By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
After eight years of the urban grind, Matt Leavitt gladly left the Twin Cities behind to embrace a simpler life in rural Minnesota, settling down on a patch of countryside outside Northfield. "I lived in the Cities for a long time, and it was good to step away from all that constant activity," says Leavitt. "When I was younger, playing in the woods was always a solace. Going out and building forts is how I spent the majority of my childhood. Just entering that sort of space again was inspiring." That transition from hustle and bustle to peaceful solitude has been exquisitely captured on his band Emot's new album, Make You Electric.
A subtly stunning listen, Make You Electric feels tailor-made for late-night campfire listens and headphone-powered woodland wandering. While clearly indebted to touchstones of glacial-paced indie rock like that of the Red House Painters—the quartet know their way around echo-laden guitars and restrained balladry—Emot are also capable of nimbly switching gears and splicing unexpected sonic elements. Adept at more mellifluous mainline folk-rock when the occasion calls for it (the gently rolling "Together" feels like a lost Jackson Browne classic), the band's novel application of guitar effects pedals and loops help further remove Emot from the slow-core crowd. Imagine Halloween, Alaska making an alt-country album and you're getting close.
"We love headphone records," explains guitarist Robert Mulrennan. "We were trying to make an album where repeated listens lead to new discoveries you didn't hear the first time around. A lot of the nuances are subtle enough that the listener doesn't really notice them, but they shape the songs in important ways; they would notice if they were taken away."
"I wouldn't imagine I'd be very good at writing a concise pop song," admits Leavitt. "I just don't think that way. We took a kitchen-sink approach of putting a lot of musical and instrumental ideas on there and then just slowly took them away during the mixing stage as we figured out what was integral. I had never used loops at all before I started working with Robert and it ended up being a writing tool that was really instrumental in changing my songwriting."
As strong an album as Make You Electric is, one can't help but feel the odds are stacked against Emot in some ways. They've made an ultimately mesmerizing and deeply rewarding album that forgoes instant gratification and requires the listener to actually pay attention to be appreciated. It's a gutsy move in an age when carving out a space for thoughtful immersion increasingly appears to be at the bottom of peripatetic MP3-gobbling listeners' to-do lists.
The men of Emot are well aware of the difficulties a gentle, headphone-focused band faces in winning over rowdy crowds and attention-span-challenged web surfers. "We do try to up the intensity for the live shows," admits Leavitt. "There are some livelier songs that didn't make the record that we work into the set. It's been an evolving thing, figuring out who we are as a live entity. I'm sure we'll have those bad shows where people go about their business and think we're boring but I'm just really happy to be playing with these guys and excited for the future. I enjoy the experience of playing live and try to have fun with it. I have no interest in being a dour guy up on stage with an acoustic guitar soaking himself in his own tears."
Whether Emot's gossamer beauty is able to silence boisterous bars in the Cities and beyond remains to be seen, though the band need only look north to Duluth icon Low for a case study in how a knack for slow-burning soundscapes and artful dirges can be translated into a sustainable career. It only makes sense for a band with a gradually rewarding sound to be in it for the long haul.
"Make You Electric is really just a document of what it was like for us to get to know each other musically," explains Mulrennan, when queried on Emot's future goals. "This very much feels like a beginning. We're already really itching to start writing again, so no matter what happens there will be another record."
"The countryside is so much more of a relaxing atmosphere," offers Leavitt, whose new home doubles as the band's pastoral practice space. It's easy to step back and have perspective rather than obsess over your band."
EMOT play a CD-release show with We Are the Willows, Wizards are Real, and Adam Svec on FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, at CAUSE SPIRITS AND SOUNDBAR; 612.822.6000