Eli Raybon seems to exist in a parallel realm where the Discman still reigns supreme, only each portable CD player is bumping nothing but Thomas Dolby, Echo & The Bunnymen and pop-era Cure into everyone’s earholes 24/7. All of which is strange considering Eli is 21 years of age, although his digital youth did not prevent him from actually owning a CD walkman (more on this later). This self-described “Green man with a Karate Kid vibe” has moves like a young Jarvis Cocker and constantly tours the States, planting his lanky frame on any available couch along the way. His music takes disparate elements…the more party-vibe Marvin Gaye cuts, special interest Beck side projects, Bobby Keyes tenor sax honks…and blends them into a sound both accessible and obtuse. More importantly, Eli is never not fun, as can be deduced the video for his viral hit “30 Cents”.
Eli kindly took time to answer some of my burning questions.
I know you have been playing music from a young age. What music did you grow up with? I know your dad had an influence on your acoustic guitar playing. Do you have siblings considering today is National Sibling Day?
My dad has a very diverse taste, and there was always something different playing in our house. I have distinct childhood memories of listening to Too Much Pressure by The Selector, She Blinded Me With Science by Thomas Dolby, Secret Agent Man by Johnny Rivers… The list goes on and on. There was a lot of 80s new-wave (The Cure, Elvis Costello, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs, the Talking Heads), a lot of atmospheric “study music”, bluegrass, rock, everything. I also had a portable CD player with 2 CDs: The Best of The Ramones and The Best of The Who. Over the years, I’ve continued to discover amazing music through my dad. Laurie Anderson, Malcolm McLaren, Nick Cave… I keep waiting for the day when he’s played me all the great music he can play me, but it hasn’t come yet and probably won’t for some time.
As a really young kid, I would watch my dad play guitar and pretend to be jamming along with him. It was inevitable that I would eventually pick up the instrument myself. That’s how I got my start.
I have one sibling: a younger sister named Emma!
What’s the story behind “30 Cents”? How long did it take you to write it up?
30 Cents was one of the first songs I wrote after the dust settled from my move to Los Angeles. I was out exploring Ventura Boulevard one night, about 3000 miles from where I had originally planned to be (school in NY). I was living in a sprawling city for the first time, writing music and developing as an artist. It was a surreal scene, and 30 Cents came together as I was walking around and taking it all in. It’s a strange, introspective look at my life immediately after arriving in LA.
Does your environment have anything to do with your process considering you have lived in many places? What did you think of living LA?
The constant moving has affected me. I get restless if I’m in one place for too long, geographically or creatively. My environment doesn’t change my process, but it always reflects in the music. The next album I’ll be working on has some recurring lyrical motifs about the city and my last days in LA.
Los Angeles was a good move for me – I certainly learned a lot. I’ve always lived in smaller places, so it was something different. A new experience, new flow, new feel. And I really enjoyed it for a year! I made some great connections and great friends. In the end, the little things got to me. It felt like something in the air was telling me to get out. I just got claustrophobic. There are so many people, and I prefer to appreciate that from a distance instead of living right in the epicenter. There’s a magic to sci-fi megacities, and I’m inspired by them… But I’d rather live somewhere with more space and cleaner air (haha).
What do you think of the music business right now? You seem to have embraced the self promotion aspect of it. That’s not always easy for some artists.
Posting on social media goes against every atom in my body. Out of necessity, I force myself to be active. It’s not as unbearable as it used to be, but self-promo is brutal. I just try to have fun with it… It’s scary when I catch myself enjoying it (haha)!
As far the music business… It’s in a strange place these days… Streaming has caused colossal changes, and, like anything, there are pros and cons.
First of all, you now have instant access to all of recorded music. Anytime, anywhere. That’s great as a listener, but as an artist it means that very few people want to pay for music anymore. It’s been devalued. Most casual listeners view it as something that’s completely free on YouTube. As an indie artist, you have to try to make money on everything surrounding your recordings, which is an interesting, albeit rewarding, challenge.
Streaming has also destroyed the album. Now it’s all about playlists… And playlists punish creativity! If your song is different and stands out, then you won’t get added into big playlists, which want everything to sound the same. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve been told “This is awesome, I really enjoyed this… But it’s just too alternative for my playlist” by curators. Am I supposed to tone down the character and write simpler music? Many artists would say: yes! Playlists have become so important for streaming royalties that artists now work with playlists in mind! This results in bland, boring music. What I’m doing isn’t rocket science… Compared to what I listen to, it’s extremely commercial. I view music as art, so I’m not going to change what I’m doing. It becomes about finding a niche where you fit in and finding people who want to support you.
Listeners these days also equate numbers with artistic merit. “Oh, this artist only has 1000 streams… I’ll pass” or “Oh wow! 10,000,000 streams! This is amazing!” Many people don’t listen for themselves and make up their own mind. They just go by the numbers. The artists that I’m most influenced by don’t draw massive numbers, so I figure I’m not after that either. But numbers act as a gatekeeper for many opportunities, forcing artists to play the game. Social media stats bring out some bizarre human characteristics…
With that rant out of the way, I genuinely like some aspects of streaming… They just aren’t as interesting to talk about (haha). I don’t want to come off as negative – I’m having fun promoting music these days! There’s no shortage of people to reach out to. You just have to find the scene that responds to what you’re creating and carve out your own niche.
Do you think your love of math helps you as a musician?
Well, synthesizers are basically math machines. I can’t say I actually use trigonometry when making synth patches, but it governs everything going on under the hood. I have some great math/synth books that are always inspiring to crack open – I’m extremely interested in that field. With analog synths, the oscillators don’t produce mathematically perfect waveforms, and that’s what gives them their magic! Real circuits have life!
As a songwriter, I obsess over the structure and arrangement of songs, which might be influenced by my love of math. It’s also interesting to be rebellious and throw the rules out the window, which isn’t possible when it comes to numbers. In reality, 2 + 3 will always equal 5. In art, it can equal whatever you want.
Several of the songs from Supertoys — Battery Brain, The Moon is Made of Cheese and Computer, Don’t Kill Me — have subtle math references. Calculations, numbers, bits, hexadecimals, that sort of thing. I enjoy implementing some of my math background into my songs, and it fits very well when I’m working in a sci-fi setting.
Any fun stories from your travels? Doesn’t have to be related to music.
Too many to tell… Walking around Memphis in a green suit, handing out Neon Noodles to hotel receptionists at 3am, driving to an isolated mountain town with no food and then realizing that no stores are open, sitting next to a chatty stranger on a plane and talking for 5 hours straight, taking naps in the back of my hatchback, etc. Those are just some slightly amusing examples that immediately come to mind.
What is your preferred gear choices? And what acoustic do you play?
My favorite synth right now is the Moog Grandmother. I’ve been scratchpadding a ton of ideas on it lately. It’s also a part of my live setup and is almost like another member of the band. There are no presets, so everything is being patched up on the fly, which adds spontaneity and really gives the set a live feel.
The rest of my live setup is composed of the Roland System-8, a digital polysynth that I’m not afraid to take out of the house, and an MPC Live, which handles the drum and sampling duties. I play a PRS acoustic guitar.
My current studio setup is similar to the live set up, which streamlines the demoing process. My Juno 106 is another synth that’s always on, as well as some other secret weapons.
Also “Wildly Gyrate” is a wildy fun and danceable song. Do you have a “why I wrote this” story?
Thank you! I had just finished writing the songs for Supertoys, and I decided to go back and pick up where I left off with the Green sound.
To start out, I programmed a simple drum loop and picked up the bass. After fumbling around for about 20 minutes, I had a solid rough arrangement. I fired up a really cool, obscure synth from the Soviet Union called the Estradin Solaris (I think, there isn’t any English on the front panel) and laid down some synth tracks.
The music was really uptempo and bouncy, so I decided to make a wacky dance song out of it. As soon as “Wildly Gyrate” came to me, it fell together very quickly.
I wrote it to take a break before starting another concept album. It’s a fun, danceable novelty song!
Where do you get your goggles? And your stylish green ensembles?
It’s amazing what you can find on the Internet… I have so many great props and accessories lying around. I’ve got two different pairs of sci-fi googles and some weird steampunk glasses, which I found online. There’s also a battery brain headpiece that I wear for live shows, which was conceptualized by me, designed by my dad, and assembled by the uncommonly crafty Carrie Blackburn. I’m really into the mad scientist get-up these days!
Then there’s the Man in Green wardrobe, which has expanded far beyond the signature green suit. I’ve now got an epic green cape, some green tights, and these giant glitter-green platform shoes. I’ll find an excuse to wear all of it eventually.