Features | Interviews

Pale Young Gentlemen

By Eric Sams | 22 October 2008

The Pale Young Gentlemen just released a pretty great second album, added some members to their chamber pop ensemble, and embarked on their first full US tour. Big things are happening, and what better time for CMG to hassle Gents lead singer Mike Reisenauer than in the midst of all this general kerfuffle. We quizzed him on the new album, the Madison music scene, and obscure Belgian folk artists. He answered ably, and also subtly contends that Black Forest (Tra La La) isn’t eligible for a sophomore slump.

CMG’s Eric Sams (CMG): You guys have gone through some pretty major changes since the last album, you signed with Science of Sound in March and you’ve had a shakeup in your band’s roster. How has that affected the writing and recording process?

PYG’s Mike Reisenauer (PYG): Actually, it didn’t change a whole lot. Personnel changes do slow things down a bit, but everyone that left left amicably, with a lot of notice, and very little drama. We demoed the new songs at Science of Sound’s studio, which really helped speed up the album’s aging process and readied it for proper recording. Honestly, having only made two records, we don’t have a whole lot of regular processes to disrupt. And I knew at the onset that the process for this album was going to be inherently different—so it’s fairly difficult to compare. There were no variables to isolate.

CMG: About the roster change. Who left? Who joined? What prompted it?

PYG: There’s a lot of uninteresting back story here but essentially our bass player left, we picked up a few more string players and then lost some of them, and the guitar player now plays bass. People left for the same reasons anyone leaves anything: found new opportunities, needed to make some changes, wanted to fuck with their own personal inertia. The rest of the band is currently on tour: Gwen Miller (viola), Beth Morgan (cello), Brett Randall (bass), my brother Matt (drums) and myself.

CMG: Your website says that this album “represents a new turn, an evolution for PYG,” and that Black Forest (Tra La La) “is distinct from your previous release.” What went into the decision to change your sound? How do you think the changes of the past year are reflected in Black Forest, beyond the obvious addition of instruments?

PYG: I think the main difference this time around is intent. If the first record “sounds” like anything, it is purely accidental. They were just some songs that were fun and stuck around long enough to be recorded. The songs on the new record were written to live next door to each other. And I wanted to evoke a physical setting—for it to play out like a fairytale or a folktale or something. I also tried to grab only the essence of the song and keep out as many distracting musical devices as possible, tried to form a sort of musical language that suited the ideas I was trying to put across.

CMG: I’ve written kind of a slew of reviews about Madison acts over the past year, starting with the PYG debut. On the strength of these albums it seems like there’s quite a strong music scene up there. What’s it like? Is it tight knit? I know that Beth played on Whatfor’s new record. Do you guys all go to each other’s shows? Out drinking after the shows? Is there any sort of hierarchy of bands, and, if so, where do you see PYG fitting into that?

PYG: Honestly, I am no authority on the Madison music scene. There are definitely some exciting things happening: Sleeping in the Aviary, that Whatfor record you mentioned, Time Since Western (our old bass player’s group), some others. We bounce tracks off each other once in awhile, but it’s not like a movie or anything.

CMG: So the Gents are in the middle of their first big ass US tour. With such a collaborative sound and so much orchestration necessary to come up with a finished product it seems like songwriting would require a lot of planning and scheduling, but Black Forest was recorded and mixed in two weeks. How does the songwriting normally go?

PYG: Generally, after I get a tone for the song in place and a few lyrics, I start working on the arrangement, which starts some weird kind of feedback loop where the arrangement starts informing the song and other songs around it or related to it.

CMG: Are there several phases or do you kind of go in creative bursts? Are you guys going to try to write on the road?

PYG: Like any job, there’s a mix of productive and unproductive times. But I was working on so many songs at once (for me) that I was able to skip around when things weren’t working. Some days were better for lyrics, others better for a certain string part or whatever. Once I feel like it’s ready enough to show the band without wasting their time, I do. We’d test in rehearsals and then I’d go back and try to fix things. So the music is pretty much done by the time it goes to the studio. As for writing on the road, so far it seems impossible. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about things, but writing is really personal to me and the road doesn’t seem like a great atmosphere for it.

CMG: I’ve heard you compare your sound to Jacques Brel, who really only gets love in America through English language covers of his work. Have you guys ever thought about doing a Gents cover of “Ne Me Quitte Pas” or something?

PYG: Truthfully, I’ve never really been a fan of his stuff. I think at the time I just liked the idea of it.

CMG: A lot of the songs on Pale Young Gentlemen (“Fraulein, “Clap Your Hands”) had a kind of 20s gin joint feel, and on this album “I Wasn’t Worried” contains the line “I rob the pockets of our good old days.” Does the band see itself as sort of a musical anachronism?

PYG: Nope, that first record landed me in a place I didn’t intend to be as a songwriter. I didn’t know it at the time, but it did. Maybe it can be blamed on naivet√©? “I Wasn’t Worried” is about relationship modeling.

CMG: Somewhat related to that, in “Our History” you sing “You can’t touch me, my people, our history.” It seems like this persistent theme looking backward or writing in that mode could be taken as a statement about how you see the state of modern music. Is that something that you do consciously or is it just that you identify more closely with that (or those) era(s)?

PYG: I don’t really identify with those eras anymore than anyone else, I don’t think. I actually don’t listen to a lot of new or old music and have no opinions about modern music other than it seems like there are very few people doing or writing things on purpose. I hear a lot of music that sounds like one big pile-up, a ProTools car accident. Maybe I am old-fashioned in that sense. I like being led to a chorus of some kind or for there to be some explanation for it. I like the music to enhance the lyrics and vice versa. I wanted this new record to sound like it could come from any era or no era, a make-believe or real place. “Our History” is about having a newfound and heightened sense of connection to your family, your lineage. Probably fed to me through whatever residual Irish blood I have.

CMG: Without needing to be too specific, what do you see as some of the narrative threads of this record?

PYG: To me this record is about self-preservation, self-reliance, personal battles. Like a sad heroic quest or something. I don’t want to inform listeners too much—if that’s necessary, maybe I didn’t do my job very well.