Living in Sweden during the second half of the nineties and the beginning of the 2000s was being at the epicenter of the hottest indie pop scene. Swedish bands as Shout Out Louds, The Cardigans, The Wannadies, The Concretes and many more bands reached international fame and glory and put the Swedish indie pop scene on the map, and clubs brought in great indie pop acts from all over the world to play those many indie pop clubs around the country.
International bands touring Scandinavia at the time were often surprised to see how fans quickly embraced their music and they often played sold-out shows although they had never toured Scandinavia before, and many bands grew popular at the level that they received lots of airtime on radio. It was in this period I came across bands as The Ladybug Transistor and later The Essex Green.
It all started at Emmaboda Festival in 1999, Sweden’s biggest indie pop festival at the time, when The Ladybug Transistor gained lots of fans after their performance, and in the crowd was one of those indie pop enthusiasts making the scene popular in Sweden, and he offered the band help to set up a tour.
A few years later Jeff Baron and Sasha Bell returned together with Chris Ziter to play as The Essex Green. At first the band were promoted as a side project to The Ladybug Transistor, but they quickly built a large fan base in Scandinavia and went beyond the popularity of Ladybug, and songs as “Carballo” and “Mrs. Bean” were played frequently on radio stations across Scandinavia.
After three albums with The Essex Green between 1999 and 2006, and lots of touring with their other bands like The Ladybug Transistor, The Sixth Great Lake and Finishing School, the band faded into silence.
Out of the spotlight after “Cannibal Sea”, it was easy to envision them going their separate ways and finding new careers although there never was a “farewell” or “goodbye” at any time, just fading into silence. Except they didn’t do any of that. Instead there was “Hardly Electronic” – twelve years later.
When the band passed by Hamburg to play the café boat Frau Hedi, we sat down with Sasha, Jeff, Chris together with touring musicians Lowell and Jeremy, and chat about their popularity in Scandinavia, returning to the scene after a long break and facing the struggles of s changed music industry focusing on social media “numbers”.
Early Scandinavian success
I know that you built a huge fan base in Scandinavia very early in your career, starting with The Ladybug Transistor. You’ve said several times that you love to tour Scandinavia and I’ve been to many shows with your bands in Sweden, not only The Essex Green but also The Ladybug Transistor and Finishing School, and you seem to have great fan base there. What’s so special with Scandinavia? Was it where it all took off?
Sasha: You should ask your countrymen, the Swedish have gravitated towards our music since the beginning.
Chris: Ladybug went over first I think. When our record came out it just took off in Sweden. The first time we played in Sweden, in Stockholm, there was a line around the building and we were like “What is happening?”, so it was more that Sweden loved us from the beginning. That’s what brought us out to start with.
Jeff: We knew Ulf [Ekerot; event organizer] from Växjö very well. Ladybug played at Emmaboda Festival in 1999 and Ulf was there with Torbjörn from the Stockholm band Aerospace. Ulf was like this guru, an older Swedish gentleman with a little scarf smoking cigarettes, and he said “You should come to Sweden, we’ll bring you there”, and they set up a tour. But when Essex Green went over it was a step up from Ladybug.
It has never been like that in America?
Sasha: No! Well, the big cities is ok but Sweden is definitely something special.
Chris: We were played a lot on the local radio stations [in Sweden] and we didn’t know why but we like the attention.
But you’ve had a long break between “Cannibal Sea” and your latest album “Hardly Electronic”. How was it to reconnect to your fans again, especially today when fans are more fickle and you need to feed them with music or news about the band? Were they still there when you released “Hardly Electronic”?
Sasha: Yes they were, and there are fans who never have seen us. In these two European tours we’ve done this spring a lot of people have come up and said “I’ve been waiting to see you guys for fifteen years. I got into you right when you stopped playing and never got to see you”.
Chris: There were fans who were way underage, they were kids then, who were able to see us in the clubs for the first time, and there were fans who were travelling long distances because we weren’t playing close to them. That has been great.
And we’re reaching out to new audiences too. I think in Germany people come to the venue because they have a regular show there that’s free and they’re not necessarily familiar with the band, but after it they seem to be in general pleased with it.
A decade long break
After a decade long hiatus there was suddenly a rumor that The Essex Green were about to release a new record. “Hardly Electronic” came out in the summer of 2018, a well-crafted progressive pop record with the unmistakably signature sound entailing rock, psych, folk, a few horns, and a little country blended into The Essex Green groove. And it all started with a text message.
It’s a decade since we’ve heard anything about The Essex Green. You were away from the scene for twelve years and people didn’t expect that you would ever release a new album. How did you reach to the point where you felt that it was time for it?
Chris: We met Jeremy [drummer] and Lowell [bassist].
Sasha: Although I remember getting a text where the guys were joking around and Jeff were saying “Are we ever going to play again?” and then he texted “Chris is ready”.
Jeff: I hope you still have that (laughs).
Sasha: I didn’t keep that. But I was “Wow, really!? Ok, so maybe this is going to happen”. You guys probably know more about the story.
Chris: Jeff moved to Vermont and as soon as he had moved to Vermont we started playing with some local band and some local people, like musically reconnect. It had been six or seven years since we lived in the same city, and we started out doing side projects and then we just said “Why aren’t we doing something with Essex Green? We have enough of the components to make this work”. That’s probably when the text happened.
Jeff: And this is a fun story. I rented a rehearsal space that we never used, in February ’15. Right after I texted Sasha that Chris was ready I got into the rehearsal space for the first time.
I was in the rehearsal space in Burlington, Chris was in his home in Wilson, Sasha was in Montana and at first we were like “We’re going to go down to New York and record it in two weeks”, “No, let’s rent a house somewhere”. But as usual it took us three years to make a record (laughs).
Jeff: But we tracked all the drums in May of ’15.
Chris: Yeah, we were moving at the right pace then.
Jeff: And we were not done until December ’17.
Chris: That’s why we have to start doing singles because we can’t wait three more years for something else to happen. Maybe our fans can but we can’t.
When you started recording “Hardly Electronic”, did you start from scratch or did you have songs already that were supposed to be on a record just a few years after “Cannibal Sea”, and you just did remakes of them?
Chris: We got together in Pittsburgh twice to work on songs after “Cannibal Sea”, but it never got to a point where we fully recorded it.
That’s a long time to not release a record so we had plenty of songs. Some of it was earlier and some of it was written just for that record, around the time of when we recorded it. But it sounds kind of similar to what we’ve done before.
Jeff: When we tracked it, Sasha came up to Vermont and we worked on the songs for two weeks, arranged them, then we laid down the drums for about two weeks. Then Sasha came back again in October and the three of us watched the Of Montreal documentary, which is really crazy, and then we just got started recording it (laughs).
She kept coming back to Vermont until it got to a point where it was enough. But there was a lot of overdubs left like intricate little things that Sasha could do from Montana. We pieced it together in that way. But we did all the tracking in Chris’ basement.
Chris: We record all the music ourselves and then we usually spend the money on mixing and mastering. That’s what we have a budget for, and where we get somebody else involved.
It’s not that you haven’t evolved or anything but The Essex Green character is still there.
Sasha: Personally it drives me crazy when bands dramatically change their sound, bands that I’m attached to. I can understand artistic experimentation, maybe, like “I really want to make a reggae record”, but we’re not there yet.
The challenge of a changed industry: “What are your social media numbers?”
As the years passed by after “Cannibal Sea” the overall technological evolution in society has changed completely everything. Social media has brought us Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and many other opportunities to reach out to people, and for younger bands that have started the last decade social media is necessary to reach out to an audience. Numbers matters because numbers can be translated into popularity.
However, for a band being away from the scene during this transition to a new music media landscape, it may be a struggle to adapt, especially to build a fan base and reach the “numbers” you need for being picked up by booking agencies and organizers.
And then there’s also the change in how music is released today.
The whole music industry also changed while you were on a hiatus. How was it to come back again and start over in a music industry that is completely different from where you left in 2006? A lot has changed. There was no Spotify or any social media for instance, and the whole label-side of the music industry is changed.
Sasha: A lot changed while we were away. Getting yourself on Spotify or online; all that’s easy because our record label takes care of that, and we do Instagram and Facebook ourselves.
The adaption came when we tried to get a booking agent, or help in Europe, and they were like “What are your social media numbers?”. We haven’t been on social media in ten years actively so we have no numbers (laughs). But that’s what people look at when they want to work with you.
Jeff: I have a theory though about the internet and Spotify. Before all of that people would have seen us like a reunion band. If this were the eighties or the nineties they would be like “Can you imagine a band you like in the early eighties coming back twelve years later?”. I remember when I was in my twenties I was like “Oh, they are old, they are washed up”, but with Spotify nobody looks at when the records were released, you just put your records out there. So for our new record, for all everybody knows, we’re a new band.
It’s almost like we were reborn because time doesn’t mean as much anymore, there’s nothing like a stigma. People go to Spotify to find music.
Now we got five records up there which is really good for us. We did take ten years off but five records isn’t bad for have been around for twenty years.
The new social media landscape also require some sort of “daily updates” on Facebook and Instagram for instance, you need to feed your fans with something all the time. Is that difficult to deal with?
Sasha: I handle that part but I don’t think we get too personal. I prefer Instagram because I just prefer to communicate through images but I’m really bad at hash tagging and identifying. I’m probably kind of bad at it but have fun doing it (laughs).
Jeff: Joy Division would never have done that (laughs).
There is something about being obscure, it was always cool to see the posters and how cool people were. We do show our faces a lot, like in pictures of us. But I’m actually glad we didn’t the last couple of records (laughs).
Chris: I’m personally not involved or integrate our world with social media very much, Sasha does the most.
Sasha: But my personal Facebook page is all music, that’s my choice.
Jeff: I think this band would have to have somebody young, like an intern, who works to push that for us.
Chris: Or a super fan who can do it (laughs). It feels weird to do that kind of thing but I guess it’s promotion.
There’s a stigma attached to it though. You can do it continuously, you can do it yourself and you can do it as much as you want but it’s all overkill.
Sasha: A lot of artists overpost and sometimes it’s like “There’s that guy again” and then I unfollow them.
Chris: The one thing you do know is what Sasha said, that when you go to booking agents or managements they want to know numbers, and you have to build those numbers by building that audience, and that’s not our focus.
Jeff: We shun Facebook for half of the 2000s, nobody wanted to do it but we could have done it. We weren’t making music together but we could have kept up the band image easily for those ten years, but we just lived our lives.
And there’s new opportunities for releasing music that didn’t exist for twelve years ago but also with pressures on releasing music more often. The album format is threatened and many bands just release singles and EP’s. Have you needed to rethink your whole approach to work with music?
Jeff: We’re actually going to start to release singles, with b-sides too, digital b-sides.
Lowell: That was happening in the fifties and sixties any way.
Chris: It’s coming back and for us it’s great because of the challenge of distance. Sasha lives in Montana which is far off, so for us to produce a record, to be able to practice and put all the songs together, takes a long time, but a single plus a b-side is something we can get done quickly.
Distance must be a challenge when you have to rehearse songs ahead of a tour then? It must be quite different from when all of you lived in New York.
Chris: Recording is for sure.
Sasha: And rehearsing. These guys rehearse without me.
Jeff: No we don’t (laughs). We all live in the same town but we don’t ever rehearse.
Chris: That’s not true, we definitely do (laughs) but maybe not as other bands do.
Jeff: We did it in the beginning of the tour last year but now we’re tired. What’s great is that when we go on tour Sasha usually comes to Vermont a couple of days early, and it’s like a second vacation because we get to see her.
Which basically means that touring is like a holiday for you?
Sasha: It may look like that when you see us doing a concert on a boat (laughs).
Chris: That’s another part of what you were talking about, the way things have changed. These tours, they’re not money-making. You don’t come back paying your rent with this stuff, but it wasn’t necessarily the case back in 2003 or 2004 either. You’re just selling a lot more merch today; you’re selling the CD’s, vinyls and t-shirts and a whole bunch of stuff.
You got the social media side, you got the merchandise side that you have to think about a lot more than just focusing on the music, and that I find challenging.
Being non-stop on the road
While many may envisage the life of a touring musician to be that of a glorified jetsetter, the reality is far from idyllic. Grammy-nominated producer and DJ Mat Zo once said “Ninety-nine per cent of touring is the airports, the hotels, sitting in a metal tube for up to 16 hours at a time”; for most bands that metal tube is a jam-packed van carrying them through a whole continent as long as the tour lasts.
For the members of The Essex Green there has been lots of touring, especially for Sasha and Jeff who have been on world yours with both The Ladybug Transistor and The Essex Green. But touring is also what they always wanted to do, even if that means that they miss the last part of the recording process of a new record.
Being on a break for ten years also means you’re a few years older. Has that affected touring in any way?
Jeff: None of us has gotten older (laughs).
Chris: It is because we also have other things to take care of, like families and work. Two weeks to three weeks is just the right amount of time to go on tour. Doing five weeks or longer is grueling.
Jeff: Unless you have several days off in a row but you rarely have days off.
Lowell: It’s a non-stop thing, you’re just constantly moving on.
But is that much different from early 2000s?
Sasha: I think we used to get a day off here and there, we wouldn’t play a Sunday night or a Monday night.
Chris: I don’t think it was that different honestly, as I recall. We had those days even back then when the drive is too long, then you have a day off, but you’re just driving all day so it wasn’t really a day off.
Jeff: We probably just had more stamina back when we were young.
Chris: Yeah, we didn’t feel it but now we do (laughs).
Jeff: I only feel it between 5am and 11am and then I’m fine (laughs), it hurts much between those hours.
You also toured much with your other bands, Ladybug Transistor, Finishing School and The Sixth Great Lake. Did you ever felt that you came to the point when it was too much and that became one of the reasons for having a break after “Cannibal Sea”?
Chris: Not at all, that was New York more than anything. Living in New York was difficult and we all left New York. We didn’t leave each other as a band, we just left the city, and naturally we split-up but the band never broke up. We just went on a hiatus.
Jeff: The song “Sin City” on “Cannibal Sea” tells the story about us leaving. Sin City means Cincinnati, and he [Chris] met a Kentucky girl which is what “Those Kentucky hills” mean [song lyrics].
Chris: But the reason I even met her was that these guys were on tour with Ladybug Transistor and I went on a different tour and met the love of my life.
Jeff: Damn Ladybug! But if we would have kept going we would never be together now.
But how did you make all that work out with all your bands touring the world in the beginning of the 2000s? Was it like you were coming back home with Ladybug and then leave a few days later with Essex Green?
Jeff: Every single time a Ladybug Transistor record, or an Essex Green record, was finished we missed the mastering because we were leaving for a tour. It was horrible!
Sasha: No! It was great (laughs).
Jeff: Horrible! I wanted to be there for the mastering. I remember Essex Green were finishing up the recording session and Gary from Ladybug was like “I’m flying out tomorrow at 6am”. Yeah, “Thanks” (laughs).
Sasha: I like that period of time, personally. We were all working freelance at the time, you could just say goodbye to your job and have it when you came back.
But the plans for the future then; is there a plan for more albums meaning we have to wait a few more years?
Jeff: We’re just going to do the singles and then there will be a collection, like a record once they’re done. A record in installments.
Sasha: And we have songs because we write songs all the time.
A friend of mine who’s a huge fan of everything you’ve been involved in told me to ask you if you would come to Sweden and Gothenburg to play with The Essex Green, Ladybug Transistor and Finishing School at the same night. How about that?
Jeff: We’d do that for 199 000 dollars (laughs).
The Essex Green pages