Swinging at the wrong pitch
by Sage Shemroske
In June, via video call, I rambled with Palehound’s El Kempner ahead of the release of their newest album Eye On the Bat. We find ourselves both dedicated Sopranos fans, lovers of poets like Ocean Vuong and Melissa Lozada-Oliva, and artists informed by Liz Phair.
At the end of last June, though a couple Midwestern cities away in Chicago, El Kempner of Palehound hopped on a Zoom call with me to discuss their newest album, Eye on the Bat. “The Head Like Soup riff is essentially an AC/DC riff,” Kempner tells me as we indulge in our shared love of big guitars. They tell me about their love of classic rock and “guitar music” and that going into the studio they wanted to make music they’d enjoy as both a musician and a listener.
Both of us are familiar with the specific draw of guitars, their seemingly innate impressiveness, their ability to communicate something big without words, and how their mesmerizing quality tends to only be apparent when a cis man is shredding. As lesbians, we’re expected to want acoustic sounds that background yearning and some far away sadness; implicit and passive when it comes to loving and fucking. Instead El asks themself, “what’s really at the core of the music and my expression?” and responds with “I think that’s guitarists riffs!” We want musicians fingering thick chords, sounds that are imposing, direct, near tangible. But, like many of the searches in Eye on the Bat, we start off unsure of how we name that, and what that looks like, before it all comes together.
“It’s like I love cock rock music, but I hate cock rock lyrics”, Kempner rightly complains, “how do I make non-binary cock rock?” “Be the queer cock rock you wish to see in the world”, I offer. It’s pride month after all. After a pause they delight- “I’m just still thinking, it’s not cock rock it’s strap rock!” And just like that we’ve found the language for our desires, for how we express ourselves. It’s clear, and obvious, and fun. We giggle like teens. After bemoaning having to constantly respond to “what genre do you play?”, Kempner has found what fits them. A shifting, near impossible task which they seem to take on consistently in their personal life and on this new album.
In July I found myself driving north of Minneapolis with my girlfriend to a small farm owned by a generous farmer colleague of hers. I had told her what a delight it was to interview El, how good the album was, and I abused my music journalistic privilege so that we could listen to Eye on the Bat during that hour-long drive up before it was officially released.
It’s all about the intimacy in between the lines of those big riffs. But I’m noticing shifts too, oscillating wildly between trepidatious, confident, and numb. My girlfriend’s insecurity has started to become triggering to both of us. And my hot head does so in return. She’s unstable, I’m trying to be solid wood stable. I try to calm down, she tries to feel self secure. When it’s good, it’s soulmate good. “We’re the only people for miles around/and we’re head-banging” sings Kempner on the title track. I do my metal head impression, beckoning with my fingers and thrashing in the passenger side, she laughs and it is perfect.
I ask Kempner about their lyricism, about how there is a lot of physical intimacy on the record. In the opening track, Good Sex, they talk about the “stiff” corset they secretly put on to surprise their partner. On The Clutch, they admit “I didn’t want you to see me naked in that photo where I’m laying down”.
“On this record I definitely wrote way more about that topic” they tell me. Kempner is relatively no frills “I’ve always written about that, but shrouded in metaphors, and more romantically focused. …I think that a lot of this record also had to do with me coming to terms with my own gender expression… So I felt like it was impossible to avoid the topic of sex for this record…” Kempner continues to tell me they wanted to be “blunt” about it, that there’s no point in hiding a huge subject, especially when it takes so much time and energy to bury it for “why?” Again, Kempner is forward, unobscured. Eye on the Bat is already a documentation of the breakdown of a relationship, what left is there to hide? They know that sometimes it’s easier to be honest than poetic. And they’re experienced enough to know that directness can spare hurt feelings.
Perhaps the most direct track on the album is My Evil, the music video for which Kemper reenacts the opening sequence of the Sopranos. We make ample time to geek out on this. I eagerly show them my tattoo of the Bing logo (sexy lady and all) and poster of The(™) horse portrait on my wall. They show me the framed photo they have of Ade and Chrissy that’s signed by Drea de Matteo herself, and the Holsten’s mug they had to snag while shooting the video. I ask to press on the bruise of the track. It’s a song that holds both the part of us that makes cruel and careless decisions, and the part of us that’s self aware enough to recognize and stop those behaviors.
August is hot in a heavy, oppressive way. Me and my girlfriend spend much of our free time grief-stricken. Which we react to in equal opposites. I am explosive, she is introspective, too internal for me to speculate on. We’re experiencing a language barrier when trying to talk about whatever feeling is driving us. I wonder to Kempner how people should go about living with “their evil”, how we should forgive the jerk-y parts of ourselves so we can learn and move on. “I wish I knew the answer,” Kempner readily admits. “Because I’m still wondering how to forgive myself, even though that’s the point of the song”. “It does sound empowering, right?” they ask. Of course. Shame is so damn good at permeating my own relationship. “ I live with it [my evil] like yes, it’s mine, but I’m also not thrilled about it.” Of course. “I made it sound more confident, but when I first wrote it, it really came from deep sadness and shame”. I am sorry for the times I have suppressed others’ emotions because I couldn’t express my own. For the times frustration has come out instead of empathy. “If you are the person kind of leading an exit, and you know that both of you know it’s good, but there is someone who is the one who is just making it happen. That can feel evil, you know.” Of course.
One thing we discussed, both me and El and her and I, was how there are no roadmaps or blueprints for lesbian relationships. There is no preconceived way of being, there are no traditional relationship steps. And there is no special help for when your relationship doesn’t line up with what’s expected- both your own expectations and society’s. So what do we do then? We make our own rules, our own decisions based on gut instincts, and forge a new path. “Suckers will all tell you to keep watching for the ball/But we know better than that/Keep your eye on the bat”. Kempner ponders, “I don’t know if you experience this… But you can have something happen the day before, and that night you feel really confident, like you did the right thing. And then you wake up the next morning and you’re like “I fucked myself”. And then later, you’re like, “no, it was the right thing”. And then, by that time you’re so back and forth you’re like “I hate myself”, you know?” I do. “I feel like this break up really illuminated where I had confidence in decision making, but not confidence in how I executed those decisions. So I think it just has to do with the multi-faceted nature of conflict.”
It is September- a brief exhale and inhale as the seasons change slowly. Me and my girlfriend share a Spotify (I know, I know) and I can see her listening to Eye On The Bat. Over and over. Being able to see what she’s listening to while processing our fight is killing me in the objectively funniest way possible. Partially because somehow we’ve gone from talking about how cool El is to living aspects of what their album is pretty explicitly about. We meet up a week after our argument and she tells me with a morbid laugh that she listened to the whole album during work and felt absolutely great until the last track, ‘Fadin’, and broke down.
That is a keen ability on Kempner’s part. If you just listened to the band, you might not catch the slow fallout they capture. Towards the end of our time together I ask Kempner how they confronted rumination and the whiplash of hindsight while in the studio. “Was it really hard?” “Really hard”. But luckily Kempner was able to work directly with their multi-instrumentalist friend Lars Bergen. Bergen, who Kempner also calls “basically my brother” was part of the growing pains and catharsis found during the recording process. The two of them would take smoke breaks and wonder what the other member of the relationship documented would think about the album. Bergen also acted as the official bullshit detector, Kemnper credits.
Kempner tells me about co-producer Sam Owens pushing for scratch lyric takes and rough takes in general to really highlight the rawness their playing elicits. Owens can certainly be thanked for those jointed moments on the album where you’re not sure if things are devolving or growing legs.
By early October she has sat me down underneath the tree in the side yard of my apartment as she nervously clicks her acrylics together. I think of all our time spent by willow trees, swimming, laughing at the gay beach. She comments that she feels like the cloudy, unsure sky above us. I tell her to find me when the sun parts. There’s no hiding how it all first starts.
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