It’s a good thing that the guys in Daniel Ellsworth & The Great Lakes collectively have a good sense of humor. Our Chicago interview came together swiftly and promisingly before their Dunn Dunn Fest gig at Subterranean. That is, until a hip-hop show started soundchecking as soon as we convened in the venue’s basement.
Frontman and keyboardist Daniel Ellsworth, guitarist Timon Lance, bassist Marshall Skinner and drummer Joel Wren are amicable and chatty in each of the three locations where we try to converse. They tend to finish each other’s sentences and mock each other in jest, constantly and cleverly playing off each other.
Skinner suggests we try the green room as an alternate option. So I follow Daniel Ellsworth & The Great Lakes in a single-file line up the narrow stairs to the third floor. When we get there, though, our voices are drowned in the hazy alt-rock of opening band Santah and we must search for a last resort.
Finally, we make our way across the third-floor balcony level—past the bar on the left and the merch table on the right—to the lightless fire escape in the furthest corner of Subterranean. Acknowledging the physical (and slight emotional) discomfort of cramming five people, three beers, two recording devices and an LP into such a small space, we all settle for standing around a misplaced bar table outside the enclave, finally able to talk about their new album, Kid Tiger, self-booking and taking selfies, in relative quiet.
: Your new album Kid Tiger is there, on the table—the finished product. How are we all feeling?
Joel Wren: We’re very excited.
: That’s it?
Wren: No, that was to spur other responses!
Daniel Ellsworth: It’s been a long time coming. We started writing the songs probably a couple years ago.
Wren: It’s been a very long process from writing and recording, and to now have it in physical form, especially vinyl, is pretty exciting. Again, exciting.
: So what is Dunn Dunn Fest? Where are we?
Ellsworth: Dunn Dunn Fest is in its second year. There’s a publicity/management company here called Harmonica Dunn, and they promote a bunch of shows in the Chicago area. The guy that runs it, Donnie [Biggins], has been a huge supporter of ours for the last couple years. He’s started trying to put a festival together, and the last few nights, he’s put together some killer shows. It’s cool.
: But you guys are from Nashville, right? How’d you find Donnie and end up on this bill?
Ellsworth: Yeah, we’re from Nashville. [Donnie] reached out to us a couple years ago. He liked our music and thought we were a band from Chicago because of our band name.
: I was going to ask about that!
Ellsworth: Which, I’m from Minnesota, so it’s kind of an homage to the home state. There are a couple guys from Ohio [looks at Skinner and Lance] and Kansas [looks at Wren].
Wren: All the lakes in Kansas!
Ellsworth: But yeah, he booked us for a show up here and has helped us out ever since.
: So South by Southwest is coming up. What do you guys have planned?
Wren: We’ve got five or six right now that we’re doing. Mostly party stuff—Esquire party, South By party…
Marshall Skinner: We’ve done CMJ in the past, and that’s been sporadic. This seems to line up very nicely where we have a show in the mid-day and then a show late evening, like 8 or 9 o’clock. So we warm up with a lot of day-drinking and then come down later in the night with more day-drinking! Or more drinking, period.
Ellsworth: Last year we had to pass on South By because we were literally tracking this record, so we’re excited to go down there now and be like, “Hey, this is why we weren’t here last year! This is what’s going on.”
: So speaking of CMJ, I heard that you booked those shows yourselves and that self-booking and self-promotion is a huge factor for the band. How do you do all of that?
Ellsworth: That’s a great question. When we put out our first record, we had no money to put it out. We fan-funded that record because I played solo stuff prior to the band, and we had done a little bit of touring, so there was some of that. So…we put it out with no budget really. Amazon picked it up, but we had no one booking us. Everyone was like, “Well, go play fucking shows,” so we took that and ran with it, just as many shows, as many places as we could for two years.
: That’s gotta be exhausting—playing shows every night, but traveling to get there and booking everything yourselves! While day-drinking! How did you manage that? And are you still doing so?
Ellsworth: It’s a mixture now.
Timon Lance: Ninety percent is us, still. But it’s great! There’s something to be said for…I’m bad at analogies, but if you…
Ellsworth: I don’t believe that! You’ll find it! I know you’ll find it!
Lance: It’s like, we’re building it from the ground up, so it feels good to carry out that side of it, too. So when we’re doing these tours that are successful and we did it on our own, we’re like, “hell yeah.” We did this, and it went well.
Ellsworth: It comes with its rewards…you’re playing a packed place like this one night. And then you’re…The longer we do it, the more we know what venues to stay away from and stuff like that. You find yourself at some horrible places.
: So give me a horror story. What’s the worst that could happen?
Ellsworth: Oh man…
Wren: Yeah, shit!
Skinner: We’ve hit the West Coast a couple of times, and getting from Salt Lake City to Seattle seems to be a big hurdle for us. We finally landed a show in Boise, and we were really excited to play Boise. Like, legitimately excited to do! Well, I was. We’ve never been there and we get to the venue, and it’s basically like a coffee house with a bar. The load-in, the back room was filled with bicycle parts and old couches that were broken. And then there were five bands playing…
Ellsworth: It looked like someone decided to build a coffee shop and then gave up and then they opened anyway.
Ellsworth: And then they were like, “Oh, we should have bands play here!”
Wren: “Oh, bands! Yeah!”
Skinner: It was basically like do-it-yourself sound. There was actually a sound guy, but he didn’t really know what he was doing. And it was so loud on stage…the promoter kept saying, “Well this show down the street’s gonna let out, and so we’re going to push you guys back so we’ll catch all the traffic from people leaving the show.” And so she keeps pushing back back back and we played very last.
Wren: She wasn’t even there!
Skinner: Oh, and the band before us wasn’t even a real band!
Wren: Oh YEAH!
Skinner: They were like, four dudes who had never even played a show together before. They made up music on the stage and called themselves a band name.
: Awww! Maybe there’s something to be said for improvising?**
Skinner: Ehh, yeah, but it was like, bad.
Lance: They were just like, “Hey, let’s not shower and play a show tonight.”
Skinner: Or rehearse! “Let’s not shower, not rehearse and play a show.”
Lance: We’re anti-soap, anti-rehearsals…
Skinner: So we played last for nobody. In Boise. At one in the morning.
: Back to the album, tell me about the name Kid Tiger. Where did that come from?
Ellsworth: We were in Portland, we were killing time at Powell’s Books. It’s amazing. Timon bought a book, it’s Bob Dylan’s first book Tarantula, which is essentially a series of drug-ridden ramblings. It’s incoherent. He writes a bunch of fake letters in it. We were hanging out in a park and it was the one thing…we had songs named, we had everything done, we just didn’t have an album title and it was like “alright, we’re just going to open this book up and whatever page we open to, we’re gonna find the fucking album title.” Yeah, so one of the first things was a page where he signed a fake letter, “Your fellow rebel, Kid Tiger.” And we were like, “Yeah! Kid Tiger! That’s pretty cool.” We sat with it for a while. We had some others, I don’t remember what they were…
Wren: I was pushing for Fashion. Because we’re really into fashion.
Lance: When there’s denim involved.
Wren: It’s fashion.
: And your wife does the album artwork, Daniel?
Ellsworth: Yeah, she does all of the design…
Skinner: Beth Mathews Design!
Wren: She was against Fashion, which I was particularly offended by!
Skinner: I’m just giving her a shout-out!
Ellsworth: Yeah, but she does all our artwork, all our t-shirts, all our merch.
: Awesome. Well, let me give you enough time to do whatever it is you do before you go on stage. Pre-show rituals?
Skinner: Prayer and meditation.
Lance: That’s not true.
Wren: Timon will pull up “Werewolves of London” on his iPhone and just play it.
Ellsworth: Yeah, Warren Zevon. Sometimes we’ll listen to The Band. But mostly Warren Zevon.
Lance: Our first tour was called the Werewolves of London Tour because of that song.
Skinner: Tonight, we’ll probably do some shots of whiskey. Because. Well. Why not?
Wren: If we have time, I like to warm up my hands for drums, as far as stretching a little bit. But I also like to drink beer before playing. And whiskey.
Lance: I usually change my socks. I don’t do it anymore. The guitars are more important.
Wren: Timon also takes a lot of selfies before performing.
Lance: That’s not true…His whole Instagram is dedicated to bad pictures of me.
Wren: There’s been some Marshall pictures! I got a Dan in there recently!
Wren: With a “ph.” It’s more fun!
: What else we should know?
Lance: If you like Kid Tiger, tell your friends. If you don’t, tell your enemies.
Wren: Vance Powell was really great on the recording. Tracking live to tape was really fun.
Lance: I would like to live in his beard.
Wren: Beats by Mike, Mike Odmark, incredible engineer. Great guy.
Ellsworth: Richard Dodd on the mastering.
Lance: He did Wildflowers by Tom Petty, so that’s all he should have on his resume.
: When you guys win a Grammy, is this what your thank-you list is gonna be like?
Ellsworth: That’s absolutely how it’ll go.
Lance: I promise we’ll put you on there!