In a music scene that is constantly in flux, Motes provide a much-needed feeling of unity and stability. Though the trio has been active since 2011, their musical roots in C-U extend much further. Drawing heavy influence from bands like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, the band infuses dreamy fuzz-pop with an urgency and earnestness that is entirely grounded in reality, simultaneously embodying heaviness and fragility.
I spoke with them ahead of their upcoming June 9th album release show at Cowboy Monkey.
Matt Mitchell: We wanted to go back to Earth Analog, just because it’s such a great environment to work in, and we love recording to tape. I don’t think there was a whole lot of debate about working with Colin, either. We kicked around the idea of a few other people, but things went so well last time & we really just wanted to do that again. Our first record was also Colin’s first time really manning the boards himself. He was there kind of on a trial basis, and he’s learned a lot since that first record.
SP: I didn’t even realize that was his first record!
Mitchell: He had just graduated high school a few months earlier!
Elizabeth Majerus: He kind of talked us into letting him do that. We were a little apprehensive, frankly, just because he was so young. And he didn’t have a lot of experience doing what we were about to do, basically.
Mitchell: He had led sessions, but he’d never recorded to tape himself before. He’d observed [Matt] Talbott doing it, and had gotten permission to experiment. And he knew what he was doing on the first record too, but was stopping and consulting a lot more.
Majerus: Really, we were just very happy with the way Keep It In The Dark sounded. Sonically, we felt like we captured those songs in exactly the way we wanted to. It was extremely comfortable working at Earth Analog; it’s just such a great space, in addition to having a ton of great equipment. And it’s sort of close enough that it’s not a pain to get there, but it’s far enough away that you feel like you’re getting away from daily life in C-U. And Colin was extremely easy to work with. We were very happy with the product, but also the process. He had a good combination of trying to understand what our vision was for the songs on the record, but also offering some ideas that he shared with us. I don’t think we planned to give him a producer credit or having him play a producer role, but that was the role he played ultimately with us and with Isaac Arms. Even with the 15 hour days were were putting in with Keep It In The Dark, it felt like a vacation.
Mitchell: That was one of his biggest selling points. He was like “I’m young, I can work really long hours. I’ll go until you guys want to stop.” So we were definitely cashing out before him.
Majerus: And I was actually surprised at how easy it was. Like really, truly, when I say it felt like vacation, it really felt like… It didn’t feel like it was sapping our energy, it felt like it was energizing to do it. So really, what more can you ask for? We were totally ready to do it again.
Althaus (left) and Mitchell (right)
SP: So what was it like this time? Did it still feel like a vacation, was it more energizing in some ways?
Mitchell: It was really very similar. One thing that was especially similar was Colin’s preparation. He, for some reason, liked the demos that I’d recorded for all the songs, and I had set up the demos as a blueprint for how I wanted to record the guitars and how I’d wanted to space them out. So he came in having studied those songs really well, with extensive ideas about things like specific mics for snares. We ended up using different snares for different songs because he had ideas for what sounds would be perfect for individual songs. And the process this time was very similar. In a way that’s what we wanted, something kind of predictable and familiar. It was cool.
Majerus: It did have that similar vacation feel. The first record was recorded in the summer, so it kind of had that summer feel. With this one, it was spring break, so there was that feeling again. It was very similar, and that’s wonderful because when something goes really well and you want to do it again because you loved it the first time, the chances of it dashing your expectations or at least not living up to your expectations are high. I’ve had that with travel, like I’ve literally gone on a trip and had a great time, then gone back and thought “why am I not capturing the magic of the last time I was here?” Expectations can really mute experiences, and in this case, it really felt like another version of the same time, but with different songs, and with, I think more confidence all around. We all came to it with a lot more experience.
SP: Comparing the two albums, there seems to be a lot more emphasis dynamic shifts within songs. There’s a lot of that loud-quiet-loud dynamic happening a lot more on this record than on the previous. Was that a conscious decision, or is it something that kind of happened naturally?
Mitchell: I didn’t even notice that difference! Certainly not conscious. We just made songs, and then when we had enough for a record, we went forth with them. I don’t know! I’ve always been really into moving between dynamics like that. It was true of Rectangle [Matt’s previous band] as well. Maybe we’re just better at doing that? It was definitely not a conscious thing.
Majerus: I agree it wasn’t conscious, but I have noticed it. I know when we were writing these songs, we would get comments from other bands we played with. Like I remember when we played with Neiv at The Accord, and PJ from Neiv came up and said “I really like the new songs, they’re a lot more rock! They’re just much more rock ‘n roll.” I think Neiv maybe perceives us to be in kind of a realm with them, kind of loud distortion, but in a dreamier. There were a couple of songs that just came out, like “Again Again” and “Problem Patron,” much more classic 3 minute rock ‘n roll, post punk songs. And so you have that end of the spectrum that I think took the rock a little further, but you also have the other end of a spectrum with a song like “Came To,” that takes the quiet, more hushed end. Or even a song like “Montana,” which is a loud song in the sense of it having a lot of distortion, as well as a slower, more quiet moment.
SP: That actually struck me about “Montana” right away, starting off with this big gnarly riff, but then moving straight into softer territory. The ebb & flow is really nice, and it’s great to hear that kind of progression happening.
Majerus: Yeah, and we all really like bands that combine big swirly guitars with more quiet melodic moments. I’ve always had trouble describing bands I’m in to people, because being a part of something, it’s hard to put a label on it.
SP: The eternal problem.
Majerus: Absolutely! And what I think ends up happening is, you take a label someone else has applied to your band, and you think “yeah, I can use that as shorthand.” But when trying to describe our music to people who haven’t heard it, I often say it’s loud distorted guitars and soft melodic moments, back and forth. So, you know, there’s also a lot of other stuff going on, but I think those are the two main components, and that contrast is always appealing to me.
SP: Going off of that, the first official Motes release, “Feel The Summer’s Heat,” came out in 2012. You’ve existed as a band for the better half of the decade.
Mitchell: We actually had a single come out in 2011 called “Honey and Glue” that was done in collaboration with a local poet, Steve Davenport. He had written words and had contacted people he knew that wrote songs and said “could you take these words and make a song?” And that was our first song that we congealed around as a band, so that came out through his thing in 2011. Then we re-recorded that for the first EP.
SP: Having existed as a band for so long, how has the songwriting process itself evolved? Or has it changed much?
Mitchell: It doesn’t even feel like that long. That’s what happens when you get older, it starts going by really quick. Like “I can’t believe it’s been 3 years since the last record.”
SP: That’s such a great way of looking at it, though, like “it doesn’t feel like seven, eight years.”
Mitchell: It used to take us a really long time to write songs. It took us forever to get those first five songs. We couldn’t play shows because we couldn’t get a set together, because we just had all these unorganized riffs. I think Matt [Cohn, drummer] at first resisted to some extent the idea of crafting pop song structures. He would want to do stuff that was more open, or he would resist standardized writing, like wanting to play each part the same way each time. So it used to take us a long time to go from a cool set of riffs that go together to making it a cohesive whole, and I think we’ve gotten more efficient at that. We’re a lot more goal-oriented now. Like “we’re gonna pull this thing together, it’s probably gonna be somewhere between 3 and 5 minutes, and we can play it coherently live.” But other than that, we’ve been messing around playing songs and writing together on and off for years, so a lot of that hasn’t changed.
Majerus: I think one thing that has changed is, it used to be much more typical for a song to originate either with Matt Mitchell or me, and then get completed by the whole band. And one thing that I think has happened, that has been productive for us, is we have figured out ways to collaborate that makes the songs better. I think it first happened on “We Collide” off Keep It In The Dark. Matt wrote the bass part and I wrote the guitar part, the melody, and a verse I really liked, but I was having trouble with the chorus. Like I couldn’t do it, and just kept banging my head against the wall. So finally I gave it to Matt, and he wrote the perfect part. I was too deep in the problem to really go anywhere with it, and he had a really fresh perspective. I think that helped both of us see that, when you’re running into trouble finishing the basic part of a song, you can kind of hand it off to somebody else. And that’s happened several times since.
Mitchell: We do more with reading each other’s lyrics and editing, since we’re both writers and English teachers. I used to just be embarrassed with the whole idea of writing lyrics, just kind of like “well, I guess it’s done.” But for this last one, we worked on it together more.
Majerus: Giving each other notes on the lyrics, basically. We had one song that had one set of lyrics written, and then gave it to the other person and said “here, try something else,” and we ended up liking the second set better. And that’s not uncommon for me; I will often write a first set of lyrics that I just cringe to look back on, and it’s clear to me that it’s not acceptable & I can’t live with it. I have to sort of leave it for a couple of weeks and then come back to it fresh. In a way, I think if we’re having issues, we’re more comfortable saying “I’m not sure about this, what do you think?” and then giving each other feedback.
Mitchell: Sometimes we’ll still bring a fully fleshed out idea. Like I’ll have a guitar part and words, beginning to end, with the idea of making a song out of it. There’s a lot of variation.
Majerus: Another thing I think is important to note is what Matt Cohn adds to the rhythm when we come to him with a completed song. It often changes the feel and structure of the song in ways that are crucial to our sound as a band. There have been times where one of us has an idea of how a song will sound (maybe not a specific idea, but definitely an idea of how the drums will sound), and Matt will play something that is completely unexpected. That might be a little bit of a sting at first; sometimes Matt Mitchell will say something like “I can’t play this guitar part with that beat.” And ultimately what really needs to happen is the two need to merge in order for it to become more interesting and better, but there’s a sort of “your peanut butter is in my chocolate,” when you’re trying to create the perfect confection instead of a hunk of chocolate stuck in peanut butter.
Mitchell: Matt’s whole thing, and you can probably hear this in the way he plays, is that he doesn’t want to play something that feels obvious. He doesn’t want to come with a completely cliché part, but sometimes I really need that sort of straightforward beat. And he’ll often come with some oblique ideas, and a lot of times my own narrow-mindedness will get in the way, like “I really didn’t picture it that way.” But he’ll play it a couple more times, and it’ll really start to grow on me. He’s also changing and reworking his parts as we go, too, so it can be kind of a slow process; Matt’s not the kind of drummer where you can show him something & he’ll immediately give you something simple. He’s throwing all kinds of crazy ideas at the wall, and then sometimes something locks, and it really works, even though it’s nothing like what I was picturing.
Majerus: I think it’s fair to say, and I mean this really positively, that Matt is an idiosyncratic and stubborn drummer. And I think that really helps our sound as a band, because it’s easy when someone says “I wrote this riff, here’s what I see, I want to make everyone happy.” Matt Cohn has a way of looking at you and trying something that’s sort of like what you suggested, but not really, it’s still in his realm.
Mitchell: He’s often right, ultimately, and the stuff that people like listening to is the weird shit he’s doing on drums.
Writer's Note: Because he wasn’t present for the interview, I noted that I wished I could ask Matt Cohn how playing in a gamelan ensemble has influenced him as a drummer. This was quickly met with Elizabeth sending him this question, and later receiving the below answer in an email:
“I’ve played with the community gamelan for two years now, and it has definitely altered how I hear, play, and understand music
I’m always seeking out new rhythms and grooves via “world” music, but actually studying and performing the music of Bali here in Urbana has revealed all the little spaces that can exist between each beat.
I hadn’t thought about it until now, but Motes and Balinese gamelan share a pretty distinct male-female dichotomy:
In gamelan, two versions of the same instrument play notes in unison, but one of the instruments is tuned slightly above, and the other slightly below the note, so that when they are struck simultaneously, you hear (and even feel) a shimmery vibrato of the one note. In Balinese music, this considered a male-female pair.
With Motes, I’ve always been happy to support Matt and Elizabeth’s interlocking melodies and rhythms, and float somewhere in between.”
Mitchell: But Matt’s definitely come around to the more pop vibe we’ve got. I remember him being in bands years ago that wouldn’t want to have songs, they’d want to do everything spontaneously live. He would have these more avant-garde ideas, especially regarding structure. And I think there’s been a bit of a push-pull, where we’re geared more toward conventional song structure. It’s been kind of coming together in different styles; I think initially he pictured something a lot more strange and instrumental. Those elements are definitely still there, though.
Majerus: I think that’s also happened with other things. The song “Came To,” is a song that I started writing and, in a move that was unusual for me, I wrote the vocal melody first. And I thought I’d play guitar, since I wrote the vocal melody, but I just wasn’t coming up with anything that I was satisfied with. I usually write guitar parts first, and going the other way around was giving me issues. I brought the melody to Matt, and he actually had something that he was already working on that fit. It was cool the way it shaped the song in a direction that made it more interesting and less straightforward than I originally anticipated & made me like it a lot more.
Majerus (bass, left), Cohn (drums, middle), and Mitchell (guitar, right) photo by Annie F. Adams
SP: You mentioned Matt Cohn’s history playing in more experimental bands. Both of you have a pretty extensive musical background in the area as well. As longtime participants in the local music scene, what kind of shifts and changes have you noticed taking place over the years?
Majerus: I think the biggest shift for me has been that the scene has gotten way more friendly and inviting, even though it’s always been a fairly welcoming scene. I think in the late 90s there was a little bit of posturing going on, and it felt like there were different tiers of bands.
Mitchell: Just in general, the scene in the 90s, even with bands coming from out of town, there was a little more attitude. Like “we’re more ironic, we’re more over it than you.” And you kind of had to maintain that yourself. I’ve been really struck coming back into it just how nice and un-ironically warm and supportive everyone is. With out of town bands as well, everyone’s nice, and excited that everyone else is playing a part. There really doesn’t seem to be that kind of feeling that everyone’s saying things behind your back; I always just assumed everyone probably hated my band and were just being nice to my face or something. But I don’t feel that at all now. It sounds like we’re complaining about the 90s; it was nice then too, and everyone was supportive, but there was a vibe that was very different.
Majerus: There was more genre balkanization, for lack of a better word. There was a post-punk, rock scene, and there wasn’t much interaction with other musicians outside that circle, and bills were never mixed. That’s really changed a lot in a cool way, with a lot more mixing of bills. And even if you’re not playing on the same bill as another band, everyone knows of each other and is supportive of each other. And I think maybe the explosion of social media has helped that. Bands had a presence on the internet, but now that’s a way you can support other bands without necessarily playing with them. And I think it’s created a generally more encouraging environment.
Mitchell: We should make clear that both of our younger bands got plenty of support then from great people like Matt Talbott and Rick [Valentin] and Rose [Marshack] from Poster Children. So we’re not saying people weren’t supportive, but it’s just much more so now, I think. I’m just blown away by how nice people are with us, The reception to this band has been gratifying from the start, and it feels like the scene in general is just a lot more friendly. It’s hard to talk about this without seeming like we’re negatively comparing it to earlier; it’s just different.
SP: But if it does feel objectively better in some ways, it’s fine to acknowledge that.
Majerus: Right, and I guess it’s gone from good to great in terms of vibe and warmth. I think Champaign-Urbana, for as long as I’ve been here, has been a great place to make music, and a really supportive place.
Mitchell: But there’s an open conversation now about making show spaces more inclusive or getting away from the whole guy-centric, sexual-predator rock scene vibe. There’s all these ways that the local scene has been very mindful and self-improving, self-reflective. And I think that’s really cool. I think it’s fair to say, too, there’s more gender diversity in the scene now than there was before. Like when Beezus [Majerus’ previous band] was out they were kind of this novelty of a “girl rock” band, and then they were supplanted by Sarge as the “new girl rock” band. Like you can’t have two.
Majerus: Yeah, you can only have one girl rock band at a time.
Mitchell: There was that attitude, and I think you dealt with a certain amount of condescension from dude musicians.
Majerus: There was an explicit feeling like we were the “girl band” in town, and like there was truly only room for one. And also a lot of dudes who would make comments like we were only getting attention because we were a band of all women. Dealing with sound guys was always annoying and always dis-spiriting. That’s just not the case any more; my experience with working with men in bands and men running sound has been all positive in C-U in the Motes era. I think there is more gender diversity now, but I still wish more women went to rock shows. A lot of times women do, but sometimes you still look out in the audience, and it’s very guy-heavy.
Mitchell: But it’s better. It’s not uncommon for us to be on a bill that is more gender-diverse, and that would’ve been really unusual for us 20 years ago.
SP: To bring it all back to the new album, are there any big plans or tours following the release show on the 9th?
Mitchell: We do want to play out of town more. We’ve been doing little one-off gigs. I don’t know about touring, but the idea of weekend shows and doing a couple in a jaunt is something we’ve talked about. There’s not a lot of solid plans at this point, but we definitely want to play this thing out of town more. It’s complicated, but it’s fun. We like it, but it’s always such a logistical hassle & everyone’s impulse is always “I don’t really like it, let’s just stay home.” But every time we’ve traveled, even for like decent but not overwhelmingly great shows, on the drive home I’m always feeling really great & glad we did it. So we need to do that a little more consistently.
Majerus: We drove to Kalamazoo for Kalamashoegazer a couple of years ago, and on the way there I felt like “why are we driving so far to play this one show.” And it was so awesome; the audience was so warm, and so many people bought that record, and it really felt like the reception we got made the trip worth it.
SP: I’m sure that if you something like that with this record, it’ll happen again tenfold.
Majerus: We just played Bloomington about a week ago, and we’re planning on going back.
Mitchell: We’re bad at going to a place and then coming back. Like we’ll go, have a great time, and then just forget to ever come back.
Majerus: We’ll be going back to Bloomington in August. We’re working on a Chicago show for August, and other places that are relatively close by, like Indianapolis, St. Louis, Peoria, Carbondale. It’s hard, when you have full time jobs and kids, to think about going out for a week or two. It’s trickier. But two or three nights is totally possible.
SP: It’s difficult enough with one of those things; I can’t imagine how much harder doing it with both is.
Mitchell: Our kids are up for it too. We’ve talked about it; they love traveling, and they’d be super down with going on the road with us. But fitting the equipment, amps, and children in the car, it gets complicated.
Majerus: Rose from Poster Children was at our show and giving us advice for touring with kids. I should say “consulting with us.”
Motes will be performing at Cowboy Monkey on June 9th with V.V. Lightbody and ZXO.
Top photo by Veronica Mullen.