Scattered Trees and Sympathy: The Interview

Scattered Trees
Roll Call/EMI

Scattered Trees is a band re-born from suffering. Once fragmented by location and perhaps uncertain of their common future, this last year has seen them re-unified by the death of lead singer/songwriter Nate Eiesland’s father. The grieving process has been beautifully captured in the stark and melodic Sympathy, their latest album, released through Roll Call Records/EMI back in April.

Their journey will lead them on a summer tour, emboldened through the power of their newfound vision as band. In March, they performed in Austin for South by Southwest, as part of the Nail/Muse Box day party in the small confines of the Ghost Room. Their short set drew a faithful throng of fans and admirers who came out to support this upcoming Chicago band and their engaging performance was indicative of what future fans will have to look forward to throughout their tour in 2011 and onwards.

I sat down with them after the show to talk about the new chapters in their collective story and to discuss the process of making and promoting Sympathy.

How did you initially connect with each other and form the current line-up of Scattered Trees?

Nate: Alyssa and I grew up together in Minneapolis. Once in Chicago, we were all living in a suburb where I went to school and we were playing in the same circles in the music scene and pulled together because we were really like-minded.

In terms of influences, what albums/artists have become a part of your musical “canon”?

Nate: Starting out, some big albums that opened me up to the world of music were albums like Clarity by Jimmy Eat World and that first Third Eye Blind record. Right now, I’m into a lot of the National, and St. Vincent. They are a few steps ahead of us, but it seems like if you met them on the street they’d be really personable. They all write amazing songs and put on great shows.

Jason: Bob Dylan, until the point where he stopped smoking and his voice changed. In terms of current artists, Joanna Newsom is the best.

Baron: Medeski, Martin, and Wood. I’m also a fan of Wilco, especially Glen Kotche.

Alyssa: Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Fleetwood Mac, among others.

Ryne: Beachhouse, LCD Soundsystem, and Flaming Lips.

A lot of your songs are about grieving and processing loss. How did that work in the making the record, did it give a cohesion and vision that was different than previous efforts?

Nate: Everyone supported me. The way that I process personally is songwriting. As I sent out demos, everyone got really excited to make this record. Everyone came around it and it gave us a fresh chance to renew that vision for us. We had been making records in our basements and with friends, so we were progressing and growing as artists, but each record sounded completely different and we were always growing. Now it feels like we are beginning from a new point and this is who we are now.

Baron: An interesting twist in the story came after we finished the record. Jason and I were living out in California and we were going to send it out to labels. At the same time, Alyssa’s Mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness, which made the future very uncertain. We decided to put it out for free and see what would happen. Some old friends got a hold of it, passed it around, and it eventually ended up in the hands of Roll Call Records, who will be putting it out and distributing it through EMI. It all just worked out.

What was the thought process behind the viral Storm Troopers/Star Wars video that you produced for the song “Love and Leave“?

Jason: We didn’t want it to be a gimmick. What interested me, was having droves and droves of faceless and nameless people (Stormtroopers) who just murdered at random and no one ever seems to care. We wanted to ask the question, what would it be like to actually care about one of them? The best way to do that was to put ourselves in that as 20-something Stormtroopers in our apartment. In essence, exploring what it would be like to care about someone that you don’t usually care about.

That video seems to be gaining a lot of traction for you and the new album.

Nate: USA Today and E online picked up on it and we’ve got some really good publicity from it, mostly positive. Although the negative is really funny, the haters have asked questions like “how in the hell would a storm trooper have a light saber?“ and then write comment with something like “P.S. the song sucks.” Either way, a lot of people are watching and talking about it.

Jason: We’ve also got a new music video coming out soon that’s been filmed for the song “Four Days Straight”.

Alongside of “Sympathy” and the video for “Four Days Straight”, you have a documentary on the way that is being released in conjunction with the album. What’s the story behind that?

Jason: The album is so story-centric around Nate’s experience and this is his story. The lyrics are about turning yourself into a story and what happens after you die, that you become a story that’s passed around and you eventually disappear. Using that idea, the documentary is called “Six Stories”, sharing how we all were drawn back together. It’s about each of our individual journeys, coming back together to make the album. It will be out sometime this year.’

So, with the album and all of the loss, was it your main goal to share a broader story or was it simply personal grieving, or a combination of both?

Alyssa: When you’re young, life is so black and white. Nate and I are pretty young to have all of this happening to us, both his dad’s death and my mom’s illness. It’s pushed us to face death in our mid-20s. Loss is so universal and it resonates with people, because everyone experiences it.

Nate: For me it’s a combination of both. There’s a song on there called “Where You Came From”. The lyric goes “You turned yourself into a hero then you turned yourself into a story.” That’s just how it works, you hand it down to your friends and family and then that’s where you end. My children will know about my father, but their children probably won’t talk about my dad and you just have to accept that. It’s a second death of sorts. At a certain point, no one will remember him because they didn’t know him. Part of the goal of the record was to tell my dad’s story and the story of our relationship and have other people who have never known him, connect to it and put their own stories into it. And in that I feel like I honor my father in a way that he can live on.

As a writer, is the album ultimately a story of hope or does it end as a story of grief?

Nate: I think it’s a story of growth. Grief is a part of life, that if you let it, it will test your meddle and will solidify the foundation of who you are. I would do anything to get my Dad back, but I can’t, so you just have to accept that what is in it that you can turn around. For me, that was maturity and life experience and empathy for other people and I think you have to take any good that you can with that. This album is getting a part of him back and keeping a part of him here. It’s been a huge therapeutic experience to make this record and I felt that I needed to prove my dad right because he believed in me so much.