Palehound on How Teaching Guitar, Gay Sex, Power Trios, and More Inspired Their New Album ‘Eye on the Bat’

    When El Kempner sings “It’s a punch in the gut” on the chorus of ‘The Clutch’, you know exactly what they mean. It’s how the best songs hit you, and that – the lead single from Palehound’s new album Eye on the Bat – is easily one of their best songs. But it’s also delivered in such a strikingly direct, exuberant, and cathartic way that’s indicative of the band’s general approach on the album, even as it revolves around the dissolution of a romantic relationship. Recorded in brief stints at Flying Cloud with co-producer Sam Evian, the follow-up to 2019’s Black Friday retains Kempner’s penchant for wry, poignant songwriting but is both less wary, lyrically, of unvarnishing the truth, and enthusiastic about going back to the root of their love for rock music. Kempner’s nimble, impressive guitar work and stylistic choices nod to both their heroes and their indie rock peers, leaning into the playfulness and physicality of classic rock while venturing in different directions. At the same time, they brings out the joy – or at least joyful absurdity – of heartache in ways that are unexpected and entirely genuine. The punch in the gut hurts, of course, but it’s the same pain that clears the path ahead.

    We caught up with Palehound’s El Kempner to talk about Big Thief, Greek cooking, Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary, power trios, and other inspirations behind Eye on the Bat, which is out today.

    Sam Evian and Hannah Cohen’s dog Jan


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    I had the pleasure of talking to Sam around the release of his solo album Time to Melt, and I realized Jan is on the cover of that record. Of course, Sam co-produced Eye on the Bat with you. Why did you want to talk about his dog?

    She was just so present the whole session and really inspired the whole vibe. When we were recording at the house, he would say, “Go to work, Jan,” and Jan would come in and just sit under the console, with a ball in her mouth just looking at us. We would take breaks from recording and throw her the ball outside. She’s a bit timid at first, so when we first got to the studio, she was really skittish, didn’t want us to pet her, barked at us a lot. And then as the session went on, we got closer and closer, and she let us give her belly rubs and didn’t bark at us anymore. That experience of having, not just your classic dog, but this really interesting dog around who we’re trying to get to know gave the session this really fun energy that definitely inspired a lot of how things came out.

    How do you think that kind of energy makes its way into the music?

    Animals are so funny, and I feel like it just made the whole thing feel a lot lighter. We’re not taking this as seriously in a lot of ways that are really good, where it’s like, we’re going outside and playing with the dog, and then we have this playful energy as we go back into a track. Or petting the dog and feeling sensitive about her, and that makes its way into the next track. It’s this energy that’s not human that is nice to have around, because it puts things into perspective a little bit more, like, “Oh, there’s like creature here who has no idea what we’re doing.” It made everything feel less serious.

    Being a Gemini with a Cancer Moon

    That lack of seriousness is something that struck me about the album in general, because it deals with heartbreak but doesn’t really let you wallow in it.

    That’s kind of what I meant by one of my answers, being a Gemini with a Cancer Moon. I have two different huge emotions that I was feeling around the breakup – you know when you break up with someone and some of your friends are like, “I’m so sorry,” and then some of your friends are like, “Congrats, that’s great!”? Or like, “You’re gonna move forward with your life, you gotta go on,” all this stuff. Me switching back and forth between those two mindsets felt very Gemini, where half the time I was devastated, half the time I felt really liberated. I think there’s a lot about that in the album, where it’s not just like this harsh, serious breakup record, because there’s so much joy in a breakup as well. But at the end of the day, my Cancer Moon is making me emo as fuck. [laughs] That was my breakup experience, just ran a whole range of reactions.

    Were you conscious about finding ways to balance them on the record?

    No, not intentionally, not like wWe should have this amount of songs with this attitude, this not with this attitude. It more just represents the balance that I was experiencing. There are a few really sad songs, and there are a few really joyful ones. Whatever ratio that ended up being is probably a good snapshot of what my reality was around that time.

    Greek cooking


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    The session was really spread out, so we did this record in bursts over the course of like six months. And one of our last bursts of recording was after I had gone to Greece for the first time. I’m half Greek and half Jewish, so I grew up not really religious because my parents didn’t want to make us choose. My connection with my Greekness has always been more surface-level, like holidays, family – my grandmother speaks Greek but my mom doesn’t, that kind of thing. So when I went to Greece and experienced it, it took me totally by surprise how inspiring it was. I love to cook and I love food, and the food was just on a whole other level, I couldn’t even believe that it existed. So when I got back from Greece, I became obsessed with recreating those dishes and hitting up family for recipes.

    And that carried into the studio. Cooking is such a huge part of Flying Cloud Studios, because Sam and Hannah love to cook, and they’re both incredible cooks. Every single night, Sam or Hannah would have prepared this gorgeous thing for us, but then the time that I took charge, I was like, “Alright, I’m making Tzatziki, I’m making traditional Greek salad,” and they were like, “I didn’t know traditional Greek salad didn’t have lettuce in it!” I guess the greater thing is food inspired this record, but I think Greek food was one of those things that really bonded us because I also contributed, and it was another whole collaborative experience.

    Songwriting-wise, one connection that came to mind with food as a metaphor is ‘Head Like Soup’.

    That was definitely a food metaphor that made sense. That song is about sex, and I feel like one of my big love languages is cooking and food, which I find very sexual in its own way, the act of providing that to someone – I don’t have a feeding fetish or anything, I’m trying to choose my words carefully. [laughs] I just love cooking for people and showing love that way, and that’s kind of where that came from.

    Halloween 2019 with Big Thief

    We did a whole month-long tour with them, it started the day they released Two Hands. We’ve been friends with them for years and done shows with them for years, so it was just amazing to watch them at this moment. They’re the most inspiring band for obvious reasons, so I guess the band itself is so inspiring and inspired this record. A lot of that tour in general and witnessing how they worked as a band was really inspiring, just how they kind of were an organism and how they rehearsed. But we had a day off on Halloween on that tour, and they had rented a few cabins at this place called Saguaro Ranch in Arizona, it was this desert ranch with horses and the river – it’s unbelievable, so beautiful. They invited us, so we got a little cabin there too. There was a campfire and all of us just sat on the campfire on Halloween under this big moon, and they were playing these folk songs and these songs I’d never heard before. A lot of times when you’re on tour, you’re like, we’re playing music, but if we have any downtime we’re doing something else; we’re gonna get some food, watch TV, rest. But that was a day off where we’re like, No, we still like want to play music. This is still, at the end of the day, about how much we love to play music. So that was really inspiring, to be like, we have this day off where we could do anything, but we’re all choosing to sit around a campfire and play songs and share music. It was inspiring for me to keep writing and keep remembering that connection to why we’re doing this.

    Being a guitar teacher

    That inspired so much of the guitar on this record. I became a lot better at guitar through teaching and through being inspired by my students and what my students wanted to learn. I have sort of an agenda as a teacher, like I’ll teach you bar chords, shit like that I think is important for playing rock music, or if I have a student that wants to learn how to improvise a solo, I’ll teach them a certain scale. But for the most part, as a teacher, most of my students are adults, so I’m just like, “What do you want to learn?” I had this one student that wanted to learn the ‘Wuthering Heights’ solo from Kate Bush, and I had to learn that solo to teach it. I had to do a lot of stuff like that where I don’t know how to play that solo, but I have to learn because this person wants to learn, so it forced me to get a lot better at guitar just by teaching. That was so fun, learning Steely Dan stuff and learning random fingerpickings, Joni Mitchell stuff – shit that ended up inspiring the record a lot.

    Listening to the record, I do get the sense that you’re reconnecting with the guitar in a new way, which definitely comes from that too. It’s another one of those reminders.

    That’s exactly what happened. Regardless of what people want to play or learn, it’s amazing to watch people be excited about guitar. It reminded me how sick guitar is. It was like, “Oh my god, this person is freaking out because a bar chord is so sick.” And like, bar chords are sick! So yeah, it reignited a lot of passion as well. This music business sucks, it taints shit. It reminded me of what love for music really is and how fucking special it is.


    Was that the game that got you through the pandemic?

    Yeah, a hundred percent. I played that game every single day during the pandemic, and I would call friends and play online. Larz [Brogan], my best friend and bandmate who was there for the entire recording session of Eye on the Bat, they got a Switch and we started playing together. I put that one in as kind of a funny thing, because it was almost like team building. [laughs] It’s like, if we have to learn how to fight as a team against 12-year-olds who are playing this stupid war game, we could do a good take of a song. If we can devise a good battle strategy, we can figure out how to arrange a song. We’d have downtime and we’d be in separate rooms, playing and yelling through the wall to each other. It was another thing, like having a dog around, that just adds more lightness and fun and innocence to the whole thing. It felt like being in high school again, jamming with your friends at their parents’ house or something.

    Gay sex

    I know this isn’t in any particular order, but it’s just funny to see gay sex next to Fortnite.

    [laughs] I could talk about different albums and songs and stuff, but I love to talk about the weird, funny shit. But yeah, gay sex was really inspiring. [laughs] A lot of this album is about self-discovery as well. This is definitely my most sexual album. I think in the past, I’ve always been shrouding that stuff in metaphor, I’ve been feeling insecure about it. Through guitar lessons, I was listening to so much classic rock – I love classic rock, it’s like my favorite genre, it’s what I grew up on. And I was like, man, songs about sex are sick! I love songs about sex when they’re not weird, good ones, like ‘Light My Fire’, shit like that. I was like, I want to write about sex, I love sex, and I love being gay. Obviously, the opening track of the record is called ‘Good Sex’, which is really a vulnerable song. That song I almost didn’t want to record. And then ‘Head Like Soup’ also. With a breakup record, a record about romance, sex is a huge part of that. A lot of my break up and my following experiences had to do with self-discovery through sex, whether it was sexual identity or gender identity, so I feel like that was a big root of this record.

    ‘Good Sex’ and ‘Head Like Soup’ are both about sex, but they also capture totally different dynamics.

    This was just my genuine experience with this period of time in my life, where it’s like, sometimes sex was funny and awkward and confusing, like in ‘Good Sex’. When I wrote that song, I was still in that relationship, and I was like, the song is sweet and about love and about sex. And then in hindsight, I’m like, it’s kind of about a relationship falling apart, too, and I didn’t realize it at the time. ‘Head Like Soup’ is like my cock rock song, it has this AC/DC-esque riff. One’s really confident one’s really insecure, and both of those things are at play all the time for me.

    The Beatles: Get Back documentary

    We watched it in the studio. I had not seen it before, and then it came up in conversation, Larz had watched it. I mean, it’s like 9 hours, so we didn’t watch the whole thing – I still haven’t. But we watched the first two parts in the studio. The Beatles are a band that people love to hate on – I fucking love that shit, it’s awesome. I think that I had lost touch with that, but then we put it on and it was just mesmerizing. I had no idea that’s what that was, that raw footage of them as kids – like, they’re like 25 years old, it’s insane. It reminded me of friends of mine. They’re these legendary icons that don’t feel like people, and then you see this thing where they’re just weird and awkward random dudes that happened to be  fucking geniuses. But watching the way that they interacted in the studio and wrote stuff together, the playfulness of it was just so inspiring to us.

    But the main way it influenced the record was with the song ‘Route 22’. We actually had a previous version of that track that we thought we were gonna stick with. The original recording we did of that song was one of the first songs we tracked for the record, and it’s a really slow, ballad version of that song. It’s way slower, way more emotional, quieter. And then after watching Get Back for a night, the next day we were listening back to stuff, and Sam was like, “This song doesn’t hit like it could. We should try to make it sound like a Beatles song.” And then the three of us tracked it live – Sam was playing bass inspired by Paul McCartney, I was trying to play like some of the George Harrison parts that I’d seen in the footage we’d watched.

    Working at the Chicken Shack recording studio

    My friend Nick Kinsey, who owns the studio – I got that job during lockdown because my friend Meg Duffy from Hand Habits connected us. Nick was so generous with his space and his equipment. He taught me a lot of stuff about engineering and lent me a lot of gear, like this awesome Universal Audio Interface that’s usually like $2,000 that I would never invest in. He also really trusted me to make creative decisions on a lot of the sessions we did. It was nice to just work on other people’s music, and I played guitar on a lot of it, so that was also pushing me as a guitar player. Like, how do I write a part for someone for a song that I just heard for the first time? That also really helps with writing parts for my own songs.

    The song ‘U Want It U Got It’ happened because they lent me a bunch of gear and I wanted to record something just to test the gear out. So that recording actually is a demo that we then mixed in the studio, because we tried to recreate it and we couldn’t get it as good as the demo. So I mainly engineered and produced that one myself by accident, thinking it was a demo, but it’s because Nick had lent me a bunch of gear that I was practicing with. That song is essentially a test drive for me learning how to engineer a little bit.

    Rock power trios

    Palehound has been a trio for years now, but you’re definitely leaning into that classic rock aspect of the group on this record. What made you want to embrace that even more?

    It’s funny, because we just added a fourth member to the band for essentially the first time. We’ll have a backing guitar player and someone singing vocals as well. But the reason I put power trio as something that inspired this record is because we toured as a power trio forever, and it challenged me as a guitar player so much. For example, for ‘The Clutch’, I tried to write a solo that worked without someone banging on chords in the background. It had to be a dense and dynamic enough solo that I could play with drums and bass and it would fill the space.

    I’ve had to challenge myself as a guitar player my whole time touring just to take these studio recordings, because my past few records are highly produced records. We worked with Gabe Wax, which was awesome, in these nicer studios. But it was hard to recreate those songs live and do them justice, so we started just doing totally different live versions of all those songs that didn’t sound anything like the recordings. And then I kind of started realizing, I actually like how this sounds a little more. There’s so much more energy when we are all trying to rein this giant thing in this really small arrangement. Touring that way for so long made me realize that we can go into the studio and just be really simple this time. We can really only focus on the guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and not tons of keyboards and stuff like that. The bands that I love the most are bare-bones rock bands, so I think that was just leaning into that instead of being like, We’re at the studio, we should make it this big production.” But it was like, “No, we should just sound like us and what we sound live.”

    Was that something you were actively aware of at the time?

    Definitely, especially in terms of: What is genuine for us? When are the moments that I feel the most enjoyment from music? And it’s like, well, when I’m on tour, and the three of us are as loud as we possibly can be. And we sound like there are six people on stage just because we’re all wailing really hard with everything we’ve got. That’s the shit that I fucking live for, so I want to put that into this and not just try to do what I think I should do or what someone else is doing, but more like: What are we doing? What are we good at as a group? Where do I thrive as a guitar player and singer? And it’s always just that for me. Why would I pretend that it’s anything else?

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. 

    Palehound’s Eye on the Bat is out now via Polyvinyl.

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