Collective Farm

The Essex Green pool their influences and talents

Mention the word "collective" in a conversation about music, and you're probably talking about the '60s, or the Elephant Six collective, a group of musicians in bands like the Olivia Tremor Control, the Apples in Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel.

The Essex Green, from Brooklyn, are also part of this family--the band shares Sasha Bell and Jeff Baron with E6ers the Ladybug Transistor. But The Essex Green is a collective unto itself. Composed of Christopher Ziter, Bell and Baron, who all sing, write songs and play various instruments, their sound is a collection of early rock influences. On their latest record, Cannibal Sea, Bell's lilting vocals and '60s-pop aura complements Ziter's traditional folk leanings, and then Baron's own pop sensibilities snuggle down in between. They're often labeled as "'60s revisionists," or a more American Belle and Sebastian, but The Essex Green's songs grow from pop and folk roots into vines that stretch their branches to the sunnier edges of modern rock.

The Essex Green originally began in Vermont as Guppyboy. When Bell, Baron and Ziter decided to move to New York in 1997, the fourth Guppyboy didn't want to go, so they had to make some changes. The name came to them on the drive back to Vermont from New York when they first decided to move, and their new drummer helped make their songs a bit more upbeat.

"We had all these songs that were probably a little more poppy-based than the stuff we had done up in Vermont, and we were listening to more of the sort of psychedelic '60s music at the time; the Elephant Six thing was big then, and we were kind of into that ... so I feel like we pigeonholed ourselves," said Ziter. "We've been tagged as a '60s revisionist band from the beginning, really, because of those first few years of discovering who we were and what the band was going to be like and what kind of music we wanted to play."

But things changed. Bell, Baron and Ziter realized eventually that the three of them were really the core of The Essex Green, so they began including different musicians as needed. The band's sound began to develop past psychedelic pop.

"Once we focused the group down to the three main players--Jeff, Sasha and myself--I think we started to define it outside of that realm," continued Ziter. "But we consistently still get pegged as a '60s-focused band. A lot of the music we listen to is still from that era, the '60s and '70s era, but it's probably more country now than it is the psych-pop or anything like that."

The Essex Green's '60s- and '70s-era pop influences are definitely apparent in the vocal harmonies and in some of the hooks and rhythms. But the songs that feature more keyboards have an almost new-wave undertone, and the country influence sneaks in on "Rabbit," "Rue de Lis," "Sin City" and "Slope Song."

"A lot of times, you just don't know what's going to come out of you just from the different influences when you pick up the guitar or keyboards, and you're going to start writing a song," said Ziter. "I mean, more often than not, what comes out of me is the more folky, kind of relaxed stuff, and I think for Jeff, too. Sasha's got her own style of writing that I think is really hard to define and hard to find anywhere else."

Part of the tendency to categorize The Essex Green as '60s pop is because their songs are carefully textured and have an orchestral nature to them. The collection of instruments, melodies, harmonies and rhythms has been artfully constructed. And like any recording artist that spends lots of time building and crafting their music, The Essex Green gladly bring in musical textures, which give the songs a familiar, classic, yet entirely original air. "Don't Know Why (You Stay)" begins with a muted rock guitar riff that slowly builds to bubblegum pop. "Penny and Jack" starts off almost Cure-like, then the drums take on a Latin beat as we hear about Penny, who loves New York, and Jack, who doesn't.

Most of the songs on Cannibal Sea, though it was reportedly unintentional, ended up dealing with feelings about New York and moving away, though sometimes indirectly. Explained Ziter, "I moved to Cincinnati in the middle of the recording process, and I think that somehow, the record ended up becoming this sort of thematic record about idealized places and leaving and moving and all the anxieties and wondering that involves that."

Anxieties abound in "This Isn't Farm Life": "I read the news with all its angles bent / blame my confusion on designs intelligent / too many things to keep my mind off," sings Bell. The flute in "Slope Song" and the organs in "Rue de Lis" sound about as mournful as leaving a city you love.

"I lived (in New York) for close to eight years," said Ziter. "I moved because I have a girlfriend out here, and she has kids, and that situation wasn't going to move to New York ... . We're all kind of ready to move--I can't tell you how many times we've been on tour in the states, and every town you go to, you're like, 'Can I live here? Can I live here?' But then as you learn a little more about the town, suddenly somehow New York just seems really difficult to leave. It has its problems, but it's culturally so alive--the subway culture, the way you can live your life without a car: That whole concept just doesn't exist anywhere else. I definitely lived it, and I miss it at times, though I don't regret the decision to move. It's definitely a place, even if you lived there for a year, you can miss pretty seriously."

But despite Ziter's new location, the band still maintains its collectivity. The painstaking attention to songwriting as a group is obvious all over Cannibal Sea; it's not about reliving the '60s, or re-creating a certain sound, or writing songs for a certain musical project.

Said Ziter, "It ultimately comes down to picking the best songs. When we're going to make a record, we have a whole batch to choose from--it may be folky, it may be poppy, it may be psychedelic; whatever it is, it's just the most interesting song that's chosen out of the bunch, that's what defines the set list."