Interview: ON AN ON’s Nate Eiesland

The Maroon catches up with ON AN ON’s Nate Eiesland to discuss its upcoming Schubas concert and its new album.

By Daniel Rivera

Maybe over Thanksgiving break you caught up with your favorite TV medical drama, or spent your off days plugged into the annals of the indie online soundscape. Maybe, in doing so, you stumbled across the big sounds of a band called ON AN ON. Their most recent single, “The Hunter,” has blown up the indie blogosphere with its Passion Pit-esque combination of vocoder and massive drum beats, a nostalgic wedding of sounds that begs being put on repeat. It’s the second single from a band that’s been something of a staple around Chicago, a favorite at music venues like Schubas and Lincoln Hall. The band’s trio, Nate Eiesland, Alissa Ricci, and Ryne Estwing, is the remains of indie folk darling Scattered Trees. Yet ON AN ON isn’t riding on the successes of its predecessor: “The Hunter” has been featured on MTV’s Buzzworthy, and the band’s first single, a moody yarn called “Ghosts,” was played on a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Eiesland took a break from ON AN ON’s current tour to speak with the Maroon about the band’s upcoming album, Give In, from Roll Call Records (set to drop on January 29, 2013), their December 14 show at Schubas, and the city that’s made it all possible.

Chicago Maroon: You’ve gone from solo artist to a troupe of five, and now, with ON AN ON, to a band of three. How has that journey had an impact on your singular evolution as a musician? Where were you in making Give In compared to, say, the days of your first solo effort, Hollohills?

Nate Eiesland: As a teenager I was doing solo stuff because I wasn’t in a community of people that were taking music as seriously as I did. Songwriting helped me put my life together in a way that I could understand from a distance. Part of that process of objectifying my own life stuck with me. Songwriting has been a willing listener, helping me process what’s happened in my life.

When I moved to Illinois I had done a solo album as Scattered Trees called Hollohills. I met a few friends that eventually comprised the band who recorded the next album, Song For My Grandfather. After that, the lineup solidified. During my early twenties I was writing for the reactions of the members of the band, even if it was something I wasn’t excited about. It was a disservice in hindsight, because those guys would’ve followed me in whatever direction I wanted to go, but I pandered to my idea of what they wanted to play, putting a ceiling on the creativity of the band. Then again, we were having a fantastic time, so there was a trade-off. At that point Scattered Trees was six members. Then the band almost broke up because some members had to leave the Midwest.

That was a crucial time for me. Up to that point Scattered Trees had been the embodiment of my art and musical identity. I don’t know when I decided I was going to make music for the rest of my life, but that was the first time I had to prove it to myself. Right after the band’s pseudo-breakup my father passed away unexpectedly. I began to write songs to process the grief. The songs sounded different than anything Scattered Trees would do. It was a chance for me to step forward creatively. I demoed the songs extensively, because those songs were the only thing I possessed or had control over. I sent the demos to the members of Scattered Trees and said I wanted them to be the next record. That record was called Sympathy. With most members living in different states it was a monster to complete. People flew in for a few days here and drove up for a weekend there. The engineer and I worked all day every day for 6 weeks. I am proud of Sympathy, but artistically I wasn’t completely satisfied. Sympathy was an incredibly important album to make. But there was a magic in the demos that faded by the time it was polished.

With ON AN ON I’m aware of the balance between inspiration and art. There is a confidence in my taste I’ve developed from not being satisfied with my work. This may be nonsense, but I feel I have something worthwhile to contribute, and while the art I’ve made in the past may not have measured up to my standards of greatness, I’ve inched closer with every effort. My dissatisfaction and unwillingness to quit are two sides of a coin that keeps itself spinning.

CM: You mentioned that when you wrote the songs for Sympathy, they were like therapy for the death of your father. Was there also a focal source of inspiration behind Give In? Considering the expansiveness of the sounds that you and producer Dave Newfeld (Broken Social Scene, Los Campesinos!) are experimenting with, what was the sound that bound them all together?

NE: I was writing Give In in response to my experience touring Sympathy. Performing those songs every night was tough emotionally. People connect with music or a performance through empathy. So, I try to show up with something honest to connect to on stage. At times it was reopening something that was trying to heal. That’s what you get when you express yourself honestly in front of an audience. I left the stage every night on the verge of tears. The songs I wrote after that time were born from a new perspective I had on death, something stronger and less afraid. That comes out in songs like “The Hunter.”

There wasn’t a sound we were going for when recording Give In. Dave created a creative atmosphere, and his genius with capturing moments of musical energy guided us through tracking Give In more than a sonic goal. We weren’t going to be satisfied by something that didn’t have good energy. There was this time when we started tracking guitars that I had a part in mind. I went in and tracked it well enough, but I wanted another go at it. I felt more confident in the second take, but after reviewing both we decided to use the first one because of its energy. My nerves made it through the microphone. The pursuit of that energy is what bound the songs on Give In together.

CM: The two songs currently released off of Give In sit at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Where “Ghosts” is resignation (“I don’t want to be your stupid fling or your magazine/ That you look and turn the pages of, someone else that you’ll never love”), “The Hunter” is assertive and unapologetic (“There’s no use in hiding when I’ve made my decision/ I’ll get what I came for ‘cause that’s all you can give.”) Can you speak to the emotional complexities at play? You’ve confessed to being something of an autobiographical songwriter. Does that still hold true?

NE: I still write autobiographically, but my perspective has changed enough that the songs are different. That song [“Ghosts”] took a bit of alchemy. I had written the song and felt it needed something more. We all thought a vocal bridge could complete it. The section that lyric is from was actually written by Ryne. He had another song we were working on that wasn’t feeling right. So, we did some massaging to the rhythm of the lyrics and wrote the progression. It creates an interesting paradox between what the verses and choruses are saying.

“The Hunter” is a reaper ballad, and its lyrics are matter-of-fact about something a lot of people are afraid of. “The Hunter”‘s lyrics reflect a level of familiarity and understanding of death that I didn’t possess when I was younger.

CM: Is Chicago an influence on your music? You’ve been a staple around here for years, particularly at Schubas (where your December 14 show will be held). Has the city changed you, or your sound?

NE: Chicago’s influence has been magnetic. No matter where the music took me, I ended up back in Chicago. Maybe it’s because I became an adult here. All the bands I’ve been in that were of significance to me were formed here. I’ve spent a lot of time making art in Chicago, and it’s good to be a part of what’s going on here.

CM: How do “Ghosts” and “The Hunter” reflect Give In in its entirety? And considering that your album drops in two months’ time, which aspects of it are you most excited about introducing new fans to during your current tour?

NE: “Ghosts” has a self-assurance and a subdued quality. It doesn’t force anything on you. There is a lot going on when you listen carefully. That’s a picture of the album as a whole, the kind of album we wanted to make. It’s not a recipe for immediate success, but what is nowadays? “The Hunter” is a kick in the crotch. That song was too nice until it got pushed so hard through the mixing board that the entire mix was distorting. It sounded like the song was on fire, and that excited me. It lent an intensity that was lacking in clearer mixes of the song. What we sacrificed in articulation we gained in a peculiarity that I was in love with.

I’m excited to show everyone that we made something worthwhile. It’s not just a couple good tunes with a bunch of filler songs just to get a full length out. Once it’s released, I’m excited to hear what people connect to in the songs that aren’t the singles. There’s weight to this album as a whole. I hope other people think so, too. I’m closer to satisfaction than I’ve ever been, and that’s saying a lot.

ON AN ON plays at Schubas Tavern on December 14. Tickets are $10.