As a musician, Erik Hall has spent his career alternating between the noisy, chaotic, everybody-in-the-van conviviality of bands like Nomo and Wilde Belle and the quiet isolation of his home-recorded In Tall Buildings project. His new ITB record Driver reflects that, he says, with the songs going “back and forth between isolation and inclusiveness and connection and communication.”
Hall started In Tall Buildings in the mid-aughts, as a vehicle for the solo material he was writing on breaks from Nomo. He recorded the self-titled debut in a Chicago skyscraper looking out over Lake Michigan. “It was the quintessential bedroom recording project,” he said.
The first album was eclectic, Hall notes. “I had one song that was electro-pop and one song that was New Wave and one that was straight Neil Young-style country. It was just all over the map,” he recalled. “It was fun. I’m glad I did that. But I wanted this one to be more of a record that was more cohesive and focused sonically and compositionally.”
His second album, Driver, out on Western Vinyl, was partly recorded in a one-story building in Pilsen, a Mexican neighborhood southwest of the Loop. But Hall also worked on it in a farmhouse in northern Michigan, sited on a bluff looking out over, again, Lake Michigan. “There’s kind of a neat connection there,” he says.
The sense of height also seems relevant in an odd way. You could make a case that Hall’s songs look out from a lofty perch over some rough emotional terrain. “Bawl, Cry, Wail” is about a break-up. The rawness its title implies is viewed from a remote standpoint, breezily syncopated, and classily subdued. You can easily imagine the narrator, maybe but not necessarily Hall, looking out from a high window, observing the tiny people in the story below.
“Bawl, Cry, Wail” is also noticeably more complicated than the average pop song, with multiple instrumental parts and crisscrossing rhythms. Asked about the mix of complexity and accessibility in his work, Hall says “That’s actually the crucial balance right there. I want to take what I’ve done and make it the right balance of complex and introspective but still be easily accessible and relatable and convey the pop sensibility.
“I don’t tend to write songs that jump out at the listener,” he adds, “but rather kind of invite the listener in.”
Still, the songs on Driver have a way of expanding the introspective into buoyant, large-scale pop. “Flare Gun” sounds like an interior monologue until it blows up to fill the room. Hall says that the music part of his songs is easier and more interesting to him than the lyrics, and that the emotional content of his work more often comes through the way it sounds than what it says. “When a song has an emotional quality that hits you, that’s the music that I react to the most,” he says. “A song can be as simple as an acoustic guitar and a voice or a full band, but a good song has to feel like a natural, living breathing thing. It has to have some character and nuance that doesn’t necessarily come through the notes on the page.”
Hall says he was thinking about Paul McCartney’s II as he made Driver. McCartney made the album after a drug arrest sidelined the last Wings tour, working by himself on an array of synthesizers. “In the liner notes, there are a lot of photos of just him recording in his home. He’s got this great tape machine and a really cool looking microphone and he’s just in his PJs kind of recording his weird pop songs,” says Hall. “I love that record and I felt that that was actually somewhat akin to how I was feeling making this album.”
Low was also a touchstone, for the way the band pared pop down to its barest elements. Says Hall: “Low is one of my all-time favorite bands. They’ve got such honest and direct lyrics and their verse chorus song structure is very traditional but they’re using a really simple palette. It’s almost abstract, the way they start in pop music and use this really simple palette.”
Hall played piano from an early age and earned a degree in jazz percussion at University of Michigan (where he met Elliot Bergman of Nomo). “We were living off campus in Ann Arbor and [Bergman] just kind of corralled all these guys together and started hashing out this music that he’d been writing,” says Hall. “He had discovered Fela Kati and Sun Ra and all this cool, experimental free-jazz and afro-beat. We were all jazz students who played party music that people could dance to.”
From 2004 to 2009, Nomo recorded five albums and toured the U.S. and Europe. “I went from school to Nomo basically. It taught me how to have a band. I kind of consider that my graduate studies,” Hall recalls.
Through Nomo, Hall also met His Name Is Alive’s Warren Defever, who became a mentor and important influence. “Warren produced all the Nomo records, so I learned that through him. It was fantastic watching him work. He’s an amazing engineer. He just is really good at the technical side of recording,” says Hall. “His own music is just incredibly complex and cool and dark and beautiful and he brings a lot of that into Nomo, when he’s working on Nomo records.”
“I was basically building my own home studio at the time and learning from Warren and basically taking what I was learning and trying to apply it to what I was doing at home,” says Hall.
Hall also found that he had to let go of his formal training at around this time to free himself up for In Tall Buildings. “There was a point pretty much on graduation from college that I pretty much stopped thinking and growing my proficiency on any instruments,” he says. “At some point, I realized it was more important to start producing something and not taking things in. Maybe part of that is laziness. I didn’t want to practice. But really I just kind of figured out what my voice was and what I wanted to be doing with music.”