Interview: Erik Hall (Wild Belle, In Tall Buildings) brings indie-pop tapestry to the Mill

Erik Hall performs Monday as In Tall Buildings -- Photo by Caleb Condit
Erik Hall of Wild Belle performs Tuesday at the Mill as In Tall Buildings — Photo by Caleb Condit

Natalie Prass w. In Tall Buildings, Christopher the Conquered

The Mill — Tuesday, July 21 at 9 p.m.

Full disclosure: I know and like Erik Hall. Erik Hall is the band In Tall Buildings, and he is married to my father’s sister’s youngest daughter Abra. He and I have met three times: once at his wedding, once at my brother’s wedding, and once after Wild Belle, his other-OTHER band, played at Gabe’s in 2013, and while technically drinks were served at each event (champagne, champagne, Pabst Blue Ribbon), it would be a stretch to call us drinking buddies.

Point being: journalistic standards require I disclose how this relationship might cloud my critical judgment. It is possible that I find his new album, Driver (Western Vinyl), amazing not because it is a perfectly rich, multi-instrumental sound carpet seamed by stark, spare moments where his voice, airy but strong, becomes the heart string that can stitch or unravel that tapestry, depending on which way he pulls. Maybe familial duty just makes me think it’s good.

“Hypnotic,” said Chicago Tribune of In Tall Buildings’ self-titled debut (Whistler Records, 2010).

Which, ok, is both high praise and totally accurate, but Hall was born in Lincoln Park and raised in Chicago, so maybe they’re just being nice, too.

“Gorgeous indy-pop,” coos The Huffington Post. “The contemplative nature of In Tall Buildings’ music grabs you immediately,” swoons Daytrotter.

So, being an earnest fan of In Tall Buildings puts me in good company. In fact, the only person not disposed to go all rhapsodic about In Tall Buildings is Erik Hall.

“I tend to tell people it’s some kind of rock music, but it’s very layered,” he told me when I spoke with him on the phone last week. “That’s pretty much what I say.”

Which is something of an understatement. Hall wrote and recorded both albums himself, playing a guitar, bass, drums and a half dozen keyboards (from Casiotone through piano to reed organ), wrangling sundry effects pedals and drum machines, adding layers upon layers.

“It’s easy for me to sit with a song that’s half recorded, half produced, half written and let it marinade for months,” Hall explained. “It’s as if it were a painting up on the easel and you just glance at it everyday, and maybe you make a few brush strokes here and there and eventually it’s done.”

This hand-crafted approach has created two stunning, intricate records, but presents an equally stunning challenge.

“There are more and more artists who are working at home, by themselves, and throwing a bunch of stuff down,” which, according to Hall, is a good thing, except, “Then you have this music that you’ve created and it’s time to perform it, and that part is a whole other separate process.”

Hall has performed professionally for more than a decade, first with the afro-beat collective NOMO and later with dream-pop success-story Wild Belle, on stages small and very large (Conan O’Brien, Coachella, Lollapalooza), but even with that experience, making those months of marination and layers of brush-stroke just happen for a live audience is still a creative conflict.

Take, for instance, what I believe is the best In Tall Buildings song: “Good Fences,” track one, side two, off the first record. It opens with drum machine and synth, Hall singing a multi-tracked harmony with himself, and then at one-minute-thirty-three the electronics drop out, replaced by tambourine, finger-picked acoustic guitar, and plaintive voice, but at two-twenty-two all the layers return, symphonically, with at least one clarinet — accompanied by a whole choir of Eriks — before everything tumbles and fades. It is a perfect song for headphones, but not for the stage.

“We did perform it once or twice, but it was weird — hard to arrange,” Hall said. “It didn’t translate.” The experience led him to embrace the dichotomy of the solo recording/performing artist. “I’ve gotten more comfortable with that idea that that [the performance] part of the process is entirely separate, and that’s liberating. I used to be really bogged down with trying to replicate the record.”

Hall explains it just before hanging up: “It’s about finding what is essential in conveying the essence of the song.”

Which is another reason to like In Tall Buildings: you can go mad for the frozen-in-amber loveliness of the records and then get excited to see how the stage will evolve that beauty, and show it to you anew.

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