The official Motel Motel band biography is a reprint of the Robert Frost poem “West Running Brook,” which ends with the lines “What are we?/Young or new?/We must be something.”
Those are fitting words to describe this brilliantly modern band, whose nostalgic sound echos back to 1920s A.M. radio crooners and Appalachian folk legends alike—although lead singer Eric Engel might throw in “Gram Parsons” and “a raptor fighting a horse” just to cover all the bases. Motel Motel's excellent debut, New Denver
(out now) does little to contradict these descriptions with its intoxicating blend of organic country and alt-rock escapism. Paste
recently spoke with Engel and banjo/pedal steel player Erik Gundel about the band's infatuation with Colorado's capital city, the appeal of dinosaurs-as-album-art and their then-upcoming humanitarian trip to Egypt.
Paste: Your album New Denver has a lot of Appalachian and folk-based undertones. I’ve noticed that these styles have been circulating around your home base of Brooklyn recently. Why do you think such a traditionally pastoral music has taken root in such an urban place?
Erik Gundel: I feel like it’s such a fertile, musical place, that you could probably find anything you’re looking for. There’s post-modern dance music and great folk singers. But I agree with you that there are some sub-trends going on with Appalachian music, as you say.
Paste: But your band is originally from Denver, correct?
Eric Engel: Not all of us individually. I’m from New York, Erik’s from Vermont, Timo—the guitarist/bassist—is from Hawaii, Jeremy our drummer is from Virginia and [guitarist] Mickey is from Denver. So only one of us is from Denver, but we moved out there and lived there to record the record, New Denver. That might be part of the confusion as to why people think we’re from there, but Denver definitely holds a strong place in all of our hearts. I love it there, there’s just such a good vibe. Every place has a different feeling when you walk into it, and I think Denver spoke to all of us. And Colorado with its mountains speaks more to your question about being mountainy-sounding, but I think it’s just a great place to write music. New York City can be difficult because you put in a lot of practice with your friends and think you’re doing well, and then you go see The Dirty Projectors and then they just blow your mind, and then you get discouraged and
Paste: Did you see them when they toured recently?
Gundel: It was amazing. I hadn’t seen then with a six-person lineup
Paste: Going back to the country theme, your music definitely has an old-timey feel to it. Especially your voice, Eric, has a characteristic similar to crooners from the 20s. Was there a specific inspiration behind this?
Engel: I think a lot of New Denver was about experimenting with different feels. The album’s really long, and I think the reason why it is, is that we didn’t know what we were creating. We were just out to play music in the purest way. We didn’t have an idea of what we wanted the album to sound like and that’s how it ended up. Having a lot of influence with country music, any song that came to me sounded that way. But Mickey, who comes from a strong base in jazz music and Timo, who’s into Godspeed [You Black Emperor], all contributed to the direction. So you have a lot of influences coming in and it became an amalgamation of a lot of different ideas. But country music was something that we agreed felt the best. It just feels good.
Paste: It definitely does. But one thing I read on your MySpace page that I found interesting was that you aren’t “smothered by the alt-country label.” Is there a negative connotation there for you?
Gundel: I wouldn’t say it’s a negative connotation. We all love alt-country bands and we’re big Wilco fans. But I feel like it doesn’t suit us. Maybe it’s just because we’ve been writing new material. I personally didn’t have anything to do with the first album, so we’re a different kind of band right now. The music we’re writing right now is stretching away from alt-country. There’s nothing wrong with alt-country, [but] we might not be in that realm anymore.
Paste: That’s interesting that you say that, because your album is fairly expansive, especially on a song like “Cigarettes” that almost has a Middle Eastern feel to it.
Engel: I feel, along with a lot of bands that we’re friends with, that unless a group pioneers a genre, bands get very nervous when they’re put into genres. But on the other hand, as a fan of music, I love to stick different people in different boxes. So I can totally see where people are coming from when they call us alt-country and I don’t disagree, but they’re not there when we’re writing and they’re not there at our shows, so they don’t see the full spectrum of what we are. It makes us nervous, but we’re a new band. Nobody wants to be boxed up. “Cigarettes” has a country spore, but that song has triplets in it, strings and a guitar solo, which isn’t really a popular thing anymore. It definitely has a lot of straight rock ’n’ roll in it.
Paste: There also seems to be a heavy geographic trend that runs through your music with songs like “Virginia,” “Vietnam,” “Harlem” and “Mexico.” Are these songs diaries of time spent in each locale or does this allude to something else?
Engel: The way we made the album was kind of that way. We were down in Virginia where we spent some time and picked up [drummer] Jeremy, who spent a lot time with Timo writing there. Then we traveled to Denver, so we got to explore the Midwest in a coming-of-age trip that people tend to do.
Paste: How was your Midwestern trek a coming of age experience?
Engel: We were 20, 21, and I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a road trip, but we were touring, making our first and getting to know one another. It wasn’t really that we were a band. We didn’t play a lot of shows, but were talking a lot and it was all our first real record. We were just getting our feet wet. I didn’t expect to say, “OK, we’re going to write this record and then we’re going to talk to Sean at Paste Magazine.” We were just seeing if people would listen to it and it’s still surprising to hear that people would like it—like when you said that “Cigarettes” is your favorite song. Every day is surprising when you hear that someone listens to your record.
Paste: So your band name comes from a friend’s suggestion on how to properly name a motel?
Engel: Yeah, it came from this angsty writer from Denver who was working at this hotel named after an Indian Tribe, and he was a concierge. Mickey told him he was moving to New York and our friend said that if he was ever going to start a typical indie rock band, he could call it Motel Motel. We figure we hit the clichés pretty hard. I thought it was a pretty good idea.
Paste: Your album cover depicts a mustang and Velociraptors in battle. Besides being inherently awesome, what was the thought process behind this graphic?
Gundel: It’s probably the stupidest thought process. [Laughs] Basically what happened is we were pining over what the album cover was going to be when we were going to get a release on this record label called Rebel Group. And we had this artist who was going to do it and he had some art that we really liked that was Native American. We just kept disagreeing with each other—it’s hard to having five people agree on what the record was going to look like. And then all of the sudden, Mickey was wearing this sweatshirt with a raptor on it. I don’t remember who said it, but someone said, “We should have a raptor fighting a horse!” And we said, “Yeah! Awesome!” And later we said it really justifies what our music is like, but it’s so easy to swing a justification on something, and that’s how we did it. I love it.
Paste: But the question is, who eventually wins: The horse or the dinosaur?
Gundel: I’m taking the reigns on this one—no pun intended—but you have to assume that the raptor’s going to win, unfortunately. You can see two [raptors] on the cover, but they’re pack animals so you have to assume that there are others nearby probably hiding out. But I think we’re all proud of the fact that the horse is putting up a pretty good fight. It looks like the raptors are shying away a little bit, but they do have those claws.
Engel: We also have an alternate version of a T-Rex fighting a horse, but we decided not to do that one because there’s no contest—the horse is just running away and the T-Rex is just about to demolish it, so we thought it a little too pessimistic.
Paste: So there’s not too much subtext, just the B-movie sensation of seeing a horse and raptor fighting each other?
Engel: Well, no. We did talk about it and it was our take on how we play country music. I remember Timo saying our band sounds like what Gram Parsons would sound like if he were alive today trying to play country music. Our take on country is what a horse and a raptor fighting would be like.
Paste: What do you have planned for the future?
Gundel: Our main priority for the coming six months is recording the second album, which we’ve been writing rigorously for this year, so we’re all excited about that. But we have a couple big trips coming up—we are going to Egypt at the end of July, which is pretty shocking to all of us. We know somebody who knows someone in the state department who does cultural exchange programs and they were looking for a rock band to send over there. They previously did classical and ballet, but they wanted a rock band now, and we were lucky enough to be the ones they picked.
Listen to "Cigarettes" from Motel Motel's New Denver on the PasteStation.