Ezra Holbrook takes center stage on his new album ‘Save Yourself’
by Ana Ammann on February 16, 2011
Ezra Holbrook has drummed with and produced music for over forty different bands ranging from punk and rock, to folk and full on funk. After ten years of working on his own material, this former founding Decemberist and current member of the Minus 5, Casey Neill & the Norway Rats and KMRIA, puts forth his most authentic work to date in his new solo album “Save Yourself” which will be released Saturday, February 19th at the Secret Society Ballroom.
“I was born in Alaska in the summer of 1974. The product of an improbable romance between a bear and a lightning bolt. I spent my formative years fishing with my hands, experimenting with berries and occasionally putting out forest fires…” So begins the bio for multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Ezra Holbrook. Most in town have heard the local lore about him – he was signed to Capitol Records at 20; started The Decemberists with Colin Meloy; has had to clone himself to be able to make it to all the gigs his four bands play; is part of an intergalactic brain trust. In Portland, everybody knows his name.
As we sit and talk in a small booth at the back of Biddy McGraw’s on a rainy Monday night, I am trying to reconcile the image of the over-the-top funk rapper of Dr. Theopolis with the soft-spoken, sincere and slightly shy artist in front of me.
“Dr. Theopolis is the furthest from who I am, that’s more of an alter-ego than an actual piece of me. It’s much more who my brother (Jules Holbrook) is, he has a pretty outrageous sense of humor and he is the dude who pushes Dr. Theopolis in that direction, I just get to do some rapping and bad dancing. ”
If Dr. Theopolis – “Oregon’s most infamous commodity of funk and old school soul looking the part of fly 70s pimps” – is the furthest, then which of his many and varied musical outlets best represents Holbrook’s authentic persona? “When I play with Casey Neill, we’re a pretty loud rock band, we tear it up. Playing drums with the Minus 5 (Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck’s pop collective) is like playing the music I was listening to in high school – great high-energy, pop, punk-rock. I definitely think there are big parts of my personality invested in both the Minus 5 and Casey Neill’s projects, all of these genres of music are very close to me and what I grew up listening to, but there is not really a place for that kind of energy in my material. I think my own material is very much authentic me, the more introspective and quieter side, but I appreciate having the other outlets.”
Ezra Holbrook and Mr. Fabulous of Dr. Theopolis
“Save Yourself” is just that, an introspective, authentic and moving collection of songs that reflect upon themes of redemption, forgiveness and love with gorgeous guitars, heartfelt vocals and uncomplicated production that allow Holbrook’s songwriting to take center stage.
This release has been a long time coming for Holbrook, but to fully understand his musical odyssey, we have to begin with where his journey started a long, long time ago in the City of Angels. “I had to take piano lessons when I was a kid. I have the good fortune of having parents who made sure that I grew up with a great musical education. Shortly after I moved to LA, probably about 11 or 12 years old, one of my teachers pulled me aside after class and said ‘I noticed that you are always tapping your feet fairly rhythmically. You know, the junior high band is looking for a drummer, would you be willing to spend your lunchtime taking drum lessons?’ I started playing classical percussion and ended up joining the Cal State Northridge Youth Symphony for about 8 years. After my first few years of playing classical percussion, I wanted to play rock, so I got a drum set and found a teacher. I learned to play rock drums and started playing in bands. That grew into wanting to learn how to sing, how to play bass and how to play guitar, but I just sort of taught myself.
Holbrook’s early music projects had generated some interest from a few labels, but he moved to Eugene, where his mother was living and working as schoolteacher, to attend Lane Community College with an eye to eventually transferring to the University of Oregon.
A scout for Capitol records that Holbrook had developed a rapport with while in L.A. contacted him soon after his move and asked if he’d be willing to come back. “This guy said there was some legitimate interest if I wanted to come back down and meet with some people that had heard some of my new songs. I went back down and got a development deal from Capitol, did some demos for them and they ended up liking it, so we entered into this huge negotiating process, it was ridiculous. I didn’t care about the money, I just wanted some control. I didn’t want to be in a position where they could tell me what to do and I didn’t have a way out. That was surprisingly difficult to do. So after eight months of fighting, essentially, I sacrificed money, my only bargaining chip, and took a bad money deal to try to gain some sort of control. What I ended up with was first right of refusal. I wasn’t in control over anything, but we had to agree. Both parties had to come to some sort of agreement, and that was as good as I could get.”
Capitol was eager to sign Holbrook, and the scout that helped discover Holbrook was eager to land an A&R position. Against his manager’s advice, Holbrook, allowed the scout to leverage his own record deal to help his champion land the A&R job. “He had always helped me out and was a great friend. But the second the paperwork was signed, Capitol fired him and they stuck me with someone I had nothing in common with. A big part of why I was there was to work with this one individual who believed in me and understood what I was trying to do. Even before we started making the record, it was pretty clear that they wanted to move in another direction and wanted me to play along. This was right when grunge had blown up and Radiohead and Everclear were their big bands. Their whole marketing department was all about rock, and I was doing mellower pop, singer-songwriter stuff.
“We got the record made, which was awesome, and I got to work with all these incredible musicians I never would have had an opportunity to. That alone was totally worth it, but our relationship had deteriorated before I even started recording. I essentially told the label that if they showed up to my recording sessions, I would leave. We fought and yelled and disagreed, so I finished the record and went back to Eugene. Sure enough my manager called me a few weeks later and said ‘They’re dropping you, it’s not rock and the marketing department doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s not the record they wanted you to make.’ I was destroyed; it was a real confidence shattering experience. It’s hard not to look at that as a failure, but I was really young. By the time it all ended I was probably only 23.
Holbrook’s first album didn’t make it out on Capitol, but he released Sympathy for Toys and Puppets in 2000, made 1,000 copies and when he sold out of them, just let it go not having been fully satisfied with it. His second album, Say What You Want, was written in pieces over a decade and never released. “Making the album became this really frustrating process, it lost a little bit of its impact because it became too over thought, there were too many choices. I kept going back to the drawing board and reworking everything and changing directions.
“After spending so long on the last one, my main goal with this record was to do as little as possible. I made the decision to go into the studio with whatever songs I had done by a particular date and was going to sit in front of the mic and sing them, let someone else tell me when to stop, then do the least amount to make them presentable. This is the first record where I didn’t have specific ideas for the musicians I brought in. I just brought people in, played them the songs and said ‘what’s floating your boat?’ I just let what was going to happen, happen and let it go its own direction, which I’ve never really done before; I’ve been way more of a control freak. And of course the funny thing is I’m much happier with the results. This record is by far the most underdone thing I’ve ever done, and for the first time, this feels right. It’s got a vibe that seems to suit the material, so it’s like all of the overwork that I was doing on all the other stuff was taking me further away from my goal which was really to find where my music belonged. It’s one thing to write a song, it’s another to figure out how to present it, in the vibe and genre of it.”
Holbrook’s musical influences range from old soul singers Ray Charles, Otis Redding and Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, to Elvis Costello and Public Enemy. “It is kind of weird when you have really varying interests and you are trying to make a record, to have to try and pick a genre. I think that is part of the process that I went through with this last record. The progression for me has been trying to figure out how to present the music that I write. Because I don’t just love acoustic-y-folk stuff, I love rock music, Hip-Hop and R&B. So after I put this new record out I’m going to release everything I’ve ever done, soft release it online. It’s work, just about 31 songs.”
The songs Holbrook has written for Save Yourself are centered around two classic themes. “Redemption and forgiveness are two pretty big ones. A lot of the songs are about personal struggles I feel I have had that have impacted other people. Wondering, do you get another chance? Can you be a better person?
“There are quite a few songs on the record about struggling with alcohol and I think that’s been an issue for me. I used to drink a lot and I have tried to clean up my act over the years. Not that I’m a mean drunk or anything, but that impacted a lot of my relationships. That is a big theme throughout the record. And then there are a couple songs that are reflections on past relationships, whether they were romantic or otherwise. Some are about things that went wrong and there is a love song or two on there.”
Do the people in Holbrook’s life make their way into his songs? “A lot of the time, even if I am writing a song about one specific person who initially inspired it, I use that to build a bigger picture, so that it’s not too specific. My favorite kinds of songs are the ones that could be about you all the time. Direct enough that you understand clearly what someone is saying, open enough that you get that connection with the person who wrote it, but not so specific that you don’t have a connection past a certain point. I have very few songs that are about just one specific person. Usually it’s about a theme throughout relationships.”
Throughout his career in music, Holbrook has performed with and produced music for an impressive roster of musicians, well-known both locally and nationally, keeping him so busy, that in part may be why the music world has had to wait so long to hear a solo effort from him. “It’s been a really interesting experience to force my priorities to change. It almost feels selfish. I am not old by any means, but I am getting older and sleeping on floors and tour buses is getting less appealing. I would like to feel like I took a legitimate shot at something that I really feel defines me which is writing music and singing songs – whether I’m any good at it or not is not an issue, it is what is important to me.”
What was important to Holbrook early in his career, was to have an opportunity to pursue his own musical vision. It was for this reason he left one of the most successful bands to come out of the Northwest and who are currently sitting on top of the Billboard charts. “Colin (Meloy) and I were the first two Decemberists. We played a show together where I heard his songs and thought they were awesome. We went to dinner a week later, drank a bunch of tequila and it started. I was friends with a guy named Dave Langanes who plays for Stolen Sweets and brought him in to play some guitar, and he brought in Nate Query who was in Colobo with Jen Conlee, so he brought Jen in, and that was the beginning of the Decemberists.
“I played on the first EP called 5 songs as well as Castaways and Cutouts, the first full record. We got to a point when it became clear that Kill Rock Stars was going to take the contract from Hush for that album and it looked like we were going to do a pretty major summer tour. All of a sudden the wheels were turning quickly, so we had a sit down and Colin said ‘if this goes in the direction it looks like its going, everyone needs to make this their first priority, if you can’t do that, now is the time to think it over.’ I loved playing for The Decemberists, those guys are awesome and we are still great friends, but at the time I was also drumming for Little Sue and Casey Neill – which I am still doing, I had Dr. Theopolis, I was writing my own material, and at the time, I was playing a bunch solo. I felt like I couldn’t give all that up. I love drumming and it’s taken me a decade to get to this point, but I’ve always felt like this really is what I should be doing. The Decemberists was a great band to play in, but that was very much Colin’s vision and I guess I felt that if I was going to sacrifice everything for one thing, it was going to be my vision.
“The definition of success has changed drastically for me in my lifetime, just as the music industry has changed drastically. I spent my life listening to great artists and I have a lot of respect for people that have really been true to their artistic expression, even outside of music, especially those that were trying to do something that meant something to them, regardless of how it was perceived or manipulated by other people.
My definition of success these days is pretty humble. I want to be able to make records, tour when I want and tour in Europe. For me, music was such a big part of my life as a kid, I couldn’t wait to get home to run to the stereo, put on headphones and listen to music until it was time for dinner. I always had this really high regard for great writers. I don’t know exactly the right way to put this, but the most important thing to me would be too look back and feel like I somehow belonged to that world, the world I looked up to when I was growing up, that had a huge impact on my life. I’d like to know that somehow, I had found a place there.”
Ezra Holbrook’s Favorite Tracks on Save Yourself
Do People Bloom
It is the oldest song on the record. It is about second chances, coming through issues and trying to right your ship, so to speak. Even before I recorded it, I felt like this was one of the best songs I’ve ever written and one I am most proud of. Also the way people respond to it. Every time I play it, it gets a reaction.
Listen to: Do People Bloom
The title track, I love how it turned out, the recording of it, the vibe of it, the people that played on it did such an awesome job. Sometimes you get that song that turns out so much better than the way you had it in your brain, like ‘Wow! Something happened there!’
Listen to: Save Yourself
We were almost done with the record and at the very last minute, I thought we needed something else and this one fell out of my brain fast. I recorded it at my house really quickly, then Jen Conlee and Annalisa Tornfelt came over to collaborate. It was a very spontaneous thing. It still grabs me the most because of the immediacy of it, it just kind of happened. It feels really alive to me, and we didn’t have time to screw with it or overwork it. Songwriting for me these days is a really laborious process. When I was young I used to write ten songs a night, they were probably all crap, but I was constantly writing. Now one song’s worth of lyrics will take me months and months to tweak and finish. For a song to just appear like this is kind of unusual. That was nice.
Listen to: Collide-Oscope