The Ledge Interview: Cairo Gang's Emmett Kelly
Nobody can say that Emmett Kelly, the leader of The Cairo Gang is a lazy person. Over the course of his career fronting the band, Kelly has also been a hired gun of sorts recording and touring with the likes of Beth Orton, Angel Olsen, Joan of Arc.
Most notably, Kelly has appeared on records by Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Ty Segall, both of whom Kelly considers mentors. But obviously The Cairo Gang is the main focus of Kelly’s life, especially after the release of the band’s great new record, “Untouchable”. Co-produced with Segall, “Untouchable” is one of the year’s best records, filled with the DNA of rock and roll’s greatest moments. There’s a little bit of Byrds here, some Love over there, and quite a bit of Big Star in the guitar tone. Add in some of Ty’s drive and some catchy melodies from Kelly and you have the makings of a timeless classic.
The Cairo Gang will be at Total Drag this Saturday (June 24), along with CFM, who also just released a monster album, “Dichotomy Desaturated”. Doors open at 7, with music starting at 8. Tickets are available at Total Drag Records, and from Tuesday through Friday any Total Drag purchase will include an entry into a drawing to win two tickets and a CFM 7”.
Kelly says that this show is “actually really exciting because it fills my 50 states. When I play in Sioux Falls I will have played in every state. It’s so weird. You’d think it would be Hawaii or Alaska that would be the last state.”
To hear the entire conversation with The Cairo Gang's Emmett Kelly, tune in to Live Ledge this Friday night at 7 pm ET on realpunkradio.
Q: At what age did you become a music fanatic, or was it just always around?
A: Music was always around, but it was around, I guess, when I was ten or something I started playing guitar. But I was always playing around on drums. I went to a progressive elementary school where everybody was playing music. So as long as I can remember it was a musical world.
Q: Was there a specific band or album that completely changed your life?
A: I think the first record that tripped me out was “Disraeli Gears” by Cream. It still trips me out because it’s like the weirdest record. It’s one of the most underrated albums I can think of. Everyone hates Eric Clapton, but you can’t deny that this is one of the weirdest, coolest sounding records.
Q: I agree. The post-73 or so Clapton stuff was boring, but what he was doing earlier with Cream, John Mayall and the Yardbirds was amazing.
A: When he was super-high, he was rad. (Laughs)
Q: You said you picked up the guitar at ten. Was there a specific inspiration?
A: It’s kind of stupid, actually. I used to go out for commercial auditions. I grew up in Los Angeles, and as a kid I’d go out on commercial auditions because my mom thought it might be a fun thing to do. I was terrible at it. I barely applied myself in that way. One audition thing that I went out on was one where you needed to play guitar. My mom knew a few chords from back when she’d busk on the streets in the 60’s, so she taught me a few chords. Two chords, E and A minor, because they look the same. I went in there and tried playing these two chords back and forth. It was, obviously, not impressive so I didn’t get the commercial. But it was the beginning. The first time I got my hands on the instrument.
Q: Did you become one of those kids who became inseparable from your guitar?
A: Yeah, pretty much from the get-go I was pretty nuts about it. I was pretty lucky to encounter some pretty far out things early on. I was into all this classic-rock shit when I was young, and then when I was in junior high I moved to this Catholic school. I was a total outcast there, and I got into this habit of going to the record store and buying CD’s. I got really into Dinosaur Jr. and then Sonic Youth. But it was the first album I bought, and (for) Sonic Youth I got “Confusion Is Sex”, which was really far out. I listened to it obsessively because I had no idea how this was all done. For a thirteen year-old it’s pretty trippy because it’s like is this even music? Are you allowed to do this? That just opened up the whole thing. Oh, the guitar is an instrument that you can do lots of shit with. You don’t have to just be Eric Clapton or whatever. You can run a screwdriver through it. So in high school I was just like doing noise music.
Q: At what point in your life did you begin to write songs?
A: I always did ever since I was a kid. The Cairo Gang actually started when I was sixteen. It was always kind of like my outlet; my personal outlet.
Q: How did The Cairo Gang first come together?
A: It came about just because I wanted to play...I was playing in a bunch of punk bands and stuff, and I started to get into different shit. I thought I should start a band, and so I started a band. Simple as that.
Q: Has The Cairo Gang evolved into more of an Emmett Kelly project than a real band?
A: I’ve been calling everything I do The Cairo Gang for so long. I never felt the need to change my identity in that way. I don’t like the idea that of being like this is my name. I don’t think that I’m very representative of myself a lot of the time because I’m constantly changing into multiple characters. It made sense to me that (The Cairo Gang) is a collection of people. It’s made a lot more sense over the years of what The Cairo Gang actually is.
Q: You’ve worked with two people in particular who are legendary for their prolific output, Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham) and Ty Segall. What have you learned from them?
A: It’s interesting because they’re such different people and they have a different approach to what they do. For a long time, my relationship to Will and his music was like he was my mentor. Which is weird, but it was good. He’s just phenomenal. He’s a very hard guy to describe so I won’t even attempt to but I feel like he reminds me of somebody who is very into recognizing a path and a process. That was sort of where I was. I was definitely on a path...so it was really important for me to learn about. I still struggle with the idea of that. Then Ty is really interesting because he is all about (doing) what he likes. It’s just so good to be around. I feel like songwriters are just inherently tormented. I don’t know why. We have such good lives, so it doesn’t make sense why the torment is there. It’s almost like you want to be tormented, but I’m also somebody who has that as well. So it’s amazing to be around somebody who relates to music in a different way. It’s so hard to say because I’m not trying to say anything about his music being lighter or anything. I just feel like it’s more of an opportunity for him to have a great time. So for me, it was really great to be around him. He also has this amazing ability to finish his ideas all the time, whether or not it’s something he’s going to stick with or whatever. Who knows, he’s going to finish it. It’s amazing to be around that as my biggest problem is finishing stuff. I have hundreds of songs in my computer that are like half-songs. They drive me insane. They make me feel like I’m losing my mind. So it’s really inspiring to me to just be like, “fucking finish your shit”. In the end, both Ty and Will are among my most favorite musicians. I have this amazing privilege to kind of think about them as normal people who have a process in their life. It’s great to see people’s different processes as what it yields is so powerful and inspiring to me in the first place.
Q: The record that Ty put out earlier this year that you play on is so amazing. It’s definitely in my top five releases of the year so far. While all of his stuff is pretty top-notch, did you have any indication that maybe this one was going to be special?
A: I definitely did. I started working with him in the “Emotional Mugger” time, and it was really cool. It was totally different. The band was super gnarly. Every person in the band was a band leader, and there was a lot of heavy energy. It’s also funny because it didn’t mean there were all of these alpha dudes because there were all of these band leaders. But there is some alpha vibe, you know what I mean? It wasn’t a strange thing where we were constantly battling each other volume-wise and like in general. It was a good band, it yielded some amazing results. We made this album at kind of the tail end, sort of...I guess it was midway in the “Muggers” touring. We just wanted to make something really super-positive. When we were making it, I was like “dude, this is going to be sick and people are going to be really down for this”.
Q: Let’s talk about the new record, “Untouchable”, a bit. It’s pretty much just you and Ty, right?
A: Ty played drums, and I play pretty much everything else. Except on two songs different bass players were there. Yeah, I play the vast majority of the stuff on there.
Q: Both you and Ty are extremely busy. Is it difficult to coordinate schedules?
A: The brilliant thing is that Ty and me are busy in the same way. It had been many years since I recorded a record that involved anybody because I do everything myself. That’s been the way for the last five records. I felt like part of my coming to California and my life change had to do with opening up to certain things. Me and Ty have this sort of beautiful musical relationship in the works, and I appreciate him so much I wanted to bring him into my thing just the same way he was bringing me into his thing. I wanted it to be like a symbiosis that we were part of each other’s thing. That was just that, and we just kind of worked on it when we were off the road. But he doesn’t play in the live band. We did a west coast tour that he played drums, and that was amazing, but what he wants to do as far as touring is one thing and I wouldn’t expect he’d want to do what we’re doing because we’re trying to hit it as hard as possible.
Q: I get a bit of a Big Star vibe from quite a few of the tracks, especially in the guitar tone. Is Big Star an influence?
A: Definitely. Big Star is a weird one. I love Big Star, obviously. The third album is entirely perfect, but the other two albums are pretty spotty. I love some of those songs like they’re some of my favorite songs, but I don’t love the whole albums. But “September Gurls” is a full-on classic. That’s like the best song ever.
Q: What else do you have coming up in the future?
A: We’re doing this big U.S. tour, and then I have some more gigs with the Ty band in July and early August. Then we go off to Europe for a couple of weeks. Then my other band, The Double, is hopefully going to play some shows this fall. But I’m going to go back to L.A. sometime, hopefully in September, and try to make a new record.
Q: You’re always busy!
A: It’s your job. You’ve got to do it! No one has any fucking time off, you know what I mean?