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Mixtape Rock: The Many Bands of Jon Ehrens from A to Z

May 25, 2011
By

Jon (left) and Emily Ehrens (photo by Jen Mizgata)

This week’s City Paper features a story on White Life, the latest and perhaps greatest project from the prolific young formerly Baltimore-based singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jon Ehrens. But a lengthy April interview with Ehrens yielded a more comprehensive overview of his prodigious output of self-proclaimed “mixtape rock” than could fit in the print article, and so Noise offers this alphabetical rundown of more than 30 bands and aliases Ehrens has recorded under and/or performed with over the past decade.

While White Life’s self-titled debut and the Art Department’s Paperwork/Birdwork have been issued by labels (Ehse Records and Gen Pop Records, respectively), most of the music featured here has either never been released in any official capacity or has only circulated publicly via web sites set up by Ehrens. The Mobile Lounge Records web site was at one point a bustling marketplace of bands featuring Ehrens and his friends, and from 2007-’08 he attempted to document his increasingly sprawling catalog on a blog called Jonathonian Music, where a typical post might start with the sentence, “Last weekend I recorded a total of 14 songs.” Later, many projects existed as nothing more than a MySpace page with a few songs, while some songs from the various bands ended up on self-released albums by his long-running solo project Repelican.

Many of these projects originated under the banner Music From Shallow Months, which was not a band name but an umbrella under which dozens existed, if only in the songwriter’s mind. “I was in a lecture, I was really bored, I just started writing down band names and song titles, and I was like, ‘Alright this is called Music From Shallow Months,’” Ehrens says. “Then, basically, I would do two or three songs for each of them, and then I just realized, usually for most of them only one of them was good and one of them wasn’t.” In that spirit, I’ve compiled a mixtape (sounds at page bottom) of one of the best songs from each of 14 bands featured here to listen to as I break down his wild, lengthy discography:

The Anywhere

The Anywhere was one of the Music From Shallow Months bands with a handful of songs built around a particular sound and approach: uptempo songs named after girls’ names (like “Diana” or, hilariously, “Motherfucking Teresa”), sung with an exaggerated twang—something like a caricature of Elvis Presley. “I was really listening to a lot of power pop for many, many years,” Ehrens says. “All like ’70s and ’80s stuff, I was really obsessed, finding little MP3s of bands. You ever hear of the band the Scruffs? I was sort of thinking about them a lot. They’re from the ’70s, like a bluesy power-pop band. The guy has a nice howl.”

Standout song: “Cynthia”

The Art Department

The Art Department is paradoxically one of Ehrens’ strangest and most successful projects. It began in 2005 when he recorded an entire album of minute-long oddball tunes by an imaginary mid-’80s indie band from Carson City, Nev., playing each instrument in character like a method actor. Something about the high-pitched vocal style, snaking finger-picked guitar lines, and insistent oompah rhythms captivated the imaginations of some of Ehrens’ friends, including drummer Mike Meno and bassist Jason Howe, who became the rhythm section of the Art Department’s live lineup. Ehrens says some people wondered whether the singing was sped up or manipulated until he began performing the songs live. In 2010, the band released its brilliantly bizarre second album Paperwork/Birdwork, which preserved the original Art Department sound while subtly expanding it with a wider palette of instruments. After Howe left the band, Yukon drummer Nick Podgurski filled in on bass for tours last year, and Art Department is now on a hiatus, which Ehrens says is especially open-ended now that a Canadian dance act has become far better known under the same name. “I definitely wouldn’t have named Art Department the Art Department if I knew we were actually gonna play shows and be a band,” he says.

Standout song: “Get On”

Cool Sounds of the Continuous Revelation

In 2009, Ehrens was one of two drummers, along with Ben Turner (of the Food Network’s Baltimore-based reality show Ace of Cakes), in a short-lived ensemble called Cool Sounds of the Continuous Revelation. “It was quasi-improvised,” Ehrens says. “You know, we knew where we were going and what to be doing at different changes. It was pretty cool.”

Crazy Dreams Band

“They’ve been a band for a long time, and I joined them last year and toured with them as a member,” says Ehrens of his tenure with Crazy Dreams Band, led by Nate Nelson and Lexie Macchi. “When I played with Crazy Dreams Band, I called it Fleetwood Shellac, because it was really a chill vibe. This guy Jorge [Martins] plays guitar, and he would do these sparse Police kind of riffs, and I would do these funky basslines.”

DJ Dielsocherdadt

Named after a Craigslist ad about a “D.L. soccer dad,” DJ Dielsocherdadt is Ehrens’ alias on the rare occasion he DJs a party. He’s also thinking of using the name to assemble some kind of mixtape, combining a cappellas from hip-hop songs with beats and outtakes originally intended for other projects. “There was one song I have that I kinda wanted to be a White Life song but it was a super cheesy funk song,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out a way to actually sing on it to make it sound like a real song. And I downloaded this Lil Jon a cappella, ‘Throw It Up,’ and threw it over top of that.”

Dungeonesse

One of the most exciting projects Ehrens has on the horizon is a duo with Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak. “I’m producing tracks and she sings on them, and we wanna do a series of 7-inches on different labels,” Ehrens says, noting that it’s one of his first truly collaborative projects after years of working solo, playing backup for others, or, in the case of White Life, writing lyrics for his sister. “The Dungeonesse thing is gonna be as close to [collaboration] as I’ve had, because I have melodies for some of the things, but some tracks I just know a melody could be there, but I have no idea what it is. She’ll be writing the melody.”

Ed Schrader

Ed Schrader often performs solo, but Ehrens and Art Department bassist Jason Howe were part of one ill-fated show in which he drafted backing musicians. “On guitar, I tried to do this really jagged, bluesy style for his stuff, and I don’t think he really liked it,” Ehrens says.

Factoid of the Dustbowl

“In my brain,” Ehrens says, Factoid of the Dustbowl’s aim was to “do to folk music what Captain Beefheart did to blues music. And I don’t necessarily think I succeeded, but at least something weird came out.”

Standout song: “Apples for Finch”

Flock of Dimes

Flock of Dimes is Jenn Wasner’s new project, which she debuted during White Life’s three-date East Coast tour earlier this month. Generally it looks to be a Wasner solo venture, singing and playing guitar over programmed laptop beats, but for those shows Ehrens accompanied her on bass on two songs to help flesh out the sound.

Flora and Fauna

A trio with Owen Gardner (later of Teeth Mountain) and Juliette Amoroso that played around town circa 2006, Flora and Fauna had a repertoire of traditional folk songs like “Shady Grove” and “I’m Longing for Home,” sung with heavily distorted harmonies.

Standout song: “Shady Grove”

Get Bent

“The bass cabinet that I have is a Genz Benz, and I just blacked it out so it looked like it said ‘get bent,’” Ehrens says of this short-lived noise duo with Andrew Burt. “That was the central joke of the band. I just wanted to play a noise show because I wanted to see if I could. You watch those things and you’re like, ‘I could do that shit.’ Turns out I could. [laughs] But yeah, that was weird, I don’t know if I’ll do that again.”

Hypnic Jerks, aka the Serfs

One of Ehrens’ best displays of multi-instrumentalist talent was this high-school-era surf-rock project, on which he plays guitar, bass, and drums on a few original instrumentals and a cover of the Jewish traditional song “O Se Shalom.” The band was originally called the Serfs, but upon learning that another surf-rock band had used the name already, Ehrens changed it to the Hypnic Jerks. An experiment with an 8-bit style synth sound on “Fruity Loops” resulted in a remix of one of the Hypnic Jerks songs as “Enslavement (NES Style).” “The idea I didn’t actually think would happen would be a 7-inch record of all one side of surf versions,” Ehrens says. “And the other side were gonna be Nintendo versions, but I really only made that one.”

Standout song: “Enslavement.”

Invisible Husbands, aka the Religious Tongues

A no-wave group with a couple of Ehrens’ friends in Washington, D.C. “We didn’t practice with them at all,” he says. “They would just insist that me and Jason [Howe] from Art Department would just come down and play a show with them without practicing. And sometimes it would go well, but, oh man, I almost quit music one time. They changed the name every time. There was Dead Husbands, Invisible Dead Husbands, Invisible Husbands, Ex Husbands, there was a lot of Husbands, and then one time it was Religious Tongues.”

Joe Pesci and the Spiders

“That was one of the first times I ever tried to do a fake band live, and it was just my regular high school band playing really ripoff garage-rock, basically taking the riffs from ‘Stepping Stone’ or any garage-rock classic and just changing it,” he says. “It was bullshit.”

Jonathonian W. Ehrenkranz, aka Thone

Under an alias based on his family’s surname before they came to America, Jonathonian W. Ehrenkranz is the songwriter in solo acoustic mode. “I have a lot of songs for that, because I just thought it’d be cool to be able to pick up an acoustic guitar and just be like, ‘Check out this sick-ass song,’” he says, although it’s not always a style he’s comfortable playing. “I tried doing shows live a bunch of times, and I hated it—I hated it so much. It was awful.”

Standout song: “Reaching Is Implied”

Kevin and Crops

Kevin and Crops was a “swarming distortion-y thing” for the Music From Shallow Months compilation, “where the distortion of the guitar would create melodies within the overtones of what was going on,” Ehrens says. “And I thought it’d be cool to do live, but I never did it, and I just forgot how to play all the songs right after I did them.”

Standout song: “Raga in B Movies”

Microwave Background

For a year, Ehrens played drums in Microwave Background, a band led by Will Ryerson, who founded the label Gen Pop to release Art Department’s second album.

Modern Augery

Another Ehrens/Ryerson collaboration, an abortive experimental project. “We played one show, and it was supposed to kind of be like a pop-noise fusion,” Ehrens says. “It was the first time I had tried to do something where it wasn’t a band with drums, and we had our little stations. I had this little recording device, it was basically like a six-track recorder that I tried to play live, and I had a guitar. We played the set, and I was like, ‘That ruled!’ We were both just like, ‘Oh my god, that was exactly how we wanted it to go!’ And no one liked it. It drove people out of the room, like, ‘I have no idea what the hell that was.’”

October Railroad

“I had this image of two male lead singers with megaphones,” Ehrens says of the inspiration behind October Railroad. “You know like the Louvin Brothers or any of these early country duos? I thought it’d be cool if they sang that style harmony, like sweet old harmony that sounded lo-fi over kinda like heavy stoner-y shit.”

Standout song: “Painwo”

Poof Sounds

Poof Sounds was a one-off jam session with Lexie Macchi, Jenn Wasner, and Nate Nelson that’s being planned for a cassette release. “That’s, like, super-weirdo improv that we did one night when we just smoked the best weed and we’d just, for some reason, wandered downstairs and started just making weird sounds and I started just scraping my foot on the floor,” he says. “Something was definitely happening, it was one of these things where we weren’t just fucking around, we were channeling something, you know? There was definitely something going on and we really ran with it all night.”

The Proverbial Deer

“That was Music From Shallow Months, that doesn’t really matter.”

Standout song: “Ask for You”

Repelican

“Repelican is just like, you know, songs,” Ehrens says humbly of his longest-running and most fruitful project, which has had at least 70-odd songs credited to its name on various releases, although many originated as one of the other bands on this list. Repelican first became the default outlet for these songs when the attempted Mobile Lounge compilation became 2004’s Mobile Lounge Presents: Repelican. Two more albums, 2005’s Anyone? Anyone? and 2009’s Don’t Mumble the Manifesto, followed, among other releases, tracing Ehrens’ humble beginnings and gradual development as a singer and songwriter, and spanning a dizzying array of sounds and songwriting styles.
Standout song: “From the Desk of God”

The Revoltn Developments, aka Spittn Images

The Revoltn Developments, also known as Spittn Images, is perhaps Ehrens’ best band that hasn’t officially released an album. The unreleased Fuck You! It’s the Revoltn Developments is a raucous nine-song blast of garage-rock with lengthy, slightly ridiculous song titles such as “I Don’t Know What She Wants [And I Don’t Wanna Care (But I Do)]” and “You Know Something (That I Need to Know),” along with sleazy, distorted covers of Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Gerry and the Pacemakers. Ehrens says the inspiration struck when he watched a documentary about the Who: “They were showing footage of them when they were the High Numbers at some party. It was just super, super loud and crazy.”

Standout song: “The Secret Is Out”

Roan and Calico

Although he only began to explore the world of drum machines and synths with White Life, Roan and Calico was Ehrens “trying to do electronic music in high school, my first time using computers, before I was discouraged from it from all my peers who did not like rap or electronic music or dance or anything.” He doesn’t look back on that project fondly. “It was awful, it wasn’t good. That was for that Mobile Lounge compilation, it sounded like video game music. But not even—that would’ve been good.”

Skin School

Another collaborative project that’s still just a band name without any gigs or completed tracks, set to feature improv with Lexie Macchi.

Stool

“Basically, I just saw some early Melvins video where the drummer didn’t open the hi-hat or even really hit the crash at all,” Ehrens says of his most overt foray into hard rock. “I was like, ‘Man, closed hi-hat can be so heavy.’ And I was just kind of into that. And the name was just supposed to be a ’90s type of thing, and I feel like everyone in the ’90s was Brick! Sponge! Chair! And then stool also means poop, which is always funny.”

The Sword Swallow

“I was like, ‘I’m givin’ up pop, you guys, fuck this shit! It’s all about collage,’” Ehrens recalls, laughing at himself. The result was the Sword Swallow, a strangely listenable patchwork of noise, beats, and occasional high-school-era rock recordings mixed together. “They were kind of assembled from pieces and little ideas trying to, I dunno, get sort of an extreme version of what Repelican was, where the styles would change, but in a much shorter period of time, like listening to radio or something.”

Standout song: “A Veritable Hodgepodge”

Twins

Another live improv outfit, with Nick Podgurski and Sam Garrett of Yukon and Owen Gardner of Teeth Mountain, that played at the underground venue the Bank.

Universal Prayer

Ehrens recorded an album with members of the Agrarians under the name Universal Prayer that’s currently in the mixing stage and awaiting release.

Valium Eel

Valium Eel was one of Ehrens’ first experiences in a supporting role in a band, playing drums in a project led by his high school friend Vivek. “Man, I didn’t really understand how to write a song until he gave me a tape of his songs,” Ehrens says. “And it was just insane to me. He was really young, like a year or two older than me, and he was just so fucking good, it really upped the ante.”

Standout song: “Burn Your House Down”

What to Do With the Children

“What to Do With the Children was my high school band,” Ehrens says. “I was playing guitar and singing, but I was, like, screaming. I was in D.C. so I liked Fugazi and my super-smart friends were all about changing up the time signatures. But I didn’t know how to sing really, so I emulated the slacker Pavement-style vocals. So it’s just this bad mix of uninspired vocals over overly ambitious math-rock. It sounds pretty weird.”

White Life

“Last year I was living with DJs and the dude from Future Islands and I was only hearing electronic music, and just wanted to make something that was relevant or something, I dunno, and I just got really into computers,” Ehrens says of White Life. “It’s fun, it’s a totally different process. It’s definitely easier to come by inspiration when things are just looping and you’re just listening to different tones, and you hit the right keyboard tone and you’re like alright, I have a song idea now.” As much of a departure as White Life is for Ehrens, the album is full of vestigial reminders of his previous bands, like the Art Department finger-picked guitar on “Second Look.”

Standout song: “Second Look”

Ygriega Project, aka the Failed Ygriega

The Ygriega Project began originally as an ambitious songwriting exercise under the Repelican banner. “I wanted to do a 10-song album every month, I thought I could really do it,” Ehrens says. “I brought it up to my friends who were like, ‘You couldn’t do that,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah I can.’ And then I totally couldn’t, or at least the music wasn’t very good.” The few usable songs from the ordeal ended up being credited to the Failed Ygriega, another example of how Ehrens embraces his failures and finds something to salvage from the experience.

Standout song: “Confusing Adhesives”

Mixtape Rock: The Many Bands of Jon Ehrens from A to Z by EverydayElk

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