Q&A With Enon's John Schmersal

The April 17 Westword profile of Enon features quotes aplenty from John Schmersal, the band’s founder – and the changes he’s undergone of late come through even more clearly in the following Q&A.

The conversation begins with Schmersal discussing the reception to Grass Geysers… Carbon Clouds, the first Enon disc in several years, and the most immediately inviting to date according to many critics. He earnestly explores the possible reasons for this response, touching on the move he and lead singer Toko Yasuda made from New York City to Philadelphia as well as his decision to scratch his creative itches using inspirations other than music. Along the way, he talks about his fondness for vegetarian cooking, which adds irony to a prize he recently won – $500 in free food from Taco Bell; the challenge of translating some of the act’s elaborately produced tracks to the stage; environmental messages that may or may not be lurking inside the latest tunes; some insight about Schmersal’s previous group, Brainiac, which ended tragically when lead singer Tim Taylor died in a car accident just as the outfit was about to sign a major-label contract; the departure of two early Enon members and the prospect of adding another player to the current lineup; and a new tune featuring the Colorado-centric title “The Little Ghost of JonBenét.”

Sounds like a haunting tale.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Most of the reviews on the new album focus on how accessible and straight-forward and rock-oriented it is, which strikes me as kind of funny, because it’s not exactly going to be confused with the latest John Mayer disc…

John Schmersal: No, not really.

WW: Does that take make sense to you? Or does it only connect when you think about what the average indie-music critic listens to all day long?

JS: I don’t really know what to make of it. I don’t think that we tried to be more accessible than we have in the past. I mean that to say, we are trying to make some kind of pop music. But I just think its kind of funny more than anything. I certainly don’t think we’ve had a more commercial following comparatively anyway. But as a criticism, I can’t really speak for it.

WW: And it’s not as if people are checking out the album and liking it instead of making themselves to listen seven or eight times as if it’s some kind of assignment…

JS: Right (laughs).

WW: It’s been a long time since your last studio album, and given how prolific you have been over the years, that seems surprising. Have you cut back on the pace of your songwriting since the days when you were putting up a song a day on your website?

JS: Yeah. There was definitely a period when we weren’t really doing much. And I think that’s good. It’s sort of like, when you really become a machine, and that’s your only means to continuously put out stuff, I think that kind of gets old. There’s a lot of different shifting going on in our band. Two of us moved to Philadelphia and that’s where we started practicing and stuff [drummer Matt Schulz remains in New York]. And it kind of slowed down our practice schedule, too, because we were all living in the same city. But for myself, since I moved here, it was really a chance, an opportunity, to explore new things – even mundane daily things. Exploring a new city and stuff like that. I think that it’s been for the better. Certainly for myself, at least, it’s recharged my batteries, and that’s made me want to do things like this more.

WW: Did you have to force yourself to slow down in the beginning? Had the songwriting impulse become almost reflexive, and you wanted to appreciate it more?

JS: I think on really every level, personally, I even stopped ingesting music like music fanatics do. And that’s one of my things now. I’m not obsessed with finding out about things. I let myself find out about things at my own pace. And it goes for music creating as well as music listening for me. I don’t think it was necessarily something where I was like, “Oh, I should really cut back on my songwriting.” I think it was more wanting to have the energy to do things like that instead of feeling like you had to. Enjoying it and having to enjoy something are different things. I also think that living in New York, it sort of got to the point where – well, certainly, we’re not a wildly successful band. But just for doing what we do, it seemed like to just pay all of the bills of things we had going on at the time meant having to put out a record and having to tour and do all those things. And that’s not the reason why I make music. I find that I’ve been asked that a lot on this record, which because of the break makes sense. I guess I also find it surprising, because I don’t have to put out a record every year…

WW: Well, there are certain performers we think of who are prolific almost to the point of addiction. Ryan Adams being sort of the poster boy for that…

JS: Right, right. Well, who wants to be that? (Laughs.)

WW: I always wonder if people sometimes lose perspective when they’re producing material at such a pace: Is there a certain point at which they can’t tell the good stuff from the only okay stuff? Did you ever get to that point?

JS: Well, I think songs are important to people for different reasons anyway. So for me, I used to be more into not necessarily the song content as in the song texture. The thing that excites me about making music is about the way all of those things combine. And a lot of things take a long time to put together. It’s not necessarily that you do things and then you don’t think about them. Some things, I’ve thought about over a really long period of time – recordings of songs and things. So I kind of think that I protect myself from doing things like that by sort of living with a lot of things for a long time. But yeah, that’s certainly a reason as well to not continue that kind of pace and regimen, you know? I just think that in order to be a healthy human being, you have to do other things in general. You can lose perspective with anything. A doctor will lose perspective if they’re fucking locked into a hospital for 200 hours a week or whatever. So I think that everything is the same.

WW: Is there a song on the new album that had a particularly lengthy gestation period?

JS: This record, actually, is a bit apart from that discussion, mind you. But all of them really had a decent amount of time. I think the first song, “Mirror on You,” is really the oldest song. That was from 2004, maybe. Something like that. But yeah, the goal with this record was not to obsess over the recording of it – the sounds, the texture of it – and just really kind of approach it like a regular band. I think if anything, the link to what people are hearing and responding to is that we made a record that wasn’t slathered with dressing – like on every song, having so many layers to it. We just kind of wanted to make a record that was mostly stuff we worked on in the basement and went into a studio to record. We didn’t record these things at home over a long period of time. The recording was done in a tidy month (laughs). And that’s like recording the basics at a studio for two days and doing some overdubs at home in a few days – but relaxed, with many days not doing anything music-related. I think that’s probably something else people are hearing when they say that sounds more commercial. Maybe it’s because there’s not so much stuff bombarding you like there is on a lot of songs we have.

WW: You mentioned the home studio, and that’s another change, too. In Philadelphia, you have a basement studio where you can work at a more leisurely pace, right?

JS: Yeah, and I also think the space itself is premium. In New York, nothing is very private. You don’t have a lot of time or mental space to develop things. So yeah, that’s definitely a big part of it. I wanted to make a record that felt like we had been somewhere, you know? I really felt like I tried to sink into where I am before I started just doing things like you were saying.

WW: At the same time, Philadelphia isn’t exactly the lonesome outpost on the prairie. It’s still a big city…

JS: Of course.

WW: But does it feel that different to you in terms of the lifestyle you were living in New York?

JS: Yeah, it’s a lot different. I do depend on a car to get around. I think my habits are more about being at home and doing things at my home. Like, I cooked about half the time in New York, and I cook virtually all the time now (laughs). Food in New York is a really big deal, because it’s such good food and the prices are so competitive. But I garden and do things at home now that I didn’t have the space or the luxury to indulge myself in before.

WW: What’s your specialty as chef?

JS: As a chef? I don’t know if I have any specialties. I usually work with what I have. Whatever’s still around the house. But this summer, we grew a lot of kale and collard greens. One of my favorite things to make is just sautéed greens. Swiss chard. Arugula. Dandelions. Stuff like that. Tomatoes and herbs and other things.

WW: I guess I understand now how much crazy attention was paid to you winning a contest for $500 worth of Taco Bell food…

JS: Right (laughs).

WW: I wanted to ask you about that. The Pitchfork article about that almost made it seem that you needed to interview Taco Bell’s board of directors about their political leanings before you had a burrito. Have you given away most of that food? Is the $500 gone at this point?

JS: No, actually. The other really amusing part of it was that it didn’t end up showing up until way after we went on tour, and then we went to Europe, and we’ve gone to Europe twice since then. I got home and they were at our post office box. They’ve basically been in my house, where I’ve been since I got home from tour.

WW: So if it you choose to set aside the sautéed greens for a night, you can have as many Enchiritos as you want…

JS: Right, right. It’s hard, actually, because on the last tour, there was one day we stopped in the middle of wherever it was and got some Taco Bell, and I got just a bean burrito, I think. Or no – it was just beans and cheese in a cup. Nothing really in it. No sour cream or anything. And I totally had stomach pains afterward. So it’s a shame. It’s definitely not a great endorsement for my luxury stack or whatever you want to call it.

WW: Going back to the songs, I know you’ve talked about how many of the latest batch were written with performance in mind. Has that been a problem in the past? Were some of the songs that conceived in a studio setting difficult to translate live?

JS: I don’t think it’s been a problem in the past. I just think it’s something we never really looked on as being important. Some of the things, the process for writing songs and more so recording songs is way more important to me – and sometimes it takes unbelievable pulling and pushing to do it. It’s not an organic thing that happens live. So the idea that you have to replicate that thing… Besides that it doesn’t matter, I think it’s kind of boring anyway. So I don’t think it was as much about making a record that we could perform easily live as much as that we hadn’t gone into the studio and made a record that we just were performing. Whereas most of the other times, it’s been like, I don’t care if this song gets performed live. Even if they’re done very straight-forward, they’re not songs I think are exciting to hear live. But that’s just my opinion.

WW: So in the past, a song that worked really well in the context of the album but may not have immediately translated to a live setting was still important to include. You wouldn’t exclude them because you thought, “We won’t be able to play this live…”

JS: No, I think that’s what makes it a record. What’s so important about the environment you’re in when you listen to a record and stuff like that. Like, I really like the way LPs flow, and having that kind of experience – and some things work in certain environments that don’t work in others. I always think it’s funny when people say [2002’s] High Society is a party record. There are certainly upbeat songs on it. But I just think of having an album be a party record… I think of a party record as being a little fluffier – just dance music the whole time. But I think it’s important to think of songs in the context of a record. I still think that’s important even if LPs are becoming kind of an irrelevant commodity in terms of groups of songs.

WW: I wonder about that. Will there be a backlash against the one-song-at-a-time digital age, where people are going to come back in increasing numbers to the idea that a recording can be an experience that lasts more than three minutes?

JS: I think it’s all pretty elastic. We’re going through a time period right now where the most specific thing is, everybody has just sort of accepted that music has become a free commodity. Some people pay for music and some people don’t, and whatever – and that’s definitely freaking out the music industry, and wreaking all kinds of havoc. Someone was telling me something about the number one that happened most recently – it was the lowest all-time-selling number one debut ever. Just stupid stuff that’s maybe not so stupid. That’s more the stretch we’re dealing with, and everyone’s obsessed with just “that song” – that song that’s on the record. But people come back to things again, just like new wave music becomes popular for the umpteenth time in the last thirty years (laughs). People come back to albums being important versus just songs, and they will again, I’m sure.

WW: It’s interesting that vinyl still exists and there’s a subsection of music listeners who continue to seek it out even though it hasn’t been a primary format for decades now.

JS: Right. That’s the funnier thing, I think: That vinyl is probably going to supersede the CD.

WW: The title of the album, Grass Geysers… Carbon Clouds, suggests an environmental theme. Is that a message embedded in the disc for those who take the time to look for it? Or will that search not reward folks?

JS: That’s definitely part of it. But I think it’s more of an equal opposites thing – a yin-yang title. That’s one of the things about it. I don’t like it when people tell me there’s an answer for decoding what the disc or the music is about. I like it when people come up with their own interpretations of it. But that’s something embedded with the title. Whatever. Go as far as you want to take it. But it’s basically the good versus evil thing, which I think is pretty prevalent in a lot of our songs. Like the obtuse things that happen in a lot of older songs. People usually refer to Toko [Yasuda] as being the poppy, cute little Miss Goody Two Shoes or whatever (laughs). But I don’t think it’s anything we intend on instilling or whatever.

WW: Do you sometimes think a song is more successful if you have five people come up to you and tell you that it’s about five different things?

JS: Well, I don’t know what successful is. What’s successful to me is if people come up with something that excites them enough to invest themselves in it like that. But people tell you things you’d never image your songs are about, and that amuses me, too. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been a very concrete songwriter for the most part. Sometimes I’m very specific things, but I don’t think I’ve ever been a storyteller per say.

WW: If I’ve got my dates right, Brainiac started back in 1992, and you joined the following year…

JS: Right.

WW: I assume you were involved in music some time before then – so when would you date the real beginning of your life as a musician?

JS: I played in bands in high school like a lot of kids do. But it depends on what you look at. I remember going to show in warehouse spaces when I was in high school because I was lucky enough to live in a town where people put on shows in different spaces like that. And I got to see a lot of bands early on, and that was really inspiring to me. But I guess I wouldn’t really consider myself more of a musician until I started playing out of town myself – in other cities besides playing locally. And I didn’t do that until my senior year in high school – and I didn’t really think, “Wow, I’m livin’ the life” (laughs) or anything like that. We went to Cleveland and Fort Wayne, Indiana.

WW: Those aren’t necessarily storybook towns – the ones where people think, “If I can make it in Fort Wayne, I can make it anywhere…”

JS: Well, we played some really great shows in places like Fort Wayne when I was in Brainiac, and I haven’t really had experiences like those since. It’s here or there, you know? I really have great memories of this one show in Fort Wayne; it’s one of those things that generates thirty stories. There was a party afterwards, and it was at a house where they physically tore the banister off the staircase. You’re like, gosh, that doesn’t really happen every show, you know?

WW: This was during the set?

JS: No, this was at the party we went to afterwards that everybody in town was at. There were bands playing in the basement until the wee hours in the morning. But we were just ragingly going crazy, and the banister got torn off the staircase.

WW: Was that one of those joy-of-discovery, this-is-how-I’d-like-to-spend-my-life kind of moments…

JS: Joy of discovery? (Laughs.) I don’t know. I just think when you’re younger, you’re on to the next thing already sometimes.

WW: I guess when you’re having a life-changing moment, you don’t realize it until way after the fact…

JS: Right.

WW: There are a lot of terrible ways for bands to come to an end, and I’ve got to think that the way Brainiac ended has got to be one of the worst. Was it clear from the moment you heard about Tim’s death that everything was going to change?

JS: Nothing was very clear, I guess. You think everything is changing, but there was a lot of stuff going on at that time, and it took a little while to figure out. I had gotten into a car accident the week before that and had totaled the car I drove. And I’d also moved to Kentucky just over the river from Cincinnati, and in my mind, the way everything was going, it was going to be a really great place to live when I wasn’t on tour – just kind of out of the way, but I lived in this Masonic Temple in Newport, Kentucky, and the rent was ridiculously cheap. I think I paid $100 for three rooms that had, like, thirty-foot ceilings and these huge doorways. And then everything hit, and besides everything with the band, I was suddenly living in northern Kentucky without a car. And the job I’d had before was in Cincinnati in a certain area – and when I looked at public transportation and those things, it was like, I just couldn’t go to that job. Everything was really about where I was at the time. It was kind of like, everything was changing when that was going on. There were so many things happening at once, and change caused more change.

WW: I’d read that you guys were about to sign with Interscope, too. Is that accurate?

JS: I’ve read before that we had signed with them, but we were talking to several labels at the time, and it was pretty much decided that we were going to.

WW: We were talking about the changes in the music industry – and back then, the idea of signing to a major label was a lot different than it is now. Was it hard to walk away from that idea and start over?

JS: No, not really. For myself, at least, I think I was really the only one in the band who wasn’t intent on signing. I was the newest guy in the band, and we’d been touring for a couple of years and doing things with me – and it definitely wasn’t that I was opposed to doing it if everybody else was doing it. But to me, when we discussed it, I hadn’t been sleeping on people’s floors for the past five or six years. It’d only been the past two and a half or whatever. I wasn’t moving on in the same way as maybe the rest of them were. But when it happened, to me I wasn’t even thinking about doing music or doing anything. When I moved to New York, I had a lot of friends there, and it made sense for me to go there. I went there for the summer and didn’t think I could live there. I’d been to New York many times and didn’t really want to live in such a congested and active place. But I moved in with a girlfriend in Brooklyn, out in Park Slope, and it was much quieter – so I felt like I could deal with that duality.

WW: How did Enon develop from there?

JS: I was playing with people. I had brought all these fucking instruments I’d had from being a packrat in the Midwest. I had a lot of them at my house and dispersed them at friends’ practice spaces and whatever. It was just playing with a bunch of different people at the time, and eventually a friend approached me to put out a seven-inch – asked if I’d been recording anything, doing anything. And I’d been doing a lot of home recording like always, just doing things to four-track and stuff like that. But I think a lot of people feel this way: If you’ve been in a really good band – and I don’t necessarily just mean a band that people think is good, but a band with good chemistry. A band that had a thing about it. That’s half of what makes a band what it is. That’s why they say things like, “It’s not about how to play your instrument, man.” And what I appreciate about that is it’s really about the group and what they’re putting out and not about talent or chops or any of that stuff. I think that’s the greater part of everything about it. And I didn’t really think I was going to be able to stumble into something like that as a musician. But it was always important for me to be recording. It just kind of started happening with Rick [Lee] and with Steve [Calhoon]. Steve didn’t end up staying in the band, or wasn’t able to really tour when it started happening. But Rick and I, that was at the root of where that band started.

WW: The lineup has changed since then. But do you still feel a connection between that original spirit you had with Rick and the one you have now with Toko and Matt?

JS: Yes. The band as it’s been now has been the sign lineup, really, since when Rick left the band and before. Steve really wasn’t able to tour once [1999’s] Believo! was done. He had too many things going on in his personal life to be able to leave town and go on tour. That’s when the lineup we’d had sort of solidified. Really with Rick not being in the band, it’s been strange to me for a long time. But in another way, I feel like he’s still in this band. We’re still really good friends. You know what I mean? It’s different than when band’s break up and they don’t have that thing anymore.

WW: If I remember correctly, you were talking about wanting to add a fourth member as recently as just a few years ago. It seems as if you’ve decided that the current lineup is the one you want. Is that the case?

JS: No (laughs). Don’t get me wrong, though. It’s just another thing about taking a long time. We talked about all the different things we wanted to do, but not practicing and all that stuff sort of took the time out. When you don’t get together as often and then you want to take that time trying people out instead of working on new material… We did that a bunch of times where we played with other people and didn’t get a bunch of other stuff done. So in the end, we basically decided that we were going to finish working on the record, because we weren’t finding that somebody we wanted that quickly. And there are differing levels of desire within the band as far as wanting another person or not. I feel more open about the idea of it than maybe some of the others. But even on a temporary, fun level, it doesn’t have to be so serious about somebody joining. So maybe in the future, but it’s been taking a really long time to do anything.

WW: You were talking earlier about chemistry, and it’s not usually an instant process to find someone who not only connects with you but with everyone else, and who enhances what you already have instead of throwing it into turmoil.

JS: Right. I’m not saying that’s the end-all, be-all of it, either. There are tons of bands that have terrible interpersonal relationships that are also great bands. I’m not saying you have to have that. I think that’s part of some bands’ mojo: their hatred of each other (laughs). But that’s definitely something that’s been important, and it’s interesting, too. There are bands out there that don’t exist anymore because they wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t those guys – specifically those guys. If it’s not everybody, it’s not that, so they’ll never do anything like that again. If it’s not going to be as good as that, why do anything? And that’s far, far away from the way I feel about music. It’s way more important to be playing for me than to be all caught up in past experience and stuff like that.

WW: Finally, I’ve got to ask about a song I’ve read about that may be released as a single: “The Little Ghost of JonBenét.”

JS: That’s actually already been released. This company in Prague released it, but I essentially have all the copies in the United States. It turns out to be so expensive to buy it from a distributor over there, and they haven’t really bothered to make it very easy. So I’ll have them on tour. But it’s pretty low key.

WW: Well, we’re in JonBenét country, so I’ve got to ask how you’d describe the song.

JS: That’s really tough. Not that it’s tough to describe, but I don’t want to mislead anyone.

WW: This isn’t exactly about solving the case, I gather.

JS: No, it’s not about solving the case. It’s more a song of pity, I would say. I guess if I have to say anything about it, it’s a song of pity about the poor little ghost of JonBenét. None of this was any of her choice. The superstar that she is, and her cult of personality: She had so little choice in the whole thing.

WW: What does it say about us as a people, not to mention the media, that there continues to be this fascination with this little girl who’s been gone for over a decade now.

JS: I don’t know what it says. That’s the part where everyone can chime in, I guess. For me, it was just like, I had reached the point, especially when that John Mark Karr guy came out and rehashed the whole thing after so long. It just incensed me too much. So it was time to put something down about it.

WW: Hopefully your efforts will help her rest in peace, because nothing else has.

JS: That’s true. That’s very true.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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