Sing Like a Thunderstorm: An Interview with Eisley's Sherri Dupree-Bemis
Her kids can sleep on a tour bus like pros, her new album comes after two other songwriters (amicably) left the band. Yes, Eisley's Sherri Dupree-Bemis proves you really can have it all.
It's a good crowd in the Webster Hall basement, loose and easy. The few, the proud, the VIP ticket-holders stand stalwart at the edge of the stage clutching rolled up posters, but the rest of the crowd is honeycombed with pockets of open space, enough to slip through without jostling a beer, and the fans circulate between sets. Four bands on the bill tonight, and as every new group takes the stage, they get a little more attention, a little more focus.
After one false start and some technical difficulties, Eisley finally emerges, dappled in pink and blue lights. Frontwoman Sherri Dupree-Bemis is ethereal on the tiny stage, her voice so clear and light that it seems suspended somewhere out of reach, the rest of the band tight below her. The crowd coos as a torrent of soap bubbles flood the air. By the second song we're all lost in it, drawn into the Eisley world, any tech funkiness forgotten.
Dupree-Bemis jokes about it. She twists a stubborn peg on her Rickenbacker and leans into the mic. "It's just gonna be one of those shows, guys," she says.
When I get her on the phone a week later she's on the bus with her daughters, fighting the last vestiges of a cold. "They're pretty badass sleepers," she says of her kids. "I got really lucky: my kids sleep great. One of them slept like 12 hours on the bus the other night." Dupree-Bemis isn't so lucky; she's been trying to kick the sniffles for the whole tour. She's not bothered, though. "It's still fun. It's still totally worth it."
They're touring in support of their latest LP, I'm Only Dreaming. It's a bit of a turning point for the group: Eisley had its genesis as a collaboration between siblings, Sherri and her two sisters, Chauntelle and Stacy, with their brother Weston on drums and cousin Garron on bass. Twenty odd years later it's still a family affair, but in a different way. Chauntelle and Stacy stepped away from the band in 2015, Weston has taken on the role of the group's studio drummer, while Remington Dupree (another cousin) drums on tour.
"There was never any resentment or bitterness involved in any of it because obviously we're all family, we know each other so well, we're best friends," Dupree-Bemis says of the departure of her sisters. "I think you can't expect five kids to grow up and have the same goal for their whole lives. I think it just really worked out beautifully, everybody's so happy where they are, and I'm so thankful that I'm still getting to do Eisley."
Not that there wasn't hesitation; venturing forward with Eisley as the sole remaining songwriter was a daunting task, and one that, at first, Dupree-Bemis was unsure she should undertake. "It was nothing that I ever lost drive or passion for, never, so at the time I was kind of like, does this mean I have to stop doing Eisley? I was devastated!" And although the transition was ultimately much smoother than it could've been, and better in the long run for all parties involved, change is never easy.
"When you're faced with possibly losing something so special to you ... but everyone was so supportive, telling me 'you don't have to stop just because we are.' And my cousin Garron, he's been in the band almost since the beginning and he felt the same way, he didn't want to stop. I don't know what I would've done if I hadn't had someone there with me to say 'Yeah, let's just keep going,'" she says. They navigated the transition as a team.
Having a constant in Garron was not only reassuring, it was an unexpected wellspring of artistic inspiration. "I collaborated a lot with Garron on this record and that was cool because we'd never - Garron and I had never just written songs together. It was cool being able to tap into him as a resource, because we really write good songs together! Who knew? We maybe never would've discovered that otherwise."
That joy and fresh inspiration shows. Every Eisley record is marked by some strange magic, the Dupree sisters spiriting in some essence of sunlight with their vocal harmonies. Their sound is otherworldly, something rooted deep in the fae wilds. I'm Only Dreaming maintains much of this aesthetic despite the absence of two of the sisters who built the sound, which Dupree-Bemis notes is entirely intentional.
"Because we'd lost some of the vocals, it was something important to me to get across, still, with this record. I wanted to make sure that it was a theme that always stays. It's such a big part of our sound, those harmonies, and the big melodies," she says. "It's important to keep that a part of what we do, I think, no matter what changes we go through in our lineup."
I point out a quote from the press release for the release of the single "Louder Than A Lion": "I like to cloak things in a little mystery and romance; I think it's part of what makes all of Eisley's songs sound like they're from the same world. Every record is like opening and reading a book in a series." It's an apt analogy: each Eisley record seems constructed out of the same impressionist strokes, by the same painterly hand.
"I think there's something to be said about, when fans fall in love with your band for what you sound like, I think you kind of have a responsibility on some level to make sure you're always there for them in that way. Change and grow, but make sure you still have the core of your sound be something they can count on," Dupree-Bemis says. Her decision to continue Eisley in the absence of her sisters parallels this idea, this devotion not to Eisley as a name, or a brand, but as a world she wasn't ready to give up.
I'm Only Dreaming makes obvious this devotion to the Eisley sound. Put at the forefront are the sweeping instrumentation and precise melodies that Eisley fans hold so precious. "I've been hard on myself when it comes to melody writing because it's always been my favorite thing about music," says Dupree-Bemis. While songwriting was split between her and her sisters on previous Eisley albums, Sherri had to take on much more songwriting to put this record out into the world.
"I would ask myself, is this a melody that I want to hear over and over and sing over and over again? I work hard on our melodies. If I even feel like there's a little section or even a line that's kind of throwaway, or not super heartfelt or special then I'll work on it until I'm thrilled with every piece of it." I'm Only Dreaming features many achingly lovely moments, none so elegantly built as "Sparking", which showcases Dupree-Bemis's voice is at its most dynamic, over decadent orchestration. It's a masterful track that wholly inhabits the Eisley universe.
The current lineup seems geared to protect the integrity of that enchanted world: besides Sherri Dupree-Bemis and Garron Dupree, Garron's brother Remington drums for them on the road. Jedidiah Lachmann, a longtime friend, joins on keys, and the lineup is rounded out by guitarist and vocalist Elle Puckett.
Puckett's inclusion seems particularly fortuitous: "When we started interviewing for guitar players, we weren't even looking for a girl, we were just looking for a guitar player. We happened to get a video from Elle and we were blown away. She shreds on guitar." True, Puckett's unassuming charisma onstage at Webster Hall was immediately apparent. Fans cheered for her by name, despite her relative newness to the Eisley lineup.
She plays on the new album, too. "We flew her in for a couple days so she could track some stuff just because we wanted her to be a part of the record. We're trying to incorporate her into the lineup and have her really feel like a part of the band because she's an amazing songwriter, too, so I want to maybe on the next record collaborate some more with her." Her backing vocals live are not only capable, she handily navigates the weft of the vocal tapestries constructed by Dupree-Bemis and her sisters on previous Eisley albums.
This spirit of collaboration, of families both constructed and literal, runs through Eisley's history. Sherri frequently collaborates with her husband, Max Bemis of Say Anything, on his records, live, and with their shared project, Perma. Even without her sisters in Eisley, Dupree-Bemis has family on the road: her cousins in the band and her daughters; touring this fall with her younger sister Christie Dupree's band Merriment; more broadly, with the artists she has come to know and love as a part of Equal Vision Records' roster.
Equal Vision Records's Backwards Dancer are providing support for Eisley on this tour, with frontman Zack Shaw on stage each night to sing "Louder Than A Lion" with Dupree-Bemis, covering vocals provided on the record by Circa Survive's Anthony Green.
"They're a little heavy, I guess, for Eisley fans maybe?" Dupree-Bemis says of having them onboard this tour.
I point out that Eisley cut their teeth as a support act in the pop punk scene in the mid-2000s, with bands like New Found Glory and Taking Back Sunday. If there was room in the hearts of the Warped Tour off-season crowds for Eisley in the mid-naughts, surely Eisley fans could extend the same open-mindedness to a heavier support act.
Dupree-Bemis confirms: "Our fans love them so far, and [second support act] Civilian too, they're really melodic and catchy. I was really kinda pushing for Backwards Dancer. Their singer, Zack, has such a cool voice and I love their guitar tones, they're one of my favorite bands right now."
She speaks with genuine enthusiasm about Equal Vision, both the label and the stable of artists. Eisley started out on Reprise and went through some major label growing pains before finding a home at Equal Vision Records: "We were on Warner Brothers, that was when major labels were all kind of plummeting and falling apart, everything was in chaos. I think we got in there on the major label in just enough time for it to be beneficial to us: we got some cool tours and press, some festivals that really helped give us the push we needed in the beginning."
Between their second and third albums Eisley went through a number of issues under Warner Brothers and ultimately split from the label, remaining without a label for some time while trying to acquire the rights to release their third album before signing with Equal Vision.
"We're not a major label band, we're not the kind of band that's writing radio hits every record. It's just not the kind of band we were ever going to be," Dupree-Bemis says. "We wanted to find a home. Plenty of bands can get by these days without having a label and it's so easy to DIY things especially with music but I don't know, we felt like we wanted to find a label to help us manage things, especially the press side. We got so lucky with Equal Vision."
It helps that Equal Vision Records is Say Anything's label as well. "My sisters have husbands that have to stay at home, or my brother's in the band and his wife's at home, and it gets tricky when you start having kids. You want to be there for your family, and that's like the top, number one important thing," says Dupree-Bemis. "[Max and I] made the decision to make it work and not to lose getting to do what we love. Not that my family or my sisters lost what they love, they legitimately felt like ... they were less impassioned about Eisley through the years, it was just natural progress. For me, Max is also in a band, and we also happen to have the same label, so we have this ideal situation for getting the maximum amount of time spent together as a family whether it's on the road or at home. It doesn't really matter where you are as long as you have each other there. It really works for us."
From the audiences at their live shows to their camaraderie with their tourmates to the way the concise and well-crafted songs on I'm Only Dreaming hang together, Eisley presents many different definitions of family, love, and beauty. Against long odds, the group proves that a band can be more than the sum of its members.