This week, CMT.com is focused on Texas music. Today we visit with the Eli Young Band.
The members of the Eli Young Band describe themselves as a touring act. “We make records to play shows,” said drummer Chris Thompson. But in the past three years, much has changed. With Jet Black and Jealous, their first record on Universal South, a video for “When It Rains” on CMT and an ever-expanding schedule, the band’s career has intensified drastically.
The Eli Young Band started as a band of college buddies at the University of North Texas in Denton back in 2000. It’s important to note that Eli Young is not actually a person in the band. Rather, it’s a combination of singer Mike Eli and guitarist James Young’s names, with bassist Jon Jones and Thompson rounding out the lineup.
“Hopefully, one day people will think of Eli Young as the band instead of wondering who Eli Young is,” said Eli. “But it’s something we can always talk about,” shrugged Jones.
There is a hint of sadness in Eli’s voice that permeates the band’s sound, but Young’s guitar work provides an interesting counterpoint. The result is a dark sound that doesn’t quite fall into total despair, as there are moments of uplift in each song. One example of this contradiction is “When It Rains.”
The song’s video was filmed in a warehouse on a hot summer day, and the band was surprised by how much work goes into a three-minute clip. “Shooting a video is a really tedious process,” remarked Thompson. “I mean, it takes an hour to get like a second-and-a-half of video.” Jones said, “It was a circus, but it was weird because for so long it was just the four of us. And to be part of something, when you look in this huge warehouse with a hundred people working around … that’s surreal.”
But after all that work, the band was very pleased with the outcome. Said Eli, “We kind of have that same melancholy feel that the video has. The directors, the Brads, did a really good job with that.”
The band members say they never specifically intended to go after the country format although Alabama is cited as a major influence. But what started out as jamming for fun quickly turned into a serious endeavor and the band’s personality emerged. “All we can do is play like who we are,” said Jones, “which is definitely country.”
After three years in the clubs of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Colorado and parts of the Southeast, the band opened a show for Miranda Lambert just after she finished Nashville Star. She introduced them to Frank Liddell, who was her producer and the founder of Carnival Records. At the time, the Eli Young Band was already working on 2005’s Level, and with Carnival’s help, they finished it and got it into stores. “At that point it was just a grass-roots kind of thing, getting the music out there.”
But the relationship created in that meeting with Liddell would set them on track to receive major label attention. Universal South took interest, signed them and the band began work on Jet Black and Jealous, an album that, like its title, will mean different things to different people. “That title is so intriguing,” said Eli. “Everyone instantly gets an idea in their head of what it is without it actually being something at all, which makes for a great album title,” added Thompson.
When asked what Jet Black and Jealous says about the Eli Young Band, the first answer was that they hope that it shows that they are a band, not just a look. Jones said, “We wrote most all the songs on there and played all the instruments.” Added Eli, “Of course, we had guest instrumentalists on the record. But we didn’t have studio drummers, studio bass players, studio guitar players and all that. We sat in the studio, us four with our producers, and made a record of us. When people listen to this record, they are hearing what’s coming out of the Eli Young Band.”
The second answer was that it represents the live show very well, something that is important to a band that plays 200-250 dates a year. Through relentless touring they are gaining momentum, so the album needed to reflect what concertgoers have already come to know as the Eli Young Band. “People’s attention span is so short … but if you can capture their attention on stage, hopefully, that’s when you can be more effective, long term.” This was a big part of why they chose to reprise “When it Rains,” from 2005’s Level, on the new record.
Eli describes it as “a darkness … with this underlying belly of good feelings.” A Top 40 hit at country radio, its success has been a driving force for the band. “Onstage it became a catalyst for us … it’s a crowd favorite, everybody sings and knows all the words,” said Jones. “There’s no better feeling than being able to hear the audience louder than you can hear yourself.”