EYB TAKES A GAMBLE ON NEW MUSIC AND COMES UP A WINNER
If you walk into a casino hoping that lady luck is on your side, perhaps what you need to do is put EYB on your playlist. Originally a garage band from Texas, Mike Eli, James Young, Jon Jones, and Chris Thompson have been together for 15 years. Professionally, they’re the Eli Young Band. They have found unprecedented success in the music business, despite the odds being stacked against them. The hand they were dealt consisted of four unique musicians, each with different taste in music. First, they had to come up with a sound that would win over music fans in Texas. Beat the house there and they had to play again, taking on the house capable of dealing them a record deal. The Nashville music scene is stacked like a house of cards. You might be invited to sit in for a game, but staying in the game takes skill, and sometimes the luck of a lady……or at least one (#1) “Crazy Girl.”
To understand the sound of a band, you have to follow the roots of each of its members. The guys from EYB met in college in Denton, Texas at North Texas State (UNT), just north of Dallas. They started hanging out, playing the music they liked for each other. For Chris (drummer) it was Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and grunge rock. The first country he got into was Dwight Yoakam. James (lead guitar) listened to more country, like Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson, but was tuned in to some rock music as well. Mike (lead vocals) was purely a country listener and liked the old school, Opry stuff. Jon (bass) added some jazz, big band, and funk to the mix. When they started writing and recording music, all of these sounds showed up at the table. Before Mike came along, James, Jon, and Chris were playing Weezer and Radiohead covers. When Mike entered the picture, he and James sat around playing country songs. Shortly thereafter, the two became an acoustic duo playing the Denton bars as Eli & Young. Within a year, Jon and Chris joined them and the Eli Young Band was formed. They thought about changing the name to something less personal but Chris said they could never agree on anything that sounded cool enough. Once the merchandise started being made, EYB stuck.
Many country bands start out with a dream of hitting it big and set their sights on Nashville. For EYB, that was never a planned destination. Chris said when they first started playing together, they did it just for fun and free beer. There was never a conversation about being a country band, moving to Nashville, and scoring a record deal. It may surprise you that they still don’t live in Nashville. When they decided they wanted to make a go of being a professional band, they cut their teeth in the Texas music scene. Texas has a vibrant music scene with a ton of venues that book live music. Once you start playing, the challenge is to have the songs that will attract a fan base. Soon, they were selling tickets and records at a rate better than a lot of their peers in the Texas market. To traditionalists in the Texas scene, Chris said EYB never fit that mold. It wasn’t until they’d achieved national success that Texas lauded their roots.
Not wanting to pigeonhole themselves as a Texas band, EYB made a conscious effort to play the national scene. Gaining traction at that level was no easy task. It took years for them to get anyone’s attention in Nashville. Seen as outsiders living in Texas, it took some success for them to break through. They had to overcome being disregarded as a Texas band by Nashville insiders and country radio. Fans loved the music and bought tickets to their shows. Without any hits on the radio, EYB was selling 3,000 tickets to shows around the country. This herculean feat had record labels asking them how they were doing it. With little support from the industry, they’d achieved what few others had. No longer just a little Texas band, the Eli Young Band was commanding a Nashville audience and country radio was about to spin their hits like crazy.
From the time they started recording, the sound of EYB has had people talking. With so much diversity in their roots, it’s not surprising that their music is a unique blend that’s not easy to put in a box. Chris says they never decided to be a country band. They’d put out two records and were well on their way to being an established band when their publicist asked how they wanted to be classified, rock or country? Their decision was based on Mike’s voice sounding undeniably country to them and their early sound being somewhat Americana. They felt they leaned more towards country so that’s the box that got checked. Through the years from 2005 to the present, their sound has evolved as they’ve grown through the process. The early sound was more of a rock/blues fusion and through the first two or three albums, their sound was well defined. Chris felt that by 2011, “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” was a defining change in that sound. By 2014 with 10,000 Towns, it changed further. It was still essentially EYB, but as Chris called it, “a different version of us.” On their new EP, there are some early sounds and some elements of pop/rock in the mix.
The process of writing and recording music for EYB has been an evolutionary one. They’ve always written music together, but in the early days, Chris said they would sit around and write together with their instruments and fill in the words later. Now it’s an opposite process that he says is much more efficient. In the crafting of an album, they work like a rock band. The guys play on the albums and write most of the songs. They do bring in other studio musicians to play instruments they don’t. For everything else, what you hear is EYB. Over the years, they’ve grown a lot as musicians in this process. The down side is that the process has been slow going, often putting two to three year gaps between releases. Turn It On marks a complete departure from the way they’ve made and released music in the past. The making of 10,000 Towns was a long and arduous process that Chris described as “chiseling something out of rock.” Alternately, he said the making of Turn It On was a shoot from the hip, trust your gut experience.
Chris was excited to share with me the uncharacteristic way this new EP came together for them. Wanting to get away from the long periods between albums, they started writing new material as soon as they finished the last record. They had songwriters come out on the road with them, two of which were Ross Copperman and Jeremy Stover, who would end up producing the project. In one afternoon they wrote “Drink You Up.” Chris said they went and played a show and when they came back, Ross had done a computer demo of the song and added sounds to it that were different than what they would normally do. Those who got to listen to it, liked it. A couple months later they were in the studio recording some music for no particular purpose and wound up with Ross and Jeremy again. In two days, they cut the four songs that ended up on the EP. When they recorded these, they brought in some earlier vocals Mike had done on the bus and a few other parts and put them all together. Chris said it was like making songs in reverse. Doing this with no particular project in mind, they didn’t tell anyone they were recording. When the label got wind they were in town and working on new music, they showed up at the studio the second night of recording. The sound of the new stuff was very different than what they’d done in the past and they were concerned the label wouldn’t like it. Republic Nashville president, Jimmy Harnen, sat on a couch and listened. Two songs in, he was sold. A week later they had a meeting. The label planned to release the four new songs immediately as an EP. Chris said that in just a three week period it turned into a new project. They’d had complete freedom to do things their way and the label loved it. Rarely does this happen.
Turn It On has a spirit about it and that spirit may have come from the making of the record. Putting this together quickly, Chris described it as “capturing a moment instead of crafting something.” He feels that if there’s too much lag time between the writing and recording of a song, you can lose the spirit of it. The four songs that are on the new EP put the depth EYB has in neon lights. It’s the excitement of finding something new and encapsulating that spark in a recorded performance. The energy that sizzles in every song is a wellspring they can tap into when they play them live. Imagine a bar after closing time. The lights have been turned off and the jukebox is unplugged. Finishing your shift, you’re the last one to leave. You notice new music from EYB has been loaded into the jukebox. Wanting to be the first to hear it, you plug it in and “Turn It On.” What explodes from the speakers is a sound capable of lighting up the room and filling the place with excited fans ready to have a good time. Play through the songs just once and you’ll be hooked on the feeling.
The title track and first single to be released from the EP, “Turn It On,” takes no time for small talk. From the first few notes, you’ll be tapping your feet and moving to the music. The enthusiasm in this one grabs you immediately. Mike Eli’s deliciously smooth country vocal suddenly bursts as if the lyrics demand he swallow Pop Rocks. Even the neon lights are buzzing with the excitement in this one. No way you can listen to this just once. This may soon be your new favorite song….until you hear the next one. “Plastic” is about standing out in a crowded room full of country girls. The music is a slow dance with a groove and not a cliched lyric rolls off Mike’s tongue. It’s a guy looking across a bar at a girl he’s fascinated by and appreciating what makes her different. This one could be a game changer on country radio, proving that it’s possible to put more than just one type of girl in a country song. Bravo to the songwriters on this one (Mike Eli, Ashley Gorley, Ross Copperman, Jeremy Stover)! Hooked on this one? Just wait…. “Your Place Or Mine” is irresistible, much as the lyrics suggest. Mike delivers a killer vocal on this that sets the mood from the outset. There’s no doubt this one is headed for a late night rendezvous. The intrigue laden instrumentals that show up throughout give this complexity from a musical standpoint that adds to the “it’s complicated” set of circumstances. Out of breath? Hold that thought….Chris described “Drink You Up” as the next song that may change things dramatically for EYB. I’d say, bet on this being a number one. Absolutely infectious, this one has the appeal of an open bar. When the music gets quiet in the middle of the song, it’s like waiting in line for that next drink. As soon as you get it, the party starts all over again with Mike’s vocal pushing you towards the dance floor. Expect this to be played in every bar in the country, country music themed or otherwise. With any luck, EYB will be there live to play it for you!
For eight years, the Eli Young Band toured the country headlining their own shows, routinely playing a two to three hour set. Once their music got some radio airplay and they were making a name for themselves nationally, they got offers to be a part of larger tours. Over the years, they’ve opened for Kenny Chesney, Jake Owen, Darius Rucker, and many others. This year, they’re going back to headlining their own shows and playing fewer of them. Family time is important to the band and less time on the road affords them that opportunity. As luck would have it, one of the stops on this year’s tour was at Hollywood Casino in Charles Town, West Virginia. The odds of this happening were definitely not in my favor, so I seized the opportunity to see their live show. Having conducted this interview just prior to the performance, Chris told me a few things I could expect to see. They planned to open the show with one of the new songs off the EP, “Drink You Up.” Admittedly, this was a gamble. They had never opened a show with a brand new, unreleased song that they’d just learned to play. The intent was to shock the audience. He said they were nervous about it but they would feed off that energy to open with a bang. It was a gamble that paid off.
I’ve seen a lot of concerts in the past couple of years that have included some of the biggest names in country music. Few have blown me away like EYB. What they bring to the stage is an unbridled, live band performance. Opening with “Drink You Up,” the audience was captivated by a song they’d never heard before and pulled in by the amount of energy EYB hit the stage with. At the end of the song, people were looking at each other with surprised expressions of “what just happened?” They kept the energy high going straight into a rock-edged version of “Revelations.” I knew most all of the songs in the set list, but nothing was played as I expected it to be. Mike is outstanding as a front man. He had control of the audience from start to finish and he makes his way through the set list as if he’s telling the story of who they are through the music. Musically, the transitions are flawless and hands down the best I’ve seen. Mike’s storytelling between songs adds to the experience of the music you’re about to hear. Even the songs you know well become something new in their live performance. “Dust on the Bottle” became an intro into their own hit, “Dust.” From there, they introduced the new single off the EP, “Turn It On.” You would never know it hadn’t been heard before. The crowd responded to the high energy fun this song invites and the band played it like it was already a fan favorite. No doubt, it will be.
The rest of the set was one special moment after another. During “Prayer For The Road,” their new video played on the screens on either side of the stage. I could tell that many in the crowd hadn’t seen this video before and were glued to it. I had seen it, but listening to EYB play the song live along with it, gave it a poignancy you rarely see. Absolutely stunning. Mike’s intro to “Drunk Last Night” had the audience more than ready by the time they launched into the song that everyone had been waiting for. They followed that #1 hit with another, “Even If It Breaks Your Heart.” It seemed everyone there knew the words to this one and helped Mike sing it. A slow, acoustic version of Garth’s classic, “The Thunder Rolls,” led into the acoustic opening of “Guinevere.” This beautiful ballad is a showcase for the talent in this band, ending with a killer drum solo by Chris Thompson. From there, they went back to one of the earliest songs they’d written, “Small Town Kid,” and ended the regular set with their first #1, “Crazy Girl.”
Having played all of their hits, the encore was a surprise. Apparently, someone in the crowd had been asking for some Skynyrd so EYB finished with an outstanding rendition of “Gimme Three Steps.” It seemed a perfect ending for a set that began with a song that represents how far they’ve come from that Texas garage band that probably played Skynyrd more times than they care to remember. Leaving that show, I felt I had a good sense of who EYB is as a band. Chris said there’s a brotherhood and a depth to their relationship and it shows in their live performance. When you watch them together on stage, it’s like seeing them grow musically before your eyes. The set gives you the highlights of their years together, but the way they interact on stage, you get garage band camaraderie in the form of four exceptional musicians. They seem comfortable with their musical identity and clearly enjoy the music they play. When I asked about the choice of the new single, Chris said the label chose it and they were fine with that. They only record songs they love and believe in and it shows in the way they play. In making the new EP, they’ve taken a gamble on changing the process, the sound, and the way in which it’s being released. I predict Turn It On is headed for a big payout with four songs that are all capable of hitting that number one spot. Luck might be a lady, but with this EP, the odds for a winner favor EYB.
Turn It On is available through iTunes: HERE
Visit EYB’s Website: http://eliyoungband.com/index.php
Check out EYB’s latest album, 10,000 Towns: http://waynorthofnashville.com/eli-young-band-10000-towns-and-a-lot-of-familiar-miles/
10,000 Towns is available through iTunes: HERE
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