Smile Politely

Human shells making music

I got a chance to speak with all three members of Motes, and it quickly became apparent that they are a unit. They communicate their story seamlessly, making me wish I didn’t have a birthday party to go to tonight. The show tonight -featuring Motes, The Autocorrect, and April & Andrew & Chris — is sure to be delightful.

Matt Mitchell plays guitar and bass, and provides vocals, and Elizabeth Majerus does the sam; Matt Cohn plays drums. The story begins long before Motes, when Matt M. and Elizabeth met…

Smile Politely: How’d you meet and all that?

Elizabeth Majerus: Matt Mitchell and I met when we were students at the U of I. We were both in the English department, but in rival gangs. But we were also both in bands, and when our bands began playing together, we were able to rise above the violence and become friends. Eventually we fell in love and got married.

Matt Mitchell: Majerus was in Beezus (Mud Records, ca. 1995-99). A relevant fact, vis-a-vis the local scene and everything.

Matt Cohn: Matt M and I have played music together, just in a slightly different arrangement. I took over on bass for Matt M’s previous band, Rectangle. Things kinda fizzled out, and now they are happily triangular. Rectangle was a good chance to bounce musical ideas off of each other, after sharing a crazily productive and interesting academic relationship at the U of I.

Majerus: I met Matt C. through Matt M. They were playing together for awhile in an undefined  post-Rectangle project-

Mitchell: -before which, Matt C. was enjoying a brief but fruitful stint as an MC in the rap collective Principal Investigator-

Majerus: -that needed more collaborators. Matt M. kept saying I should come down-

Mitchell: -as in downstairs, to the basement in our house, where we were playing-

Majerus: -and jam with them, and I kept saying I was too busy. (Plus I had vowed that my next musical project would be a country band. Angie Heaton and I have long been scheming to have an all-girl band in the musical spirit of Patsy Cline with song lyrics based entirely on the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay.) Then our friend, the local poet and angel-headed hipster, Steve Davenport, asked me to  write a song based on some lyrics he’d written and given to a number of other regional musicians for his Artbox Collective project (which you can find at I didn’t feel like doing that alone, so I enlisted Matt and Matt, and our first song, Honey and Glue, was born. By the time that song was written and recorded, I was enjoying playing rock music again, and liking the musical chemistry between the three of us, and I decided to stick with it. So we wrote a mess of other songs together, the first few based on fragments Matt and Matt had already been playing with and came up with the name Motes.

Photo by Isaac Arms

SP: How do you write songs? What’s the process and who’s involved in that and how?

Cohn: Matt M or Elizabeth will usually present the other two with a riff, or even a whole song. I’m usually able to build a beat into the sketch, trying to be unobtrusive at the beginning and then building on that as we make it through the song a few times. However, the ultimate determination of which songs rock, and are thus worthy of dance, are made by Ruby.

Mitchell: Ruby is our (Elizabeth Majerus and Matt Mitchell’s) daughter. She’s six. She’s pretty into the band, and she likes most of our songs. She also likes when we have band practice because she gets to chill upstairs and watch a DVD really loud.

Majerus: We also have an eleven-year-old son, Otis, who is an accomplished drummer in his own right, and who likes to make it out to our shows on the rare occasions when we play early enough.

Sometimes it works like that. Other times, Matt Cohn comes up with the germ of a song in dreams, induced by large amounts of home-made kimchee eaten immediately before bed. Matt M. and I flesh the song out once one or both of us has had the chance to contemplate the song-germ while floating in the sensory deprivation tank we have in our basement.

SP: What inspires you as a person and a musician? Is there a distinction between the two?

Cohn: I’m a musician who just so happens to be a person. I learned in high school,  as the rhythm guitarist in The Great Communist Barbeque (true story), that musicians cannot always exist simultaneously as people. In fact, the guitar may have been trying to tell me something when it fell off my shoulder during our rockin’ cover of Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity.’ Thus, I gradually resigned myself to boring old personhood, and Matt the musician took an extended hiatus. But music always has a way of tumbling out of our human shells in some form or another, especially when the most uncanny of stages are set, e.g.  when the same drumset used by the Great Communist Barbeque in my childhood bedroom ended up in Matt and Elizabeth’s basement.

We stumble through life as people, waiting for the chance to explain ourselves through our instruments as musicians.

Majerus: Incidentally, regarding the uncanny drumkit reunion above: Matt Mitchell and I purchased this drumset for Otis from a mutual friend of all of ours who was leaving town, when the lad was ready to move from his junior kit to a real kit, never guessing that we were playing a role in fate’s gambit to reunite Matt Cohn with his Communist Barbeque drumset.

Mitchell: Life is strange sometimes.

Majerus: The [inspiration] question: What a big-ass question. Holy moley.

Music is the main thing that inspires me as a musician. Though poetry, novels, paintings, film, and all sorts of other art I come into contact every day inspire me as well, both as a person and a musician.

As a person, so many things inspire me, I can’t really begin to enumerate them. But mostly what inspires me is people. I really like people. The more I know of them and learn about them, the more amazing I think people are, even though people can be ridiculous and are destroying the earth, etc. It’s hard to reconcile how bad we often are and how destructive we can be with how creative and brilliant and loving we can be. And funny. People are damned funny. And I like to laugh.

You didn’t ask what inspires us as a band, which is good, because if we have an inspiration as a band, it’s not conscious and certainly not articulated. As a band, we don’t talk, we just rock.

Mitchell: I get inspired by bands with old dudes in them who are still rocking. It’s not a just kids’ game anymore. The 217 music scene is very open-minded and cool in this regard, as is Chicago. But I also would like to have a roadie, to carry my shit upstairs at Mike ‘N Molly’s.

SP: A roadie would definitely be a sign of “making it.” What means “success” to you?

Mitchell: I actually probably wouldn’t really want a roadie. I get uncomfortable when people do things for me that I can do myself. (I don’t even really like being waited on at a restaurant.) But the gear gets heavier as the years go by, and those stairs at MnM’s are steep and many. So I joke about wanting a roadie. But even when guys in other bands offer to help me load, I’m all like “naah. I’ve got it.”

“Success,” in the rock game, for me, would be just doing it at all, when there’s no good profitable reason to be doing it, and lots of reasons not to, so you know it’s for the love. So in that sense we already are successful, because we’re doing it, and we sure don’t have to. “Success” would be making a record we’re proud of and that other discerning people might also enjoy. Maybe have some people come out to the shows, say nice things to us after, maybe pick up a CD.

I love the idea of influencing someone else to make original music the way that so many bands have influenced me. If someone hears something we do and goes out and does their own thing in some new way that was inspired by what we did, and that thing they do is cool, I would consider that a measure of success.

If you want to see this group -and you do- get to Mike ‘N Molly’s tonight. $7 gets you three bands, and you can’t beat that deal with a stick. The big show starts at 9pm. 

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