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Q Magazine

Michael Eisenstein of Letters To Cleo: 'It's a Mystery and Alchemy Behind Getting a Hit Song'

Whether it's Boston, Los Angeles, Nebraska or New York City, Letters To Cleo have your town in sight

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There's familiar and there's familiar. Letters To Cleo have rocked, rolled and been an incandescent presence on the music scene since they jumped onstage in the Boston area in the early '90s. Kay Hanley, Michael Eisenstein, Greg McKenna, Stacy Jones, and Joe Klompus are collectively revising what it means to make music that you never really leave behind. The nostalgic versions of themselves are still there, whether you recall their rocketship ride to fame via Melrose Place or the band that got Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Julia Stiles coupled in 10 Things I Hate About You or maybe your kids were singing along to Generation O! on Kids WB. The band has maintained a generational kinship with their audience even during their dormant years (remember when Adam Scott wore his Aurora Gory Alice T-shirt on Parks and Recreation?). Now with the double A-side single, "Bad Man/It's Sunny Outside," I'm catching up with Michael Eisenstein in Los Angeles via Zoom, which reminds me that I really need to go back to my hometown and hear Hanley announce as she always does "We’re Letters To Cleo from Boston, Mass."

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Source: © Chris Sikich

Letters To Cleo, 2023: Michael Eisenstein, Stacy Jones, Greg McKenna, Kay Hanley, Joe Klompus

When the kids start saying on social media 'You were just my childhood,' how does that come across to you?

Well, unfortunately, the timeline adds up. I have two kids of my own - one's in college and one's out and in grad school, and she's now living in Boston. So I'm not as shocked because I do have that time marker. A lot of time has passed! But it is kind of funny to have adults come up and say, 'My older sister loved you guys. But I was too young to ever get to see you. And now I'm here!' And they're 32! [Laughs]

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Do you feel like within this realm of bands that you were part of, do you say, you know, in my mind these people are 21, 22. I can't believe that they're nearing 60.

Part of the reality of the thing, I guess, was when we were younger, the oldest rock stars were The Stones and they were in their forties! So there's no sort of image of the old man rocker.

It's interesting that people are into longevity. You can appreciate somebody like Paul McCartney or any of the bands that are now getting up into the seventies and eighties age range. Does that give you an impetus to just keep going?

When we started playing again, the whole thing was we'll do this on a limited scale. As long as it's fun, and people are willing to show up to make it worthwhile, we'll do it. Every November we get together and do it. If a good offer comes somewhere else in the year, we'll try and figure it out if we can. It's been fun to kind of make some new music, too, on top of that.

If you had continued on and not broken up and made this 'your thing' do you ever have instances where, 'Yeah, my life would be completely different.'

There were a lot of reasons behind breaking up. The nice thing is that we now all have friendships. Sometimes you push too far with a creative endeavor — the morale can go down and bitterness can emerge — and we kind of came out of it, scott-free in that regard. So it's easier now because everybody gets along great.

The operative word here is fun. Did it reach a point back in the day when you were not having fun?

There were times when business concerns made it more of a challenge. Playing the shows was always fun. But being a member of a band, especially if you've just been dropped by your label, and you've got to figure out what the next moves are [going to be] is not fun. Outside of that, I wouldn't say we got to where it was not fun. We got to where it was no longer tenable.

I find the answer for a lot of bands who broke up early and got back together is 'Well, there wasn't a good enough reason to get back together. Now, we just want to.'

It's kind of a cool thing to have something that is in your past, that is a creative endeavor, that people still care about. And you can go and put that outfit on and live in that creative space for a while. It has a feeling of community. It has old friends. It has a lot of positives, and then for us every year, it's a nice little thing that happened all by accident. Even the whole November timing of it happened kind of bizarrely.

In 2016, Stacy Jones was like, 'Hey, how about doing some shows or getting together and doing a record?' And I was, 'Ask Kate and see if she's into it.' And she was! The three of us live in LA, so we got together and wrote a couple of songs and Stacy's saying 'Let's record them!' I started recording one of the demos, Greg came in and then did an Instagram post and people got excited.

Then we mixed and mastered five songs for the EP [Back To Nebraska] to be released in November. We booked shows that happened to be the week prior to Thanksgiving. We finished those concerts. It was a great success, real fun. And our manager said, 'Same weekend next year?' And it just became a thing that we did every year since, except for 2020.

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Source: © Giant Records / Reprise

Melrose Place: The Music, 1995

What was it about Aurora Gory Alice and "Here and Now" skyrocketing with the tie-in to Melrose Place? Did you see that coming?

Our A&R guy saw that coming. He was the one who insisted that we re-record that song and put it on the album [Aurora Gory Alice] and he was positive that it was a hit song before he even signed us. That was part of his pitch. Jeff Aldrich. Give the man props.

We re-did two songs, "Here and Now" being one. Then they were doing this Melrose Place affiliation, where there's gonna be songs placed in the soundtrack. Then it was 'Oh, you guys are gonna be the single, so make a video!' We knew they were behind it, but lots of our friends, like Gigolo Aunts, had signed a major label deal but none of them had a really big hit. So it was a pleasant surprise. We could tell every city where we were playing to ten people a night, and then all of a sudden, we just pulled into Cleveland, Ohio and there's a line around the block. Hundreds of people waiting to get into the club.

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Source: ©Front Row Boston / YouTube

Letters to Cleo — 'Here & Now' (Live) 2016

You were fortunate enough to be the recipients of people who were surrounding you at the time saying, 'We're gonna back you.' That didn't seem to me to happen once a lot of local bands got signed to a major label. You stepped in at the right time.

It's a mystery and alchemy behind getting a hit song. We were a good band, but so were lots of bands. There's just a certain magic to hitting the radio at the right time with the right song. You know the movie That Thing You Do! If you've seen that, it's like... that's not far off from how it felt. [Laughs]

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Let me ask you this now. You are a professor at California College of Music and a Lecturer at Cal State LA. Do you see versions of yourself on the other side? Do they know about your past? How do you handle that?

I try to handle it by looking at my musical education. Giving them the tools, obviously, that I learned. What was great, what I learned that was not so great. I teach a variety of classes. In my music business class, I really am trying to say this is stuff you have to know about. This is important. No one's gonna hold your hand. Some of them do research my past and find out about it. And then, yeah, they have questions: 'What was it like on tour?' It's cool to have the information to share with them firsthand.

I'm guessing some of your students have gone out to actually see you perform. How is the feedback?

I've had some of my younger students come to see me, like high school age. They freak out. They love it. [Laughs]

Are they surprised by your sound?

It depends. 'Cause a lot of them have done their homework. However, one of my students is primarily a jazz guitarist. And he was like, 'I've never seen you rock out before!'

At the California College of Music, there's a course I teach called the Original Ensemble, where we basically help the songwriter artist students figure out how to put their own show on: How do we present my original music? How do we rehearse a band and make charts, and do all that stuff to get ready for a show? So I do that with them hand-in-hand. That's super useful knowledge for them. If we're shorthanded, I do perform with them.

I definitely want to talk about these two new songs, because when I listened closely to the lyrics, I was really surprised — although I shouldn't be — by the subject matter of "Bad Man" which is dark and quite explicit. Just how did it come about?

This was written during a time that was right before the pandemic. We were talking about making a new album. Greg McKenna was sending some audio from the East Coast where he lives and Kay and I were getting together over here, working on some songs and making some new demos. That was one of the first ones we wrote. My main thought was, 'Let me try to use some different chords than what we always go to from the past.' Kay responded to it right away and she worked up the melody pretty quickly. How she came up with this storyline, I'm not 100% sure. But the song is about a woman in an abusive relationship, killing her boyfriend and making a getaway.

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Source: ℗ 2023 Letters To Cleo / YouTube

"Bad Man" Letters To Cleo

My perception of Kay vocally has always been very aggressive, and the narrative has been couched in rock and roll. I was not expecting her delivery to be ethereal and quiet. Was that deliberate? She just wanted to take it in a different direction?

Our original demo kind of had that tone to it. With the EP we put out in 2016 [Back To Nebraska], which I produced, the idea was 'We're back. Here's five new songs, but we want to make you feel like it's the old days.' With this new material we wanted to forget about what Letters To Cleo used to sound like, get in with a new producer — Billy Laffler — and embrace whatever we're into now. Almost pretend we're a band just starting fresh. So like you said, the softer, less aggressive approach to the singing and even the backing track, was definitely a shift.

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"It's Sunny Outside." I adore this song. It's hysterical, and it's not meant to be funny. But if there's a relationship between Kay's vocal delivery and the melody, it's perfect.

Oh, it's funny! [Laughs] The references back to being a kid, and there's a truth behind it that is about how oppressive it can be to feel like you have to always be on and always be working, and always be pushing ahead because it's always sunny outside and never getting that break of 'Okay, it's just gray and I can stay home and recharge.' There's that sentiment behind it. But it is supposed to be funny on top of that.

Source: ℗ 2023 Letters To Cleo / YouTube

"It's Sunny Outside" Letters To Cleo

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I don't know if this is intentional or not, but it definitely has a spiritual cousin to Nilsson's "Gotta Get Up."

Yeah, yeah!

Have you had a chance to play "It's Sunny Outside" live?

These will be the first shows we play it at. We played "Bad Man" at our November shows last year.

Do you have a tendency to workshop new songs to get feedback from the audience?

We used to live and die by that back in the old days when we were playing around Boston several times a month. But nowadays we go on each other's editing and a producer and hope for the best. [Laughs]

I feel like a lot of musicians like yourself, all the way up to Mick Jagger have said, 'If we like it, we're going to like performing it as well. We're not going to second guess ourselves when we play this to people.'

There are some that you're just sure about: 'This feels great to play.' There are some that are that just seemed challenging: 'Maybe we shouldn't do this one. Why is it so difficult to make this sound good?'

How did you approach doing the Cheap Trick cover ["I Want You To Want Me"] and Nick Lowe's "Cruel To Be Kind?"

We were doing those numbers for a movie [1999's 10 Things I Hate About You] and we were given a small list of songs that could work in these couple of scenes. We picked Cheap Trick. It was that simple. Ralph Sall was the music supervisor for the film and he had this great business model. He would get the rough cut of the movie, and then he would temp it in with all these classic songs that would work for all the different scenes that he needed. But then he would get up-and-coming bands to do covers and he did this for a series of movies. It was kind of pre-programmed: 'There are three scenes you can do. Which one do you want?' Cheap Trick would be our favorite, and that happened to be the closing scene. Then they had the idea to put us in the movie. And then once we were in the movie, they're like 'Maybe one more scene' and it became this month-long project of filming and recording and filming and recording. That was super fun.

Source: elpi's / YouTube

10 Things i Hate About You - Rock bar scene

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So, the plans are to do these annual gigs. Is it just because it works for everybody, schedule-wise?

No one has to ever think, 'Let me check my calendar for next year.' It's like, 'OK, it's the week before Thanksgiving!' [Laughs]

Have you been playing Aurora Gory Alice in its entirety or does this year make it extra special?

We did shows in 2017 or '18 where we had reissued the three albums on vinyl. We did three nights and played the first album in its entirety the first night, the second album, etcetera. So that was the one time we played it in its entirety, ever. So it's been done. It's been a minute now. I definitely have been listening and practicing a bit to some of the songs that we never play.

What is your perspective as a producer, as somebody who's got the ears to these songs, the differences between the digital version and the vinyl version? Do you find a difference? Do you find similarities?

When I go to a friend's house who's an audiophile and listen on their expensive equipment to the vinyl, it does sound amazing. But in my normal listening, it's more about the process and the experience with vinyl, than the sound. For me, it's the patience of putting it on, not being able to jump to something else: 'Let me go pull it up my phone and switch songs.' It's a deliberate experience to listen to the whole thing. That's the big difference with vinyl. You're committing to it as opposed to when you put something on with your earbuds, you wander around, you've added to a playlist. It's not the same commitment to listening to a piece of music.

And it's also the experience of seeing you live, especially since you're making these deliberate choices to play something in its entirety and not out of context. To put a lot of thought into the sequence of the record.

There's definitely more likelihood now to frontload an album with the most immediate and radio-friendly songs, whereas in those days you definitely thought about the pacing of a first and second act: side A and side B and how the songs fed into one another, and being aware of the tempos and the keys to take the listener on a journey, and not have them sitting in one mood for too long. And then repeating that on the second side, and having a real ending to it. We always ended all our records with this sort of acoustic-ish kind of number. We always wanted to feel like you're in the living room at the end of the record.

So we have the two songs as the single, seven or eight more to make a full-length album. That's sort of the goal for the next eight months.


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