- Christianity Today Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2009 4 Mar
"The town I live in just isn't "the scene". Nobody's wearing leather pants, and it's not the hipster part of America. It's the real-life, non-delusional part of the States." -Owen Thomas, The Elms
"No. But maybe times have changed," speculates Owen Thomas, lead singer of The Elms. He's been asked whether or not small town life is truly as grand as depicted in John Mellencamp's classic "Pink Houses" and "Small Town" music videos—The Elms also hail from Seymour, IN, the city that birthed world-renowned American troubadour Mellencamp. The clips in question show people happily hanging out on front porches in their comfortable rocking chairs, singing songs about their fair heartland.
"That doesn't happen these days in these towns," Thomas continues. "People don't have acoustic guitars perpetually strapped on and they don't have free-form porch sessions all the time. They don't belly laugh and eat farm-fresh produce all day and pass watermelon slices around, talking about how great it is to sweat life out in middle-America. And they sure as hell don't talk about how they would never choose a different life for themselves. They do sit out on their porches, though, mostly hoping something interesting will happen."
True midwestern reality, The Elms maintain, is stark and heavy. "I go to the local hangs and play cards," Thomas says, "with guys who are 50 or 60 years old. What I hear most people say is that given the chance, they would have gotten out of this town. And I'm not pointing these things out to say that this is a horrible, deadbeat, mundane, burnout little place. What I'm trying to say is that there are millions of American people who, by and large, are victims of circumstance. There's a guy driving a combine right now who's doing it because his dad said, 'Hey, you'll take over the family farm when I'm done.' It isn't because, in his heart, he didn't have something else that he wanted to do with his life. Many in America are doing what they do because somebody told them that following their heart was not practical."
The scrappiest confidence surges through Thomas' talk, the same kind of blunt yet nuanced authority that animates 'The Chess Hotel', The Elms' debut LP for Universal South Records. The Elms are fiercely devoted friends, twenty-somethings with a deep-seated commitment to one another. Thomas, also the band's lyricist and chief songwriter, cannot imagine the band any other way.
"My brother Christopher plays drums," he says. "Thom Daugherty, my best friend since grade school, plays guitar. And I've known Nathan Bennett, our bassist, for eight years. All of these elements need to be in existence for The Elms to make sense to me. If one of us wanted to leave, I'd have a hard time believing that it would carry on. We would never let this become a faceless thing. There aren't replaceable members in The Elms."
'The Chess Hotel' is a literal, wound-up, highly emotional collection. It presents thirteen songs about the actualities of life and love in a small town. The songs sound, according to Thomas, alternately "loose," "noisy," "catty," "riffy," and, not least, "loud." For The Elms' purposes here, he argues that hi-fi studio creations would have been dead wrong. It would have been counter to logic. And that is something that Owen Thomas doesn't like.
"Listen to songs like 'The Chess Hotel,' about blue-collar burnout, or songs like "Makes Good Sense" or "The Towers & The Trains." For those songs to come at you from 50 sonic angles makes no sense. We wanted people to feel the raw sentiments of our town, and the raw sentiments of real life for the bulk of Americans. The sound needed to come right up the middle of the speakers—because if I were pleading the case for my friends, I'd be right in your face about it."
The songs on 'The Chess Hotel' use robust rock and roll to plead that case; the music is sonically rooted in the band's admiration for the work of '60s and '70s titans such as The Kinks and The Who. The Elms never succumb to classic-rock replicas, though. They get in your face bringing their cause. Yet the band's longing is intense for a connected sense of what feels like logic.
In "Makes Good Sense," Thomas sings as a man who needs but can't afford a vacation, a guy whose heart is "the kind of broken that won't take much." The relentless stomp of "I Am The World" reminds us that it's now or never for all of us, and that things won't change until we have the guts to change them. The album's title track details an actual pay-as-you-go haunt in the middle of downtown Seymour, where a true slice of middle-American wasteland can be viewed.
Elsewhere, such as on the sensationally rocking "Nothin' To Do With Love," The Elms seek consistency. "If you can never be true," Thomas sings, again and again, "It's got nothing to do with love."
For Thomas, the band's hometown is absolutely crucial to 'The Chess Hotel'. Inescapably, the songs concern Seymour, and everything from observing the outcome of the lives of those closest to the band, to high school summers spent swimming in Indiana rivers.
"I don't want to sound like a pessimist," Thomas says. "I'm not a pessimist; I'm a hopeful guy. The songs are simply based on observations largely exclusive to middle America. Where Mellencamp celebrated small town life, I think we expose it a little bit. My best friends build engines for a living, or load pallets, or work construction. Some work at distribution centers and factories. They're some of the toughest jobs in the world. They aren't jobs they love, but they can't leave—and the idea of chasing dreams is all but over. We feel like part of our band's job, besides making you shake it a little, is to tell the people of towns like ours to keep their chins up.
"That's where the song 'Who Puts Rock & Roll in Your Blood' comes from: I wondered, well, what made me so lucky, what runs in my blood that doesn't run in my friends' blood? I get to run around the country and play shows and go make records. They inspect bolts."
That kind of feeling, in the end, drives The Elms' fiery rock and roll arguments on 'The Chess Hotel'. "What I hope," Thomas says, "is that people would listen to our record and find something to run after. What I hope we can do is make people say, 'Hey, let's start dreaming around here again.'"
For The Elms, that's logical.