Scotland Yard builds sound bit by Brit


May 28, 2004



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."


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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 opposite!"

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. 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 Woodpile.

"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 pretty good."

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.