs; I think I like songs at the end of the day.”

I can just imagine Kelley Stoltz's apartment; above a mostly deserted laundromat in San Francisco, washing machines whirring along their cycles as the odd Beach Boys harmony drifts down, an occasional excited guitar experiment or odd curse-word. It's a cluttered little place, filled with instruments to trip over, but, of course, he likes it that way. That same charming sort of homemade vibe is reflected in his jokes and furthermore in his music; songs that are solid and structured but ramshackle at their heart; pop hits that are ready to fall apart at any moment. Circular Sounds is his sixth album of strangely timeless-sounding ballads, off-kilter and endearing in both their nostalgia and explorations in new sounds. Part of Stoltz's art is homage, but it doesn't take many listens for idiosyncrasies to shine through. His approach is DIY, happy-go-lucky, but hey, I'm sure we're well past the need for a band being in tune to sound good.

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On your albums, do you get many guests to feature or is it just all done by you?

On the records, I play pretty much about 90% of the stuff. I have a studio here at home with a piano and drum set and amps and everything. I pretty much play everything myself and record it into my tape machine into my room. I live in this apartment that's over a laundromat so there's no one down below to complain. My roommates are working during the day, so I've got a lot of time during the day to work on stuff, and I just end up playing the stuff because I make up a little guitar part then move over to the drum set, put a beat on it. It's just easier that way, to figure out what I'm doing and make up songs real quick without having to explain stuff.

Okay, so was there anything you did very differently on the new one, Circular Sounds?

This one I definitely wrote less on piano, because last time I based a lot of it on that. This time I made an effort to be less known as just a piano guy, so I wrote a lot more on guitar. I went on tour with The Raconteurs in 2006 and it was fun to see those guys rock out and play their big pop songs, and maybe I took a bit away from that too, just getting back to playing more guitar-based stuff and relying less on effects pedals running through keyboards that were really tough to replicate live. It's a bit more basic, now. It's just the same only different, the same guy playing everything so it has the same personality.

Do you feel like you've got a lot of time to take your time and work on music?

Oh yeah, yeah. I work at a record store a few days a week, and it's a real fun job, relaxed, and I've got my three days off that I just get to come home and play music. It's great. I still enjoy it. I get started at noon and hopefully by 7 or 8 that night I've got a song made that I can listen to later that night. That's pretty much what I try and do every day.

So you've kind of got a small audience to try it out on too?

Oh, hell no. I don't try it out on them, just on myself. I think a lot of the home recording solo thing is made more of out fear, too. I spent a long time fantasizing about being a musician without really knowing how to play an instrument. By the time I learned, I was already 20 and you should've kind have written at least a few songs by then. I just felt like, man, all the bands I love, Brian Wilson, The Bunnymen, David Bowie -- they already had two great records out by that stage. I'm so far behind! So, I was always kind of afraid to play my songs for anybody because they didn't match up to the stuff I like. It's easy for me to play in a club; it's more anonymous. But if it's for my friends or my girlfriends and just me and a guitar or something, I pretty much have a panic attack.

Yeah, it's always way harder to show stuff you've made to friends whose opinions you actually value. I always have those same ideas about learning an instrument and never have. Well, briefly but not seriously. It seems like you just have to get some gear and start trying to make stuff. Is that how it happened for you?

Yeah, definitely. I played in bands when I was young. I was always a good singer, like in choir at high school. I could sing well, but I didn't know how to play guitar or anything. I think it was finally when I got my apartment when I moved out to New York City in about 1994. A friend had a four-track that he lent to me, and I think that was the first time I'd really experimented. We recorded some songs together, and you know, they were pretty bad. But it was really cool to go through the overdub process and sing backup vocals and add a guitar solo. I think that's when I caught the bug to do that sort of thing. When I moved to San Francisco a few years later I bought my own four track and had my own space to experiment and lock myself away and get working on it.

Is it still really fun for you these days?

Yeah, I enjoy it a lot. I definitely get frustrated when, say, I've got a bunch of gear in my room and I trip over a microphone and the cables wrap around my ankles and you know... one day I want to make a collection of me just swearing and yelling and stomping around my room like some insane person when things aren't going well. But it's never really a drag. I've found what I like to do. I'm happy that I can still get to do it.

That's funny the way you talk about your studio, cluttered and homely sounding. It's always how your records have sounded to me, like really solid songs but with a homemade kind of vibe, rough around the edges. I guess it makes sense that that's sort of how you're working physically.

Yeah, stuff's kind of crowded and there's a sitar leaning over there and an amplifier underneath the piano because I'm making room for something else. I think it does rear it's head in the songs a little bit. It's neat when a record takes on a bit of personality from the room that it's made in. Famous ones like The Band doing the Big Pink stuff or The Beatles Abbey Road stuff. And then even just down to a little guy like me that you kind of get the feeling that it's a crammed room with a bunch of stuff in it.

It's strange how it does. But then again, there's never too much clutter for me on those records.

Well you know, I'm a Virgo. Once it gets too cluttered I spend a lot of time uncluttering it.

Yeah, do you spend much time editing the songs you make?

Yes and no. Some songs require a lot of it and some are kind of just done. I kind of write and record at the same time. I don't spend a lot of time planning, like I don't sit with a pen and paper writing lyrics or chord changes. I tend to start strumming and find a chord progression that's kind of cool, I can sing this melody, and I overheard someone say this strange line at a bar last night, maybe I can use that in a song. That's pretty much how I write stuff. Sometimes you just do it beginning to end, but other times I go back and think, “Man, I wish I repeated that vocal twice,” or something. But there are definitely some that I've labored over for two years trying to get the right mix and have just ended up wasting a lot of time on. The ones you end up working on for too long, you end up sucking the life out of. And that's fine, too, like Brian Eno or something; there's ways to do it well, but for me, a song writes itself real quick with a minimum of work later.

It's definitely easy to overwork and overanalyze stuff you've done. You're mentioning a lot of real classic bands and albums, and with the experimental sort of way you work, do you ever notice songs that you've heard coming out in your own songs?

Oh yeah. [laughs] Oh yeah. As an only child, I was always a good sponge and I would mimic lots of people, I would talk in lots of different voices and pretend to be David Bowie getting interviewed by the BBC. I did all these things when I was young and it's stuck with me; and now, I have a real knack and ability for mimicking music. If I hear a Beach Boys tune or King Crimson... oh, actually maybe no King Crimson but something that's in regular 4/4 rock time, if I hear it, I can go and pretty much whip one off really easily. I definitely have to be careful. Like on the last record, the song “Ever Thought Of Coming Back” which is very Beach Boys. It wasn't so Beach Boys until I put those harmonies on it, and then I knew I've gone over into homage at this point. But you know, I love that band, so I don't really care. It was fun, and in a way it was kind of like doing a math problem, figuring out how the Beach Boys get that sound. It ended up that way where it had a big Beach Boys thing to it. I hear that a lot in my songs; it's weird trying to figure out where things come from. It's a weird world I've got locked in my brain, and they definitely come out in some of the songs. I'm trying to step away from homage and pastiche and focusing more and more on making my own records, or at least have an original voice, even if it is well-informed by a lot of the past records that everybody knows and loves. It's a fine line, though.

Yeah, I've listened to that song a lot. It's really just those harmonies that make it Beach Boys-like, but at the same time, I love hearing those vocals and that sound, those harmonies. No one's really done it as well as The Beach Boys. Indie music can seem to focus a lot on remaking things, or reappropriating things. Just different people's different takes on all the music that has already been made and how you're going to deal with all that information. Is this how you feel like you work? That you've got a certain amount of stuff to work from, in a way?

Well, I can only play drums in 4/4 time, you know. I play guitar, bass, drums, piano, and that's just what's been used for 40 years in this format that I like and embrace, which is rock and pop music. It's a tried and true formula. People try to bring in computers or keyboards or samples or whatever, but that's not stuff I really like to listen to; it sounds artificial to me. The stuff that I like is mainly from the 50s through 70s music. I mean, I listen to a lot of other stuff from outside those times. I never really try and reappropriate too much, it's just that's what I like to listen to so I end up writing it, you know. I'm glad there's a wide variety of stuff, like people making a noise by banging a refrigerator and feeding it through an echoplex, but at the end of it all, I just like a nice pop tune.

It definitely sounds that way from listening to your records, just good songs more than anything.

Yeah, songs. I think I like songs at the end of the day.

There is a cool kind of sound or aesthetic going on, maybe from how you record at home on a tape machine. It's definitely got that homemade, organic kind of vibe.

Yeah, I like to leave a little bit of strangeness in there as well. It's part of my character and part of what I like musically. Psychedelic pop records with strange backwards loops and all that, I like those things, so I try to put a few things like that in there. I'm not flying high on acid or anything when I record, so I guess its not that out there. The stuff I grew up liking was always three or four chords and pretty simple arrangements. And part of that homemade feeling, too, is that I'm playing everything as well as I can. I'm not a professional guitarist or drummer or anything, so it's always going to sound a little worn and tattered because I'm just playing it to the best of maybe a limited ability. So I guess it sounds a little ramshackle that way. The same goes with a lot of other records I love, like Bob Dylan or something, it sounds like they're out of tune a lot of the time and I think that's great. It really adds a lot of character and you can listen to it again and again and rediscover parts. But if everything is played flawlessly to some click track then for me its missing the human element, even if it sounds like a hit on the radio; it's just not gonna hold up over a long period of time.

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