A band garnering critical acclaim in New York City these days is alt.country act My Cousin, the Emperor, based out of Brooklyn. The group is readying the release of two EP’s later this fall. Recently, vocalist Jason Reischel took the time to sit down and answer some questions. Head to the jump to read the replies.
1. When did you first start feeling a kinship towards country music and alternative country?
Jason: It came to me quite late in the game. I was never a big modern country music fan, even though I grew up in Asheville, North Carolina. My major influences were Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Nat “King” Cole, The Everly Brothers, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry. I think I started to like or realized I had an affinity for country music through studying The Beatles, and then much later through the influence of Dylan.
I started to listen to The Beatles when I was in sixth grade, and I immediately wanted to play guitar and write music. I decided I could learn more about writing music by studying their influences, so from early on I was listening to what they listened to: Chuck Berry, Arthur Alexander, Little Richard, Smokey Robinson, The Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley. You know, just studying these guys intently. I always had a sense that The Beatles had synthesized what was great in these artists and had taken it to the next level. I was trying to learn from the teachers of the masters.
I think it was only later that I realized how country Elvis and Buddy Holly actually were, and how a lot of The Beatles influences were in fact country music artists. I mean, they even covered Buck Owens and Carl Perkins on record. “Beatle For Sale” is in essence a country-rock album. They went more folk with “Rubber Soul”, but it still has that country feel to it. You can hear country-music elements throughout their career, and I think that’s why people love them. They not only had a country music element, but an R&B Smokey Robinson/ Shirelles element, a Cole Porter pop song element, and an early rock and roll element. I always admired how you could hear those influences in their music too.
I think when I heard what Ryan Adams was doing in the early 2000s that I realized that country music didn’t have to be what George Strait or Johnny Cash or Brooks and Dunn were doing. I love Johnny Cash, but I’m not Johnny Cash, nor could I ever be Johnny Cash. I grew up with too many different influences that are realized in my music. I love good melodies, whether it’s Frank Sinatra, Mozart, or Hank Williams. Hank was a major discovery for me. He’s the best American songwriter of the 20th Century. He just wrote fantastic songs with strong melodies with a little bit of Southern twang to them. It was pop music, no different than what The Beatles or Elvis were doing. I realized that what I loved about pop music also had a history in country music so I embraced it.
I don’t necessarily say I’m going to write an alt-country song. I write what, in my mind, is a British-invasion type pop song, and after it gets recorded and released it is labeled as “alt-country”
2. Though alternative country does have its share of followers in New York City, it’s not widely recognized as a genre that has its roots here. Describe the struggle of being an alt.country band based out of Brooklyn/New York City?
Jason: It’s not really the most ideal city for country music, to be honest. WNYC (New York’s NPR station) named us the Best Band in Brooklyn this year, but when you hear about the music and the scene that is coming out of Brooklyn it’s always about MGMT, Grizzly Bear, The National, TV on the Radio, Dirty Projectors. Bands like that. We’re rarely mentioned with those guys because we don’t really fit into that scene sonically, even though many of the people that dig those bands dig us.
There is a huge singer-songwriter scene in NYC. Alt-Country gets lumped in with them. Most Singer-Songwriters are considered folk, and after you electrify them, they become alt-country/ alt-folk/ anti-folk…whatever that is, so it’s not that unheard of to see pedal steel guitars at a gig. The local music press doesn’t really write about it though. It’s too busy covering the noise that is coming out of Williamsburg.
There is a danger that country music in NYC could be seen as a novelty, but I think if your songs are strong and they touch people, then regardless of their previous bias with country music, they are going to be moved and give you a chance. I have a saying that I tell my band: “Everyone loves country music, they just don’t know it”.
3. What’s been the biggest challenge in writing new material? Now that the debut record has been so widely received, do you feel like there is an X on your back, so to speak?
Jason: When you receive critical praise, there is always the assumed pressure of living up to the standards of your previous work. I think every artist should try to grow and change, and take a chance with every record or project they undertake. I lose respect for the ones who discover a formula and stick to it. Every great artist has about 3 or 4 records in a row where they hit their stride and are doing something really important.
I want my career to be one where you retrospectively have to take each work into consideration when examining the maturity of an artist living in the present day.
There is that pressure but I don’t really mind it at this stage of my career. It actually is comforting to me that I’m still getting better at what I do, and that I haven’t peaked creatively. I’m doing the best work I’ve ever done.
I write all the time… continuously, so I’ve yet had to worry about not having enough material. I think I wrote about 70 songs last year alone. I’m still in the “hungry” stage. As for the “X” on my back, I honestly don’t mind. I’m happy that there are expectations from me to get better, to push the envelope creatively. I can’t think of anything more enjoyable than accepting the challenge to grow.
4. Explain the name My Cousin the Emperor and how it came about? I’m certain there’s a story here somewhere.
Jason: I had been touring for years as a solo singer-songwriter, and then there was a time when I had a backing-band, but we were still calling it “Jason Reischel”. I was having fun being in a band atmosphere, and I didn’t want the guys to feel like they were just backing me up. I didn’t want to be just “Jason Reischel” when it wasn’t just me on stage. So I started calling us “Jason Reischel & The Strange Bedfellows”, then the running joke was that we started changing names for every gig. We were “The Populists” for a while, until we realized that name was taken.
I had spent a couple of weeks in India on vacation, and when I came back we had a brain-storming session where we came up with about 500 names. None of those names really stuck with me.
I kept remembering all the palaces I had visited in India, and how I spent the night in this one palace that is in the middle of a lake. It was in the James Bond movie “Octopussy”. I was in this ancient palace, staying in the room the emperor stayed in, and I was listening to Johnny Cash on my headphones. There couldn’t have been more of a culture clash, yet it felt totally normal to me. It was one of those moments that makes the earth feel small.
There were all of these stories I read about the Rajasthan Emperors, and their heroic deeds. One day “The Emperors” just jumped out at me, but then I thought it could be a bit more passive because, you know, The Emperor is pretty heavy concept. So we became “My Cousin, The Emperor” where it’s more like “I’m not the guy, but my cousin is…so you better watch out buddy!” I always thought that was pretty funny. Plus, I get to claim to be a part of everyone’s family. Which I think is kind of cool.
5. What is the songwriting structure for My Cousin the Emperor? Do you write the songs? Does the band? How does that work?
Jason: I’m the principal writer in the group. I usually come to every rehearsal with 2 or 3 new songs for us to work on. Like I said, I ‘m still in that phase of my career where I’m hungry and creatively on a roll. So, I write the songs, and demo them. Then we get together and discuss the arrangements and figure out what we can do to make it better. Most of the time the arrangements are complete before I bring them to the band, but there have been quite a few that improved significantly from the band’s input.
I try to arrange the songs the way Duke Ellington would. I want everyone to shine, but to me, the most important thing is the song. As long as the primary concern is in the interest of the song, most things take care of themselves.
6. Ryan Adams and Justin Townes Earle are two of the nation’s top purveyors of alternative country and both live in New York City. Have you reached out to them at all in the hopes of grabbing their ears? Does their placement in New York City help the cause of My Cousin the Emperor at all?
Jason: I used to live in Raleigh when Whiskeytown was coming up. I remember seeing their names everywhere, but sadly I never saw them. I probably lived one mile from Ryan for over 5 years, and never ran into him (even though we had some mutual friends and frequented the same bars). I moved to New York in 2004 and ran into him on the street within the first week. I used to see him around quite often, but since I moved out of the village and to Brooklyn, I don’t really see him anymore.
I also used to run into Steve Earle in the village all the time. I even gave him a copy my first record once. I know Justin Townes Earle manager, but I haven’t met or crossed paths with him yet.
I’m not one to really bother people or seek them out. I would feel strange doing that. I’m not really sure if that really helps further your career, but I really don’t know. Who knows, maybe this interview will bring us all together? I do think we could have a great conversation about the history of music, because I feel we all have reverence for those who came before us, and you can hear it in all of our music.
7. At what point did you realize that making music could (or would) be a commercially viable undertaking?
Jason: I worked in corporate America after graduating from college, and after three years, I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. Post 9/11, I lost my job in the recession. I was still playing guitar and writing songs, and I decided that I wasn’t going to go back to a cubicle, I was going to woodshed, relearn the guitar, and spend the rest of my life playing music. I made that vow to myself. I spent a year and half writing and practicing everyday. Together with playing gigs several times a week, I became a confident performer and much better artist.
I think all of the new songs that I was writing at the time made me realize that this could be a viable commercial undertaking. I was writing and debuting new songs at practically every show, and the response I was getting from people was overwhelmingly positive. I knew I was onto something, but I also knew that I had to pay my dues. Nothing worth working for is ever easy. I didn’t have a problem with that.
I have had many nights when I played to only the bartender, somewhere in Oklahoma, having to leave immediately after the show to drive all night for a gig somewhere in the middle of Kansas. But when I did play in front of people, I felt the connection to the audience and knew I had made the right decision.
Now, I’m finally getting some exposure, which is nice. Everyone wants to know that their hard work is appreciated. It doesn’t matter what field you are in. If you have pride, you do your job, and try to do it the best that you can. Musicians are not any different from anyone else in this regard.
8. What’s your favorite venue to play in New York City and/or Brooklyn? And why?
Jason: I always loved The Bitter End. I love its history. Bob Dylan is a huge influence of mine. He debuted a lot of songs from “Desire “ there. He lived off of Bleecker Street in the 1970s and he would just walk in and ask if he could play a few tunes, jump on stage and introduce the world to a new masterpiece.
Randy Newman recorded his live album there, which I love, Zappa, Woody Allen, Linda Ronstandt, Pete Seeger, Curtis Mayfield. That room has witnessed so much history. As you can tell, I’m a student of history. The Bitter End was my first measuring stick when I moved to NYC and didn’t know a soul, and not a soul knew me, so it is special to me.
There are many cool rooms for the Singer-Songwriting sect in NYC, and I’ve played them all. My favorites would probably be Rockwood Music Hall, The Living Room, and a place called Monkeytown that is no longer around.
9. I’m told you’re going to release a few EPs simultaneously of different genres instead of another full-length. Explain the reasoning behind that, as well as the intent to cover different genres?
Jason: I don’t think people listen to entire albums anymore. You used to have to sit down in front of your record player with the full intent of listening to an entire piece of art. Artists knew this, and they created sequenced records for that purpose. Nowadays, iPods are on shuffle all the time and you have your entire music collection at your fingertips.
I decided to group 5 acoustic songs, and 5 electric songs, and release them as different EPs. On a subway ride in NYC, you can normally listen to 20-25 minutes of music between leaving your home and your final destination. So I wanted to sequence two separate moods, which could change your morning or evening commute. This way you don’t have to commit to listening to the entire record. You could cook dinner to one, or go for a run with the other.
I always wondered on the last record if anyone ever listens up to track 10 or 11 in one sitting. I would suspect probably not, which is a shame because I purposely put the best song as track 10! This time I wanted to make sure that every song was heard. I sincerely believe that singles and EPs are coming back in style and the LP is fading from importance. There are usually one, two, or maybe three good songs on most records nowadays anyway. Too many songs are fillers.
I wanted to showcase our strength in performing different genres. The lead single from our debut record, “A Long Way From Home”, is an alt-country, bluegrass-y influenced, speeding train type of a road song. Which is a great genre in my opinion. But if you listened to the rest of the album, you realized that each song is a painting of its own, with its own colors and its own genre. There’s blues, folk, pop, rock and country. We aren’t really the type of band that has to stick to just one feel.
What genre would you call The Beatles White Album? Every song is different, and that’s something that I’ve always tried to do with all of our recordings. If we’re going to do a specific genre for a certain song, then I want to do it only for that song. I don’t want to keep doing it for the entire record, nor for an entire career.
We got tagged with the “alternative country” label from our first single, and I feel like it doesn’t fully represent what we are trying to do. From a marketing perspective, it makes sense to have something that people can attach to your music, but it bothers me when it limits what you can do at times as well. I have felt some limitation with the “alt-country” tag.
10. Are there any plans to hit the road at all in 2010 or 2011 or are you content to continue gigging in and around New York City and Brooklyn?
Jason: Momentum has been building up steadily in 2009-10. We won the 2009 Independent Music Award for Song of the Year (alt-country), we were named Best Band in Brooklyn 2010 by WNYC Radio. The record keeps getting rave reviews. We have two EPs in the bag, and I already have 75% of the next record in rehearsals. I don’t see how we can stay in Brooklyn. We’re definitely going to hit the road soon, and I may even do a little acoustic tour because I’m starting to miss that too. I expect to be on the road throughout 2011.
11. Of all the shows you guys have played to date, are there any that stick out? If so, why? If there are a handful, which one remains the most vivid?
Jason: There are a handful, but two stick out in my mind as stepping stones.
The first time we sold out a show was pretty memorable. It was at Monkeytown. The room was very unique because the band was setup in the middle of the room, and the audience was against the walls all around you. I think the room only held 60 or 70 people, but it was incredibly small and intimate, and they were turning people away at the door.
Our album release show at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan is another. It was sold out as well. Each time you move to a bigger room and it sells out it’s memorable. One day, we might be talking about Madision Square Garden and the first time we sold it out.
Note: This interview also appears on AbsolutePunk.