During the past few years, things seemed fairly quiet for Los Angeles locals Earlimart, whose last record, 2004’s Treble & Tremble, was critically well-received and one of the band’s best records yet. So it was a welcome surprise for fans when Earlimart recently reemerged with stunning fifth album Mentor Tormentor, full of lush orchestrations and creatively expansive sounds. But what has Earlimart been up to during all this time? Singer Aaron Espinoza took a moment from his current tour to chat with The Scenestar about the new album, the music industry today and how the band is classing it up as they get older.
SS: Congratulations on the new album, Mentor Tormentor. I love the new record.
AE: Thank you!
SS: It has been about three years since Treble & Tremble. Why did it take so long between albums? Was that a conscious decision to wait?
AE: No, it just happened that way. Just a combination between, well, when we toured Treble, we toured it for a few months. I guess we probably did four or five tours on that one, and then we had some business changes. We got out of our record deal with Palm, who put [our] records out at the time. And we had some band member lineup changes. And just some personal life shit. And then at the same time, trying to write the songs and shop for a new record deal. So all this stuff at the same time... I [also] went off and actually produced a couple of albums. And I think it was just all that stuff combined is why it took so long. A lot of it had to do with finding the right record deal because there was a point when Mentor was actually done and we were still looking for the right deal. And once you get yourself in a deal, you still have a four-month lead-up time for press, so I think that probably the biggest obstacle, time-wise, was the label thing.
SS: Was the album ultimately self released?
AE: Not really. We got ourselves into a business venture. A joint business venture where we went into cahoots with another company that is staffing this new label and ultimately is upfronting and financing the label. And we have a 50/50 deal with them. And we get to put out Earlimart records and the opportunity to put out other artists, sign other artists to the label. It’s kind of like a joint venture. I couldn’t say it’s all ours outright. Not like I’m over there answering the phones or anything.
SS: So with all that time, did the band approach the recording and production of Mentor a little differently?
AE: I think our work ethic is pretty much the same. I think the biggest changes from this album to Treble was sort of this conscious effort not to have any set rules or guidelines or confine ourselves to any one sort of sonic thing. Whereas Treble I think is very much sort of one feeling thematically and sonically, which isn’t good or bad; it’s just what it is. And this one, Mentor, is kind of eclectic. It’s kind of all over the place, in comparison, especially sonically. The rule was it has to be a great song. That’s ultimately what we were striving for. I mean obviously that’s what you’re working for every time you make a record. If you’re not, then you’re probably in trouble. So certain songs would maybe sound a little different than other things, but we wouldn’t necessarily kick it out of the group because of that. It was more of a quality kind of thing. Quality control. The QC, the QC was turned up. [Laughs]
SS: Was that how Ariana [Murray]’s solo track, “Happy Alone,” came about?
AE: Yeah, yeah. That’s a great example. So there’s no rules, so Ariana’s singing a song. She wrote a song of her own, top to bottom. I didn’t have anything to do with it. She did it all, which was great. She’s sort of the secret weapon of the band.
SS: Yeah, that’s definitely an amazing track. Are there plans for her to contribute to the next album?
AE: Well, obviously contributing and what she’s doing over the years, that’s going to continue. We haven’t sat down and said what’s going to be what, but I would imagine that this is going to be a trend that’s going to continue. Unless the song stinks... [Laughs]
SS: Right. All about quality control!
AE: Yep, quality control. [Laughs]
SS: Why is the album called Mentor Tormentor? Is it just a play on words?
AE: It’s sort of a few things. Play on words, tongue twister, but I think thematically, throughout the record, there’s a lot of this positive negative kind of thing and that’s ultimately, what “mentor tormentor” is: the good, the bad and the ugly. I think the record has a lot to do with relationships, good ones and bad ones. People coming and people going. Even in terms of business relationships or the love of your life or band mates, all of that stuff.
SS: The album sounds like it reflects what was going on during that time with the band.
SS: Was the band a little nervous about going back on tour after so long? And how’s the tour going?
AE: It’s been going good. I have to admit, we haven’t done it in awhile, so I had to kind of get used to doing it again. I was pretty nervous going back out again because I got out of practice. It felt like the first day of school again. That weird nervous energy thing. But I think we’ve pretty much figured it out now. We’re going into our fourth week of this tour. We’re really starting to figure it out. The van has got a definite smell to it. The stink aroma. Everyone’s a little shaggier, bearded. We look like a rock band.
SS: How has the audience response been?
AE: It’s been good. There’s definitely spotty parts of the country for us. Probably like most bands at our level. But it’s been really interesting because we’re headlining this tour, and I’m not sure if we’re going to headline the next tour or support somebody bigger, but I wanted to do it this way because there had been such a huge gap between albums and I felt like it would be a little unfair if we went out and supported and did a 30-minute set when everybody’s been waiting, well, not everybody, but the people who like us have been waiting a few years. So now we’re going out and we’re playing these pretty lengthy sets, and it’s really interesting because this didn’t exist the last time we toured. But I’m really honored and humbled by it. People know all the tunes; they know the new ones [and] they know all the old ones. Like some really old shit. They call them out. They yell them out. And it’s pretty interesting. We’re frequently apologizing because we can’t play a certain song. We didn’t think anyone remembered that one. But it’s been neat. It’s a cool feeling that people have been along for the ride. Not to say that there aren’t new fans but the band has been together for almost 10 years now and it’s been neat to see [fans] come out of the woodwork and following us and showing up at the gigs.
SS: And for some of the performances, it was with a string section.
AE: The week the album came out, the first week and a half, we flew around to a bunch of cities in the country, like Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, L.A., and we did it with a string quartet.
SS: How was that experience?
AE: It was amazing. I wish we could always do it. It’s just financially it’s so expensive. It was kind of like a dream come true. I didn’t really think... If you asked me a few years ago if we could do something like this, I wouldn’t think there was any chance. But it was kind of neat to do it, because touring, not to take away from the lineup of the band or the tour that we’re on, but touring is a little tricky because it kind of feels like sometimes you work so hard on a painting or something at your house and you put everything into it and you take your time and you make it exactly the way you want to do it. And then touring is like now take that painting or whatever and go across the country drunk and try to recreate that painting on a sidewalk with some chalk and crayons. But the string quartet was probably as close to the real authentic representation of the songs. I was really proud. I mean, at times I was getting goosebumps on stage. I mean, we’ve been doing it for awhile but I wasn’t used to it. We’re classing it up. We’re getting a little older.
SS: With the last album, Treble received a lot of critical praise but it didn’t have a lot of promotion behind it and then just sort of faded away.
AE: It’s just purely business. We were on Palm and it was owned by Chris Blackwell, who’s this legendary music guy, the guy who started Island Records. He’s been in it forever. But the game has totally changed. It’s not the ’70s anymore and people can’t be expected to spend that kind of money, because they’re not selling enough records to make it feasible. So what happened basically, his business advisors said, hey listen, let’s get out of this music side of the business. And they were also doing DVDs and films, so they concentrated on that. And the music side sort of dissolved. It was unfortunate for us because we had just put out this record, which at the time was doing the best that we have ever done. We were on the road and selling a couple thousand a week, which was really great, and we were doing really good. And it felt like the record had some legs on it and then a couple of weeks in, we got the call, they pulled the plug on the promotion side. We continued to tour on it but we didn’t have anyone else behind it on the other side of the promotion. Unfortunately, I think the album’s life was not as long as it probably should have been, but I don’t know. What are you going to do? You decide to be an artist and try to make a living off something that is completely unstable, so get used to it. It’s just going to happen again.
SS: Well, hopefully not with this one.
AE: Yeah, honestly, well, if you want to do this, you have to be aware of this stuff and get used to disappointment. Don’t let it ruin your life. That’s just kind of part of the whole thing.
SS: Speaking about Palm and how they’ve changed direction, how do you think the music scene in general has changed?
AE: Shit, when we put out Treble, there wasn’t MySpace, let’s put it that way. It’s definitely changed. And to an interesting way with the Internet. I don’t know. It’s rough out here. It’s a different time. There’s all these other avenues that you can explore, which is pretty cool. Obviously the Internet, the blog thing is taking off. There’s definitely a lot of avenues to get down with. It seems like it’s putting more control in the artist’s hands or the artist can put more control into someone they decide is going to control it. Be it management or some sort of representative. Tell them, this is how I want to be portrayed, and I want to do this and not do this. That’s kind of cool.
SS: That was sort of the whole reaction to Radiohead’s release of In Rainbows. That the band had full control of the music, distribution and cost.
AE: The whole downloading the album thing is not a new thing. People have done it. Much smaller, smaller bands than Radiohead have done it. I think it’s cool, but it is Radiohead, and they can do whatever they want to do. They can sort of create the rules because it’s not about money for them. Like if everybody decides not to give them any money, they’d be fine. I think it was more of a social experiment to see the system of checks and balances, like, who’s honest out there still. We’re going to give you a chance. You can give us no money and take the album or you can give us whatever you think it’s worth. I don’t think they’re necessarily thinking about changing the industry. They’re just thinking, I wonder what people are going to do.
SS: Yeah, they were probably interested in seeing who would give zero dollars.
AE: I think in essence it was sort of their own art project.
SS: How do you think bands on Earlimart’s level will fare in this new environment?
AE: Well, I can only speak for us... I mean, we still need the help of another, of a second party or a third party. Be it management or label, we still need someone to help promote the albums that we can’t do ourselves. On that side, I think the label thing is still a current option, but it’s just about more of the approach to selling records and the actual medium itself. Like a CD won’t actually exist very soon. Those kinds of things are definitely going to take change; distribution is going to take change. I think what you got to look for is better royalty rates and things like that. The actual mechanics of it and the little empire you have to create. If you’re a band, you have to create your own empire, or whatever it is, you got to do it. So I think that’s still a necessary element to doing this stuff. You can do it yourself but you can’t do it all yourself.
If you’d like to witness Earlimart recreate the beauty of their music with the raw materials of the live experience, the band will perform this Wednesday at the Troubadour. Tickets are $13 ($15 day of show).