Emmett Kelly exists in many shapes and musical forms. His immense talent and abilities have brought him into the studio to add licks to some of the last decade’s most interesting indie albums. One of his main collaborators is Will Oldham, otherwise known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy – the great Americana balladeer with a Satyr’s cheeks and an Irish lumberjack’s facial hair. Some highlights from their collaboration, which has resulted in multiple full-length albums and singles, include a track created for a homage soundtrack album for the 1971 surf film Morning of the Earth and Billy’s 2006 album, The Letting Go, which was recorded in Reykjavik, Iceland by Bjork producer Valgeir Sigurðsson. However, Kelley has also been steadily putting out records under his own moniker, The Cairo Gang, which is a band he started back in high school and that still continues to take form and propulsion with each album that is released. The latest Cairo release, Goes Missing, seems much more full than previous records and much more well rounded, but Kelley’s voice is right there to punch you straight in the heart with brass knuckles and the lyrics are more biting than ever. It is truly one of this year’s best albums and it makes you want to listen to Cairo’s entire discography over and over again. Autre got a chance to speak with Kelly and our conversation ranged from talking about his stint living in Chicago and experiencing the experimental music scene there, his collaborations will Bonnie “Prince” Billy, his current album and where he hopes to take his music next.
Did you have musical background? Did you come from a musical family?
Yeah, I came from a musical family. Both my parents were musical.
When did you know you wanted to become a musician?
I didn’t really know, ever. That was just how life was. I grew up in this kind of environment. Music always had a presence. I just sucked at school.
You’re known as a session guy, like a hired gun in the studio. When did that start? Did you have any early aspirations to be in a band?
I’ve always been in bands, since I was a teenager. I grew up in LA—I never thought of being a hired gun. I didn’t even realize that was a thing you could do, ever, as a job. Until I moved to Chicago and started getting gigs just being in a bar band, or whoever’s band. I was never really thinking about being a hired guy.
I grew up in Los Angeles, as well.
Where are you from?
I grew up on the West Side, a little bit of Hollywood. Everywhere. Where did you grow up, specifically?
In the valley… LA seems like a boomtown right now.
It does seem that way.
It’s definitely creatively booming.
It’s funny, there are a lot of artists and musicians moving there from different parts of the country, especially New York. A lot of these musicians and artists don’t like talking about it. They don’t like being part of this migration.
They don’t want to be part of the LA migration?
Yeah, they don’t want to be part of the trend or something. They’re too cool. But it’s a definitive migration.
Yeah, it’s so ridiculous because they don’t want to admit to having a good life, living in a beautiful place.
New York is chaos. I always forget about the chaos in New York. You’re surrounded by people in this giant, concrete prison. LA is beautiful.
You lived in Chicago for a spell, what prompted the move to Chicago?
It wasn’t a conscious thing. I was travelling. I spent the ages of 17 to 25 travelling. I was passing through Chicago just because my sister was living there. I heard some music and stayed another week, then heard some more music and got an apartment. It’s easy to live there because the cost of living is very low. And, at the time, there was really great experimental music. There’s still a lot of experimental music. But it seemed really exotic to me at the time.
What kind of experimental music?
The main one was this bar—a really crappy bar—in Chicago called Rodan. It’s a totally shabby-but-trying-to-be-fancy kind of market scene that serves fucked up champagne drinks. I was at this bar; there was this band that used to play there every Tuesday. They just played free, experimental music. It was insane. Just to see it infiltrate into a meat market. This incidental thing was blowing my mind. You would never see that in Los Angeles or New York. I stayed for another week and I learned that there was this bookstore down the street that had experimental music every week. That kind of shit—that’s absolutely where my head was. Instead of someone who wants to go to shows, more experimental things are way more exciting for me. LA and New York—everything tried to be really marketable in some way, even to a niche audience. But the experimental scene in Chicago was aggressively anti-having an audience, even. I think that’s really a cool way to be.
"It’s sort of why I ended up back in LA. I felt like the scene was starting to cave in on itself. It wasn’t as exciting anymore. But I feel like a lot of people in the city felt the same way. It’s hard for me to tell. Every place you go, when you start to get anxious to leave, you start seeing all this negative shit."
Going against the grain. There’s such a scene in LA, a scene in New York. “Scene” is such an overplayed word.
But it’s true. But there’s a scene in Chicago. The free, experimental community in Chicago is totally a scene. It’s sort of why I ended up back in LA. I felt like the scene was starting to cave in on itself. It wasn’t as exciting anymore. But I feel like a lot of people in the city felt the same way. It’s hard for me to tell. Every place you go, when you start to get anxious to leave, you start seeing all this negative shit. But who knows. People think of it as negative. They probably don’t if they live there. Chicago seems like a tormented kind of place.
I want to ask you, what have been some of your most fulfilling music collaborations?
Obviously, I spent a long time working with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. That was definitely the most comprehensive for me. He’s an excellent composer of songs, lyrical and melodic. His awareness of how he wants to practice in a band setting, in a collaborative setting is really in line with my philosophy on that as well. Improvising is very important to me. Whenever you play songs or make records—I never feel like there’s a definitive version of anything. If you play it live, it should always be changing. You should always discover something new about it. With Bonnie “Prince” Billy, it was amazing to realize that you could improvise a song. If you think about it, the song is really the lyric and the melody. You could always change it. There’s a million ways to do a song.
I read somewhere—I don’t know if this is true or not—but Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” a lot of those songs are improvised.
Yeah, that’s an improvised record. There was probably some preparation on his end, as far as what chords he was playing. But that record was done in the middle of the night with some of the best musicians in New York at the time.
It’s incredible. It just goes to show how far you can take that and still be so complex.
Absolutely. I feel like it’s so stale, when bands go on the road a lot of the time they’re worried about re-creating the record, making something that when people see it, they see what they want. It’s assuming that an audience doesn’t ever want situational life in their music. It’s fucking weird. Obviously, it’s impressive. I just recently saw Magma play, and they were totally phenomenal. Of course, that music is so deeply composed that it’s impressive to see it happen live. But rock and roll’s about situational energy. So it’s ridiculous to think that you would come up with a sound and then stick with it.
Is there anything really exciting about the music industry right now?
Yeah, I think there’s something really exciting going on. No one can understand what’s going on in it. And that’s really interesting, I think. Everyone’s freaked out because their record business is failing. Or they’re freaked out because it’s killing. Everyone’s feeling this apocalyptic thing. I guess the thing that’s always in apocalyptic thinking is the idea that the end of something implies the beginning of something else. I’ve always had trouble with the music business, so I can’t say I’d be very sad if it died a miserable death. But at the same time, I’ve had a decent relationship with it. Hopefully, it’s not some rapture. One thing that was really great about my experience in Chicago was that people had fun playing music. I feel like you forget some of the fun stuff when you’re surrounded in industry. Being in LA… When I was a teenager, LA was the best place ever for a band. There were so many amazing bands. Every band that you’d hear, there was some horrible thing about them trying to get something going… I really don’t know. I like that there’s so much working outside of the record business. Hopefully, people stick with it.
And the Cairo Gang—is that a band or a solo project? Reading about it, every band seems to have the same cast of musicians. How would you describe the Cairo Gang?
The Cairo Gang, originally, was a band in LA back in high school. It’s kind of grown—anytime I wrote a song, I wrote it as part of that name, for some reason. And the name has grown in importance to me over the years. It’s been different bands. All the records are my doing. There have been a few people that have played some stuff on records, but I haven’t made a proper band album.
How is your current album, “Goes Missing,” different from other Cairo albums?
It was recorded in different locations. That’s a big thing. It happened at a different time. There’s a lot of things that I assumed I would never really use, like sound machine, for examples. I thought I would never use a sound machine on a record, and I did.
Last question—what is next? What do you want to explore next?
I want to play a lot of shows. I want to have a band develop and immediately make another record with them. I’m working on a lot of new songs, but they’re open for progressions. It would be amazing to have a band that was playing a lot. The band would be amorphous, sort of an interpretive group. We could go and make new music that is situational. I’ve been listening to this band, Gong, lately. I really love the spirit of that music. I wouldn’t want to make a record that sounds like Gong at all. But I like the fact that it comes out of a lot of playing.