No Pretensions:
The Literary Greats Leave Nothing on the Table

The Literary Greats pic #1
(l to r) Kris Becker, Chris Ginsbach, Taylor Lee, & Brandon Elam.
Photo by J. Hart.
On the face of it, the name The Literary Greats seems pretty much spot-on -- the music the band makes is subtle and gorgeous, with perfectly-balanced, country-tinged guitars swinging along beneath lyrics that are honest and clever at the same time, all without trying too hard.
Frontman Brandon Elam's erudite words hits the mark beautifully throughout, making me smile and nod knowingly when he describes listening to the wind batter the live oaks in the rain outside a beleaguered club.
Best of all, it all sounds perfectly Texan somehow. There's a countryish jangliness here, a rough-edged openness that evokes those wide-open skies and warm, humid nights. And why shouldn't that be the case? Anybody who actually lives here knows that hick-country's nowhere near the be-all and end-all of this state; if anything, it's a caricature of what being a Texan sounds like. To me, at least, being a Texan (and a Houstonian, on top of that) sounds like -- well, like this. The band's self-titled debut serves as a grin-inducing journal of everyday life in our bigger-than-big state.
The Greats have more up their sleeve, however. They've been turning up the volume a bit for their next effort, a soon-to-be-released sophomore full-length that -- if it comes off at all like the band's live show -- promises to amp up The Literary Greats' already great sound and make it ballsier and more "rock." Which sure sounds like a good thing from here. Before that happens, though, we had some questions to ask, so SCR had a friendly chat with guitarist/singer Brandon Elam and drummer Chris Ginsbach about music, literature, and The Real World (although not in that order).
The Literary Greats play Thursday, August 13th, at The Continental Club (3700 Main St.), along with Beetle.

SCR: Who's officially in the band? Kris is new, right?
Brandon Elam: Brandon Elam, Taylor Lee, Darin Lee, Chris Ginsbach and Kris Becker. Kris appeared on our last record and joined the band full time last fall.
How did you guys start playing music together? Can you give us the band history?
BE: Ginsbach and I were friends from college. Taylor and Darin are brothers -- affectionately called the Lee brothers -- and I met them volunteering in the church studio. Kris was my piano teacher. I liked writing songs, and they liked making them better -- that's how we pretty much got started.
Chris Ginsbach: Brandon and I started getting together once a week at his apartment, going through the thousands of demos he'd created. We found some we liked and slowly started recording some actual drums tracks. This was back in 2001. Taylor and Darin joined in around 2003-2004, and that's when we really started taking shape as a band.

What all did you do before the Literary Greats? Every damn band in this town seems connected sometimes, so I'm always curious...
BE: I guess we have some history, though we're probably not as connected as other groups. I was in a power-pop band called Haywood from College Station that played in Houston occasionally. Ginsbach played with Haywood some, and also an acoustic rock band call The Sly Letter. Taylor and Darin play in Lazlo. Taylor also has a side project with Sarah Van Buskirk, Finnegan. Kris is a concert pianist who is probably the most connected out of all of us -- but in the wedding and funeral line of work. No kidding.
Seriously? He does a lot of those? What do the rest of you do for a living, just out of curiosity?
BE: No joke, and happens to get a few dates out of these deals, as well. I have a day job as a manager with an energy consultancy. I know, not as sexy as a wedding pianist.
CG: I'm a financial advisor with Van Pearcy Financial. The Lees are managers for a roofing company.
Any story behind the band name? I know the term "literary great" pops up in one of the songs off the debut -- it fits, though, with the erudition of the lyrics. Did you guys just hear that and say, "yeah, that's us"?
BE: Actually, you're the first to guess it right. "The Literary Greats" seems so far-fetched that it's easy to look back at the music for what it is versus taking ourselves too seriously. We're not even avid readers outside a couple of biographies, historical pieces, and the Bible.
CG: I think the official story goes that Brandon showed up to rehearsal one day with a new demo, which had the song title "The Literary Greats" written on it. Taylor came in the room and said, "Whoa, is that the name of the band?" We all looked at each other and declared, "It is now." It fit perfectly to what we thought our sound reflected and allowed us to laugh at ourselves with such a debonair title when we are far from that. That song is now called "Devotion."
The Literary Greats record cover
(Music courtesy of The Literary Greats.)

So no pretentions to literary grandeur, then? That seems a little strange, because Brandon, your lyrics to the songs are remarkably well-crafted and poem-like.
BE: Thank you for the compliment. I try very hard to craft songs the listener can relate to but also evoke thought. I use a dictionary and a thesaurus, which makes it difficult to harbor any pretentions to literary grandeur.
You guys seem to not play real often, at least not lately; what's the deal?
BE: For a stretch there this spring, we did shows at The Continental, Mango's, Cactus, and two at The Red Gorilla Festival in Austin. We took a short break in order to focus on our new record we're planning on releasing in August/September. After the release, we're working on rotating shows in Houston, Dallas, and Austin with a couple of other bands.
The Literary Greats pic #2
(l to r) Chris Ginsbach, Taylor Lee, Brandon Elam, & Darin Lee.
Photo by J. Hart.
Before the spring, though, you guys weren't playing too much, were you? I heard you, Chris, don't live in these parts these days...
BE: We generally try to do a full band show once every other month, although it fluctuates. Chris lives in Midland, which means we have to plan in advance. Many times we'll do a barely advertised, stripped-down show with two or three guys at Avant Garden or the like. For example, we did full band at House of Blues last November, Avant Garden in December, and then took January and February off before all of the shows in the spring. We probably don't play as much as other local bands, but we try to keep things warm.
How did the Red Gorilla Fest go? What was the reaction like? Heck, what's the reaction like for you guys here at home?
BE: Red Gorilla was fantastic. We had a Friday night spot on 6th Street at Darwin's Pub. The place was packed with folks outside the door watching through the windows. I think we did alright because I got a call from a publisher in LA, DLMusic, who caught the show and signed a licensing agreement with us for more television and film. We finalized in June and hopefully we'll get a few more placements and exposure.
At home, I think we're warmly welcomed. We usually have a good crowd and most people who come out enjoy themselves and seem genuinely interested in our show.
So you made the CMJ Top 200 last year -- how'd that go? Had it opened up any doors?
BE: It did. It got us a couple of licensing deals; I worked directly with Rev Moose from CMJ on some promo stuff in the magazine, it helped when applying for Red Gorilla, etc. It's a good feather to have in your hat, and I think it shows the band's recorded performance holds some level of interest.
Having heard you guys' first full-length only recently, I was pretty surprised to hear the much more "rock" new songs -- I'm guessing the quieter stuff is getting pretty old to you guys, at this point? Were you consciously trying to go in a different direction?
BE: Great question, and glad you asked, because I haven't really thought though it. There was no organized effort to create songs that were heavier or rocked a little more than the last record, but the overall feel of this new group of songs is darker and with a little more edge. At the same time, it still sounds like us. I think we're evolving as a band, and you're hearing everyone reacting to each other's contributions. The process starts with the core song, and the themes of these new songs asked for something a little deeper.
What's the usual songwriting process for you guys, then? Does one person do the bulk of it, or...?
BE: I write most of the songs and record a demo of the core song to give to the group. From there, everyone breaks down the song, adds their parts, and puts their mark on it. The finished product sounds nothing like the demos, and always much better. The whole is truly better than the sum of its parts.
CG: Comparing the recording and songwriting process from album to album, this one was much more of a collaborative/band effort. Some of the songs on the first album were completed back in 2003-2004, before there was actually a band. The new song collection was all written during practices or in the studio, with the entire band present. And as Brandon mentioned, he usually creates the shell of the song, and then we all create our parts and bounce arrangement ideas off of each other.
So, where the debut album was Brandon's baby, this one's more of a collaboration? And how would you describe the themes of the new album, as opposed to the first one?
BE: This one is definitely darker. I became very sick two years ago and ended up in the hospital for about two months and another six months recuperating. Naturally, my writing focused on death, love, dreams, faith, pain, etc. What I love about this record is it is real...nothing left on the table. The guys cued in on this and really created music that equals the weight of the writing.
Don't take that to mean this record is overly depressing. It isn't...it does have some excellent upbeat tunes.
Was the process for the new album different than for the last one? I remember reading that you had a fairly big-name producer for this one; was that the case?
BE: Yes, Taylor and I engineered and mixed the last record ourselves -- completely self-produced. Our publicist at Tinderbox Music is friends with Chris Grainger in Nashville, and he told Grainger we were about to start a new record. Grainger reached out to me, we talked a little, met up at Red Gorilla, and decided we would have a great time working together. Turns out it was a wise decision. Grainger is an excellent engineer/producer -- and incredibly nice guy -- and really captured the band that we are. The feedback we've heard on the mixes thus far has been similar: it doesn't sound over-produced, yet we sound like a tighter, more experienced group.
How's the new album going? You mentioned the other night that it was nearly finished, right?
BE: Yes, mixing is complete and mastering starts this week. If all the pieces fall into place -- artwork, masters, duplication, etc. -- we could have the first print in our hands by middle August.
The Literary Greats pic #3
Taylor Lee.
Photo by J. Hart.
Excellent; are you self-releasing it again, or will it be on a label this time?
BE: Self-releasing. A label would great when and if a good deal comes along.
Which of the new songs did you play at Walter's?
BE: We played nine from the new record and three from the last record. We're excited about them having just finished up in the studio, so we were leaning toward the newer stuff the other night.
What would you claim as your biggest influences, music-wise? And on the flipside of that, what's the worst way you've ever seen somebody describe your music?
BE: Growing up, I listened to the Pixies and REM, and my parents listened to country music -- so, by default,I also listened to country music, everything from Willie Nelson to Kenny Rogers. So somehow, there's a little bit of all of these influences in my writing.
Worst way our music has been described -- someone mentioned The Church once, but I actually used to listen to The Church and I took it as a compliment, though I don't necessarily hear it.
CG: The only music my dad will purchase is Willie Nelson. My early drumming influences were Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews. I'll listen to anything except radio-friendly country and radio-friendly hip-hop. Keep it underground and outlaw.
That's pretty funny, because -- no offense -- "underground and outlaw" isn't exactly how I'd describe you guys' music. The Greats in general sound a lot more, well, "genteel," at least to me.
BE: I defer to Ginsbach on that one. Like you, I prefer genteel.
CG: I was referring to the type of music I listen to -- underground hip-hop and outlaw country. Sorry for the confusion...
Okay, so how did the Real World thing come about? It's pretty funny -- and cool, obviously -- to think of you guys' music playing beneath the NYC footage.
BE: Once we charted on the CMJ, we were able to get licensing deals with a couple of cable programs, one of them being Real World Brooklyn. They put us in three different episodes at varying lengths, using mostly "New York, Not Her" -- fitting -- and "Sort It Out."
You watched the show, then? How weird was that?
BE: Yeah, you can view the episodes online. It was weird thinking millions of people were listening to it, and it will be on the DVD when it comes out. At the same time, the spots weren't what I'd call "featured," so it's an accomplishment but not exactly a game changer.
As a bit of a side note, I get the feeling you guys are fairly religious -- is that the case? Does that play into the music at all?
BE: Faith is a very personal thing, so I can only speak for myself. Being a Christian isn't exactly cool these days, but that's my faith and it's the only thing I've found I can turn to when life happens. My relationship with God is as real as death, love, or happiness, so it does find its way into my writing.
CG: I think there is a big difference between faith and religion. Faith for me is the belief in Christ and the belief in His forgiving grace. There is nothing I can do, no religious rule I can follow, that gets me closer to Him. And I also believe that he has a purpose in my life. I want to make sure I'm in line with His plan, and I certainly feel this band is a part of that. Brandon's songs cut right to the faith that he has, and how that helps him cope, understand, and react to the things of this world. The music we create is not "praise & worship," but I love the fact that we are a straight-up rock band with a belief and a purpose behind the music.
Do you guys have those "yeah, we're gonna be huge!" aspirations? Or is this more just for than anything else?
BE: I think any musician needs to take a realistic approach to making music. The chances of getting discovered by a label wielding a multimillion dollar contract -- or any contract, for that matter -- is so slim, having a "we're gonna be huge" mindset will only disappoint you. Like anything worth doing, whether making wine or making love, you have to work hard and you have to take your time so you can evolve and get better at it.
Right now our focus is to take the next step with our new record -- do a little better in radio, get a spot on network television, extend the reach of our music, etc. It's going to take quite a bit of work, as before, but it's nice to do it on our own terms and not wait on the industry to do something. If we get to a point where we can do this full-time and support our families, we will.
CG: Bottom line is we're going to keep doing this whether we're huge, local, or just in the basement. We love creating art through music, and we all want to use our God-given talents to the fullest. We have a lot of fun with the entire process, from playing and writing to recording and creating the album package. We all lean on each other for support and utilize each other's ideas and talents to become better as a band. END