I was just talking to somebody about this yesterday; we were talking about influences and I was like, “We tried our hardest to create something different, yet we seem to make it blatantly obvious what some of our influences are.”
The San Diegan sextet Ilya is an absolute aural force. Upon taking the stage, dressed in matching black, they command your attention with poignant downbeats and scintillating sonic swirls. Their debut record, now released by Second Nature Recordings, is garnering praise and adulation circumscribe the globe. The February 2003 issue of Gear magazine, which featured their list of “The 100 Hottest People, Places, and Things on The Planet”, fittingly included Ilya at #47. Amid their busy schedule of shows and appearances, Duane Pitre, Geoff Hill, and Hank Morton shared some time with me before their most recent show at the Rocket Bar.
How did Ilya come about? Was it a combination of different San Diegan efforts, or did you all originally set out to create this band?
Geoff: I had been playing with Matthew in a band, and when that band broke up, we decided to stay together and to keep writing. So we started auditioning people and bass player was the first position we wanted to fill. Johnny was probably the third player we auditioned and he kind of just came into the fold and it just fit. To make a long story short, Matt and I were really trying to put a band together with people who were dedicated and into what we were trying to do. It wasn’t Ilya at that point; it kind of went through some transformations. We originally had a female singer, who just wasn’t really interested, and then we found Blanca. We actually auditioned about 25 singers and she was the second to last; she really just completely knocked us over. The guitar player that we were playing with, his name was Shane, didn’t really quit, he just kind of disappeared.
Hank: Technically he’s still in the band. You know, we see him every once in awhile…
Does he still wear the same outfit?
Hank: [Amid laughter] Actually, he does, he does, but all vintage. [More laughter]
Geoff: As a chance happening, Duane had seen us play as a five-piece and had noticed on our Web site that we were looking for a guitar player. Hank was using a bow on guitar at the time, which is something Duane was really into doing, so he was definitely interested in playing with us.
Duane: I saw that and I was super-hyped. In San Diego, nothing else like that was happening; I had played in bands before, but this was the first time I had gone out on a limb.
How long have you been together?
Geoff: This lineup has been together about a year and a half, but we had played out together for about six months before Duane joined the band.
Would you say that your sound is the product of any major influences you might have?
Hank: We were actually just talking about this in the van today. Actually, Geoff and I used to play in a band in high school, if you even want to call it a band, and of course, being 16 and in high school we were into punk rock. We were especially really into the whole Discord scene.
Duane: We don’t all like the same things, but some things overlap and I think that lends itself well to our sound. There is enough stuff that overlaps to kind of make the glue between us, but we all have our own stuff that the others don’t necessarily like, but that’s good. If we all liked the same things, then we would all write the exact same parts and it would make us sound pretty sterile.
Hank: It is a constant party on the CD changer in the van. We have certain rules where the driver gets to play whatever they want to play and the others have to sit in the back and deal with it.
Geoff: It’s a pretty eclectic mix of CDs going on right now in the van.
Hank: …From advent jazz to Slayer, Sepultura, N.E.R.D., Jurassic 5…
Where do you feel that you fit in?
Hank: I was just talking to somebody about this yesterday; we were talking about influences and I was like, “We tried our hardest to create something different, yet we seem to make it blatantly obvious what some of our influences are.” Definitely having people into different stuff has helped us to keep that dynamic going. By playing an old Herbie Hancock tune on the Rhodes and then tying it in with some Slayer riff, I don’t know if there is a really small, narrowed-down niche…
Duane: I feel that we can play with almost any band and at least win someone in the crowd over…
…Especially on this tour.
Duane: Well, yeah! We’re playing with bands like The Locust and The Elevator Division, two bands that couldn’t be further from each other, but I would rather play to all different types of crowds than just the same crowd. We want to play to as many different people as possible, we don’t care who you are, how you dress or what you listen to; if you like our music, that’s all that matters.
You touched on the writing process a little. Do you feel that the band functions as a collaborative effort, or is there a principle songwriter in the group?
Geoff: I think it definitely works as a collaboration. Sometimes we’ll just bring a mini-disc recorder into the session and jam on it for a while…
Duane: One of us will usually bring a part in and then we will just branch from that.
How does you function as a group? Do you all have a very strong friendship, or is there more of a Smashing Pumpkins-like, “implode at any minute” kind of relationship?
Geoff: When Matt and I were trying to find people initially, we wanted to find people that were into the type of music we wanted to do, but also people that we could work with on a personal level. We are all friends. [It’s] hard enough just trying to be a band, and then if you add in personality conflicts within the band, that just makes it so much harder to get things done.
Duane: It’s even more of a bummer when you like the music but you can’t get along.
Geoff: We’re overall pretty close. Matt, Hank, and I all live together.
Hank: We’ve known each other for like 15 years.
Duane: I knew no one when I came into the band…
Sometimes that’s good.
Duane: Yeah, it is. I had never done that before, but after we played, to me, it felt right. Afterwards, they had me come to their loft to talk on a personal level, which was nice. I didn’t want to join a band with people who were completely different than me.
You have to feel that vibe, especially if you are going to be spending all that time in a van together.
Geoff: [Laughs] We’ve been spending a lot of time in a van together; we’re a pretty tight-knit group. We all have our moments, but who doesn’t? I don’t think anybody could spend over eight hours a day in a van together and not have his or her moments.
Duane: If nothing goes wrong, then everybody is on way too much medication. [Laughter]
Hank: It runs incredibly smooth compared to most bands out there. It is really horrible to hear about all the bands that are on the verge of making it, or have already made it, and they just fall apart to personality conflicts.
Being that there are six of you, how does the band manage to equally combine all of your talents and still create such a dynamically strong sound?
Duane: I like this question. I think the main thing is that none of us feel that we are the lead guy, that we need to show off, as to say, “check me out.” We all know that this is where I come and this is where you come in. It’s kind of like the formula of jazz because we kind of take roles at times. I play guitar, and there are whole parts where I don’t play a single note. A lot of people have asked me what I think about that, and I love it. I think it is dynamically pleasing to have all of us ducking in and out.
When I saw you play for the first time and I saw all of the stuff you had on stage, I was a little worried.
Duane: We’re worried about that all the time.
I was trying to imagine how that would come across, but that was the thing I was most impressed by.
Duane: We want the song to prevail, not ourselves.
But having seen your live show before I had heard the record, I definitely noticed that the dynamics do not have as much punch as they might in a live situation. How do you feel the band differs from the stage to the studio?
Duane: There is a definite difference. If you are in a venue where you can hear all of the amps on stage instead of just through the PA, there is going to be more energy.
Hank: We recorded this whole album ourselves. On our next record, we definitely want to have someone who is a producer come in and lend something to it. We just had limited resources. We didn’t have a huge amazing studio that we could do all these live tracks, which some of our songs would have really benefited from.
Duane: I don’t think that we consider this record to be perfect at all, but we are happy with and we are proud of the way it came out, especially because it was all done internally with only one other person’s help. In no sense do we think this is exactly how we will want it in ten years. We are definitely looking forward to our next record, so we can do some things differently.
That is one of things that I do like: having a record that is different than the live show, because what is the point of going out and seeing a band play if they sound exactly as they do on their album?
Duane: I completely agree. I think our record is a little more velvety or smoother than the live show and unless it is a metal band or something, and it is supposed to be, then I like it to be smoother on record. This way the live show can be the live show.
What is your favorite song on the record, and why?
Geoff: “Blatchford” is probably mine. I don’t know if it is my favorite on the CD, but it is definitely my favorite to play live. I love “Isola” too, but I hate playing it. It makes me really tired.
Duane: As far as on the record, I would say, “I Want To Know” is my favorite. The dynamics seemed to come out really well on that one.
Hank: I feel the same as Duane. I think “I Want To Know” came out really well on the recording.
Two more to go… You guys mentioned having diverse music collections. What is spinning in your CD players right now?
Duane: Definitely Loveless by My Bloody Valentine.
Hank: The whole catalog of Spiritualized.
Geoff: The new Broken Social Scene record.
Finally, if you had only one word to describe your band to someone who had never heard of you or heard your music before, what would that word be?