Pulsing electronic beats, burbling synthesizers, waves of jagged, dissonant noise, and fragile falsetto vocals. Those are the hallmarks of Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Erica Eso. It's like some unruly synthesis of Sigur Ro's icy epics, the sheer shapeless volume of My Bloody Valentine, and Stereolab's programmed percussion beds. In other words, it's difficult to imagine someone coming up with this combination of sounds and making it work, but that's what keyboard player, singer and songwriter Weston Minissali has done on Erica Eso's debut album, 2019. All he had to do after that was find some people to play it live.
"The first album started as a recording project with the intention of starting a band eventually," Minissali says.
He eventually settled on bassist (and 2019 recording engineer) Nathaniel Morgan, drummer Rhonda Lowry, and second keyboardist Ellen O'Meara and began recasting the largely electronic album for live performance. "Rhonda is an incredible drummer who's interpreted the electronic drumming in her own way," he says. "That's probably the main difference is the live drums and bass, which I'm excited about. And if you listen to the album, there are really specific kinds of vocal harmonies in the background, so it took Nathaniel and Ellen a while to get used to the pretty intricate harmonies that the album requires."
Even with a more muscular, fuller live sound, the songs are still extremely delicate, weaving eerily haunting vocals through lush keyboards, jarring noise, and stutter-step rhythms. It's a sound that Minissali had in mind before the songs for 2019 were even written. "Before I even had any melodies, I started to hear the overall aesthetic of the project," he says. "It was almost like a cloud of an idea that was following me around. And it was just a matter of, 'How do I capture this sound, this vibe?' So I started experimenting with synthesizer sounds and vocal sounds."
That mix of harsh effects and catchy melodies came naturally to a player who's just as versed in experimentation as he is in pure pop. "Erica Eso is kind of reflective of my background," Minissali says. "I grew up listening to a lot of pop music; it's something that's very close to me that I've listened to my entire life. But I've also studied classical and avant-garde musicians. So I brought some of those more avant-garde elements into the pop sphere. I don't call it a direct hybrid, but that's kind of where it's coming from. It all kind of fit into place really well."
But there was another, more personal reason that Minissali made this music as well. "Beyond music, this project is very informed by certain aspects of feminism and by philosophy," he says. "At the time of composing it I was reading a lot of Judith Butler, a queer theorist, so that was an important part. I think of the project as a reaction to a really masculine ... how do I want to say this? There's a lot of machismo in music communities, and a lot of bands that assert a kind of male flavor. And a lot of the time it's very unattractive to me. So as a man, how do I play music that fits right and expresses what I feel without feeding into that? It's really important to be OK singing about feelings and more tender things and themes and not feeling like that compromises manhood or anything like that."
That viewpoint is actually one of the reasons that he brought Lowry and O'Meara onboard; they're sympathetic to experimental music, but they're also female. "Rhonda was actually living in Chicago at the time I was making the record," he says. "She's entrenched in the experimental music scene in Chicago. I was bouncing a lot of these ideas and drafts of songs off her. She's been really central not just in the musical sound but in the visual and social aesthetic. With Ellen, I met her through playing music in New York. She was writing really interesting pop music of her own, but she also studied composition and had an experimental composition background."
The band's playing has to be precise to deliver such intricate songs (both lyrically and musically) onstage, and Minissali says that creating a specific mood is more important than stretching the songs out. "We have some songs that are extremely thoroughly composed," he says. "So there isn't a lot of room for improvisation. It's more about execution. From night to night on tour, there are different feels or rhythmic pockets, slight variations in the performance side of things, but even with improvisation, they're extremely structured."