Smile Politely

Interview: A sit-down with Elsinore’s Ryan Groff

Full disclosure: I am a massive fan of Elsinore and have been for a long time.

Elsinore, and specifically Ryan Groff, have been a considerable part of C-U’s music scene for over 15 years. Now in 2019, Groff is a dad, teaches lessons, and records in his studio “shed” in the backyard of his downtown-Champaign house. (The “shed,” by the way, is the same size as my first apartment; it has its own bathroom.) His studio has a calm, fun, and cozy vibe, which reflects its owner immensely. As I spoke with Groff about the band and the record, I was aware of the happiness and positivity radiating off of him. He was truly happy. And no wonder! He is married to his beautiful wife, Jody, they have two young children, a cute house, and Groff is free to create and produce and teach music as a full-time gig.

Mark Woolwine and Groff started Elsinore back in 2004. While the band has had a few different versions, they feel the current band mix provides an opportunity to really be on the same page and start putting out more material, more consistently.

We just want people to know that this process of making the new record has been a very, very, long one and even though we had these five singles with videos and this record now finally out, we totally have the right balance of people and brains and creative juices now. I bet we’ll have an EP or multiple singles with videos, or even a new album was done in not too long of a period of time from now because we now have found our momentum. I think we’ve found our power, you know? We found our ability to move on the creative ideas together in a very cool and collaborative way, and I don’t think any of us want to waste any more time or take a ton of time to do a lot of things.

It took Elsinore five and a half years to get the album where they wanted it.

After Push/Pull we toured for about six months and then the four of us at the time, at the end of the second leg of the tour we decided to dive into songwriting. So we dove into songwriting and said, ‘let’s not set a deadline because we want to take our time and see what happens.’ That was a curse; [but] it was also a blessing that we said that. It let us release the five singles with the videos. It also showed us that sometimes a song is just a single… if a song is not in the group, it stands alone and has its own legs, “In and Out” is one of those.

“In and Out” was released in September of 2018 with its own music video featuring Groff and a politically charged message.

His lyrics and voice have always been the force behind many of their songs. With the new album, Groff spoke about how the new band members have been contributing and providing feedback on lyrics.

James and Adam specifically have been really helpful because they have been like, ‘I feel, like, everything but these two lines’ and ‘here’s constructive criticism. Here’s a potential way for you to fix it, and I’m happy to throw out brainstorming — you know, cue words — ’cause I got a few in mind if you want that.’ So I totally opened up my kind of secret vault of ‘no, these are mine, I write the lyrics,’ you know? Because they were coming up with great ideas. So, from now on, every Elsinore release will be listed as “lyrics and music by Elsinore.” It was music and lyrics by all of us because James and Adam played a very pivotal role either in just tweaking my perspective and my point of view and, you know, just like asking a couple good questions where I was like, ‘you’re totally right, like that, yeah. That was the weak part, and you found it.’

After five years of writing and deliberating about the perfect ten songs to be in a little group together on this album, Elsinore has released the long-awaited A Life in the 21st Century.


As Groff stated last night at the album release show, the band has bombarded social media about the album and release show, and it worked. City Center slowly became more and more full as the opening bands played their sets, and the crowd got excited about the great music they were hearing.

The show was full of local talent. The night started with Prevalence, an Indie-punk band from Champaign-Urbana. Band members Drake Maxson on guitar and William Penne on drums were a great way to start the night. The band’s real strength was their slower, melodic songs and was a nice contrast of pace from the high energy rock/punk tunes. They sounded a lot like Boxcar Racer and a simplified Travis Barker. Their full-length album, Neighbors, was released in October of 2017 and recorded at Groff’s studio.

Up next was the psychedelic, electro-pop band Mermaid Heaven also local band, and was led by the beautifully voiced lead singer, Elizabeth Allen. She went to high school at Uni and has been in the C-U music scene for a while as she used to also be a part of Sleeping Okami. Elizabeth’s deep, sensuous voice was clear while being breathy. She drew you in with her voice while playing her seafoam-green, hollow-body telecaster as accompaniment. It had a touch of Feist or Sylvan Esso feel to it, especially with the electric keyboard/synth that was also part of the band. The keyboard had a bass-like feel with some percussive and electronic effects. Drums, played by James Treichler, who is also the drummer of Elsinore, were simple without being overbearing and made the audience start to loosen up and dance a bit.

Chicago’s Family of Geniuses were my surprise of the night. Their bassist, Adam Wayne, also plays bass for Elsinore. The mix between a jam band and a happy pop synth band was a fun spectrum I had not experienced before. The lead vocals were shared a lot between Augustine Rampolla, who also played guitar, and Rico Vigil. I am not one to seek out jam bands but, when you make it as fun, happy, and danceable as Family of Geniuses, it works quite well. The group was looking sharp all in some form of a suit or dress pants in fun shirts. The whole band interacted with the audience to put on a show, but the keyboard player, David Paha, brought up the crowd’s attention and energy. Rico Vigil had a lot of fun with a mix of instruments in front of him: from tambourine to synth while also singing on most of the songs. This band really pumped up the crowd and played song-after-song of high energy tunes that just made you want to move. “Girlfriend” was a crowd favorite, and it had my group of friends finding our dancing groove again.

After all of those great bands, we still weren’t done. Elsinore finally took the stage as the headliner and belle of the ball.

“Lines,” from their 2010 album, Yes Yes Yes, brought the crowd together. The song is more chill on the album, but it felt like I was hit by a wall of sound last night from the energy and instruments in the band. The vocal gymnastics that Groff performs throughout all of his songs and specifically the ones on the new album are impressive. It’s no wonder he has taken six years of voice lessons down at EIU. Convincing his voice teachers that he did not want to be a classical or operatic performer was tricky at first. He convinced his voice teacher to not worry about the traditional or operatic voice training, but instead to focus on developing chops to last two-hour-long shows.

So thankfully, with my third vocal coach, he appreciated what I was doing and would come to see me play. He said, ‘oh, okay, let me get you on the path [to] where you’re doing that in the best way possible.’ I think because of him, I was able to be taught all this technique. And now to be able to teach that technique, which is what I do with, you know, the 10 to 15 people who I have weekly for vocal lessons, like, I get to teach people the technique for healthy singing no matter what type of music they want to sing.

“Leave Behind the City Life” drew the crowd almost physically towards the stage while Groff’s voice sounded like a more transparent version of Stevie Nicks’ on “Rooms on Fire” with this song. The song ends with just him singing “leave behind the city life,” and you start to consider booking that Airbnb to Starved Rock for next weekend.

Throughout all the songs Saturday night, Groff’s vocals floated over the top. Clear and precise with control of his own vibrato along with huge jumps and then almost skipping from note to note while the rest of the band drove a low continuous beat. Part of that feeling of the wall of sound is the keyboardist, Mark Woolwine. His playing is the glue that makes the driving guitar and drums fit together in a cohesive, more pop/synth way.

“Resolution 9” stuck out to me during the concert and then back home when I continued to listen to the album. Groff described writing in the song in the show and talking about how hard it is, as he and his wife are parents with young children, to find a moment to themselves. At the show, Saturday night the hook of the song was “Can I get you alone, can I get you alone, can I get you alone…?” and my friends and I, being parents with young children, started to respond to his rhetorical questions.

“Can I get you alone? “
“No. “
“How can I get you alone?”
“Lock the door first?”
“Can I get you alone?”
“Think they kids will notice if we are gone?”

The lyrics “Everyday is filled from front to back with all the things we choose to do” puts the hard truth of being a parent to young children to the forefront. Knowing how hard it is to keep a marriage going when so many parts of marriage/life are tougher with kids. Getting home and listening to the song and hearing the line “Things used to be so much easier/ but we would be fools to say they were better, better, better…” hit me hard. Finding the time to be a couple — to connect, and not feel drawn in a million directions — is really difficult. On the album, it sounds like Groff is lying down in a dark room and singing this song directly to his wife. The ultimate love song of tired, stressed parents.

They ended the night on a crowd favorite with the title track from Yes Yes Yes. Being surrounded by people who were also singing along to the band was a lot of fun. “Yes Yes Yes,” was also catchy enough that Kohl’s (the department store) paid $32,000 for the rights to use it for commercials. Fun fact:  that money helped fund their 2013 album Push/Pull. Groff told this story to the crowd, reminding me of the other famous local band, HUM, and their hit “Stars,” which was used in a Cadillac commercial back in 2008.

The show was well attended, and the City Center is an excellent venue for these local acts that have a following and need more space to play shows. As the dynamic changes in the C-U scene, I am looking forward to seeing Elsinore continue to lead a charge for more local music. They are already doing it with their Art Theatre presentation that went between live music and videos in September of this year.

Besides putting out more music soon and doing a small tour for their new record, Groff is also looking towards the future.

I hope to get involved with local politics and more community-based outreach and improvement programs. I think that being a musician who makes a full-time living teaching other people, working with other people, collaborating, motivating, and inspiring as much as I can, [there’s] a lot of greater community good in that. I think that just makes me feel more and more every day, every month, every year, that part of my purpose as a human is to also be involved on a larger scale.

I will look forward to seeing how Elsinore and Groff are going to be involved on a larger scale at home and in the community of Champaign-Urbana.

Photos by Julia Hartman. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

More Articles