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Interview with Owen Thomas of The Elms

Earlier this week, I had a phone conversation with Owen Thomas, the lead singer and primary songwriter for The Elms.  The Elms started in the year 2000 on Sparrow Records and have released four full-length, studio albums over the years as well as a couple EPs and downloadable tracks.  Their last album, The Great American Midrange, released in September 2009 to great acclaim and instantly became one of my favorite albums of all time.

On June 1st, 2010, the band announced via their website that their final show will be July 30th in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Also, last week they released a digital box set containing 40 tracks comprised of previously unreleased studio recordings, alternate versions of album songs as well as live recordings and bootlegs.  It's called Stoppin' On A Dime: Live & Rare 2000-2010 and is available only on their official website,  We talk below about their decade-long career, the transformation of the music industry and the way the Internet has changed our lives.  Last week, you guys announced that [The Elms] were disbanding.  Is that the right term?

Owen:  Correct.  That's the term.  I mean, there is really no particularly nice way of saying it - something that doesn't conjure some kind of unpleasant imagery.  There's no sweet term for disbanding.  Yeah.  I don't mean to pry too much, but [in the announcement] you guys didn't really give a reason [for disbanding].  Obviously, you guys said it was not anything negative.  You guys are all great friends.  Is there a reason?

Owen:  I think that the primary reason is probably going to be difficult for many people to understand.  It really very much boils down to a nexus of feelings and circumstances.  We're a band that, I feel, from the very inception of our life together, have always answered to our heartbeat and the feelings of our instinct more than anything.  I really think that's the way it should be with artists. We kind of began to feel like this is just the right time to do this.  I don't know ultimately why that is... it just feels like when something runs it's course, you hope you have the cognizance to understand it and know it.  And I've always been precious about the idea that The Elms's existence would be vital for the duration of it's life span.  I would hate to feel like [the band] just persisted even after it felt like it shouldn't have kept persisting.  Kind of [to] go out when it's time, not later.

Owen:  Yeah.  The whole idea of our band has never been about making a living.  That's was just a by-product of the whole thing.  It's never been about being famous.  And if anybody ever found out about who we were, that's just another by-product.  The whole thing's just supposed to just come from our hearts.  I think that, musically and personally, we were in a very pure place for the last record, and in my mind I don't know that it can be that pure ever again.  That's not because we have feelings of animosity toward each other or anything like that, like I said in that note on our website.  We're very, very much on each other's team right now.  When that little voice says, "Maybe it's kinda time to stop," and then you kinda entertain that thought for a while and ruminate and pray about it and ask the tough questions of yourself, that's just the conclusion that we gave.  Sure, yeah.

Owen:  I know it sounds very vague and it seems maybe a bit otherworldly or weird.  I'm not a very superstitious guy or anything, Something in the universe told me it's the time.  Yeah, yeah.  Do you have any plans for the next season of your life?

Owen:  You know, that's the question that I get a lot and also one that it's hard to not think about.  But I'm very task-oriented by nature.  And right now my life is just 100% committed to the final chapter of this band's life.  I've really committed myself personally to not even thinking about what the my next move in life might be until after July 30th.  But, you know, I mean.  It will be something musical I'm sure.  All right.  Well, I think that some of us will be looking forward to whatever it is, you know.

Owen:  Yeah.  As long as you're releasing it publicly.

Owen:  Yeah, well, if it's any good, if it's anything worth talking about, then I'll absolutely let you know.  Sure.  I follow you on Twitter, so I suppose it won't go by too long without me finding out.

Owen:  You know, I just feel like I'm so behind the curve but I just started my own Twitter account.  The primary purpose for that was just to be able to interact with people in a way that I kinda haven't before.  I started a blog and stuff like that.  I don't really know that I wanted to detract from what the band's current story was by way of interjecting a whole lot of my own personal thoughts into the whole thing, which I guess it's my prerogative to do that; it's the band that I'm in.  But I wanted people to go the website and get the straight news and then take what they wanted to.  If they are interested in what the boys in the band are thinking about it, we've all got different channels to do that.  I would say that I didn't know if Twitter was something I would like because, as you'll find out, I'm pretty long-winded, so 140 characters isn't conducive to my communication style.  I know what you mean.  I used to write pretty long blog posts.  Once I got on Twitter that kinda slowed down.  Sometimes it's still hard to get it short enough to get it to be 140 characters.

Owen:  Yeah, totally.  I now find it's a lot harder to write those long blog posts and I find they end up being 2,000 words and I'm like, "Aww, crap."

Owen:  Yeah, well, the primary virtue that I'm finding of Twitter is the ability [to] sort of communicate with people.  That's the fun part, when somebody shoots me a quick note and I shoot [a note] back to them.  That, to me, has been really cool.  I've almost taken a personal interest in the last week to interact as closely as I could with people who were affected by what the band is doing.  [I] just try to talk to them candidly about it even though it seems that the reason that we're breaking up isn't totally understandable.  Even to us it's not totally understandable.  It's about feelings, you know what I mean?  It's just about a feeling and you can't always decide a feeling.  Yeah, well, I think you guys have been [communicating with people] for a long time, too.  Even when you recorded your last album, I was sitting there on UStream watching you guys record bits of it when I had time and chatting with you guys in the chat room.  I think the fans appreciate that too.

Owen:  Yeah, well, I'm trying to do whatever we can do to be available.  It's really funny because I never would've guessed this for our band, but as I look back over the course of the band's history now, one of the main attributes of the our band's shows was that we did whatever we could do to be accessible to people after the shows.  And to be able to spend time with people.  At a point like this in my life where I'm feeling very reflective and I'm ruminating on everything in a very deep way, I can just think of all the faces.  And all the faces who I know that, if we were in this part of the country, they would be there.  Or if we were within this many hours of somebody's hometown, they would drive to be there at the show.  It's amazing because, all of these faces who I almost quantified as supporters for a long, long time, now I think of them almost as friends.  So it's just an amazing thing to be sharing this experience with them in a whole different way.  Whether it's my burgeoning Twitter account or Facebook or whether it's e-mail or whatever, I just feel--I think to be able to communicate with these people during this part of my life is really important to me.  So you said you have a couple shows left.  Is there anything special planned?

Owen:  Yeah, I think that the care that is going into each show is quite interesting.  I think people would be shocked to know how much care went into every show we ever played--a thousand of them.  I remember being a festival not long ago and we jumped up there [on stage] and that something about the set-up wasn't right.  And I heard one of the guys on the road crew say, "Dude, c'mon, it's just a gig."  I remember looking at him and scowling and being like, "It's never just a gig, man. You don't understand".  I mean, for ten years our band has walked on stage every single night with the idea, for better or worse, that nobody in the audience knew who we were.  That's almost like the whole prevailing philosophy was that, every night on stage, we were turning ourselves on to brand new audiences.  And so no show was ever just a gig.

We never allowed ourselves the luxury of just kinda going out there and escaping our neurosis for a second and just turning in a 6 [out of 10] and knowing that would be fine.  We always went out there every night and fought for our lives.  That was just.... It's kinda our nature, our DNA, and it is for two reasons.  One, because we just care so damn much about the music. But then also, because if you're in a working rock band in this day and age, you are fighting for your life.  It's like, you get out there every night and, people by and large are more desensitized to the culture of music than they ever have been and they've got a lot of things to bifurcate their attention span at any given moment.  They're a muscle movement's away from being on YouTube at your show, if they want to be.  It's like, you go out there and you really sweat it out and really work very, very hard to walk out there with actual fans and actual people who you can communicate on a consistent basis.

So that said, we've always taken a lot of pride, every single night we've walked out there, to go do our very best.  And with these final shows and certainly with the final show in July, we're putting a great amount of attention and care into the dates, into the song selection, into the setlist and stuff like that.  Forgive me if I get a little long-winded about this stuff, but when we first started talking about doing a final show, I mean, that in itself is a complete mind-bending conversation.  To even have that conversation.  But then we had to decide, what do we want the face of the show to be like?  Do we want it to be a really giant, triumphant, megalomania-driven extravaganza of going out in a blaze of glory?  And umm....  From what I understand, you're not playing at some stadium in Indianapolis.

Owen:  No.  And that's exactly what we engineered.  I mean, obviously the alternative to that is [to] go, get online, and just sort of spread the word virally and just let people react to it as they will and try to make the final show as familial and reverent as possible, not only to the band and the music of the band, but to the relationship that we have with the people that found out about us.  So that's what we decided to do.

Y'know, if we were putting on a show in Indianapolis under normal circumstances, we'd be on every radio station, we'd be on every TV station, we would be flagging the city with posters, we'd be on.... It would be a full-tilt campaign to put large crowds of people in the theater.  We thought, you know, let's just keep this as close to the vest as possible and hope that the only people who turn up to this thing are people who can appreciate the band's history and the full body of work.

It's really funny.  A lot of people have only really been turned on to the band in the last year.  I mean, in the last year, we had this song, "Back to Indiana", which, even after 10 years, there was a huge part of our state and region that really had no idea who we were.  And that song really galvanized us to this part of the country.  So we started playing shows where there was a really broad spectrum of people who had heard the song, whether it was watching a sporting event on TV or they heard it on the radio or they heard it online.  That song did a lot of damage to us.

What I guess I was trying to avoid with the final concert was having to work the populace so much that I didn't want the room to be half-full of people who just came to hear that song or just came to hear a song or hear a couple of songs.  We just thought it very important and put a premium on having the people who could appreciate the band's entire career in the room on the final night.  I think we're going to have that and the final show is going to be very, very special.  We were just really thrilled that half the tickets for the thing went in the first 24 hours.  There was a great response to it and I think it's going to be a wonderful, special evening.  Of course we'll record it and we'll film it and figure out how to piece it together and put it out later.  I'm excited to hear you say that [it will be recorded] because if I wouldn't have scheduled a vacation literally the night before you announced [the show].  I would've actually booked tickets to go down there.  I have been a fan of the band for a while as well as playing the role of an interviewer today.

Owen:  Thank you.  That's fantastic.  So also this last week, you released a collection of rare tracks and also some live tracks digitally.  Did that come up before you decided to disband?  Or was that a parting gift?

Owen:  The initial concept for the box set was just because we wanted to do something special to commemorate the band's tenth year in existence.  That was the sort of genesis of the idea to put out something.  Among people who know the band and who love the band, of which I am one of those people, one thing that we get the most requests for and one thing that we get the most inquiries about is whether there's going to be any live material and whether or not there are just recordings that never made it onto any of the albums that people could hear.  This is just a way to do both.  It turns out, there's a lot of recordings of songs that are not on any album.

Owen:  Yeah.  There really isn't a lot of supplemental material from the first couple of records, from that era.  From 2001 to 2004 there's really not that much supplemental stuff.  I would write 12 songs and we'd go in and record 'em and that was it.  And then about 2005 I just really started writing a lot more music and stockpiling and we'd go in and hunker down for two weeks at a time in various studios.  And just cut demos, not even with the end result of a full-length album being in mind.

It was just the idea that we would go in and get creative for a couple of weeks and then just have the luxury of living with 10 songs or 15 songs or whatever that we would record quickly over the course of two weeks.  Just having the luxury of living with those songs in our cars and on the road and at home.  Just letting certain ones rise to the surface and it's like "Wow" and ultimately there's a discussion about it and we'd all come back to the same ones and so those are the ones that make the records.  We kinda had a lot of material that didn't go on the records and I am actually really proud of a lot of it.

I had to go through, between all the live recordings, the bootlegs that people had sent in, stuff we had done in formal albums sessions or demo sessions, rehearsals, and whatever, shows that we had recorded ourselves, y'know, or had our engineers record on the road.  There were hundreds and hundreds of hours worth of recordings and stuff like that.  Just the process of kinda whittling those songs down to the final 15 [unreleased songs] that made that box set, that took weeks.  But no, I'm really proud of doing that.

I mean, ultimately I think that there are people who would have preferred to have it in a more of a physical state, whether it was a 3-disc set or something like that, and I guess that's something we probably could have purposed to do but that probably would have taken us an extra--y'know when you get into a physical product like that, you're probably talking another 6 months to get it all turned around and to plot a full [release]--the scope of something like that is a lot bigger.

This is just a way that, on the same day that we made the announcement about the band's future we could also sort of temper that announcement with "Hey, here's our gift to you."  It's not something, obviously, that we gave away for free, but we tried to make it as cheap as possible and we sort of had this idea that we really wanted to be able to give it away for at or under 50 cents a song.  So we pulled that off.  But no, I'm really proud of the set and I think it's a really cool, little, bookend piece for us to give to people where there are a lot of songs they know but also a lot of songs.

I think it's one thing that's really funny that you can kinda assess by looking at the box set and by listening to the songs is that very rarely did our band ever go into the studio and half-ass anything.  Really, every time we went in it was this production.  It was solely because of our obsessive nature.  I mean, we'd go into the studio and act like we were getting ready to record The Dark Side of the Moon, y'know what I mean?  Yeah, a lot of the demos definitely sound pretty close to the finished product.

Owen:  Right, and I would say that the primary reason for that is because really the only difference in one of our finished records and the unreleased stuff on the box set is probably maybe a bit of time on the mixing but probably a mastering job.  But otherwise, it wasn't like we rolled into the studio and said, "Ahh, Chris, just jump behind the electronic drum kit; it's just a demo."  We never did that.  We always recorded it in the hopes that if it landed and it was cool, it's something that we could pop it in our own CD players and drive down the road and actually give ourselves something to listen to for a few months.

Yeah, again, I guess that's the long-winded, but the box set was going to happen.  Last year I started thinking about, "What would be a cool way to celebrate the band's 10th year?" and then it just so happened that there was a convergence of possibilities here that allowed us to make the announcement about what was going on and offer people this final collection of music on the same day.  Around that same time that you said you were doing a lot more extra, demo recording, on the way up to your third album, there was definitely some changes.  I mean, [you changed] record labels, [you started] going more independent, insofar as how the music was distributed.  Was that a hard time for the band?  Was it an exciting time?

Owen:  Well, it was both.  Obviously we were going through a reasonably tumultuous severance in our relationship to the world of formal Gospel music, Christian music.  It had just become brutally apparent to us that it was not a world that we were meant to thrive.  I don't think that it was the fact that people didn't get it in that world.  I think they understood exactly what we were doing.  I think that there was something about the band's music and stuff that was a bit more pelvic in nature.  It made them think of The Who and The Rolling Stones and that's not the safest feeling to be offering on your Adult Contemporary Christian music station.  So basically we kinda counted it as a little bit of a wash and thought about, "Well, do we end the band now?"  And that was a time that we all looked at each other and went, "Well, no, we don't end the band now," we at least want the opportunity to get out there and play in front of proper rock audiences who might understand what our band does.

We had spent three years playing at primarily religious events and felt most of the time very disconnected form the audience.  [It felt] that we were dealing in a currency that they didn't understand or that they didn't really like.  Meaning we were just going out there and playing rock songs.  And there were very distinct and obvious spiritual needs of these audiences that we were playing to.  I would often times feel I would walk off the stage and hadn't done my job properly because I hadn't offered these audiences some of the more formal, spiritual experiences they might be used to getting at church or something like that.  I can't tell you the number of times I would get cornered by a gaggle of angry mothers or something after a show saying "Y'know, we bring our kids here to be able to have fun in a safe environment and you're wearing a T-shirt that has The Who on it."  And after I kind of tried to wrap my mind around what that even meant, I kinda felt bad, to be honest.  I felt like I had upset them and I hated that feeling.  But I just don't think that our band was really built to live there.

So yeah, It felt like a little bit of a rejection, if I'm being totally honest.  I felt like we had made two records that we were really proud of and I certainly thought that that song, "Speaking in Tongues" was a timely, pertinent message at that time to people who had a spiritual makeup.  I think it was, basically, overall, a rejection of sorts.  But that was the impetus for us turning around.  That was a starting over point for our band.  We said, "Look, there are some people who will accompany us out of this experience with a Christian label but most probably will not."

So then, y'know, in about 2005 we started talking to other labels and made some trips to the West Coast and then made some trips to New York and then ultimately ended up signing with a bunch of people that we kinda really, really loved in Nashville at this label called Universal South who basically just said, "Hey, we love the band and we'll let you make whatever kind of record that you want to make. And we'll put it out". And so we said, "Fantastic" 'cause at the time we really felt like the next move for us was to make a really sparse, raw, stripped-down album about our observances of small-town culture and small-town life where we live.  And that was what The Chess Hotel album was and we didn't feel like that was a kind of an idea that could be compromised that much musically or thematically.  And this label basically said "we'll let you do whatever you want."  And we put that record out and it got great reviews but literally about a month after that record came out the label kinda self-imploded and there was a complete restructuring at Universal and so a lot of people that we really loved there didn't make it through the cull.  That seems to happen a lot [at labels] these days.

Owen:  Yeah, it's par for the course.  I'm not trying to come off like a martyr or a situation that's exclusive to our band.  All I'm saying is that we signed with that label because of the people there, because of their trust in us creatively and they really loved the record that we made for them and they believed in it very deeply but then a lot of them lost their jobs in a very, very short time after our record came out.  That we couldn't control.

But still we went out on the road and we worked hard.  Y'know, actually, we got a chance to perform with our heroes and play some really, really great shows and do our first European tour and play at Farm Aid and tour with Buddy Guy and tour with the Goo Goo Dolls and tour with these great acts and stuff like that and night after night we were having success on the road and it kinda had its own groundswell.

And then it came time to start thinking about making a new record and I had written all these songs and we just thought that the coolest way to do it would be to not have to relegate ourselves to that.... We hadn't had a functional relationship with a record company yet.  Or at least certainly hadn't had one that allowed the band to have a certain critical mass that we were all hoping for.  So we decided to put out our own record.  I wish we could have done it even more independently than we did but we had to get the record distributed and published and things like that so we had to use companies who could help us do that.  We couldn't do it totally independently.  That would've been the real coup for us, to be able to do that.  But then you're not in stores or not in iTunes.  Well, you can be, but....

Owen:  Yeah, exactly.  But we did retain ownership of all the copyrights and a lot of things like that which we're very precious about and we sort of assembled a team of our own.

And the greatest part about that record was that we had better sales in the first month than we ever did with the label.  Which just seemed to me like, "Wow, what a wild story about the modern music business," that a band can work with record companies for 7 years and sort of find it to be a tumultuous relationship at best and then put out their own.  Y'know, bands will sign with record labels for the opportunity to get heard, I mean that's really the whole thing.  Even if it means that the record deals are really terrible and they are gonna see a very, very small percentage of the product that they sell, all these things.  You sign with them to get a chance to be heard.  It's kinda just an interesting turn of events to be able to say that we finally made the charts but it was when we had the audacity to put a record out on our own that it finally happened for us.  It's a wild story.  That's the story that I would love to sit down and at some point draw out the schematics and the blueprints for the ten-year duration of the band just as a case study in the modern music business.  It's really kind of a fascinating story to me.  A lot of things have changed in those 10 years too.

Owen:  Yeah, that's it.  That's a big part of it.  I feel like our band has almost walked a concurrent path alongside the power of the Internet being revealed as the transformational force in music that it has been.  But yeah, there are a lot of metaphors, I feel like, for the band and a lot of metaphors [for] the existence of the band and the way that we did business and the way that we persevered and believed in each other and stuff like that.  But it's a story that I hope to one day articulate by way of sitting down and writing it all out.  Sure.  Lyrically it seems like there's been a bit of a progression there as well following your journey over those ten years.  The first couple albums talked a little bit more about God and the last couple albums are more about life in MIddle America.  Was that a big change for you?  Or was that a natural progression?

Owen:  I think I just became more observational as I lived, as we toured the world and as we grew up.  The first couple of records have a little bit more of--the themes are just a little bit more broad.  And then on the third record we really started to work our way into actual storytelling.  I think that was just a product of just me living life and, again, in the time, in the last 4 or 5 years, there's just been a dramatic sort of overhaul in the presence of the midwestern U.S.  It's been a really, really difficult time for people here.  So It's just really hard if you're at all an astute observer about what's going on around whether you're an artist or not it's really hard to let those feelings not permeate what you do.  Boy, I mean, it became very visceral to me whenever I was writing music for The Chess Hotel or writing music in the year prior to that and going "Wow."  I really see a lot of my friends and our families and even ourselves going through things that are very real and I think, y'know, very real, palpable things that I think a lot of people in the country are going through.  It was just what was on my mind, I guess, and I just started writing about it and it kinda ended up weaving its way into the actual fabric of the back half of the band's life.

That story--and then I remember, even with the last record, the song "Strut", which opens the record--I think that a lot of the songs that I'd written in the storytelling sense.  It's almost like I'll have a character in the song but that song is very much about me walking outside the front door of my house and going, "Man, it is hard", it's hard to be a working band, it's hard to be a working contractor, it's hard to be a working farmer, it's hard to be a working carpenter, it's hard to be a working anything.  It's just [saying to] get out there and do it I guess.

Owen:  Yeah, get out there and do it, but also a tinge of sympathy in the whole thing which just is like, "I get it man."  I really feel like our band has had much more in common with the American working class in the last 5 years than we have had in common with any pop star.  You know what I mean?  It's very much a hard time out there to be a band working in clubs and to be a band working in medium-sized venues and things like that.  It's just very, very difficult. You have to just kinda know your trade and be bold and just go and do it well.  So, yeah, those sentiments just become a part of your life when you're living them, when they're real to you.  Well, I guess we're almost done (unless you want to keep talking).  But do you have a favorite song from the whole decade?  You wrote most of the songs, is that correct?

Owen:  Yeah, I did.  Y'know, in the last year, for the last record, there was a buddy of mine named Jim from New Orleans who I wrote about 4 of the songs on the latest record with.  But yeah, it was mostly songs that I wrote.

I'll tell you, I think my favorite--this is very ironic but--I think my favorite song that we ever recorded is actually the last song on our last record.  It's a song called "A Place in the Sun" and all I can say is, y'know, just once in a great, great while you step back from the song and you just can't believe that you wrote it.  You just can't believe that the melody just collapsed into place so effortlessly.  You can't believe that somehow there's a poetic sense and just a cadence to the lyrics that all just really make sense in a way that you feel like you've aspired your whole life to write a song like that.  And that's how I feel like about that song.

It's funny because, to many people, that might be a song that they listen to and go, "Yeah, it's not particularly upbeat and it's not particularly pop and it's not particularly, there's not really a potential for a whole hell of a lot of mass appeal there," but to me that's the just the one that I listen to and I go "Wow".  I just couldn't be any prouder of that song.  And actually we put on the box set an instrumental version of that song because the band walked into the studio, we had rehearsed the songs, those Great American Midrange songs for weeks before going into the studio, and then the band went into the studio and played the song. Y'know, Thom, Nathan and Chris went in and played that song.  And I mean, I was just sitting in the control room while they were cutting a live version of it and I was just going, "Oh my God, these guys are so good."  They just played the song so beautifully.

So as I listen to that song, it's basically the full--it's very much a realization of a feeling that I've always wanted to try to grab ahold of in song.  It's very plaintive, it's kinda a little bit melancholy, but ultimately hopeful.  I just think it's the finest little piece of music that we ever did.  Yeah, I guess I hadn't thought about it too much either but I did enjoy the instrumental version and I guess it's a fitting ending to the album and maybe a career as well?

Owen:  Yeah, maybe so, maybe so.  Don't think I haven't thought about that too.  It's like--Who knows?--I just don't know that I could be any more proud of that song and that record than I am.  So I guess I don't know where you go from there, who knows.  I guess, just to add one more fun question, is there any question that you ever wish somebody would have asked but never asked?

Owen:  I'm thinking about it and I'm sure there are because I have plenty of time to think about stuff, but no, I think just getting a chance to talk about the band in a reflective sense is a wonderful thing.  And anytime I get to do that and talk about how proud I am of what the band has done then I'm happy.  Cool.  Thanks for talking with me.

Owen:  Yeah, it's an interesting moment and we'll do all that we can to make sure that the next couple of months are warm and that there's no cantankerous B.S.  I think the final show will be a very special thing and then, hey, we'll all toast to this little rock band from Indiana.  Great.  Well, thank you.

Owen:  Take care of yourself.


Photos taken from The Elms band website. Band photo by Cliff Ritchey.