Throughout nearly a decade, Scattered Trees evolved from a solo project into a full-on, major label-signed band, so it was with some reservation that founder and frontman Nate Eiesland pulled the plug on the local indie-rock crew after brothers Jason and Baron Harper left the group last summer.
"At that point there were three of us left with the name Scattered Trees and it was like, 'What now?' " said the 28-year-old Eiesland. " 'Do we keep going? Do we start over?' "
Following the Harper brothers' departure, the group, now recast as a trio, adopted the name On An On and set about recording its full-length debut, the hazy, dreamlike "Give In." The album, which was recorded in a converted church in Toronto, finds the newborn three-piece stretching into unfamiliar terrain, doing away with some of the polish that defined Scattered Trees recordings in favor of a more immediate sound. "We wanted to be honest and vulnerable and flawed," said Eiesland.
So far audiences have responded positively to the new direction. The band recently returned from a European trek that included a sold-out show in London, and there are already so many 2013 tour dates booked that Eiesland recently gave up his Logan Square apartment, figuring he wouldn't really be living there anyway.
In a recent phone interview, the singer-songwriter opened up about moving on from Scattered Trees, his greatest fear and the one phrase he can say in virtually any language.
You guys just got back from Europe. How did the shows go?
The shows went surprisingly well. We didn't know what our fan base would be over there, but Berlin was incredible. London sold out. It was like, "How is this happening?"
Can you actually speak any foreign languages?
I try to pick up a little bit here and there, but mostly I can only say, "I'm sorry, I don't speak any ..." and then whatever language it is.
So you can say that phrase in like 30 different languages?
Do you think "Give In" would sound the same if you had kept the name Scattered Trees? Or was it essential to separate yourselves from the past to fully embrace this new musical direction?
I think you're right. It was essential to have that fresh start. If we were still called Scattered Trees ... I don't think there would have been the same level of freedom and experimentation. With Scattered Trees, we were together so long we had built up some loyalties to a sound and a process. That was a huge part of what we wanted to shake in this band.
Scattered Trees albums were always so polished. With On An On it seems like you let those rough edges show a bit more.
Absolutely. In Scattered Trees ... we had this deeply ingrained habit of wanting to execute the takes perfectly. With this new band it was like, "That's boring to us." What we learned was there is an energy present in those moments of frailty and uncertainty and nervousness. [Producer] Dave [Newfeld] has a knack for capturing those moments. We wanted to let that humanity in.
Did you find you started to embrace imperfection elsewhere in your life? Like did you stop shaving? Pack on a few pounds?
[Laughs] Probably inadvertently. I'm sure all my friends were just too nice to say anything. I think I grew my beard out to the point it was like, "Oh yeah, this is unattractive."
Last time we spoke you said you didn't think you could get away from writing about subjects like death and mortality. Those subjects are still present here, but you seem to be looking at them from a more grown-up perspective.
You're totally right. I have more distance from the things that were so raw and close then. [Scattered Trees' final album, "Sympathy," was written and recorded following the sudden death of Eiesland's father.] Now I can understand what happened from a different perspective, and that's something I've been exploring in my songs and lyrics. Before death was something I didn't understand, and now I think I've gained a comfort level with it. Death doesn't scare me anymore.
What does scare you then?
Honestly? Bats freak the [bleep] out of me. I was a farm kid in Minnesota, so I had a lot of tennis racket battles with bats in the house.
On and On, 10 p.m. Fri. March 8 at Schubas. $12.
Nate Eiesland personality test
What's the last album you bought? " 'Great Songs of Christmas 8' by the Goodyear Company. It was this album I got in a Salvation Army, and I spun it all Christmas."
Song you've listened to on repeat recently? "I guess 'Quick Canal' by Atlas Sound."
Song you never want to hear again? " 'Da Da Da' [by Trio]. I think the first time I heard that song I never wanted to hear it again."
Best concert you've seen in the last year? "Hmm. Probably Tame Impala at Metro. They put on a really good show."
New band you don't know personally that deserves to be big? "Young Magic. Their new album 'Melt' is really great."
Favorite movie ever? "Disney's animated 'Robin Hood' with the foxes. Not because it's cool, because I don't think it's cool for me to say. But if it were ever on I'd watch it and enjoy it. I don't think I could ever get sick of that movie."
Chicago's best music venue? "Oh man. They're all really good ... but I'd probably have to say the Metro."
Local Q&A: On an On
"The Hunter" by On an On