A Conversation With El Kempner of Palehound

The singer/songwriter talks their new album Eye on the Bat, learning from Mitski, forced reflection during COVID and archiving queerness across a catalog

Music Features Palehound
A Conversation With El Kempner of Palehound

It’s been four years since Palehound last put out a record. That’s all about to change this week, as the New York project—the brainchild of singer/songwriter El Kempner—is releasing Eye on the Bat. The work, a 10-track, shape-shifting collection of angst, reflection and humility, is Kempner at their very best. From lead single “The Clutch” to album cut “U Want It U Got It,” the album takes varied avenues towards one destination of catharsis. Built from the ashes of a COVID-induced isolation, Kempner was forced to reckon with their own immediate world in ways that have never been so intimate and vulnerable.

Palehound has been an important fixture in rock ‘n’ roll since Kempner put out their lo-fi, bedroom-alternative debut Dry Food in 2015. When they released Black Friday in 2019, the record’s momentum was cut short by COVID and a planned headlining tour was scrapped. After joining forces with Jay Som’s Melina Duterte and forming Bachelor, Kempner found themselves in a creative spark. The “Eye on the Bat” riff was written during the Bachelor sessions while Kempner was outside experimenting with their guitar while Duterte made lunch inside.

While songs like “Cinnamon” and “Feeling Fruit” positioned Kempner as a talismanic force in singer/songwriter spheres, Eye on the Bat is an album soaked in compositional beauty. From heavy, AC/DC-style rock anthems to subdued synthesizer ballads, the universe of Palehound has never felt so cosmic. Earlier this summer, I caught up with Kempner to discuss Eye on the Bat, the enduring influence of an early-career tour with Mitski, archiving queerness across a discography and their relationship with the guitar transforms from song to song.

Paste Magazine: Over the years, Palehound has gone through many stages, whether it’s been you doing solo stuff or having a full band. What is the presentation of the project looking like when it comes to Eye on the Bat?

El Kempner: That’s a really good question. You know, I started this project when I was 19 by myself. It started as a project of recording demos. And then, I got a chance to work with friends who had a studio and it just evolved from there. And that’s when I started getting attention that I didn’t even ask for or anticipate at all. It’s a solo project in a lot of senses, and still is, but, over the past few years, I’ve gone through a lot of different bandmates and trying to figure out what feels right, in terms of how much I want to explore collaboration. I think, when you start a project when you’re so young, like, I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted. I think that I had this identity that was forged in that and, since then, I’ve been just trying to figure that out. I think that I’ve gotten to this point where it is definitely still my project and I am the sole writer, but I have a core collaborator and close friend, Larz Brogan, who is a multi-instrumentalist who plays all over the record and is someone that I’ve been touring with for five years and who does feel very integral to [Eye on the Bat].

PM: I remember reading an interview you did with The Fader after Black Friday came out, and you talked about how you’d maybe reach that place where you figured out what you wanted and were writing songs from your most authentic perspective. What does that look like now, four years later on Eye on the Bat? Do you ever think about, like, “There are things I have left to learn” or do things look a bit more crystallized now?

EK: A little more crystallized, but it is funny that you bring up that interview, because I remember feeling confidently, at the time, like, “This is who I am, I finally found it! I finally figured it out.” But that was so naive of me, because, yes, finding yourself is a thing, but, also, evolution is a thing, too. I’m glad that I felt so content at that time and felt like myself, but I’ve also grown and evolved as a person in the past four years in ways that I think I couldn’t have anticipated—a lot of it having to deal with a global pandemic forcing us all to reckon with ourselves in ways that we weren’t. And, for me, that included coming out as a non-binary person, and that was a struggle to even consider doing that publicly after so long being, publicly, something else. This record is probably—definitely—my most vulnerable and least-shrouded in metaphor. A lot of it is because of the circumstances of writing it, which were that I was alone in isolation with no idea if anybody would ever hear songs again, like, I don’t even get to be a musician anymore. It was, actually, really liberating, to write songs for the first time since I was 19 without thinking “What is this? What am I doing? What will people think? I know people are gonna hear it, so what should I do?”

PM: Something that I love about what Palehound has become, for me as a listener—and I’m sure it’s always been such a thing for you, as the artist—is that, across your albums, the songs have become an archive of queerness and your own relationship with coming out. It means a lot to someone like me, because I’ve taken a good long while to finally make it to a place where I can embrace my own genderqueerness and sexuality in a more public-facing way. A Place I’ll Always Go was really important to me in that regard. What does the space of making music afford you, in the sense of growing into an identity and fully harnessing its power—as opposed to any other medium or approach?

EK: I love that question. I think that’s always been the case for me, ever since I started writing songs when I was a kid. I had this thing happen that I started to realize, pretty early in songwriting, where I was like, “Wow, I just wrote this lyric and didn’t even realize I felt that way.” And now I’m reading this back and I’m like, “Holy shit, that is how I feel.” And I think that is such a great thing about music and writing. It really unearths a lot of things that I can’t just summon if I’m sitting at home thinking. I mean, we all think about our lives and our relationships, but I think, when you are not as focused on the emotion and the turmoil of it, you’re more like, “How do I communicate this?,” then you are actually learning how to communicate things with yourself better. If I’m like, “How do I write this feeling into a lyric that other people will understand?,” I’m also like, “How can I help better understand this for myself?”

I think having a literal record of an experience like that, like you said, tracing a journey with queerness, it does afford for me to have moments like this where I can look back and be like, “Oh, my God, I remember, on my very first album, I didn’t even want to come out as bisexual.” I was so scared. I remember, at the time, being like, “I’m going to be pigeonholed. I’m not ever going to come out.” And then I came out and then I came out even more and now I’m coming out even more so. It’s so many opportunities for reflection that are really productive when I think a lot of opportunities for reflection can be really disruptive.

PM: I’ve always used poetry as a way of reflecting and reckoning with what’s going on in my brain and how I think of myself and present it to others. I even look back on my first book I wrote and I did not want to admit that I was into men, you know? I didn’t want to go all the way there. And then, my second book came out and I was way more interested in just being hornets about the truth of what the spectrum of my own brain and identity looks like—which is, I’m into everyone. So I really love what you’re saying about having this timeline that’s constantly moving and consistently being built upon and being able to see how the growth transforms from album one to album four. It makes me wonder, do you have a similar reference point for yourself, something or someone you can look towards and find a new guidance on how to tumble through the world?

EK: It’s reassuring to hear you be like, “I’ve been a longtime fan and I appreciate seeing the growth.” Because, I think, sometimes, I get stuck in my head, like “I’m not uber famous, but I got kind of famous too young and I wasn’t ready yet. And I’ve been putting out music that hasn’t even been fully baked.” Sometimes I get in my head about stuff like that. But then, in terms of people who are influential to me, there are just so fucking many. Honestly, the things that I pull from are a well of people who just had these really long careers. Like Mitski, for example, when we first toured together, she just Facebook messaged me asking to open the tour—which is hilarious, when you think about what she’s doing now. But she’s someone who had, like, three records that nobody had even heard before she got big. Her songs have always had the thread of her vulnerability that makes her so special, but, that tour that we did with her, she was playing with a three-piece band. It was her playing bass, a drummer and a guitar player in not sold-out, small rooms where some people weren’t even paying attention to her set. And now she’s a dancer who’s got these incredible choreographed shows. I can just see the way that it’s the same person who’s expressing herself in ways that clearly make so much sense for her.

PM: It’s one of the best things, to see a musician—who you admire and you really fuck with what they do—continue to grow and they’re not just in the same place throughout their career. Mitski has perfected that. I went to a show on the Be the Cowboy tour and the choreography and the ballet aspect of it all was just so immense. I remember seeing her Tiny Desk show years ago and it was just a straight up guitar peformance. But, you get the sense, too, when she’s on-stage and doing these elaborate routines, that it’s exactly what she’s been meant to do for her entire career. And that’s beautiful.

EK: It is beautiful. Even Melina [Duterte]—from Jay Som, we did Bachelor together—it’s been awesome to see her shift her focus more towards production. Now she’s playing in Boygenius, doing keys and guitar. It’s cool to watch these people explore what they want to do within this industry that, I think, people can think of as really rigid sometimes. But fluidity can exist and it has to exist, because we’re all fluid people.

PM: Jay Som opened that Mitski tour and it was my first real introduction to Melina’s songwriting.

EK: Me too, that’s how I heard of her, too. I remember hearing her first album and being like, “Fuck!”

PM: I felt so late to the party and, like, she almost blew Mitski off the stage at some point. I’m so glad she’s doing more production. I’m glad she’s on that Boygenius record and she produced Chris Farren’s new album. She’s just doing everything.

EK: She’s a genius, and it’s so cool to watch her grow. Everything she makes just sounds better and better with time. She’s really mastering her craft, and that’s all we can hope to do. It’s sick.

PM: I’m glad you brought up Bachelor, too, because, even though this is the first Palehound album in four years, you really haven’t been quiet. You made the Bachelor record with Melina a few years back. After putting out Black Friday in 2019, what was your creative outlook, in regards to the Palehound universe. Were you thinking about another new album, or were you more interested in sitting with Black Friday for a while?

EK: I really wanted to sit with that record and enjoy it. But, honestly, I didn’t get the opportunity to. COVID really fucked that one for me. We put off headlining. The record came out in the summer, and then we were offered a month with Big Thief. I was like, “Obviously we’re going to do that.” We did that tour, which I don’t regret at all. No regrets. But, because we played with Big Thief, we moved our own tour to March 2020. And then, our shit got totally rocked. So that was heartbreaking, honestly, because I was stoked. That was also the first time in my whole career where shows were starting to sell out in certain cities. It felt like, “Oh, my God, I finally have put out this record that I feel really proud of and people want to hear it and see us play. And I finally get to do a tour that I’ve been dreaming of my whole life.” And then it just gets totally screwed. That was a huge heartbreak for me, just to not actually get to sit with that record. I think that record will always be, kind of, a sore spot for that reason.

PM: Eye on the Bat is one of those records that was made with the intent of presenting a sound that parallels a live intensity. It’s something that a lot of artists are trying to capture these days, too. From your perspective, what is it about the vulnerability and the rawness of making something that has the energy of imperfections and improvisation that shapes your approach to songwriting? How does that impact how you continue to love and care for these songs across their entire existence?

EK: It really allows me to forgive myself for things that I’ve had a lot of trouble forgiving myself for. On previous records, like Black Friday, I had this idea of perfection in my head, where I was like, “If my voice cracks a little bit, it can’t stay. If I’m a little out of tune, it can’t stay. My voice has to be perfect.” Honestly, working on the Bachelor record was such an education of just saying “Fuck perfection and just be authentic nad capture what’s happening as it’s happening.” Melina and I had no songs written going into that album, we had no ideas and we didn’t have enough time to be perfectionists. And we made a record I was super proud of and had the most fun making. So that really solidified, for me, that I needed to spend that energy that I needed to spend that energy on “Am I having fun?” And I hate to be this gay person who quotes Ani DiFranco right now, but she has a great quote where she said something like, “A record is called a record because it is a record of the event of people playing music in a room.” And I love that. I think that makes songwriting more fun in a lot of ways, too, because I just have to let a song live the life that it wants to live.

PM: Eye on the Bat even experiments with electronics in a way that a Palehound record never has before. I think about a song like “U Want It U Got It,” and I would love to know how that track came together—espcially in the juxtaposition of something so traditional and rock ‘n’ roll and heavy and gauzy like “The Clutch,” which was very immediately loud and in your face. “U Want It U Got It” is subdued and ethereal, even though I hate that word.

EK: I understand the feeling of that word, but also, sometimes, that’s just the word. That song is really funny, actually, because that one was supposed to just be a demo. It wasn’t supposed to be anything. I recorded it in my basement during lockdown, because I was living upstate in Poughkeepsie and I had borrowed some recording gear—that I was trying to learn—from a friend whose studio I was working at. He had let me borrow an interface and a compressor and shit, and I was like, “I want to write and record a song where I can just practice using this shit.” And that’s what I did and then it was the most advanced demo that I’d ever done. I use the Logic stock drum sounds, it’s nothing that extreme. But I was proud of the demo, and then we brought it to the studio from rehearsal and we could not make it work as a live band. It was just not working. And then, in the studio with Sam [Owens], we just kept trying and it wasn’t working. We kept on trying to recreate the demo, and then he was like, “None of this is hitting as well as the demo itself, so we should just use that.” And I had not even considered that, because I was like, “Well, I’m a shitty engineer and I don’t know how to make shit sound good.” The reason that song sounds like that is, really, because of limited resources. [Laughs]

PM: How did the writing process for Eye on the Bat compare to previous records, in terms of how quickly all of the sessions came together from beginning to end?

EK: It was really different. I think, in the past, I’ve always had confidence that “I am going to make this into a record.” But, with [Eye on the Bat], there was no confidence in that, because I didn’t even know if the music industry would exist anymore. In that past, I’ve had a routine and timeline, where it’s like, “These are the songs I’m writing, I’m going to go to the studio this month, which means that the record will come out this far away.” But for this one, it was like, “I’m just writing songs indefinitely until it’s safe to get to a studio, which is also indefinite right now.” I think what happened with the timeline, honestly, was that it gave me more time to write and focus on writing without the pressure—which was kind of nice, in a weird way.

PM: A lot of Eye on the Bat wrestles with relationships, whether they be crumbling or coming together. Looking at this album from a storytelling standpoint, what did you want to explore lyrically that maybe you haven’t been able to on previous albums?

EK: I’ve talked a lot about insecurity on records, but I think on this record—even though I’m still a very insecure person—I have embraced confidence more. I’m confidently feeling that I don’t want to take your shit anymore; I’m confidently feeling like ending this relationship is the right way, the right thing. But I’m also confident that it doesn’t feel like the right thing, sometimes. It’s not confidence in the “I feel good about myself” way, but more of a trust to say “I need to be honest with what I’m really feeling and what this actual experience is for me right now.” The song “My Evil” is about me needing to be honest with myself and the way that I suck right now. I could write a whole breakup album about being wronged, but, like, I’m also wronging, you know?

PM: Black Friday was wonderful in how it really considered the space of other people. “Killer” was about you being fearless and holding empathy for your friend in the wake of sexual violence inflicted on them; “Aaron” was about your partner at the time and his transition and how the act of self-love he was performing became inspiring. But on Eye on the Bat, you’ve turned the camera much more inward. Even the title chimes in on maintaining a focus. What led you down the path of writing from a place of self-reflection first before writing through the presence of those around you?

EK: Honestly, it was just forced self-reflection. That is the way that this record is such a product of COVID. While I wish it hadn’t happened, I am grateful for that—because it did force inward thinking for a lot of us. It really made me face myself in ways that I hadn’t before, because I was too scared or too ashamed. Anyone, songwriter or not, can say that we all faced our own shames and our own shit during that time. It really was just forced; I didn’t even make a conscious decision on that, you know?

PM: Thinking about the song “The Clutch,” because that’s just a wild way to open the press cycle for an album. It comes at you. I think of you as one of our best and most unsung modern guitarists, because the way that you approach chords and riffs is just—I love it. When you compose a track, do you envision what component your guitar is going to play within it just as uch as where the lyrics are meant to go?

EK: It depends on the song, because some songs have the riffs built into the main guitar part. In songs like “Right About You” or “Independence Day,” for example, those are chord progressions with riffs as a part of them. That’s very much a part of it. But, for “The Clutch,” when I was demoing that song, that song just started with three chords. Then, I taught a songwriting workshop a couple years ago and I started telling my students that, the way I think about a song like a script. I love movies and TV. What I tried to do is, the song is the script and the music is the setting and I just have to paint the picture. I have to build the set and cast the right characters to tell the story the right way. And that’s how I think of guitar. With “The Clutch,” that song is about spiraling out of control and feeling out of control, so I tried to have this really swirly guitar stuff happening and a chaotic solo that paints the picture at the end of the story.

PM: The solo is my favorite part. It’s killer, I love it. Eye on the Bat flashes a great juxtaposition to Black Friday. A song like “The Clutch” arrives like a tempest, but then it gets balanced out with soft work that resembles the architecture of Black Friday. Was there a conscious decision to fall back into the heavier sound at different checkpoints? Or was that direction more indicative of how you were feeling, emotionally, in the storytelling?

EK: It is really because of how I’m feeling emotionally. I know earlier, people told us to sound like a live rock band on a record and I took that note, but I wouldn’t do that just because people told me. I did it because I was like, “I need to rock.” Larz and I, we just listen to classic rock all the time. It’s the shit I love, the shit that makes me feel something. And I think, also, I just had so much pent up energy from having that tour cut and frustration and heartbreak. I was just wanting to scream, so I started screaming.

Eye on the Bat is out July 14 via Polyvinyl Record Co. Watch Palehound’s Paste studio session from 2015 here.

Matt Mitchell is Paste‘s assistant music editor. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin