It took Chicago singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Erik Hall four years to craft Driver, his sophomore release as In Tall Buildings. But if you ask him, he’ll likely tell you that he’s largely been in constant motion the whole time.
“I’m always in a state of writing and recording,” Hall says during a recent phone interview. “The first album was completed and released in 2010 and the new songs that are on Driver are the songs I’ve been working on from 2010 to 2014.”
The songs on Driver are full of motion. The album’s spacious pop songs draw from a fairly simple palette of instruments (guitars, piano and synthesizers) and recording equipment in Hall’s collection. Through expertly crafted home recording techniques, though, Hall weaves the sounds into unique sonic tapestries, with his voice tying everything together.
The songs encapsulate Hall’s journey in the album’s four-year creation. Driver is a fitting title—between working on it in his home studio in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago and a ‘60s farmhouse in Leelanau County, Michigan (which his wife Abra Berens co-owns and uses as a workspace), Hall often found himself solitary behind the wheel of his car, driving the hundred of miles between. With at least 50 trips between these locations, Hall had plenty time to let his mind wander, take in the sights on the road, and dissect every aspect of the music he was creating.
“It’s all too possible these days to listen back to your recordings while you’re still working on them,” Hall says. “Periodically as a song or recording is developing I’ll print it off and burn it onto a CD and throw it on in my car, especially as the album really takes shape.
I used the time in the car to really think about the music and work on the music in my head while I was able to take a step back. It’s a great way to process the work for me.”
Hall often finds his mind is clearer in that kind of situation.
“When I’m sitting in my studio, I’m in the middle, I’m knee deep in the music and have all the possibilities in the world. I can reach for any of my instruments or I can make anything happen,” he says. “That tyranny of choice is sometimes a little overbearing. When I’m able to take a step back, whether it’s to go out for a walk to think about what I’m doing or in the car listening to what I have, that’s when it can be the most clear what needs to happen next and what that verse needs to be about; what layers the song needs or if it has a couple too many that something needs to be taken away.”
Driver song topics include breakups, helping a friend whose life is spinning out of control and moving back and forth between being reclusive and being open and connected with people. But overall, the album and title also have a more abstract meaning to Hall.
“It’s a delicate reference to just something that is that is almost nothing more to me than a feeling that I get when I experience the songs on this record,” he says. “The songs aren’t necessarily about moving forward, but the energy and emotional content of the music has a momentum to it. There’s a force behind the music that makes me move and can hopefully inspire movement and progress. For me it has kind of an elusive quality.”
Hall drew from a variety of influences while crafting the songs.
“I have a lot of acoustic, gritty and dusty quality to my music but then I also love sounds that have seemed to have come from outer space or the future,” he says. “It all appeals to me. So oftentimes I try to wrangle these seemingly desperate elements together to see if they can coexist.”
He finds much fascination and satisfaction in music that “seems very simple but took so much careful, meticulous work in trial, error and consideration to complete.” That music includes that of Steve Reich, who Hall says influenced him most profoundly by showing him he can make something engaging out of simple sounds.
“Much of his music is founded on very fundamental principles and patterns,” Hall says. “He set those patterns in motion and what ends up happening is something magical because it’s this controlled chaos that creates something that’s all it’s own. I love trying that.”
Writing, recording and producing the songs is a lot of work, but Hall usually finds the patience to see a potentially good idea through to the end, no matter how long it takes to form.
“It’s not something that I necessarily consider to be the right way, but I don’t often push my songs. Most of the time I let them manifest at their own pace,” he says. “It’s like this weirdly passive process of writing music. It’s this gestation period of many months.”
He does admit that he knows there’s another way to do it and hopes he can get better at writing more quickly and write more songs to choose from for future albums. There’s also temptation to get other musicians to help him record, but for now he’s fine doing all the work.
“It’s really the only way that I’ve done it,” he says. “I think I’ve come to the realization that if I’m going to call it In Tall Buildings it might as well be songs of this format, songs that are my own.”
His ability to succeed by himself using his home recording techniques allows him to conquer the challenges that come with that territory. Besides his own trial and error experiences, he uses advice from other musicians and his time studying percussion and audio engineering at the University of Michigan.
“You have to wear several different hats. You’re not only a multi-instrumentalist but you’re also an engineer,” Hall says. “You have to learn how to record well and have at least a couple pieces of good gear. When you realize it’s time to record a certain part you have to quickly adapt to the situation. You have to change hats quickly.”
“You have to get the sound, which means being an engineer, you have to think of how best to record,” he adds. “And then after that you have to completely switch mentalities to get back to doing the thing you were doing when you first had the idea, when you first realized you had to record this.”
That’s the biggest challenge, achieving that final step. The singer often keeps instruments and equipment set up so he doesn’t “have to think too much” and “just play and hit record.” Most of the songs take a lot of editing to get them just right and time to see if a certain sound leads somewhere fruitful.
“How can this actually inform a good, concise, focused pop song of some kind? Most of the time it takes a lot of consideration and editing,” he says.
Although recording the album was a solitary affair, the live show obviously sees Hall joined by other local musicians, primarily by drummer Quin Kirchner and bassist/composer Matt Ulery. Hall has known Kirchner since their days playing in high school and also from their other bands Wild Belle and NOMO. Ulery composes his own music and releases his records on Greenleaf Music.
“It becomes a slightly different animal when we do it live,” says Hall. “Abstractly it’s the same energy. We do an alright job of conveying the song’s inherent energy. There are a lot of layers on recording that get sacrificed, but I’m becoming more OK with that. I’m more into the idea of letting the music evolve and exist as something new when we take it to a stage.”
Besides In Tall Buildings, Hall has played and produced with several different projects, including the avant afro-funk band NOMO, rockers His Name is Alive and dream-pop duo Wild Belle. For Wild Belle, he plays guitar and helped engineer their Columbia Records debut. He enjoys switching between his main role in In Tall Buildings and that variety of supporting roles, whether it be playing or producing.
“It keeps my life in balance. It keeps me happy,” Hall says. “When all I’m doing is one role in this one band and doing this and we’re on tour for months at a time, I start to go a little bit crazy. So I like having different roles that I can switch between.”
Hall also finds increasing comfort in knowing that he can share his works in progress with others, including his wife. He says she was the one who suggested the title, albeit the literal version of it.
“Upon sharing that first batch of songs I completely got over the inability to let anybody in on the process,” says Hall. “I’m much more open when I’m working on music now. When I have a brand new idea or a song that’s halfway completed I’ll ask her to listen to it. I think for me it’s even good to expose it to more ears than just my own. It’s like the song is out in the world once even one other person has heard it and allows you to approach it with a little less weight.”
Hall’s passion for home recording has stayed in motion since he got his first multi-track recorder as a teenager 20 years ago, with each following year finding him perfecting his craft.
“The ability to record yourself and layer yourself on top of parts that you already recorded, there’s just nothing more fun in the world than doing that. There’s an inherent fun and joy that comes from that process,” he says. “I remember the first time I did it I was absolutely taken by it. It was close to Christmas time and I started off goofing around and singing the ‘Carol of the Bells’ in the best falsetto I could conjure. As best I could remember the parts, I started layering and layering the parts of singing. I got such joy from doing that.”
“The playing back was fun, but mostly it was just fun in the moment, the performance where you were really doing it and were singing along with three other parts that already existed,” Hall adds. “I’m incredibly grateful to have the ability to actually create sounds off these different instruments that I can then deem worthy to put on the record and put my name on it.”
Hall has some big plans for this year, including a just-completed set in the Western Vinyl showcase at SXSW. Driver is out now on Western Vinyl.