Daniel Ellsworth and The Great Lakes are making strides.
Building off the success of their first two records, Civilized Man and Kid Tiger, the Nashville-based indie rock band is gearing up for a whirlwind of activity this spring. Front man and keyboardist Daniel Ellsworth sat down with us and gave us the scoop on their new single and music video, their imminent EP, the recording of their next album, and his new side project.
Daniel, Thank you very much for sitting down with me.
Yeah man, absolutely.
So we’ll start with two questions I like to ask everybody I interview. First, how’d you get your start playing music?
I started playing when I was young. Both my parents play guitar. I originally got into through the church with them, they both were involved. Then when was I was about eight I wanted to start taking piano lessons. I think I’m the only kid that wanted to do that—that wasn’t forced to start taking them.
Yeah I wanted to play drums, but my mom made me take piano.
Ok, yeah yeah! You get it. That was it, that was where I got my start. The church was a big part of it. I never really thought of it as “church” because my parents played music there. Church was more about music than a religious thing for me. So that was really the beginning. Everyone in my family is musical. My uncle is a blues pianist, I have cousins that are also doing music professionally and things like that. So it’s just in the family.
OK, so the second question is the one I like to think of as the tricky one. What is your goal with the music you play now? What are you trying to do or accomplish by playing music?
I think the goal is spend every day making the music that we want to make. I hope that we continue to make music that resonates with people, but as long as it’s resonating with us and we’re still getting to do it every day… that’s the goal. To keep that up.
So you’re from Minnesota, and the guys are from all over the Midwest.
Yep. A couple guys from Ohio. Our drummer is from Kansas.
What brought you guys together and then to Nashville? Or was it the other way around?
Well school brought the drummer and I here years ago, that’s where we met. We didn’t start playing music together until long after school, but that’s what brought us here. The other two guys we met just through mutual friends as they moved down here. Our guitarist was down here for one summer and the drummer and I played in sort of a pick-up band together. So we ended up grabbing him after he finished his PhD at Indiana.
A PhD in music?
It was in Ethnomusicology. Actually he just walked for that. He just finished his dissertation.
So let’s talk about your newest single, “Always/Never.” Tell me a little about the song.
Sure! It’s the first track from an EP that we’re putting out in March. We made the EP with the same guy we did our last record, Kid Tiger, with. It’s kind of a continuation of that. It was tracked the same way, it was recorded at the same place—all those things. So it feels like a natural extension [of our last record]. We wanted to release something—we’re heading back into the studio in a week, so we wanted to be rolling out an EP while we’re not on the road.
“Always/Never”—funny story with that song. We wrote that and tracked it for our first album, Civilzed Man, and it just wasn’t right. The arrangement didn’t fit and we were just sort of done with it. I thought “Well maybe we can use it for something, someday.” Then we were working stuff up and decided to totally erase everything we did and build it back up. So it’s kind of an old song, but new now.
You did an EP as opposed to an album because you felt it was an extension of Kid Tiger?
Yeah. We had some additional songs and it felt like we should do them with the same person, in the same studio.
And you felt they didn’t belong on a new album.
Yeah I think so. It’s this group of songs where they’re each kind of their own thing. They fit together, but it didn’t feel like something that was part of an album.
I want to ask about the “Always/Never” music video because it’s very fun.[laughs]
What was the idea behind that? I watched a couple of your other videos and this one is much simpler, at least in concept.
Well, we did a two day video shoot, and ended up having to scrap it. Which happens sometimes. It was fine, we just decided it wasn’t the right thing for the song. We thought “Ok, we did this, and we spent this to do this thing, and now we’re left without a video… Do we need to have something by the time the song comes out?” We decided we wanted to and I just had this idea… I’ve always wanted incorporate animal masks into a video, because they’re always funny to me. It’s just always funny. So I said “Alright guys, just hear me out. Let’s try this. It might not work, but it’s gonna be easy.” And we could do it with like no budget, just do it on a phone. So that’s really what it came from. We did something like six takes. Someday I want to put out all the different ones, the video we put out is the one that’s the most… together. Uhhh… so you can imagine what the other ones are like. [laughs]
So there are five people that are in the video, as opposed to the four people that are typically in the band. Is that like a big secret?
It’s funny, I didn’t think about that at all. There’s actually only… maybe I’m giving away the secret here, but it’s an unintentional secret. There’s actually only three band members in the video. Our bass player lives in Ohio. He was down for the other shoot, but he couldn’t get down for this one—it was very last minute. It was like “Hey what’s everyone doing tonight, let’s go do this.” So for us, it was fine if it was two people, or three people, or eight people. We just decided to see who was around, and watch them do something. It ended up just being two other friends of ours, and we didn’t think anything of it. But everyone just assumed it was the four band members and then was like “Who the fuck was the zebra!?”
It’s really a fun video. Seems like it was a lot of fun to make.
Yeah we just drank a bunch of whiskey and started filming.
Did you choreograph beforehand? Or just come up with it on the spot?
Yeah, I… I said… the chorus…. I’ll say it—I choreographed the chorus. I’ve never said that phrase before for anything! And then for the verse when every animal comes in I just said “Pick one dance move that inspires you, and do that the whole time. Don’t change it.” [laughs].
It does give a kind of surreal effect to it. They just keep going, and another comes up, and they just keep going…[laughs] Yeah and then the end is a bit of release.
How is it playing with a bass player that lives in Ohio?
It’s good. It’s not too far. There are bands where people have much further commutes. He’s really good about getting down here pretty often. He meets us on the road, but he’s down here for writing and rehearsals and things like that.
So the EP comes out in March?
Yeah, March 11th.
Are you going to have more singles out before then?
Our second single will come out Feburary 12th. I think it’s a Friday…. [It is].
Are you doing a release show?
You also have a show coming up here in town on January 27th at The Basement East. Anything special about that?
Well everyone in the band is now working with BMI, who is putting on the show. It used to be two of us were with ASCAP, but now we’re all with BMI. Then there’s also the radio station Alt 98.3, the other sponsor for the show. They’ve been playing our song in heavy rotation, so that’s been great. It just worked out! BMI just asked if we wanted to play, and our bass player was scheduled to be in town for recording, so it just worked. We’re stoked about it.
So are there thoughts or plans for this next album? Any sort of new direction you’re going in?
Not really. For the past year or so when The Great Lakes haven’t been on the road I’ve been working on a side project with a guy named Kyle Andrews. He’s sort-of an electronic-alt-indie-pop guy. Artist and producer. I approached him with some songs that I’ve had that definitely weren’t for a four piece rock band. We’ve wanted to collaborate for some time, so we just tested the waters a bit to see what happened, acnd it went really well, it was a lot of fun. So about a year later now we’ve got a full record.
What’s that band called?
It’s called Chaos Emeralds. It’s cool. The first track we’ll be releasing later this month or February sometime. We’re playing our first show this month too, the 23rd at The High Watt [opening for Tanlines]. It’s been a lot of fun—doing something totally different. An electronic thing way out the realm of the four piece rock band. Kyle and I have worked really well together, and he brings really interesting perspective and sounds to songs. So The Great Lakes are going to go in with him at the producer wheel. He’s got a brand new studio that he just built, so we’re going in with him at the end of this month to try it out and see what happens. I’m really excited about it—to bring his take to more of a rock band setting.
Sounds very cool.
Yeah we’re looking forward to it for sure.