Erik Neilson talks Rural Ghosts, City of Elms, and growing up on Portland music

I have been in touch with Erik Neilson for a couple of years now, and have followed the progression of his project Rural Ghosts for the same amount of time. Neilson’s enthusiasm for making music, and the local music community at large, is infectious. He released his newest album, City of Elms, earlier this month, and I asked him a handful of questions about the progression of the project.

Can you talk a bit about Rural Ghosts?

Rural Ghosts began as a one-man “bedroom recording project” type of thing. I had written a handful of songs between 2009 – 2011, but really never did anything with them. I started noticing an underlying theme to the material; it was a lot different than what I had written while living in Burlington, VT and performing under my own name. It felt like a new project and was.

I ended up house-sitting for a friend in January 2012 and brought my recording gear over, which at the time literally consisted of a Tascam multitracker and one of those 1/8″ computer mics. The place was reportedly haunted at one time or another and had a strangely comforting vibe to it. I spent the weekend there alone, feeding her chickens and making sure nothing caught on fire. A case of beer later, I had an EP’s worth of material.

So, the Rural Ghosts EP was released in March of that year. To my surprise, it ended up getting a ton of press; people really seemed to enjoy it. The EP was pretty representative of anxiety, loss, heartache, the concepts behind Rural Ghosts. I set out to make it sound kind voyeuristic, as if you were peering in on someone playing campfire songs in the middle of the woods all by themselves. I like to think I pulled it off.

Shortly after the EP’s release, I started working with Devon Colella who plays cello in Rural Ghosts. He’s really been a part of the project since the beginning and has had a major role in helping to shape the sound of the music—as well as the old songs—into what it is today. We tried performing as a duo for a period of time, playing against a backing track with synths/drums/etc. I stole the idea from my friend Doug Porter of Johnny Cremains and  Covered in Bees who was doing it with The Watchers and pulling it off like crazy. It never quite worked for us, though, which is one of the reasons we decided to work with Rob Mitchell who plays drums on our new record.

Rob ended up moving down to Tennessee, which is when Brendan Tompkins and Oliver Waterman joined the band on drums and bass respectively, and that’s where we’re at right now. Over the course of the past 2 years, the sound of the band has morphed from the “campfire song” aesthetic to a louder, more electric rock feel. The cello makes it entirely unique, though; it’s got kind of a Dirty Three thing going on.

Tell me a bit about the new album and what the past year has looked like. When I first met you, you had this really DIY CD, and you have been building toward this project and community. Can you talk a bit about what that all has looked like?

Our new album is entitled City of Elms and was released last Tuesday. Devon and I have been working on it for over a year now. We tracked it in a couple of different spaces in southern Maine—Acabar Studios in South Portland and the Oak and the Ax in Biddeford—mixed and produced the entire thing ourselves. I think I can speak for Devon in that it’s the best thing either of us have ever made. Rob was a thunderous drummer and really knocked it out of the park, and because we recorded the album ourselves, we had the time and leisure to dial-in every aspect of the recording.

I like to think the DIY aesthetic still applies to what we’re doing in a lot of ways. While we used much better gear for City of Elms than what was used to record the Rural Ghosts EP, the album is very much self-produced; I did all the artwork and promotion, Devon and I mixed it in his bedroom. It’s not a limited run of 92 hand-painted CDRs like the EP was, but everything we’ve achieved has been by our own accord, which is very satisfying in a lot of ways.

The DIY approach is something that really appeals to me, and has been a major part of my record label Lorem Ipsum Recordings “manifesto,” if you will. I work very closely with the artists/bands on each release and try to take as much of a producer’s role as possible. Some of the releases have of course been tracked in professional studios and released as outsourced CD runs, but others were recorded in living rooms and distributed in handmade packaging. Every release constitutes its own logistics, so its really a case-by-case scenario regarding the approach we take.

Regarding the community, you are a really gracious presence, or appear to be from the outside, within this music community. What is it about the community and about you that makes you this way, do you think? Can you talk a bit about the community, who is involved, and how you all might be characterized?

That’s very kind of you to say. I like to think that we have created our own little community with Lorem Ipsum Recordings, which was the idea behind starting the label in the first place. 90% of our artists are based in Portland, and all of them have Portland ties. We play on each other’s records, release splits, share bills as often as possible etc. Oliver Waterman, for example, has released solo material on LIR and ended up joining Rural Ghosts; we also play together in a band called Texarkana. Tracking is about to begin on Elizabeth Taillon’s EP for her project Starlight Cicada, and Devon and I will be contributing to that process. I think what makes it work is that we all genuinely enjoy spending time together; the music has almost become second to the friendships we’ve all forged because of the music, and that’s a beautiful thing.

As far as characterization goes, we get the “indie-folk” label a lot. It’s applicable in some cases, but it’s really just a community of musicians making like-minded art. It can be quiet, loud, clean, dirty, ugly, sexy; it’s still going to be consistent with the overall feel of Lorem Ipsum Recordings’ material. I won’t release it if it doesn’t.

Can you talk a bit about Portland as an arts and music community? How has it changed? Where would you like to see it go?

I love Portland’s arts community from the bottom of my heart and have since I was old enough to go to shows. I was in high school during the Rustic / 6 Gig heyday, back when Geno’s current location was The Skinny and Zoots was still around. It was a vibrant time for music in Portland, and when I left for college I fell a bit out of touch with what was going on here.

What I’ve noticed in the past few years, however, is a major resurgence in local music, specifically from a cooperative point of view. House shows are starting to gain ground, bands are working together to help promote each others music and people are generally more open to hearing unique music than I’ve seen in a long time. I’d be happy as a clam if things kept moving in this direction. In my opinion, Portland, ME deserves to be on the map in the same way that places like Brooklyn and Austin get attention; there is very much a “scene” up here.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.