Letters To Cleo
“Hi, I’m Kay,” she says as she shakes my hand. “But… I guess you already knew that.”
I think back to four years ago. I was on the phone at 3 in the morning, sitting in front of a muted television tuned to MTV, which back then actually used most of its airtime to show music videos. My focus was on whatever meaningless conversation I was having, when an incredibly colorful video featuring a rather attractive blonde girl sitting in the middle of a forest appeared in replacement of whatever self-worshipping VJ was hosting the late-night musical escapade. My curiosity got the best of me as to what music could be the soundtrack to such a colorful event, and I turned the volume up. The song “Here And Now” came through my television speakers, and I was officially introduced to Letters To Cleo.
In the four years that have passed, the Boston-based band has experienced plenty. They’ve released four albums (their first, Sister, never receiving national distribution, and their second, Aurora Gory Alice, being released on two separate labels), and their drummer, Stacy Jones, left to join the now-defunct Veruca Salt (and rejoined Letters To Cleo when Veruca Salt broke up). They’ve gone through extensive touring (including many dates on the Lilith Fair), have appeared on a handful of compilations and soundtracks, had endless fights with Revolution Records, and most recently saw guitarist Mike Eisenstein and lead singer Kay Hanley entering the bonds of matrimony. Yet in four years, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them appear again on MTV.
On paper, the band isn’t anything out of the ordinary: Two guitars, a bassist, drummer, and female vocalist. But on your stereo, Letters To Cleo establish themselves as one of those bands you just can’t get enough of: Personal lyrics that are generic enough to relate to, catchy indie-rock guitar riffs, beautiful vocals, and tight, well-constructed songs that will play themselves in your head long after you’ve hit the stop button. Right before their appearance at West Palm Beach’s Sunfest, I had the pleasure of sitting down on the sidewalk under an impressive fireworks display and speaking to Kay, the incredibly friendly lead vocalist and principle lyricist of the band.
Well, first of all… congratulations on your recent marriage.
Does it freak you out at all that here I am, some random kid in Florida, and I know your personal life?
No. It would have freaked me out before the Internet, but I’m assuming you know certain things because of that.
There have been some rumors going around about your affiliation with Revolution Records? Are you still with them?
We’re, fingers crossed, almost out of our deal. We’ve been trying to get out of our deal for a year now, because we hate them so much. We hate them so much. So, yeah, we’re just about out.
Do you know where you’re going next?
Well, I’m taking the summer off. The boys are working on Nina Gordon from Veruca Salt’s demos. So, Michael, Stacy, and Scott are doing that…
Stacy’s back with the band?
Well, Veruca Salt broke up. So, yeah, Stacy’s been back with us for the last six months or so. So, Nina’s doing demos for her new album, so the boys are doing the demos… Scott, our bass player, is producing, and I’m gonna take the summer off and pursue other interests. And then hopefully, we’ll go back in the studio and start making a record before the end of the year.
On your last record, Go!, there a street sign on the back that says “Push Button. Wait for rock.” Is that a real sign?
No. It is a real sign, but the “Wait For Rock” was computer generated by our friend Aaron Belyea, who was the art director for the album and a very good friend of ours, who we worked with to do the artwork. He generated that image by computer. But it is an actual picture of a sign in Boston.
This is my “into the mindset of… ” question. Most of your songs seem to be addressed to a “you.” Is there actually a “you?”
Yeah… there’s not a “you.” It’s one of my weaknesses as a storyteller, you know, my prolific use of pronouns. And I really try to avoid it, but it’s difficult to do. But you happen to be the first person to say that besides our tour manager! That’s something that I really do need to work on, but there are no specific “yous.” There [are] lots of “Yous” that I’m addressing.
You’ve been with Mike for quite a while, but there are many songs, like “I’m A Fool,” that seem to be basically break-up songs. Are you just…
That’s a purely fictional account of a purely fictional experience. And there are songs that people interpret as being break-up songs, like “Find You Dead,” that are about completely different situations. But that’s a weakness that I have in writing songs that IY [big fireworks explosion] Wow! Wow! [Back to me] Umm… that I do need to… I mean, when I sit down and write stories, I find that I have a much broader vocabulary in terms of my writing. But when it comes to songs, and you’re beginning and ending a story in three minutes, it’s like you have to cut to the chase. And again, I fall back to the pronouns. Which I hate! I hate it in other people’s writing, and I hate it in mine. So, next album I’m going to eliminate the use of pronouns.
Have you ever seen PCU?
No, I haven’t.
There’s one scene where the main character was complaining about people that wear a band’s shirts to go see them. Any opinions?
Umm… It would never be my choice to do that. But I like it, because it shows that there are real, serious fans out there. Sometimes I like it more than other times. For instance, when we were on tour with Everclear and Our Lady Peace, and we were doing this opening slot that we had never done before, and there were all these Everclear fans that wanted nothing to do with us. So it was nice to look out every night and see a smattering of Cleo shirts. It made us feel that there are people out there that we should be rocking for. And that I think is awesome. But again, it wouldn’t be my choice, but I don’t mind when people do it.
I’ll ask this question because my friend John did this earlier. Have you ever bit your lip and made it bleed?
[laughs] No. But, last week I punched myself in the face with the microphone and my lip bled. So, that’s sorta the same thing.
Being female-fronted, and then playing the Lilith Fair, have pretty much put Letters To Cleo under the classification of a “chick band.” Does that bother you at all?
It’s just not really an issue for me. I don’t really think in those terms, and plus, I’m kinda guyish. I’m not really a girly girl. I’m kinda tough and brawny.
You think you could kick my ass?
Absolutely. No question. [laughs] I mean, the boys in the band are more girlie than I am. So, ya know… Hey, [points to food stand over there] What do you think the chances are of that place having fried dough, and then what are the chances of them being open after our show? I’m really jonesin’ for fried dough.
I will take the Vegas odds that its not going to be open at 10.
Yeah, I know. But if I eat it before the show, I’ll be sick.
I’ll be vomiting. But I really want fried dough!! But I had a cheeseburger for lunch…
Fried dough is something everybody wants, but not everybody can have…
[Here we notice this couple heavily making out not more than 10 feet from us]
How are you on public display of affection?
I’m not THAT bad, but I’m a public displayer. My husband and I are public displayers, definitely.
My friend said this has happened to every band, so we’ll see if that stands true. Have you ever been booed off stage?
We’ve never been booed offstage, but we had some pretty awful audiences. A couple years ago we were opening up for the Buzzcocks, who I really like… and, truth be told, our music isn’t that much different, and if people hadn’t heard Green Day and thought they were punk, they wouldn’t even be there to SEE the fucking Buzzcocks. So anyways, we had some evil audiences on that tour. I had a beer thrown at me, I got in a fist fight in Detroit…
Did you win?
Of course! But it’s like, we’ve had some really evil shit happen to us onstage. But, no, we’ve never been booed offstage. [Looks at fireworks again] Wow! By the way, this is our opening act. I don’t know how we’re gonna live up!
Well, you definitely won’t be that loud!
[We all gawk at the fireworks for a while]
[Kay grabs the tape recorder] THANK YOU, GOODNIGHT!
[Timed perfectly, the entire fireworks crowd starts cheering]
All right, we have to go play now.
And with that, I thanked Kay for her time and walked around to the front of the stage, where I was greeted with a number of security guards keeping the crowd a good fifteen feet away from the stage. No more than two minutes later, Letters To Cleo took the stage and opened with “Demon Rock,” a track off their second-latest album, Wholesale Meats and Fish. For the next hour, the band played a healthy mix from all their albums, with the tightness and perfection they had achieved in the studio. They even treated the crowd to “I See,” a track off their second album that Kay warned that they hadn’t played in over a year.
But past the actual music, what amazed me most was that the amiability that Kay displayed in person carried over with the entire band onstage, when two girls broke past the security guards and ran towards the stage asking for autographs. Without hesitating, guitarist Mike Eisenstein ran backstage, grabbed a handful of promotional pictures, and started handing them out to the crowd while Kay signed the CD pamphlets the girls had in hand. Rocking, this band is. Rock stars, they’re certainly not. And as for the fried dough… well, they were closed at the end of the show. But who needs friend dough when we had a healthy helping of one of the most crowd (and ear) pleasing bands around.