By Josh Hughes
Chicago based art-pop band City States are inevitably on the rise. Their blend of piano driven balladry with sweeping vocals draws comparisons from The Antlers to Majical Cloudz, and their music constantly remains upfront and intimate. “Uncharted Waters”, a highlight off their upcoming debut entitled Geography, stacks piano chords over bare bones vocals that feel indebted to some 40 years of electronic tinged pop music. Much of the album plays off the same central musical idea, and fully shapes their melancholic and melodic sound. I recently had a chance to talk with Joel Ebner, the lead songwriter and singer of the group.
Between your soundcloud and band website, you seem very in touch with what your influences are, such as The Antlers and Death Cab For Cutie- and what you strive to sound like. You also label yourself as art-pop. What has made you want to write music with that specific mindset?
More than anything I wanted to make an album that shared the characteristics of my favorite records. For me, the best albums are ones that stretch the limitations of pop and rock music, either by means of studio manipulation, or some kind of formal deconstruction. To put it more plainly, I really enjoy strange, artful pop music.
Some records I listened to while writing Geography include Another Green World by Brian Eno, Dots And Loops by Stereolab, Burst Apart by Antlers, Actor by St. Vincent, and In Rainbows by Radiohead.
You’ve said the upcoming LP “Geography” largely focuses on the passing of your father, a musical influence on you. How has that changed and affected your writing on the LP?
My father died unexpectedly while I was in the middle of writing the album, so it was somewhat inevitable that my music would be affected. Writing the album was a way for me to work through my feelings about his passing and about death in general; a couple of songs (especially “To Remember”) became a tribute to the love of music that he helped instill in me.
Because of the bare bones structure and straightforward lyrics, I hear a bit of Majical Cloudz influence in your music. Do you generally use the music or the lyrics to kickstart your writing?
I think it’s great that you hear Majical Cloudz in our songs (Impersonator is a favorite from last year—so much so that I went out of my way to write about the record on our Tumblr); there are definitely a few tracks on our record that play into the spare electronic style that they’re known for.
The music is almost always my starting point when songwriting. Sometimes a song starts with a guitar riff; sometimes it’s a piano phrase or a sampled loop. In almost all cases, I’ll work out the song with a vocal melody in mind, singing nonsense lyrics over a musical phrase until I think I have a solid direction. From there I’ll write an arrangement, and the lyrics, generally, come last.
There’s definitely some risk in my approach—for Geography, we actually started recording the musical arrangements before the lyrics were finished. And even though I knew the exact melody I would be singing, writing and recording in this order presented me with a couple of cases where I felt like a song’s vocal melody might need to be altered, but by that point I was already somewhat hemmed into an arrangement.
With an album on the way, can we expect any touring of any sorts? If not what are your plans after it comes out?
I hope to do a short tour of the east coast and the Midwest, but nothing has been set in stone yet. I’m certainly excited to play some shows with this new set of songs.
Lastly- red or green chile?
Red, definitely: I like milder heat with lots of flavor, preferably roasted.
Geography is out via Chicago’s Safety Records on May 13th