Eli Young Band Singer Talks New Album, Finding ‘Old-School’ Sound
For the past 15 years, Eli Young Band’s albums have arrived in three-year intervals. That means that Fingerprints, the Texas act’s sixth LP and follow up to 2014’s chart-topping 10,000 Towns, is right on schedule. Except it’s not nearly so simple for this hard-touring band, who find themselves hitting the reset button and joining a new label just a few short years after they seemed poised to make the jump to crossover success.
“It was important to us with this album that we really wanted to go into the studio and make an album that felt 100 percent like Eli Young Band,” says singer Mike Eli of Fingerprints, which was released June 16th on Big Machine Label Group imprint Valory Music Co. “Our goal with this record was to listen to the fans, and the fans wanted us to bring in some songs that felt like old-school Eli Young Band.”
Having graduated to a major label with Universal Republic a decade ago, Eli Young Band gradually moved away from their Red Dirt roots, incorporating more pop elements on 10,000 Towns before going for a fully slicked-up production on 2015 EP Turn It On and their subsequent collaboration with Andy Grammer, “Honey, I’m Good.” That they’ve billed Fingerprints as a return to their roots suggests those pop experiments might not have worked, although Eli stops short of saying so.
“We loved the EP and we loved ‘Honey, I’m Good,’ but that’s not necessarily who we are. That was just us experimenting and doing some fun things,” Eli says. With that said, he admits, “Making the EP was a little bit outside of our box. We weren’t necessarily comfortable with it – not that we were pressured into making it, but it was outside the box for us.”
Fingerprints sees Eli Young Band return with the same production duo that they worked with on Turn It On, Ross Copperman and Jeremy Stover, and still under the umbrella of Universal, which handles Big Machine’s distribution. But, while Eli insists the band “always had an incredible amount of creative control” while at Universal, the new LP sees them play a much larger role in the songwriting. Whereas more than half the songs on 10,000 Towns were written by outside writers, the band wrote all but three of the 11 tracks on Fingerprints.
“I went a good year and a half in the studio and in writing sessions trying to write everything I could, trying to write the smartest, wittiest stuff I could write. Somewhere along the way, I forgot to make sure the passion was there,” Eli says, admitting that the pressure to write another hit became a distraction. 2011’s Life at Best saw the group score two Number One hits, “Crazy Girl” and “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” while 10,000 Towns‘ “Drunk Last Night” went to the top of the US Country Airplay chart. Valory helped ease some of that pressure. “Having had a string of hits and then kind of went away for awhile, you would expect a label to come back and say, ‘Hey, if you want to get back at radio, you have to do what we say.’ And they didn’t,” Eli says.
Ironically, Fingerprints‘ lead single, “Saltwater Gospel,” written by Copperman, Nicolle Gaylon, and Ashley Gorley, is one of the few songs to come from outside the band. “All the songs on this record are personal, even the songs we didn’t write. The reason we connected with them is because they’re personal,” Eli says. Other songs to see early release from the album, like “Skin & Bones” and “Never Land,” both written by the band, fall into a similarly mid-tempo tone, love songs that focus on intimate details and living in the moment.
Still, other songs, like “Never Again,” are faster and more bombastic, a fact that Eli admits is a change from some of their recent albums, but which hearkens back to early favorites like Jet Black & Jealous. “‘Never Again’ we’ve been playing live a lot lately and it just puts this cool drive in the album,” he says. Especially as a veteran band known for their live performances, it was important to find songs that would work on stage. “We always want our live show to be a fun roller coaster ride. Every record, I think, we find spaces where we’re like, ‘Okay, we could make this part of the live show better if we had this kind of song here.’ I think this record contributes so many cool things to the live show.”
Eli Young Band’s live reputation was built largely on their pre-major label days spent touring the Texas country circuit, but Eli admits that making the transition to Nashville 10 years ago risked alienating that core fan base – some of whom accused the band of selling out.
“It feels like it was a lot harder for us than for other artists. I get it, the grass is always greener, but it felt really tough, because we built everything on the shoulders of those Texas fans,” he says. “People don’t realize that the moment we signed that deal, that was the moment we gave up a lot of touring, a lot of money. At that point it was, ‘We need to get on Southwest flights and fly to every corner of the country and introduce ourselves to people.’ We did that for several years.”
If keeping their Texas fans happy wasn’t easy, then convincing the folks at large that they belonged on the national stage wasn’t any better. “When we went to radio, some folks didn’t take us seriously, for some reason,” remembers Eli. “It may sound like a no-brainer now that [those songs] have been on the radio for so long. Back then, man, getting ‘Even If It Breaks Your Heart’ up the charts was hard. It wasn’t easy. We had a lot of folks say it just doesn’t fit the format, and come to find out it does. Believe it or not, ‘Crazy Girl’ was the same way.”
Upon its release, Fingerprints found itself at Number One on the iTunes country chart. It’s a small indicator that they handled their reset the right way, putting their focus on what they still have left to accomplish.
“10,000 Towns and Life at Best changed our lives in a huge way. We’d love for this record to be another one of those records for us, but at the same time we feel pretty good about where are,” he says. “Our goal is to just make the best music Eli Young Band can make and hope our fans enjoy it, whether we make another Number One record or not.”