We’re carrying a new CD here in the store that’s catching eyes at the counter with its sleek look. You can’t judge it just by the cover, though, which is why we’re providing some liner notes here. Greater Seattle is the product of area musician Igor Keller (who’s long been the voice behind the Hideous Belltown blog) performing under the name Longboat. It’s a collection of seventeen songs about Seattle-area neighborhoods and cities, all of which are honored by their inclusion even while they’re subjected to a healthy drubbing for their characteristic foibles. Mercer Island gets its comeuppance on track five, and we won’t tell you how except to say that it has something to do with what happens when income exceeds taste.
The album is wide-ranging in style, dabbling in everything from dance beats to the hard stuff, somewhat reminiscent of the diversity on Stephen Merritt’s 69 Love Songs. As such, there’s a little something for every taste on offer. While it’s much more than just a novelty record, it’s obviously a great souvenir for a visitor or a badge of pride for a native—one who has a good sense of humor about his or her hometown, anyway.
We recently conducted a brief interview with Keller via email.
Island Books: Longboat—what’s up with that?
Igor Keller: Hey, every band needs a name—even if it’s just one guy. I wanted something as neutral as possible to keep preconceptions to a minimum. For example, you wouldn’t expect a band called Chainsaw Convention to sound like the Carpenters. With a name like Longboat, people don’t know what to expect. That’s a good thing.
IB: What’s your musical background and how did you begin writing and recording your own work?
IK: I studied theory and composition at the UW for several years, but ultimately became a Russian major. At the time, I was more interested in traveling than making music. At about the same time, I became quite interested in jazz, especially in the tenor sax. I bought an old horn and eventually started gigging around town. The bottom fell out of live jazz in the mid-2000s, so I turned to classical music by writing the neo-baroque oratorio Mackris v. O’Reilly [based on the transcripts of the 2004 sexual harassment suit against political commentator Bill O’Reilly]. It was staged and recorded at Meany Hall in 2007. Following that I thought that film music would be a good idea. But it wasn’t, as everyone and their brother is trying to get into it. Finally, I figured that pop music would be the most fun. And it has been. Making Greater Seattle was one of the most positive musical experiences I’ve ever had. It’s my first pop album, but second album overall after Mackris v. O’Reilly.
IB: What inspired the Greater Seattle CD? Did you conceive of an entire song cycle from the beginning or just start writing individual songs before realizing you had a whole suite on your hands?
IK: The whole thing started with “Bellevue.” After finishing that, I wanted to write a few songs for context and things got carried away. The next thing I knew, I had a full-blown concept album on my hands. All 17 tunes (15 originals and two covers) took just over two months to write. “Mercer Island” and “Edmonds” were finished last.
IB: The cover art is really striking. Is that your work, or where did it come from?
IK: The concept was mine, but it was realized by a graphic artist named Pete Woychick. He did a great job, because I can’t draw. Even though the songs don’t delve too deeply into the Seattle memes of coffee/beer/computers/rain, I thought it would be good to show them on the cover.
IB: Is the CD good-natured mockery or sharp satire, or a little of both?
IK: Just as I employ a lot of genres (funk, stadium rock, electronica, marching band, etc.) in these songs, I’ve tried to have different approaches to the subject matter. So yes, a little of both. For some of the tunes, say, “Belltown” and “Tacoma,” I’ve tried to delve a little deeper into what these places are. For example, to many Seattleites, Belltown is where all the bars are and that’s it. For me, it’s been home for many years and I wanted to convey the challenges involved in living here. And Tacoma has always seemed to me in a perpetual state of decline and I wanted to express a little empathy. Those are just two examples, but I put a lot of thought into these tunes. I hope it shows.
IB: What else are you working on?
IK: I’m always writing music. The plan is to put out an album every year until the sun explodes or I run out of money. This next effort will just be songs—there won’t be an over-arching concept. But I’m always very enthusiastic about unusual subject matter, so each tune will definitely be out of the ordinary. At some point, there may be a Son of Greater Seattle, but that’s a ways down the road.
IB: Since you said you were a Russian major and this is for a bookstore blog, I guess I have to ask about favorite authors. Do you know Elif Batuman’s The Possessed?
IK: My favorite authors are Russians: Tolstoy, Gogol and Nabokov. There is a three-way tie for my all-time favorite book between War and Peace, Dead Souls and Lolita (with The Gift a close runner-up). My least favorite authors are also Russians: Bulgakov and Dostoevsky. I haven’t read The Possessed, but it looks fascinating. I find it extremely difficult to read while I’m writing music and I’m writing music all the time, but this fall I plan to give myself a break and catch up on my reading. I think I need to make room for The Possessed.