By Jim Schutze
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Staples continues, "After four days of that, staying in the Beverly Hills Hotel, getting taken to dinner every day, having everybody saying, 'You guys are gonna be the biggest band in the world,' we were like, 'Well, shit, which one are we going to sign with?'"
"Yeah, that was the big question," Nagler adds. "Which one?"
Pause the story.
Can't you just seethe labels salivating? Here was a band whose first few songs were of a caliber most acts spend years trying to render. Best of all, it was a band that had never released an LP nor toured outside California, a band from a small town that could certainly use a couple hundred thousand dollars in advances and a chateau in the Hollywood hills in which to blow it all. To a label, these are the babies from which to take the candy. Luckily, the Velvet Teen grew up just enough that night.
"Chris [Walla] introduced us to this guy [who] took us aside and said, 'Just don't do it.' Not only did he say don't do it, but he said, 'The people you're working with, the lawyers you've been introduced to, are sharks. Do not have anything to do with them.'"
"Had we met Beck and Macy Gray that night [at the Ima Robot show]," Staples says, "we'd probably be like, 'Stars! Where do we sign?'"
"I'd probably be a Scientologist by now," Nagler concludes.
Instead, he's a guy sitting in a small taqueria in Petaluma, dressed in a ripped shirt and wrapping up the second half of his chicken burrito to eat later.
"We had wanted to produce it more, to arrange things for it, do more instrumentations," Nagler says. So the band called in a string quartet and added keyboards and synth sounds to augment the piano-driven songs. In addition, Nagler found himself writing pages of lyrics. "The first song on the record has over 1,100 words on it," he adds. "That stuff doesn't get written over the weekend."
"They started the process in December," remembers Slowdance label owner Ezra Caraeff, adding that he had hoped to receive a rough copy in January. "I think it was in May when it was all finished."
"The only time you can afford to spend a long time in the studio is either if you're doing it alone or you have an abundance of money," Staples explains. "The latter is never going to happen. But we thought, 'We can spend time on this. Let's make the best record we can.'"
Elysium opens with an epic intro, a pretentious trick on most albums but the ideal mood-setter here: an instrumental three-and-a-half-minute track of found sounds and machine noises that glitch and squirm and tighten before they fade away, leaving only the plaintive chords of a piano, the kind of playing that makes you imagine Nagler on an expansive outdoor stage, all alone, a magnesium spotlight pooled around him and his baby grand. As he plays, somber strings join him--the lights fade up, so to speak--and we segue into "Penicillin (It Doesn't Mean Much)," and now the spotlight tilts to hit a disco ball, sending chutes of white light raining down on the stage as a waltzing drumbeat drops in and Nagler begins to sing: "To prove your affection, you'd marry my strings/But when I'm called away, do you bury my things..."
As Nagler explains, the album is "about a co-dependence between two sides who are concealing things from one another." Throughout the record, the singer's lyrics reimagine what those two sides might be--a pair of lovers, a government and its citizens, organized religion and its followers--but they're always two sides controlling each other, dangling a glimpse of Elysium, paradise, on the end of a stick. The themes are as powerful as the music, like the grandiose strings that open "A Captive Audience" as if it were Casablanca, or Nagler's piano, which is as urgent and expressive as the most cataclysmically distorted guitars.
Taken as a whole (the only way to take it, really), the album is one huge dramatic arc, culminating with the 13-minute centerpiece, "Chimera Obscurant," and its 662-word climax, in which a concussive fury of pianos and strings and drums sends Nagler's simultaneously grim and cathartic invectives into the stratosphere: "This invite-only disparity party/Has brought enough despair to the already brokenhearted/In the wake of greed, in the name of flowcharting/Leaving broken homes where once were gardens." In case you're wondering, those are just 30 of the 662.
"It's incredibly ambitious," says Caraeff of Elysium. "The whole idea of 'We're recording our own record; we've never done anything like this before,' and then going, 'OK, now we're going to get a string quartet, and there's this 13-minute song with 1,400 words in it and time changes.' It's way too ambitious. That's like the kind of weird record you make when you have the major label: 'Hey, here's $200,000 to make a record.'"