A little over a year ago, Eyes Lips Eyes, a quartet from Los Angeles via Provo, Utah, were on the road, sharing a van with tourmates Toy Bombs. One afternoon, after driving all night and sleeping in the van, they pulled up in front of a club in New London, Conn. The doors flung open and out they tumbled, all 10 people. It was cold and damp, far from acceptable, L.A.-style weather. The streets were mostly empty, and the few people they encountered were surly. It was worse inside the club.
“We get there, and there's this kind of hostile environment,” said guitarist Spencer Peterson, who spoke to the Advocate by phone from somewhere between Tallahassee and Jacksonville, Fla. “We have to play a show. There's a very small crowd.”
Not willing to let a bummer day (they'd also just learned a New York gig was cancelled) ruin their stage time, the one glorious hour-or-so they enjoyed amidst the whole stinking grind, Peterson and the band — his cousin, singer Tony Hello and bassist Aaron Hatch, two fellow Brigham Young University grads, and drummer Thomas Carroll, a Utah Valley University alum — played a fantastic set. The other bands on the bill, picking up on the anger, performed ecstatic sets of their own. It was one of those nights.
“It was this crowd of bands dancing and going crazy for each others' sets,” Peterson said. “It lifted our spirits in the middle of this weird show.” They met one individual, a resident of Athens, Ga., who would soon become their current booking agent, and his clients the Beauvilles, a Florida band with whom ELE have since shared multiple tours. “And it just turned into this love-fest where everyone was really happy to be there, hugging by the end of the night. It was a really great experience that came out of what probably should have been the worst night of the tour... It ended up altering the history of the band. It was a pivotal.”
Only in New London.
ELE were born in the fertile music ground of Provo, a city slightly smaller than Hartford, situated 43 miles south of Salt Lake City, home to three colleges — BYU, Provo College and UVU — as well as Peaks Ice Arena, one of the venues used during Mitt Romney's 2002 Winter Olympics. The Osmonds come from Provo, as do indie-rock acts Neon Trees, Joshua James and Isaac Russell.
“Everywhere we go, we like to trumpet how great the Provo scene is on a nationwide level,” Peterson said. “People have ideas about the conservative aspects of society [in Utah]. Honestly, it was one of the most fruitful scenes, from about 2004 to the present... There are a lot of these national acts that have their origin in this little Mormon community, either [because of] the pent-up aggression of a bunch of LDS [Latter-day Saints] kids or the fact that there are two universities within a very small geographic area. There's a lot of activity pushing through, and it creates this little hotbed of activity. We still loyally go back there and play shows as often as we can.”
The band plays energetic, layered funk-pop, influenced by New Wave-era bands like the Talking Heads and later sounds coming out of L.A. — early Red Hot Chili Peppers, for example, without the slapping — processed through a certain politeness. There are moments on Blue Red, their full-length album, when you can imagine yourself at a packed frat house, well past midnight, sweating shoulder-to-shoulder in a sea of co-eds (to borrow a Mitt Romney-era term). It's somewhat non-threatening and innocent, consistently intelligent with flashes of subsurface rage. They do a meta-cover of “Psycho Killer”; it sounds like they're commenting on it as they go along. For four pieces, they also cram in a lot of sound.
“Two different worlds collide in the studio,” Peterson said. “And where the two shall meet is always the decision that has to be made. We cut our teeth as a live band, so you want to make everything as live as possible. You want to make it doable.” He said he's influenced by three-piece, single-guitar bands like the Violent Femmes and Gang of Four. “What would I do with four more members of my band? I feel like we get a full sound already, but I don't even know what I'd do with a rhythm guitar. It would blow my mind, all that possibility put into those other instruments... And then we do a lot of background vocals that fill a lot of those textures that a keyboard would fill.”
There was no question, Peterson suggested, that ELE would have to leave Provo at some point, to move forward with their careers. “We had a good handle on our scene and we were growing,” Peterson said, “so we felt we grew beyond what we left. The fundamental idea was that you can sell out a show in Provo and at the end of the day, you'll earn fans, but you aren't going to attract any industry attention unless you fly them to Provo for that show.” They left for Los Angeles, where they figured they could play a show in Hollywood, and a handful of industry people might just drop by on their way home from work. It was a productive period for the band; they recorded a new single — both A-side and B-side — every month, along with an original video. The best tracks ended up on Blue Red. ELE also hired new management and have since written another, as-of-yet unreleased album in Seattle, due out next March.
Out in L.A., Peterson said, “You have more access to more people and a bigger network and all that... At the time, as a band we felt like we knew what we were doing. In retrospect, we had no clue what we were doing.”
Eyes Lips Eyes, w/ pools are nice, Kindred Queer, Nov. 5, 8 p.m., $6, Cafe Nine, 250 State St., New Haven, (203) 789-8281, cafenine.com, manicproductions.org.