Describing their music as "new wave and surf with just enough garage," Electric Orchids' approach to creativity is collaborative and DIY, recording their beguiling new album, Plastic Heart, in the house of the group's two married members, guitarist Matt Mitchell and keyboardist and vocalist Valorie Engholm. We are fortunate to bring you an interview with the entire band (which also includes Chris Hutchings on bass and Hughes Pope on drums), in addition to their book, music and movie recommendations.
Please introduce yourselves. Where do you live and work?
Mitch – Matt “Mitch” Mitchell, guitars. I live in the Northeast with Val. We are married in real life. I work at Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars at the MF warehouse in KCMO off 210 and 291 as a guitar tech.
Val: Valorie Engholm, I’m married to Mitch and live in the Northeast. I work as an instructional designer and am in grad school for my master’s in Education. In addition to that, I’m am also a candidate for Missouri State Rep. in my district.
Chris: From KCMO- Bass - I own and operate a martial arts studio in Waldo called the Chuan Fa Martial Arts Academy.
Hughes: I live just off Red Bridge Rd and I play the drums. I’m actually still in school at JCCC but I am planning on becoming a Paramedic.
Your first album Plastic Heart was released in May. What are you learning about the recording process that you’ll take to future projects?
Mitch – We recorded the album in our house. It’s a completely DIY project. We’ve all had experience recording and producing before both professionally and DIY. So the recording came pretty natural to us. We live in an old house with plaster walls and “actual” 2”x4” construction and high ceilings. So the house lends itself to awesome recording sounds.
The biggest struggle, and I would say, the biggest learning experience we had was mixing the record. I had a sound in my head and the recordings we had just weren’t matching that. Finally, when we were about to give up and start from scratch, the sound of the record presented itself. It spoke to us. Trying to match the sound in our heads was the problem. Once we found the sound, it was easy sailing from there.
So, for me, learning to trust the music to speak to you instead of trying to wrestle a particular sound was my biggest learning experience from Plastic Heart.
Val: I really do love the recording process. When I go back and listen to our album, though, I keep saying to myself “I could have performed that better” or “that was a little off”. I’m such a perfectionist! In the next project, I’m gonna try to take it a little easier on myself. Also, I love the DIY approach we took to it, and I don’t know that I’d want to do it any other way.
Chris - This album was recorded in Val and Mitch's living room. I've recorded in a few different settings ranging from a really expensive studio to a mid level studio and a few projects the way we did Plastic Heart. I enjoy the freedom of recording this way as technology has allowed us to record at a reasonable level of production value. I think the biggest thing to take away from this particular experience is how important the final mix is. Recreating the collective tightness of playing live to a recording is a tough thing to do. I think we did a pretty good job, and will most definitely improve going further.
Hughes: I am actually a pretty new addition to Electric Orchids, and wasn’t really around yet for the recording of Plastic Heart, though I have worked in the studio before quite extensively and greatly look forward to working in the studio with Electric Orchids
Describe the band’s creative process. What tools do you use? Who brings what to the table?
Mitch – We’re all songwriters so we each bring stuff to the table. Val writes all of the lyrics and vocal melodies, so usually one of us will either have a riff to bring to practice, or we’ll just jam out on something until we hammer it out. Then, once Val writes the lyrics, we’ll arrange the instrumental song to fit the lyrics.
Val: As a keyboardist, I just try to follow along with what the guys are jamming. Or sometimes I’ll come up with a little ditty on the keyboard and they guys will follow suit. As for lyrics, I’ve been writing lyrics since I was very young, and I’ve never been able to do it in front of other people. It’s like showing pieces of my soul. We’ll come up with a structure and I’ll sing out a melody, but then go somewhere alone to write the lyrics. I want to make sure they’re just right before I share them with other people.
Chris: We kind of have a wing-it style of writing. One of us comes with a idea and we generally build it collectively from there.
Hughes: Well, from what I’ve seen so far one member will come up with an idea and the rest of us work together and build on the original idea. Usually, writing songs can be quite an ordeal but if you get the right musicians together, then everything comes out naturally almost like breathing, and I think that's we have as a band; Musical compatibility.
What artists do you look to these days for inspiration? What do you admire most about these artists?
Mitch – Right Now I’m sort of torn between 60’s surf and psychedelia and modern Indie rock. I also listen to a lot of jazz, but I’m not sure how much of that comes through in Electric Orchids.
My biggest inspiration right now is St Vincent. I love her complete and total lack of inhibition, both in her songwriting, and her live performances. If she needs to dive into the crowd during a guitar solo, so be it. Crazy light shows and makeup, so be it. If a song calls for a wind ensemble or a crazy fuzzed out guitar, so be it. No rules, no limitations. Plus she’s a great songwriter and guitarist, so that doesn’t hurt.
Val: Regina Spektor, Apples in Stereo, David Bowie. I really love Regina Spektor’s voice and how she’s unafraid to break taboos in music and prove that you don’t have to be formulaic. Apples in Stereo are just really funky to me and love how fun they are. And I really identify with Bowie’s lyrical style and how much of himself he puts into them. Also, The Beatles have always been an ever-present inspiration musically in my life. They really transcend genre, and love that about them.
Chris: My inspirations for music haven't changed much over the years. Sonic Youth, Pixies, Zeppelin, Nirvana, early blues and jazz, and old country like Hank Sr., Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, as well as hip hop, Beastie Boys, Dead Prez, Snoop Dogg. As a fan of many different styles of music it really depends on the day what song or style inspires me.
Hughes: Nirvana has always been a huge influence for me as a musician. Dave Grohl’s heavy hitting in particular as a drummer. I have always had a bad habit of breaking cymbals, sticks, and heads, and a lot of that comes from Grohl’s influence. Other than that, I’ve always enjoyed bands such as The Pixies, Chevelle, The Shins, and Bring Me The Horizon, honestly there are so many bands that inspire me that it would be pointless to try and list them all!
What inspires you the most about music in Kansas City?
Mitch: I love the spirit of Kansas City’s scene. Guess what, New York and L.A. aren’t calling and we don’t care. We’re making the Kansas City scene for Kansas City, not anyone else. No one is looking to the coasts or Nashville or anywhere else for validation. We have all the validation we need right here.
I also love how cooperative the scene has become. And I don’t think it’s any surprise to anyone to say that it wasn’t always that way. KC musicians understand that when one of us has success, all of us do. And we support each other and cheer each other on. It’s awesome!
Val: Kansas City has some really unique music. We have a pretty strong art community here, and a lot of that trickles through into the music scene. I’m really inspired by the creativity that Kansas City musicians have shown.
I also have noticed that in other cities, bands tend to be in competition with each other, bragging about the different venues they’ve played, or how great their gear is or how they scored a huge gig with some festival. But in Kansas City, we all support each other. If someone plays a really big show, we’re proud of them, not jealous. When someone gets their gear stolen, the community rallies around them to try and get it back. If someone puts out a new album, we’re happy for each other. That makes Kansas City really stand out, I think.
Chris: The Kansas City music scene has so much potential. This being my favorite city to live in I'm optimistic the culture of original music will continue to blossom. I feel there are really great artists in KC and they are all influenced in part by the rich blues and jazz scenes that made the city famous back in the day.
Hughes: I actually just moved here all the way from Georgia, but the music scene here was so amazing and I can even almost say intimate, that I instantly felt at home here! I felt kind of lost and confused after the move so I took a quick drive to Westport and ended up going to three different local shows, each of them just as amazing as the last. I’ve been to a lot of places, and gone to a lot of concerts, but absolutely nothing even remotely compares to the local music scene right here, in Kansas City.
Book and film recommendations:
That Thing You Do : This film should be mandatory viewing for any musician. It really nails the group dynamics. Everyone has a different point of view and a different agenda. Dell Paxton's sage advice: "Ain't no way to keep a band together. Bands come and go. You just got to keep playing. No matter with who."
High Fidelity: This book fits so much life; love, self-hatred, relationships and music all together in a way that is terminally funny but also incredibly inspiring. Maybe the perfect book about music fandom too.
I highly recommend that anyone with any interest in rock and roll watch Spinal Tap. It is a mockumentary about a metal band who goes on tour to promote their latest album. I think it's important for musicians to laugh at themselves and not take anything too seriously.
I also recommend reading Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman. It's a memoir about growing up in a small town in North Dakota and loving 80's glam metal. It is hilarious, and I identify with it because I was also a teenager in a small town once, completely obsessed with music. Although, for me it wasn't 80's glam metal, but 90's grunge and alternative rock. It's a must-read for music lovers regardless of their favorite genre.
Non music related:
Art of War by Sunzi
Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams