Hailing from New York City, Emanuel and the Fear is an eleven piece rock orchestra led by Emanuel Ayvas. Their debut album, Listen, showcases incredible performances, writing and dynamics. It easily ranks as one of the finest debuts I've ever heard as well as one of the best albums of the year. SOT Staff Writer Jordan Blum recently sat down with Emanuel and his friend Jason Mitchel (who appeared on Listen) at Snockey's Oyster & Clam House (owned by the Mitchel family) in Philadelphia to discuss the music. Amidst some great seafood and beer, equally superb stories were told.
Jordan Blum: So how did you come to play a solo gig tonight at Snockey's Oyster & Crab House?
Emanuel Ayvas: Um, J. [Mitchel] organized the event and made it happen. His family owns this restaurant and he's worked here for years. He thought it would be a good place to have it. He knows people to bring and he can kind of do whatever he wants. I actually met J. while doing my first two years at Rutgers. I then transferred to UNC [University of North Carolina] to be a music major, actually. Anyway, he was there when I was there and was friends with a bunch of my friends, though I never actually met him till after I graduated. Then we met and started talking about poetry, cause you know, I write words a lot, though not serious like he does. I don't focus on it as much; I just write for songs. We got into talking on that and started collaborating together, even on stupid little creative exercises.
EA: Yeah, and then I had asked him to be involved on the record [Listen] because, you know, we're good friends and I like his vibe. We ended up making that last track together, "Razzamatazz." He came into the studio after preparing for a few months.
Jason Mitchel: I'd be putting material together for about two months and really thinking thoroughly about what I wanted to do. Essentially we finally came to a lot of good ideas and were wondering how we could manifest those in the studio.
JM: When we got together in the studio, and it was my first time in a studio, we just brought any number of these different elements I'd been focusing on together to make that sort of very weird ride at the end.
JB: To be honest, it reminds me of the sort of avant-garde craziness of Frank Zappa, specifically on We're Only in It For the Money.
EA: Yeah we get that a lot.
JB: So the comparison is fair, right?
EA: Oh, sure. If I grew my hair a little longer I'd look like him.
JB: [laughs] and grow the infamous facial hair.
EA: Ah, I don't think I could do that, unfortunately. I'm not a real man yet [laughs].
JB: So how did the band come together? Were you always the leader with your name in the name of the band?
EA: Yeah it started as my thing. I got an offer from a producer. I'd been working in a studio and he heard some stuff I'd done before and he basically said "I'd like to record you for a record." At that time, I was rebuilding because I just stopped a band before so I figured "what the hell?" I'd moved to Los Angeles to explore the world of film composing and I wrote out there and then came back. Working with composers out there sort of planted the idea in my head of having a larger group.
JB: Oh, wow.
EA: I kind of knew you have to have a gimmick or something special to parooze the New York scene. It's a lot easier to maintain the personalities of a rock band if everything is scored.
JB: And you scored everything yourself on Listen. Was that hard?
EA: Um, I studied classical piano from when I was five to, I guess, the end of college. Actually, during my first two years at Rutgers, it wasn't my major. I didn't want to be a musician. Oddly enough, my mom and dad were encouraging me to study music, which is like the total opposite of what you'd expect.
JB: Yeah, it is.
EA: They were like "this is who you are. You should do it. You should study it" and I felt, like, "No! It's a shitty lifestyle," but then of course I'd be in my dorm room writing songs.
JB: Is "Jimme's Song" autobiographical or…
EA: It's actually based on a friend of mine but it draws from my life too. I did have a friend who drove a bulldozer in New Jersey by the turnpike.
JB: He was tired of doing the same thing over and over again.
EA: Yeah, and I think that's a pretty universal feeling.
JB: It's tough to be creative and then have to do something else all day and not have an outlet.
EA: Exactly, and that was the most frustrating thing for me starting out. I was thinking "I want to write but no one knows who I am. I can tell them that I'm really good but they won't really care." And then as a result of that, you can't get work writing, so I became a temp and a mail man and other weird things. Just working crappy jobs that I would quit and I was really down about it. That's where the song came from.
JB: Now the debut album is really one long suite right? It's 19 songs but it's all one piece.
EA: I like to think of it like that, yeah.
JB: I love albums like that. How did you decide to shape it like that, like with the rainfall and more progressive music serving as a bookend?
EA: Well, the songs kind of fit into all these different genres, I think, but the lyrical themes extend throughout the album. It's based on this idea of fear and rallying against oppression. Feeling pent up.
JB: Like "Guatemala."
EA: Yeah. That song is about how people don't acknowledge that there are things outside of their little bubble. And I'm not trying to say who's right or wrong, but I feel like "why don't you look at this like I do?"
JB: Well that track definitely grabs you as an album opener, or at least the first real song. It's got so much energy.
EA: [laughs] Yeah we put a lot into it.
JB: Now, I'm not insinuating any plagiarism of course, but "Dear Friend" features a bit about eighty seconds in that is very reminiscent of ELO's Eldorado. I thought of it immediately.
EA: I've actually never listened to them. Someone else told me that too. I think it was my drummer and he put it on and said "listen to this." I was surprised, but I never picked up one of their albums after that though. I don't know why.
JB: It's the sound of the strings and the chord changes, I think.
EA: I didn't even know who they were when I wrote it. Honestly, I think that part was more inspired by The Beatles' "A Day in the Life." How the orchestra swells and moves down the scale. That was more of what I had in mind.
JB: Ah, but you agree with the comparison?
EA: Oh, no, I definitely hear the ELO. With the arpeggios.
JB: So, you guys recently toured Europe. What was that like and how did it differ from playing in America?
EA: It's different, definitely. The people there are, um, excited to hear something new and they were intrigued about us coming from New York. They went crazy and we had to do double or triple encores. They wouldn't let us leave. We were in London, near Camden town and the Camden market.
JM: Did you notice any bad reception? I heard of some concerts in Japan where people would just stand there, absolutely silent, as they listened to the music. Were there places like that?
JB: Yeah I've seen some footage of some really impressive progressive stuff in the 70s where the audience barely reacted as the band played.
EA: It was kind of like that in the Netherlands. They were really, really quiet. There were a couple places like that in Germany too. I would think "they hate us" and then they would clap at the end. Afterwards, during a triple encore night, they would come up to us and buy tons of CDs and T-shirts and say "oh, wow, that was unbelievable." I would just stand there, shocked. I guess it's just different cultures. Some people just don't emote in the same way.
JB: Well at least they gave you great reception by the end.
EA: Yeah, dude, I mean, whatever. You can do whatever you want when you're listening [laughs].
JB: As long as they applaud by the end. Now, who influenced the music you guys make and who are you listening to these days?
EA: I grew up listening to classical music and my parents played Greek dance music. My father and his father played in a wedding group that they started. I first fell in love with rock from the 60s and 70s. Jimi Hendrix taught me how to play guitar and I was really into The Beatles and really into Led Zeppelin. And then I got into Rage Against the Machine and that really heavy, grunge sound. And then I discovered independent music when I went to college. I'm really into Bright Eyes; I love his lyrics. He's a great performer and I got to see him before he was really famous. He would play tiny clubs and he would walk through the crowds and talk to people. He's a really interesting guy and he does a lot of political things. Let's see, who else…
JB: Aren't you a fan of Ben Folds?
EA: I really like him a lot. I mean, I've only heard one of his CDs, called Whatever…
JB: Whatever and Ever, Amen.
EA: Yeah. I really like Jason Molina. You know, Songs: Ohio and Magnolia Electric Co. Also, Hip-Hop like Wu-Tang Clan. I'm all over the place. I like some jazz too and I really like noise music, like John Zorn.
JB: How bout post-rock?
EA: I like Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Also, heavy metal like Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch, and Cannibal Corpse.
JB: How about Dream Theater or Tool?
EA: I listened to Tool when I was younger. The don't come out with stuff that often though.
JB: True. So after you guys are done touring, are there any plans for a new album? Have you written any new material and if so, what does it sound like/
EA: We're going to be doing a live album. I feel like the LP [Listen] didn't full capture what we sound like live
EA: It didn't have the energy that live does. I mean I'm not saying I don't like the album and I think it's great. I'm very happy with it, but I want to record in a different style. I don't like how we sort of went about doing the recording, which has to do with the size of the studio and the producer's background. I want to do an album that's totally live and it should be a five track thing. Hopefully it'll be out around October, before we go back to Europe.
JB: Do you know where you'll record it?
EA: Yeah, I have a place in mind. We recorded the album piece by piece; each instrument was done individually, which, to me, feels like you lose a lot. I mean, there are great albums that are done that way, but I would prefer to do it live and see how it goes. One or two takes with no editing or overdubbing, and this new live album will be all new.
JB: Oh, cool. How about the next LP?
EA: Hopefully we can do it in winter. I want to have a release in the fall and in the winter. Is it possible? I don't know, but I'm trying [laughs].
JB: Will it be another suite?
EA: I don't know. It might be fewer tracks but yeah, I want it to be like a concept album, like program music with a story.
JB: I heard you're a teacher.
EA: That's how I make my money, basically. I'm a private teacher for guitar, drums, and piano. People of all ages. Actually, that part on the album where the little girl sings "London Bridge," ["Bridges and Ladies"], that girl is a student of mine. She was about seven years old.
JB: Oh, that's nice.
JM: For another part of the album, Emanuel and I were out in California together with some friends. We went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I think it was on the track "Duckies," right?
EA: That or "Free Life."
JM: There were these kids chasing ducks around and during that whole trip, we were just recording interesting sounds, wherever they came from. So lucky for them, those kids wound up on the album.
EA: The kids were really excited and flipping out at us.
JB: [laughs] well I'm sure you made their day.
EA: Definitely. But, um, going back to the new album, I'm really looking forward to it. I think it's gonna be a really cool album. Everything is going to segue and there'll be really cool orchestrated bits. I think three of the songs I'm playing tonight will be on that record.
JB: I was wondering where the material for tonight came from, be it new, old, etc.
EA: Three of them haven't been released yet. They have harmonica and I think I did one of them in Amsterdam. There's a video of it online. And then I'm doing a new one that I think is good. He [Jason] specifically asked for it because I mention Ezra Pound.
EA: I also have another song that I need to actually write down, but I'm not doing it tonight.
JB: Do you like to write on the road?
EA: I do, but it's tough to do when you're in charge of 10 or 11 people.
JB: Where'd you meet them all?
EA: Um, it started with a Craigslist ad and then word of mouth. I prefer word of mouth. We have a bunch of people from NYU, Juilliard, and Mannes. They're great musicians too, and great people.
JB: How much do they have to do with the writing of the music? I mean, do you literally tell them what to play?
EA: Yeah, I hand them a score. I hope that they become more involved. It all depends on time.
JB: I always wondered about that. Like with Jethro Tull and how Ian Anderson basically wrote A Passion Play and Thick As A Brick and had the rest of the band play what he wanted.
EA: Yeah, man I mean it all depends. We'll see. A lot of them are totally capable of writing, though.
JM: And finally, Emanuel, how do you like the crab cakes here [laughs]?
EA: [laughs] Excellent. Definitely check out Snockey's! I actually feel a bit like I'm on drugs.
JB: Well hopefully it's a good "high" that makes you excited and happy.
EA: Oh, definitely.
JB: Well I'll leave you guys to set up. Good luck and thanks again for taking the time to talk to me.
EA: Oh, no problem, dude. Thanks. Hope you enjoy the show.