Plenty of Midwestern bands
sport British affectations in their music and demeanor -- Anglophilia runs
deep here, especially among sensitive singer-songwriter types in the lush
genre known as "ork" (for "orchestrated") pop. But Chicago's Scotland Yard
Gospel Choir comes by its roots naturally.
Elia Einhorn, the band's leader, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, was
born to a British mother and an American father in a hospital set in a sheep
field outside a rural village in northern Wales. His mother immigrated here
to work as a nanny, and while Einhorn spent most of the year attending
Chicago public schools, summers were spent in Wales, soaking up the culture
of the British Isles.
"That's where I picked up a lot of my musical taste, as you can probably
tell," Einhorn says, laughing. "Where I'm from in Wales is the northern
section, just over the border from Manchester and Liverpool, so that's how I
got into Stone Roses and Happy Mondays and all that stuff when I was a kid."
SCOTLAND YARD GOSPEL
CHOIR, CALIFONE, SALLY TIMMS
*10 p.m. Saturday
*Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace
Einhorn started playing music when he was 17. "My dad played folk music
and jazz," he says. "As soon as I kicked drugs in high school, that's when I
picked up the guitar. It's funny -- I know for most people it's exactly the
The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir first came together in 2001, when he was
studying music at Columbia College and looking for a side project to another
local band called the Snowbank Seven.
"At that point, it was just me and Boston," Einhorn said, referring to
fellow guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Matthew Kerstein. "Boston was in a
three-piece band called the Union, which was like meat-and-potatoes rock 'n'
roll. We got together because we were the two people who were into the
Smithsonian's 'American Anthology of Folk Music' and we wanted to play those
songs together as an acoustic folk duo.
"Really, it was just about the songs in the beginning for us," Einhorn
continues. "Neither of us liked that kind of jam-band music that was out.
His band was all right, but they really weren't writing very good songs, and
my band was full of musicians who were drifting in and out, and I kind of
became disenchanted with it. What happened was I went over to Scotland when
Belle and Sebastian came out of hiding to tour, and I followed their British
tour. Then I came back and I told Boston that we had to go see them, so we
drove to the West Coast to see them play a couple of times, and we decided
then and there that we needed a big band to get our vision across."
The connection to cult-favorite Scottish chamber-popsters Belle and
Sebastian has been both a blessing and a curse for the Scotland Yard Gospel
Choir. On the one hand, it has enabled the Chicago group to tap into a
natural fan base for that sort of exquisitely crafted, unapologetically
smart and emotional ork pop. On the other, it has prompted some critics to
write off the group as a mere clone band.
"Our first single, 'Jenny That Cries,' was literally modeled on Belle and
Sebastian," Einhorn confesses. "I used to sit and obsessively study their
music. I'd say, 'When is this instrument coming in, at what second in the
song and at what part of the verse?' I drew up tons of these charts of how
they did arranging, and I emulated that. And the character is kind of like
one that [Belle and Sebastian leader Stuart] Murdoch would create -- Jenny
is this kind of character who's kind of lost and kind of found and kind of
all over the board."
Of course, as the common practice of pop thievery goes, imitating Belle
and Sebastian isn't exactly like imitating a megaplatinum superstar. "You
know, I hear Dave Matthews, and I just don't relate to that stuff," Einhorn
says. "I just wanted people to be able to relate to us who like Belle and
Sebastian, or who would have been fans of the Smiths in the '80s."
And in any event, the group has grown far beyond mere mimicry with its
self-released debut album, "I Bet You Say That to All the Boys" (www.
sygc.com). The album is a wonderfully beguiling set of extremely winning
and well-written folk-rock, adorned with a small orchestra's worth of
instruments, from cello to melodica, and from tasteful Fender Rhodes piano
to a divine horn section. Onstage, the core quartet of Einhorn, Kerstein,
drummer Sam Koentopp and cellist Ellen O'Hayer is often augmented by two
trombones, trumpet and acoustic bass. If there's a problem in rock today, it
isn't that there's too much trombone or standup bass.
The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir is further distinguished by a searing
sense of humor in the lyrics of songs such as "Tear Down the Opera House,"
"Would You Still Love Me If I Was in a Knife Fight?" and the new single, "I
Never Thought I Could Feel This Way for a Boy."
"I think we try to avoid over-preciousness," Einhorn says. "I don't hear
that in Belle and Sebastian, but I know that a lot of the band's detractors
do. I prefer the kind of bite that Morrissey's music has. And I really love
it when we play a song like 'I Never Thought I Could Feel This Way for a
Boy' and we hear all of these masculine men, these yuppies, singing along
with it. It's funny, but I think it also shows the power of the songs to cut
right through everything and really affect the listeners."
Thanks to its independent releases and some dedicated touring, the
Scotland Yard Gospel Choir has been building a growing following, and
several well-respected indie labels are talking with the group about issuing
its next release, which is already in the works and drawing cameo
appearances by fellow Chicago musicians like Sally Timms and Devil in a
"We're extremely prolific and we have a huge backlog of songs," Einhorn
says. "We could probably put out 100 songs right now, and most of them are
From some bands, this would be idle boasting. But Einhorn and his mates
haven't taken a wrong turn yet, and they're well on their way to becoming
one of the most ambitious and rewarding bands in Chicago.