By Michael Lello
Photos by Chrissy Manuel
Our Arts On The Square Interview Swap series continues with our interview of Kid Icarus (and Summersteps Records) founder Eric Schlittler. Kid Icarus, the longtime NEPA-based indie guitar rock band, will perform on the Summersteps stage at AOTS on Saturday, July 26 in Scranton.
H81R: What were your intentions when you started the Kid Icarus re cording project?
ES: Kid Icarus started in part as a reaction to a couple of different things that were happening in my life at the time. This was a really long time ago, back in 1996. The band I played in prior, Suetta, had called it quits and I was looking for a new vehicle for my songwriting. I was starting college and I was kind of in a lonely place. So, there was definitely a need to channel all of these feelings. Some kind of post-high school hangover, I suppose you could call it. Well, my primary intention was to make music that was good art. Music that would stand next to the artists who I looked up to and were inspired by. It took me a long time to get there. At first Kid Icarus was just myself, some broken equipment and my array of weird cheap guitars. My first couple of demo tapes are pretty dire. I’m still embarrassed that I handed Robert Pollard one of them, when I was lucky enough to interview him for the college radio station. The first one was called “…and The Angel Land Demos.” I recorded it on boom boxes and a couple of people tried to help me record some stuff on slightly better setups with varying degrees of success. I remember trying to record some demos down in East Stroudsburg with this kid (I don’t remember his name) who was in a band that covered the indie rock of the day (stuff like the Archers of Loaf, etc). He was a friend of a friend and was trying to help me record some stuff on his 4 track. He got in a horrible screaming match with his girlfriend mid-session. The whole thing was extremely awkward, but I ended up using those takes anyway. I was like a man with a mission. Even though the recordings were rough, I was constantly using the high-speed dubbing option on my boom box to run offhand dubbed copies of those early cassette demos and handing them to anyone and everyone who I thought might give it a listen.
H81R: How did those intentions shift over the years, if at all?
ES: Well, I think the mission statement to make good art has remained pretty constant. That’s why I’m still here, and I think that’s a big part of the reason why the other guys in the band stick around too.
H81R: Who were your early influences, as a writer, singer and guitarist?
ES: Growing up, my Dad had pretty nice stuff like The Beatles, Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac and Talking Heads spinning on the hi-fi. He loved to listen to Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” on cassette in the car a whole ton. Not saying Supertramp was that big of an influence or anything, just merely omnipresent in the car. I think a lot of the stuff I listened to as a teenager must have somehow gotten encoded into my musical DNA. I grew up in the mid to late ’90s. All of the indie guitar swing of bands like Sonic Youth, Pavement, Guided by Voices, Sebadoh, etc. were just giant influences. From there, the seeds were sort of planted. I started using alternate guitar tunings from reading up on them in Sonic Youth’s Sonic Death fanzine and interviews with Sonic Youth wherever I could find them. Thanks to Sonic Youth and their ilk, I usually have to bring at least three guitars to gigs to this day because of some of the alternate tunings I use. Even though as I got into college, I started to dig more of the records that inspired those guys (Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, Soft Boys, etc), the sound of Kid Icarus has always edged towards that jangly indie rock sound. Even at times when I might have been really into more avant garde listening.
H81R: What other influences crept into the project over the years?
ES: I think just sort of the natural sort of ebb and flow of influences from the foundation of stuff I started listening to in high school and college. I think one should never underestimate the musical influences of the bands you share gigs with and play around town with; they have certainly crept in throughout the years too.
H81R: The band doesn’t play many live shows. Why is that?
ES: The band has been around for a long time and we have learned over the years that playing too many local gigs can be a bit of a drag. We found it more rewarding to only book a show every once in a while, and usually we try to plan some kind of album release or special event around the show. When it comes to local shows, I feel that helps get people who are your friends and supporters more excited to check out what you have been up to. The band also looks more forward to getting together and working on it, as opposed to it being this constant grind. We don’t really tour either; basically we all are pretty busy with families, 9-to-5 jobs and stuff like that. We probably should try to play out a little more, but I think we have always put a little more focus on recording and making albums. We don’t have a booking agent or manager or any of that stuff. So everything is extremely DIY in the Icarus organization. Sometimes working on that level can be great and also a big letdown when you drive hours to play a show and five people show up because the person or band you booked the show with dropped the ball promoting. It’s happened to us before. So now as we get older, we are little more careful about where and when we book a show.
H81R: How do you feel about the opportunity to play a live set at Arts On The Square?
ES: I’m really excited about it. It will be a great opportunity to get some music in front of some folks who may not have gotten the chance to hear what we are up to otherwise. Anything that helps raise awareness of the artisans that are toiling away in the Electric City and its surrounding locales is a cause I can definitely get behind.
ES: Hard to say; so many of the folks I look up to musically are considered cult or fringe artists. Maybe I’m just following in their footsteps or perhaps we just never got that break to take us to a place where we are a little more recognized. Take a band like Guided by Voices, they were kind of tooling around their hometown, pressing records on their own; then all of sudden the stars aligned and they got an opportunity to take things to a little bit of a bigger level. I think that was partially due to the fact the right person came across a copy of their “Propeller” album in a local record shop. It gets into very speculative territory. I think there are a number of factors that go into it. I’ve been very happy it’s reached as many people as it has and that we’ve gotten the opportunity to work with some labels we really admire.
H81R: How has your recording process developed over the years? Do you still prefer a lo-fi approach?
ES: Recording with the band, we prefer to make the recordings as close to playing live as possible. All of the last couple full-band Kid Icarus recordings have been tracked live and then we add overdubs in post-production here and there. We aim for good fidelity, but things don’t have to be perfect or the songs produced within an inch of their lives. I definitely did the lo-fi thing to death with my first couple records. I do love that 4 track sound and I’ve been hankering to return to it. I even bought a couple of old “new stock” Maxell XLII tapes to record with. I love the sound of magnetic tape.
H81R: Tell us about “Dig Archaeology.” Did the compilation give you an opportunity to revisit and reassess Kid Icarus’ output?
ES: A recently hatched cassette label called Hope for the Tape Deck released “Dig Archaeology.” One of the co-founders Matt, released the last Kid Icarus album American Ghosts on his label Big School Records. That was a few years back. Matt approached me about doing something on the new tape label he had started up with his friend Stephen. I had just finished up working on the split with Cold Coffee at the time he asked. I didn’t really have any new songs kicking around. I proposed an anthology of outtakes and demos. It was something I always wanted to do anyhow in the back of mind. To go through those all those years’ worth of old work tapes and demos, it was nice and bittersweet at the same time. It felt a bit like being a time traveler. It was interesting to revisit songs that I abandoned along the way. It definitely did help me understand my writing process a bit more. It was also pretty cool to be a part of what they have going on at the label. They have releases from groups like Elf Power and The Circulatory System on deck and it is great to be a part of the family.
H81R: “Dig Archaeology” was released on cassette, as were some other Summersteps releases. What do you like about cassettes? Do you think the format is making a comeback, at least on a niche/underground level?
ES: Cassettes are nice because they inject a little bit of an analog soul into an increasingly digital world. They have warmth and real moving parts. I think the format is making a comeback. From a DIY perspective, vinyl is very expensive (and now time consuming) to press, especially for small labels and bands. Tapes are relatively cheap to have made and when you include a download card inside of them, it sort facilitates the best of both worlds. For me, obviously, there’s the nostalgia too. I lived through the waning days of tapes being a viable format. I used to love making mix tapes and wearing out copies of my favorite albums in the car.
H81R: What should we expect next from Kid Icarus, recording-wise?
ES: I’m not exactly sure yet. We just recently worked up a new song with a working title of “Landlocked,” but I’m sure we’re not the first people to title a song that. The name was kind of inspired by the name of a Brian Wilson / Beach Boys bootleg. I’m hoping we can get a decent recording of it before we go back into hibernation for the winter. It could be the seed for a new EP or single.
H81R: What have you been listening to lately?
ES: As I’m writing this, I’m listening to a mono copy of The Left Banke’s debut album that I found at the Circle Drive In Flea Fair for $2. Such a wonderful record, a snappy garage band with strings. “Baroque Rock” at its finest. It still sounds fresh decades later. I’ve been digging Light In The Attic’s reissue of the Lewis – L’Amour record. I pick up some real mysterious vibes with that one, for sure. I’ve been doing a little more music writing and reviews, so I’m usually listening to stuff for something I’m working on. I like working on record reviews. It sort of forces me to listen to new stuff and approach music from a different perspective than that of a performer or writer. It also helps me from becoming too much of a curmudgeon and forces me to get out my comfort zone. I was also really taken by this reissue of this band called The Twilight Nuages. A music teacher in the late ’70s decided to record tracks with some of his students and his music pals in their basement. It’s this lo-fi sunshiny 1970s pop that is super interesting.