The Phantom Tollbooth

"You know, there are worse things to lose money on than music that you really, really love. When people ask, how successful are you? Are you signed? it's really easy to start saying, well we lost so many thousands of dollars. But the bottom line is, it doesn't matter, because I would do it anyway. I would sell blood to keep being able to make music with these guys, if that's what it took."

"I decided it wasn't the music I was really tired of. It was the business and the push and all that stuff. That was incredibly liberating."

"Nobody would do this if there wasn't some ego in involved. If there wasn't ego involved, everybody would just sit in their room and play songs to themselves. So you have to decide what's healthy. If it's out of greed and ego, I just think that's wrong motivation. So not getting what I thought I wanted really did in the end help me learn to be grateful for what I was given because I've been given a lot."

Interview with Jeff Elbel of Farewell to Juliet
Conducted by Matt Laswell and Lisa Reid
July 1998
Cornerstone Festival

Jeff Elbel is a busy man. Besides a full time job as an honest-to-goodness rocket scientist and time spent as a husband and father, he manages to run his own record label (Marathon Records) and play lead guitar for the little publicized but much appreciated Farewell to Juliet. When all that fails to keep him busy, he can be found working as a guitar tech for some of the bands whose influences can be heard clearly in Farewell to Juliet's sound, seminal acts in alternative Christian music like The Choir and
Terry Taylor.

The Phantom Tollbooth managed to catch up with Elbel during a summer cloudburst at last summer's Cornerstone festival. While the interviewers tried to find a quiet, dry place to sit and talk, the conversation ranged from the struggles of unsigned bands to the state of alternative Christian music, with occasional stops to talk about King's X, Loverboy, and Third Day. It seems that amidst all the business, Jeff Elbel has taken time to think as well.

Tollbooth - So, contrary to your lyrics, you have made it back to Cornerstone.

Elbel - Yeah! In a way, it was a self-fulfilling, negative prophecy because there was a lot of denial in that song ("Holiday on Ice"). Actually, no, let me restate that. That song is a lot of wishful thinking. I wrote it in Los Angles, dreaming about winter, dreaming about being back in Champaign. And you know the final statement is, "We may not make Cornerstone again, but that won't bother me, because I'm back here at home, where I feel like I belong, where my friends are, where I'm comfortable, I have a sense of community." Because living in Los Angeles, if you move there later in your life, it is very easy to feel disenfranchised--a city of millions upon millions of people sprawled everywhere.

Tollbooth - Very much the commuter culture?

Elbel - It's certainly not the Bible belt out there, so it's harder to get hooked in with people of faith, other Christians who think how you do about music and stuff.

Tollbooth - And yet so much good Christian music has come out of Southern California.

Elbel - Has come out of, and moved to Nashville, yes, sir.

Tollbooth - Well, that's true. The Choir-

Elbel - Actually, I knew Dan Michaels better than anybody else in Los Angeles when I moved to Los Angeles. Well, at least Dan's out there; I'll get to talk to him and see a few more Choir shows. They were there for a couple of months before they left.

I'm going to speak in backwards sentences, dangling participles as much as possible.

Tollbooth - That's good. That's what we look for in an interview.

Elbel - My name is Jeff Elbel. I write very well. I have a speaking problem.
 

Tollbooth - So how do you think your show went?

Elbel - I thought it went really well. But what I always say is, we practice thirty minutes a year whether we need it or not.

Tollbooth - How often do you guys get together?

Elbel - To do stuff? We get together to record or play . . . we try a couple times a year. Just enough to keep it . . . well, really, we get together because we're all best friends. But it's always on the back of my mind to get together and keep Farewell to Juliet in existence. If we're just going to play, we'll try to get together and do a couple of shows. If it's been long enough that we can afford to sink more money into a record, then we'll do that.

Tollbooth - Where are all of the band members from?

Elbel - We're originally from Champaign, Illinois; we all went to school there, except for Chad. I'm not sure where Chad went to school because I met him afterwards. John Bretzlaff, who played bass when we started out, now plays acoustic guitar, moved to Nashville with his wife Kim, and they're pursuing music full time. He's working a day job, trying to get a music career established. Brant Hansen, the singer, still lives in Champaign, Illinois. He's music director and news director for WBGL radio down there. So the one of us that just hates media silliness and that whole game more than anyone winds up with it being his very career. Stacey Krejci still lives in Champaign. He works at the university.

Who did I leave out? See, I took eight semesters of college math, but I can't really count to five. There's Stacy, John, Brant, there's Chad. Chad Dunn, he's our drummer now and lives in Champaign. He works a day job and he's just a drumming fool. He does a lot more of the world beat, ethnic-oriented percussion than drum-kit drumming. So, while he doesn't have a steady band, he's always in the studio or playing with other people.

And I live in Los Angeles. I graduated and moved to L. A. for a job.

Tollbooth - And you also do the day job thing.

Elbel - Right. I work a day job, but I work more than full-time as a musician. I just never get paid for it.

Tollbooth - It seems like every time I see a show, especially here at Cornerstone, I'm watching and looking in the background, and oh, there's Jeff tuning somebody's guitar.

Elbel - That's fun for me, because those are the guys I learned about songwriting from writing lyrics from Terry Taylor, melodic structure from Derri (Daugherty)'s guitar playing and his melodies. And I tried to learn about producing for rhythm sections and things from Steve Hindalong. Those guys are my school--Mike Roe, basically anybody associated with Lost Dogs. They're my heroes.

Tollbooth - Do you see Farewell to Juliet as a long-term project for you?

Elbel - Oh, yeah. It'll never go away. Everything I do loses money. Melinda and I are expecting our first baby at the end of the year. The very crass thing to say is that's a money-losing proposition right there, unless we can set the child to work in Los Angeles doing commercials. We'll try put that kid to work, put some food on the table. But as long as I can continue to afford to do it... you know, there are worse things to lose money on than music that you really, really love. When people ask, how successful are you? Are you signed? it's really easy to start saying, well we lost so many thousands of dollars. But the bottom line is, it doesn't matter, because I would do it anyway. I would sell blood to keep being able to make music with these guys, if that's what it took. Because Brant is my favorite singer, Stacey is my favorite bass and keyboard player, John's the most incredible acoustic guitar player I've ever worked with, and they're all my great friends. Chad, I've only gotten to know over the last two years, and he feels like family.

Like I said, it goes back to the whole thing of living in L. A., not having ever been there, not having any family or knowing anybody. I still feel very connected with this whole thing, so it's really grounding for me personally. Farewell to Juliet is home. I've moved my whole life. Home is where the heart is, and that's where my heart is, with those people.

Tollbooth - What brought you to L.A.?

Elbel - Work. I have a degree in aeronautical engineering, so ostensibly I'm qualified to work on satellite communications fields. I've got a low-end job with PanAmSat. We basically monitor communications satellites. They don't do that in Champaign. They don't do that in Southeast Texas, either, unfortunately. They only do it in L.A. It's a very tough field to get a job in.

The bizarre thing is that the reason that I went into it in the first place was the Six Million Man was my biggest hero when I was a kid. I wanted to be Steve Austin; I didn't care if I crashed, at least I would get bionic limbs. So I wanted to be an astronaut, but I found out I couldn't be an astronaut because my vision is too bad. So I thought, what's the next best thing? Go work for NASA, or something like that. So I went to school for aerospace. I decided that it really wasn't for me by the time I was a sophomore, but I've always been in that goal oriented mode. To change majors into something, say music, would've been quitting, so I didn't.

Crazy. I'm a lot older than all of my brothers and sisters, and I've just always been encouraging them as they go through school. They talk about how frustrated they are with what they're doing. I say, don't be afraid to change what you do once or twice to find where you're really centered, because that's wise.

Tollbooth - Besides getting to continue to make records, what kinds of goals do you have for Farewell to Juliet?

Elbel - Finishing a project like Grace and Dire Circumstances was a huge goal. It took eight months. Every night, after work, go to the studio. We spent a hundred hours in the studio in Champaign with everybody else; then I took the masters home, added all the guitars and vocals and everything.  Every day go to work for ten hours, every day go to the studio until three o'clock. And with a few exceptions, if I was playing with Blackball or starting up another project or traveling, I was working on that every day. My wife was getting really, really sick of it. That's the way I've always been. I start something, I finish it before I go onto the next thing. So I did that with school. I started the one degree, went onto another one, and said, well, maybe if I want to go for music, I'll just start over and get that degree later.

Tollbooth - So do you guys have another project planned?

Elbel - Yes. I want to do an all-original Christmas album. I want it to really stand up as something you can listen to all the time but obviously has some spirit about it, something you can come back to every year and remember. Maybe it'll have a lot of instrumentals. I'm also bit into concept albums and themes. So I want to find a way to write a theme-oriented Christmas album that somehow stands up. I don't know how. We're just starting to kick around the idea and play with it. Where do we want to set it? What period? Will it be a message?

Tollbooth - What is your feeling about the whole message thing, especially in the CCM subculture, and where are you trying to go with that in Farewell to Juliet?

Elbel - All of us are very vocal about our faith. I think we're the message, in a sense. You have to read through the lines on the lyrics to get to know us, and I don't really know if you can. Is there a message on the record? I don't know. I think, as far as our message is concerned, people can tell that we're trying to write from a very Christ-centered perspective, but at the same time, we're not the Newsboys. We're not Third Day, even.

I think we write about commitment an awful lot--about being committed to God and to our family. That shows up in everything Brant writes; it comes back to his family. And it is very faith-centered.

We don't write evangelistic lyrics, but we're a band where if somebody asks, "Are you a Christian band?" I'll say yes. Everybody in the band will say yes. We're tired of bands that have made it in the Christian marketplace and yet you ask if they're Christian, and they go, "No, we're just Christians in this band trying to make it in the mainstream." So we say it as a reaction as much as anything else. I don't want to put the name of Christ to shame. Sure, we're a Christian band, you bet. We love Christian music, I love Christian people.

Tollbooth - I want to you unpack the Christian a little more. I'm not asking to put pressure on you or anything like that.

Elbel - See, that's the thing. We don't feel pressure from the standpoint that a lot of artists in the Christian music field feel pressure, because we don't have a problem with being perceived as Christians. That's part of the goal, to be perceived as Christians. We want people to see our faith, but we're not being evangelistic. We want people to see our faith.

We're not preachers. We attempt poetry. I think our stuff's approach in the mainstream marketplace would work just because it's more general in that regard, and we're writing about personal experiences. Any bar we ever played in, when we were playing all the time, they knew. It was like, "Here come the Christians. Close up the tap." We heard that more than once. A couple of the places started stocking a lot of sodas and flavored mineral waters when we would show up.

Tollbooth - You mentioned when you used to play all the time. How often do you guys get to tour together these days?

Elbel - That falls under the once or twice a year category. The last time we got together, we went out for ten days. We try to get enough noteworthy events that we can let people know that we still exist, and that there is music available for them here. Obviously, I've done a lot over the Internet just to try to keeping in contact with like-minded people that might be interested.

I've really, really grown disinterested in selling things. I just don't like pushing anything on anybody. I wish everybody knew about us and would check us out, but it doesn't work that way.

Tollbooth - There are certain personality types that seem to revel in that, and then there are other people.

Elbel - When Echoes of Laughter came out, I thought I was going to try like crazy to make my career--somehow break into music. I didn't care if I ended up being where I see Matt Slocum heading doing string arrangements. You know, when Sixpence is done, he'll always have a job because he's  talented, people know it, people heard it, and he's got a commodity. I wanted to break in, I wanted to do that somehow. I worked, worked, and worked, and pushed our band, tried to get a record deal with anybody. We came this close so many times, but what we do isn't mass marketable. Eventually, long story short, that got very frustrating. I got really disenchanted with the whole business and almost never wanted to pick up my guitar again. Cut to the chase, a revelation hit, and I decided it wasn't the music I was really tired of, it was the business and the push and all that stuff. That was incredibly liberating. That's when we went in and started working on Grace and Dire Circumstances. It was just a joy. I said, this is me, this is us. This is heart and soul. I really feel that record is about who we are; it says an awful lot about me.

Tollbooth - What does it say?

Elbel - It says I love music so much that I put this kind of time and passion and feeling into it. And I dedicate myself to it to make something that I can really say is good, and I'm proud of it. I can stand behind it until I'm eighty-five years old. There's always different things you can do on a record that make it sound better, but I'll always know I have done my best. I can't paint. I can't sculpt. That was my effort to reflect the creative aspect of God. That was me trying to create something.

Tollbooth - How would you describe the progression from your previous album?

Elbel - The transition? That's kind of an easy question. Our first record was a lot more raw. There's nothing punk about our sound, really, but by comparison that record is a little more punk because it's just a little more rough around the edges. We were all learning to play our instruments. I wasn't really a smooth guitar player at the time, but I've always written more for sounds than parts.

I guess one of the differences is that on the first record I was really going after texture and sound, because that's what I was capable of playing. I was trying to create mood with wash and color, things like Matt Slocum was doing on his early records. And with the new record, I was a lot more confident with the group as musicians, and the genre of acoustic guitar. I got more comfortable as a lead/rhythm player--I'll never consider myself a lead player--but I felt like I was a better writer on the new record.

There's a lot heavier acoustic balance on the new record. That's what I think defines our sound now is that we've got the progressive rock, informed modern rock on one side, and we've got the progressive folk acoustic guitar on the other. Nobody does it quite that heavily. Some people say it's like Jars meets Radiohead because both of them put it together a little bit. I think Brant's a better singer, but I have to
 watch that because somebody in CCM magazine said he continues to mature as a singer, and he thought that meant that he wasn't a mature singer before. Brant's still my favorite singer; I thought he did a great job.

We were able to do so much more on this record. More percussion. I only had one guitar sound for the whole record last time, just because we didn't have time. We had to rush in and rush out. This time, I took the record and worked on it for half a year. You don't hear Rush so much on this new record. You hear a lot more of something like Over the Rhine, Jars of Clay, I think it's obvious that at one point in my life I was a big Rush fan. Now I like the Radiohead sound. I think it defines us more.

Tollbooth - How have the sales been on Grace and Dire Circumstances?

Elbel - Really, really bad. (laughs)

Tollbooth - You haven't broken even on it yet?

Elbel - No! Before I came to Cornerstone, I calculated that if I sold every copy I had left for fifteen-and-a-half dollars, I would break even on the production costs.

But the upside of not selling many records is, I know everybody, just about, that has one of our records. I know most of them personally. That's connection, and that's why we make the record and put it out. We make the record for us, we put the record out so we can have a dialogue this summer; that's the idea. And when your crowd is really small, it facilitates the dialogue, so that's a good thing. There's an up side. I'd like to be bigger than U2, sure. Brant wouldn't. Brant would hate it. He likes to play coffee shops around Champaign. I'm the one with the delusions of grandeur.

Tollbooth - You have a lot of involvement and contacts in the music industry, especially on the alternative side. What do you see happening there? Where do you see that going?

Elbel - I see a lot of the underground bands getting better and better all the time. There are so many good bands coming out with stuff, and they're just like Farewell to Juliet, trying really hard to connect with people and find people who want to hear it. I'm encouraged that so many people are coming up through Christian music now that people can't say, "Christian music sucks." You don't have to say that any more.

The state of alternative music? The stuff I personally like has always been the alternative, the underground. How many records did the Choir sell? Not that many. Daniel Amos, whatever. I think there's been good stuff for a long time.

It's weird because a lot of the bands that have influenced me, they're at the moving-on stage. Except Terry now that he's got a new record out. Hopefully, Terry Taylor will be coming back and making some new fans. Like Adam Again, a big influence, one of my favorite bands in the world, they're just kind of gone. Chagall Guevara, one album. The Choir, long gone. That's the alternative that I grew up on. And now the stuff that's coming up, I've still go to get to know a lot of new bands. I just know that there's more quality now that's representing Christ than there has been for a while, and that makes me happy.

Tollbooth - What are your favorite Farewell to Juliet songs?

Elbel - I thought "Sorrow at Five" was a really good pop tune. I liked that one. That was a last-minute thing. We only had eight songs going in. I thought eight songs was too short. Give me another song. I wrote the music for that, and Brant wrote the all the lyrics. That's when we really started to gel as a songwriting team. I thought that was our best joint writing. So I love that song.

"Thermostat" was my Steve Taylor lyric for this record. In fact, I stole one of his stories. There's a story he would tell before playing "The Finish Line." The man walking through the desert, he's dying, he comes to a well, he looks in. He sees his own reflection. He talks about Jim Morrison's story. And he talks about the person who comes upon the well and sees the face of Christ, and goes on to the punch line. I heard him tell the story a couple of times. It was really moving. So I adapted part of that into "Thermostat."

What draws somebody from this to this. What makes somebody want to be a big pop star? And then so, so unhappy that they have to kill themselves? It's tragic. I just saw the whole Kurt Cobain thing as being very, very sad. It broke me up. I wasn't even a big Nirvana fan. But I ask myself, what draws somebody to that place, that they become so unhappy that they just can't just separate themselves from it, so they end it all. And at the same time, looking at it that way for me, coming from where I've been working so hard at music for so long, well, maybe I need to learn to be grateful for what I have.

That was the thing. I looked at him, and my first reaction to Kurt Cobain killing himself was, how can he do that? I've been working for that my whole adult life. That's all I've ever wanted, and he had it. And he killed himself. That ungrateful kid. [My reaction was] the most selfish thing. The other side of it is, you really have to be grateful for what you have. God's given all of us a lot. He's certainly given me a lot--the opportunity to do what I do. I have no excuse to be anything but on my knees, grateful for being able to play music for anybody. If we ever go play a show and there are five people there, that's a privilege. Sure, I wish I could be like Bill Mallonee, playing in front of thousands of people on Main Stage.

Tollbooth - That's one of the things of the whole alternative scene. It really is focusing on the things we don't have.

Elbel - Yeah. I've learned to appreciate that more and more. It really helped me after we didn't get a record deal. It really made me think. Why do you want a record deal so badly? In a lot of ways, I think I wanted to be a musician professionally for the right reasons. I wanted to spend my life creating, trying to be an artist, and develop art, and bring some light into somebody's life, or connect with somebody and form a relationship. But you know, nobody would do this if there wasn't some ego in involved. If there wasn't ego involved, everybody would just sit in their room and play songs to themselves. So you have to decide what's healthy. If it's out of greed and ego, I just think that's wrong motivation. So not getting what I thought I wanted really did in the end  help me learn to be grateful for what I was given because I've been given a lot.