The newest episode of the Walking the Floor country-music podcast finds host Chris Shiflett sitting down with Robert Ellis. Their conversation largely revolves around Ellis’s self-titled latest album, a breakup record that finds Ellis updating his classic-country roots with MIDI keyboards, synths, grunge guitars and string sections. For fans of Ellis’ older work, there’s still plenty of bluegrass fingerpicking, jazz-guitar riffs and Texas twang in the mix, too. Like the wildly diverse Robert Ellis proves, there are more than a few sides to this Lone Star State export, whose first major touring gig – a job playing bass for Roger Miret and the Disasters, a punk group fronted by the leader of Agnostic Front – laid the brickwork for a career that’s stretched the definition of Americana, with Ellis never following a predictable path.
As always, Rolling Stone Country is premiering the new episode today. Here are some takeaways from Shiflett’s interview with Ellis.
1. Ellis was originally tapped to produce the new Jonny Fritz album – in India – while the two gathered footage for a film.
“We were making a ‘film,’ in quotations, and a record,” Ellis says of the 2015 trip, which took the two overseas for a month. “It was a crazy, hair-brained scheme … The point of the thing was, Jonny wanted to make a new record and he wanted me to produce it. It was going to be very India-influenced, so we just got to talking, and I was like, ‘Let’s just fucking go to India.’ So we went. We spent a month there. I went knowing full well that it was going to be very difficult. We kind of set ourselves up to fail. We intentionally didn’t plan anything. We didn’t even plan where we were going to stay. We thought it would be better for the film.”
Joined by a filmmaker, the two musicians wound up with 30 hours of footage, largely shot in a long string of low-rent studios, $2-a-night hotel rooms and other impoverished areas. The goal was to stay away from higher-end establishments, with Ellis and Fritz hoping to wring some creative inspiration out of India’s down-and-dirty regions instead. By the end of the trip, though, the two were making daily trips to McDonald’s, whose food and dining area were positively immaculate compared to some of their other options. “It was so clean,” Ellis raves, “and the food wasn’t going to make you shit your brains out.”
Although Fritz wound up scrapping the India idea and recording the album, Sweet Creep, with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James instead, footage of the pair’s trip may wind up being used in a short YouTube series. Ellis, though, makes no promises. “It’s up to Jonny,” he says.
2. Ellis was a teenage punk rocker, hitting the road for his first major tour before he could even vote.
While working the front desk at a fitness club in Lake Jackson, Texas – a hometown he now describes as “a very small, shitty, chemical-plant town on the coast” – Ellis struck up a friendship with a local musician. When that musician returned several months later and explained that his band’s bassist had broken his foot before a big tour, Ellis found himself ditching the fitness club and, instead, hitting the road as a bass-playing sideman. The band, Roger Miret and the Disasters, was fronted by Agnostic Front’s lead singer.
“It was a complete freak coincidence that it happened,” Ellis admits. “It was my first real touring – really going out and playing clubs and having a rider and stuff like that.” A 17 year-old high-school dropout and self-described “shitty kid,” Ellis found his calling during that tour, eventually hitting the road himself as a solo artist.
3. Impressed with Ellis’ guitar playing? He gives lessons, too.
Before signing a record deal with New West, Ellis financed his own album releases, thanks to a lucrative childhood job as a music teacher.
“I was really fortunate,” he says. “From the time that I was in 7th or 8th grade, I started teaching. My mom’s a piano teacher. I had this guitar teacher who went on tour with a Christian band, and when he left, he gave me half his students. So imagine, in 7th grade, I’m making $25 an hour. I had insane money for a kid.”
Years later, Ellis dipped into his savings and pressed 300 vinyl copies of his very first album, which has since gone out of print. Its influence, though, lives on, with Ellis crediting that original record with helping him land his current deal with New West.
“I think that record was in the record store in Houston that the president of New West happens to have a hand in,” he explains, “and he heard the record and offered me a deal.”
4. Why is the new album, his fourth, self-titled?
“I don’t really have a good reason,” admits Ellis, who took the same approach toward naming the album as he took toward creating it. “It’s like, ‘The record is fucking done. I’ve been working for a month straight. Do I have to title it?’ … I think it’s really easy to go back and look at what you’ve done and then assign a narrative to it, that suits whatever it is that [you’re looking for]. When the [real] reason is, I was like, ‘That just feels right. Let’s call it that.’ And that’s sort of the way a lot of the recording went, too. A lot of it was just happy accidents, and just being free to improvise, and being like, ‘That was good.'”
5. With its mix of analog instruments and modern programming, Robert Ellis shines a light on multiple sides of its creator’s personality. It also highlights the codependency of the organic and the electronic.
“It’s kind of half and half,” Ellis says of the new record. “There’s a bunch of programmed elements on this record, so it was really important for me … to also juxtapose that with ‘performance’ performances when there’s a lot of wrong notes and a lot of improvisation. Because otherwise, I feel like the programmed stuff doesn’t have the same life in it or something. If you have something that’s so on beat and so in tune, and there isn’t also on top of it something that’s kind of wild and improvise-y, it sucks the life out of it.”