Genteleman Auction House

Hannah Ridge

Carnegie Mellon was fortunate enough to host indie band Gentleman Auction House on October 23. The band is based in the city of St. Louis, Missouri, and they seem to fit well there, so well that the city’s Riverfront Times gave them the title “Best Indie Band.” International magazine PopMatters described Gentleman Auction House as having “nearinfinite depth of sound,” and this is one of the first things that hits you as you listen to their music – that and the band’s incomparably unique Indie timbre and vocals.

Listening to their most recent album, Alphabet Graveyard, is truly a rich and self-indulging experience. Don’t be fooled if you think you’ve figured them out partway through listening; they’ll soon surprise you with driving bass lines (“I Sleep in a Bed of Scissor Arms”), rockabilly drumbeats (“If I’m the First to Go”), and Ska rhythms (“You and Me, Madly”). The lyrics are yet another story. The songwriter and lead vocalist, Eric Enger, began as poet but took his written work to the next level and put it into song, or rather a demo for the whole band to play with. As Eric himself put it, “[They] build… a mansion from my mere twigs.” I’d hardly call the lyrics twigs, but the final product is quite luxurious.

Steve Kozel, the keyboardist and trumpeter, also directed the band’s only video to date for the song “Book of Matches.” Kozel skillfully illustrated Enger’s cryptic lyrics, rather than further clouding the meaning of the song. The video is modest but creative, using a single stage, a few extras wearing masks, and cardboard handcuffs as the focal prop. Considering the simplicity of the video, and that the main character was played by the co-owner of the band’s label, Emergency Umbrella Records, the outcome is pretty impressive. So much so that it took home the top prize when Kozel entered it into a film festival.

The group began with only two members and gradually grew as they craved a broader sound. Enger’s silvery vocals are given a new depth when joined by the rest of the band, and a new color when coupled with the female voice of Kiley Kozel, Steve’s wife, who also brings a set of keys. Eric Herbst adds the heartbeat to each song on his bass, whether it be supporting the song or taking the lead. Flanking Enger on the guitar are the keyboards, a major part of every song, played by the married couple. The percussive side of the band demands two people, and sometimes the whole band is stomping and clapping. Ryan Adams, also an accomplished sound engineer (named “Best Live Sound Engineer” of 2009 by Riverfront Times), plays the standard drum kit; Stephen Tomko plays the halfkit (affectionately called the “cocktail kit”), an interesting assortment of surfaces including tambourines, a cowbell, and a recently halved cookie sheet, among other things.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Gentleman Auction House in the precious time between their arrival and sound check. Fortunately for my nerves, the interview grew into such an enjoyable discussion that even our photographer and AB Underground co-chair could not resist from chiming in. There were several topics the band could not agree on—hardly a surprise with a troupe of six. After a delightful time, I came away

Gentleman Auction House talked to me about the deciding power of hitting the road. According to keyboardist Steve, the bands in St. Louis that have taken that step—or “rite of passage,” as drummer Adams put it—and gone on tour are the ones that have succeeded, but it’s not easy. It’s only through this testing as a band that the group can develop. It seems we could all learn from this simple pearl of wisdom. It also sounds reminiscent of what Randy Pausch once said: “Brick walls are there for a reason.” If you don’t want what’s on the other side enough to use a wrecking ball, then you had better be ready to settle for something not quite as green.

When I asked about touring, Gentleman Auction House unknowingly unfolded more wisdom from their experiences as a band. They recounted how some of the shows that seemed most foreboding turned out to be the most memorable and fun. On one night, the band packed into a narrow bar, where the drinkers only seemed interested in drinking, but Gentleman Auction House played on. To the surprise of all six, the show turned into a night of merrymaking. This just goes to show everyone that you can’t judge a book by its cover—to be shamelessly cliché—so play your heart out. Indeed, you never know who may be watching.

In such a large group, you can hardly expect everyone to agree on everything. Some in the band prefer small town shows to playing in big cities. In such a hectic place as New York City, a small Indie band can easily get lost in the flurry of activity; in a small town, however, you’re more likely to be the big event. My point here being of course – don’t bite off more than you can chew.

And as any band will forewarn, touring is not a vacation. After a bad show, you have to be able to start over the next day. The best gig of the tour could easily be followed by one of the worst, and that goes for every performer. But you have to leave your baggage in the hotel room, RV, or bus, and be ready to put on another great performance. That being said, a little company can make all the difference. On one of GAH’s tours, where they were joined by the Hip-Hop duo Yea Big + Kid Static, the shows that would have been unpleasant had GAH toured solo were actually quite fun. Perhaps it was because they knew they had at least two fans in the crowd, or as Steve suggested, “Because misery loves company.” Either way, the buddy system is the way to go.

Before I knew it, our interview time was up and soon enough people were waiting outside for the show to start. Local band Lohio (a four-man, one-lady troupe who just released a new album on November 20) opened with a short and sweet set before Gentleman Auction House scaled the stage. Normally AB Underground concerts are held in The Underground, but this show took place in Rangos Ballroom because the band is so large. And as Gentleman Auction House began their first song it was clear that neither the set nor their resonance could have squeezed into the Underground. The show went by very smoothly. The band played some new songs as well as some old ones, and made polite small talk with the audience in between. While the whole set was engaging, one song stuck out above the rest; “A Good Son,” the last song on their latest album, is in itself an epic of a piece, and hearing it live only enhanced this quality.

The song begins with a one-line motif from the guitar that is developed just before the entrance of the keys playing the bass chord progressions. At this point every member of the audience felt the tension as the simple, hypnotic sequence continued. The song takes an abrupt but satisfying turn in a different direction, with the drums, bass, and vocals taking over, but manages to maintain the soothing quality. The lyrics do not take any sort of form, but seem to switch from second to first person as the narrator grows. With soft strums emphasizing his words, Enger weaves a story beginning with the perspective of two parents speaking affectionately to their son about how loved he is. The audience, mesmerized by the sound, begins to move with the magnetic pulse of the song. The keys return as the song takes a step up in intensity with the words “and you were,” possibly indicating the shift to the perspective of the boy, now a young man. The narrator speaks proudly of his parents as the keys and drums return to the backdrop. For a short moment after, the flow of the song halts, Enger sings above only the guitar and an echo of synthesizer. When the intensity of the song returns, the audience responds with twice the physical feedback. Those in the front are obliviously synchronized in their movement to the song. The music calms and at this point in the lyrics, the perspective becomes blurry and it is difficult to tell who the narrator is speaking to. Nevertheless the music grows quickly to its crest, and the whole audience can’t keep from moving. Personally, I couldn’t help but sing along. The song ends with the keyboard motif being played by the trumpet, dissipating into applause. The set finished with “I Sleep in a Bed of Scissor Arms,” a fun song with a good beat. The last chord reverberated off the walls of Rangos, quickly overtaken by applause.