Formed in 1990 in Boston by guitarist Greg McKenna and singer Kay Hanley, Letters To Cleo soon found themselves thrust in the national spotlight with the release of their first big hit single “Here & Now.” Released by Giant Records (a subsidiary of Warner Brothers Records), the song reached No. 10 on the Billboard Modern Rock Singles chart. The band’s unique sound and quirky song structures quickly garnered them legions of dedicated fans. Letters to Cleo’s success would carry on throughout the 1990’s as their music could be heard on many top TV shows and films throughout the decade, including the cult classic “10 Things I Hate About You,” when the band contributed four songs to the soundtrack and were featured in the film. However, all good things come to an end and the band played what was though to be their last show in 2000. The members of the band went on to have successful careers working in different areas of music from production and writing to performance and musical directing.
Flash forward to 2016, where all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place for a reunion of Letters to Cleo with original members Kay Hanley (vocals), Michael Eisenstein (guitar), Stacy Jones (drums) and Greg McKenna (guitar). The band will release new music for the first time in 17 years. The five song EP is available for pre-order in multiple formats through Pledge Music. The EP will be released worldwide on all major digital services on September 30. For the band, staying true to the chemistry that defined their sound throughout the ‘90s was key to the creation of this new record. From Eisenstein’s fierce, angular guitars locking horns with Jones’ roaring locomotive rhythm on “Hitch A Ride” to McKenna and Hanley’s signature melodic ESP on “Good Right Here,” the Cleo bandmates are in prizefighter form. Following the release of the record, the band will head out on the road playing songs from the new EP, along with Letters to Cleo classics and fan favorites, for a five-date tour that include Boston San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught with guitarist Michael Eisenstein to discuss his life in music, reuniting with his Letters To Cleo bandmates, what they have in store for fans with their upcoming release and the other exciting projects he has on the horizon.
Let’s start at the beginning. What got you hooked on music early in life?
Ya know, I grew up with a piano in the household. My mother played piano as a child and we had a beautiful Steinway piano. I would always tinker around on that and try to sound out songs. My older brother was a drummer and he was in rock bands, so when they would take a break to go get high or whatever, [laughs] I would sneak in there and mess around with their guitars. I got hooked then and I started saving up for my own guitar around that time.
When did you decide music was something you wanted to pursue professionally?
It was pretty soon after that. I happened to have one of the best guitar players in the town I grew up in living next door to me in New Jersey. I started taking lessons with him and he was aspiring to be a professional and was a mentor to me. I think I was supposed to have an hour lesson and I would frequently be over there for two-and-a-half hours. We would listen to music together and he was a real mentor who encouraged me and kind of groomed me in a sense.
Which artists had a big impact on you both then and now?
I remember when I first heard Eddie Van Halen. I was like, “Wow! I want to do that!” [laughs] His playing is so specific and I didn’t really want to pursue that exact thing. I also liked The Police and The B-52s. Around the same time, in high school, I was listening to a lot of jazz and jazz fusion. It was kind of all over the place really.
What went into finding your creative voice early on in your musical career?
I just played as much as I could! I had one really close friend and we got our guitars around the same time, around eighth grade or so. We did everything together. We went to shows together and played in bands together. He is still in music now and teaches at NYU. We are still super-close friends and that was a big thing. I went to college for music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and I was totally immersed in music. I was playing with different people every day and playing different kinds of music every day. I got out and a guy I knew recommended me to join Letters To Cleo in the real early, early stages. That was kind of my first band since high school and it was just the right combination of people. I think we all fed off of each other and kind of developed our style together.
You spent your life working in the music industry. What is the secret to your success?
I think it comes down to trying to not have too much of an ego, especially when you are playing other people’s music, and being cool. Be a good hang! No one wants to be driving in a van all day with someone who’s a jerk! [laughs] Be somewhat professional! Show up on time and show up ready to play! Like Woody Allen said, “50% of life is just showing up.” Be reliable! Be reliable, be a good hang and have fun! [laughs]
You mentioned Letters To Cleo and that’s what brought us together today. When you joined the band in those early stages, what made you know it was a project worth pursuing and where you belonged at that point in time?
That is a good question. For me, it was just another opportunity to play. I was just out of college, working at a grocery store and had one weekly club gig I did on Wednesday nights that didn’t pay very much. I just wanted to play more! I went and checked them out. I saw them at a place for a bar night gig where they were playing half originals, throwing in some covers and whatever. It just seemed like good players and I knew the rhythm section. It was an opportunity to get up there and play. I didn’t really view it as this thing that would launch my career. It was more like, “OK! Let’s play! Let’s go do this!”
Recently, you all announced you are putting the band back together! You are back and making new music in 2016. What brought this all about?
Our drummer, Stacy Jones, has spent the past eight years or so on tour with different artists and he hasn’t been around much. Last fall, I ran into him at a show in LA and he said, “Hey, I’m getting off the road for awhile. I’m going to focus on writing and producing stuff around here. Do you want to get together and do some Letters To Cleo stuff?” I said, “Yeah, I’m open to it. Sure! I will ask, Kay!” It was sort of his idea and he put the wheels in motion. Kay was open to getting together to write and seeing if anything happens. We texted our other guitar player, Greg [McKenna], who lives in Boston. We said, “Hey, we’re going to get together to write some songs. If you have any ideas, send them out to us.” He sent along a couple of MP3s and we got into the studio. On the first day, we wrote two songs! Stacy said, “What are you guys doing next week? Let’s start recording these!” [laughs] It just snowballed really fast!
When you started gaining steam in the writing process, did you have goals or aspirations for this new batch of music?
It was more of a thing where we wanted to see if we could still do it and see how it sounds and feels before we decided anything about anything. We wanted to get in there, write a couple and see if they were any good. To be honest, at the end of the first day of writing, we weren’t like, “Yeah! These songs are great!” We didn’t know. I think we had planned on getting back together a couple weeks after Kay finished lyrics and stuff like that and check them out. I didn’t listen to them or think about it until we got back together. We put them on and played them and thought, “Wow! These actually are good! Let’s record them!” That is when we decided to record them. Greg flew out and we did another round of writing and wrote three more songs, so that was five. We said, “OK, let’s record these. They are all good. Let’s put them out!” [laughs]
What was it like to step into a chapter from your past and work with band members again?
It was like the proverbial putting on of a comfortable old shoe. We fell right back into it! It was surprising to see how quickly our collective songwriting quirks that I didn’t think are a part of people’s music outside the band, kind of kicked back in. For example, having the weird, oddball arrangements we would have, random things like this chorus being in a different key than the other choruses or every time this happens twice but the middle time it happens three times. It was little quirks like those that Cleo always had that came right back without even thinking about it! It was very surprising how natural it was!
A lot of time passed since the band first started. How has the approach to songwriting changed, if at all?
Within the context of this band, not one iota. It starts with a guitar riff and that is fleshed out. Kay either hears something for it and has an idea pretty much right away or not. Then we develop that and write another section or two and bang it out! Then we give her a day or two to write a lyric to it. That is kind of the way it has been since day one and it still works the exact same way! If they take too long or are too labored, we generally tend to just ditch them. The songs have to come pretty easily and once we get with the drums we flesh out the actual arrangement of the parts.
You built relationships with the band members over the course of many years. What do the other people in Letters To Cleo bring out of you creatively?
What they bring out in me creatively is a confidence to not be precious. I can just trust that whatever I play is going to work. Something I learned from the producer of our third record, Peter Collins, was to do early takes, get an idea and get it down quick. You’re good enough that it’s going to be fine and if you keep laboring it, trying to make it better or perfect, it is going to get stale. Be confident in your first or second instinct and don’t beat it into the ground. Work fast! That is something I learned along the way.
Each project brings a unique set of challenges. What were the challenges of bringing this new EP to life?
The biggest challenge was that it used to be that all we were was Letters To Cleo. It was our full-time thing. We would rehearse several times a week, do gigs constantly and tour. It was all we had to worry about. Now, we have parents in the band and people who have other jobs in music or not in music. It is juggling a lot of balls! Plus, we used to have a label that took care of a lot of things that we now have to do. It is things like worrying about cover art, scheduling photoshoots and all that stuff like that we’re on the hook for. It’s a lot more work and people are juggling many balls in addition to Letters To Cleo. It’s scheduling and commitment levels that make things go slower because we are not in that stage of our lives where we are Letters To Cleo 24 hours a day.
Anytime you work on a group of songs, some come easier and others are harder to nail down.
Yeah, that’s true. Ya know, there was one song, which will be the title track of the EP, called “Back To Nebraska.” It is a very personal song that Kay was writing by herself. She had started it and never finished it. I don’t think she even knew for sure that it would be a Letters To Cleo song. She brought it and said, “Here is something I have been working on. Do you think it could go on this record?” She played it for me and I said, “It’s good but it never really gets to the point. It’s starts out great but then it starts meandering.” I had to pull out of her what she was really trying to get out. It’s a very emotional song about a friend of hers who died but she didn’t want it to be too confessional and sappy about it but, at the same time, she was obscuring the real heart of what she was trying to say. It took a little while of coaxing her and rewriting to get that one where it is. I would say that was a big challenge, to get her in the space where she was willing to talk about that kind of stuff in the song.
You have tour dates lined up for the fall and a lot of people are really excited about it! What can we expect when we head out to see you?
You can expect the best bar band that has not a ton of fans but super passionate fans and our audiences will be into it! [laughs] We will be rocking out and it will be 90 minutes of fast-paced, power-pop, alternative rock! We aren’t reinventing our formula! If you liked us then, you will like the new stuff! We will be playing a cross section of everything we have ever done at a loud volume and fast tempo!
Well, you sold me. I’m there! [laughs] The next question is obvious. The upcoming release is an EP. Is there a chance we will hear more music from Letters To Cleo in the near future?
I think it seems like, yes. It seems like crossing this threshold of doing this EP puts us in a space where everyone in the band is on the same page with this is a legacy that we have that we are proud of and it is something we can dedicate an amount of time to every couple of years to work on something. You never know what is going to happen in the future but I think the feeling is that this is a worthwhile thing to dedicate some time to, enjoy and share!
You have an impressive track record outside Letters To Cleo. What are some of the biggest milestones on your musical journey?
Every gig to me is fresh. Letters To Cleo was still together when I started playing with Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt. That was one of the first times I came into a project where I was really supporting someone else’s vision. We worked with Bob Rock as a producer, who was great, and I learned so much in that. My next gig after that was touring with Our Lady Peace and that was coming in as a touring player, playing some rhythm guitar and keyboards and helping to fill out their sound. That was a challenge because I had to learn 35 songs in a week and be on stage. It came in at the last second, right before the tour. There were just a few rehearsals before it was time to go get in the bus. It is all about those confidence boosters, accomplishing these things and getting to the point where you can do that same thing with an artist of Melissa Etheridge’s stature. I played with her for a year in 2013-2014. Building on the things I did before is always what is gratifying for me! I try to keep moving forward, staying at it and improving.
Looking back on all you have done as an artist, how have you most evolved?
It’s funny, I hear some of those early recordings and I feel like I was rushing everything and my bends aren’t in tune. There is also a certain charm to that youthful playing. I try to look at it both ways. [laughs] As a musician, you always hope to keep improving and seeing improvement. That is what means the most to me!
We have seen the music industry change exponentially through the years. What is the best part of being a working musician in this day and age?
The best part is the music itself! Whether I’m performing, recording, producing or mixing, I still love music. I would rather be doing nothing else! The economics of the business are challenging these days but still, at my core, I love it and wouldn’t be thrilled with doing anything else! [laughs] That is the most important thing!
I want to mention one of your other projects that I really love — The Reigning Monarchs. How did that project come about and might we hear more of that project in the future?
Yes! Actually, there is a Reigning Monarchs’ EP that is close to being done now. There will definitely be something out within the next couple of months. That came about because shortly after I moved to LA, I was introduced by a mutual friend to a standup comedian named Greg Behrendt. He had a monthly show at Largo for years. Just by chance, when I moved here, the guitar player who had been doing it moved to Austin, Texas. I kinda jumped right into his chair and started doing this monthly show that was a music, comedy and storytelling show that was fantastic! My earliest and best memories of living in Los Angeles were doing that show! Greg was an amateur guitar player and played in some bands when he was younger. At some point, his wife bought him some guitar lessons with me as a gift. It was a month worth of guitar lessons. He had a hugely successful book in America called “He’s Just Not That Into You.” His comedy career and everything was really blowing up and he had to leave for the road. He wanted to have this walk-on song to take the stage to. He very specifically described the sound of what he wanted. It was kind of surf-guitar sounds with lots of brass but a little bit of punk-rock, Clash kind of feel. We made the song! It came out great and when he got back from tour, he wanted to do a couple more. Then we started doing some shows where we would play a few songs at the beginning. It all started very innocently like that and the next thing you know, we had an album! Then it was an album and an EP. Then an album, EP and a 7-inch! Then two albums and two EPs … [laughs] It was a side project that grew out of his vision and then we collaborated on it. We took a couple of years off and then came back to it. It was just one of those things that became a really great creative outlet for me and a very cool project that came from something as simple as giving someone guitar lessons!
What can you tell us about this next round of tunes on the horizon?
This one is a little different. It is more groove based. There was a song on the last record called “Frankenstein Ska,” and this kind of picks up where that left off. It is more kind of one chord, a groove and a vibe type of thing built up from jamming with the drummer. It is a little different and more from that reggae, ska, groove world than in the retro surf world. It still has all our signature elements from the guitars to the horns and everything.
Where are you headed in the future in a musical sense? Any ground you still look to explore?
I have been doing this thing for the past two months called The Standard of The Day. Everyday on Instagram (visit Michael’s Eisenstein’s Instagram here), I post around eight or 16 bars of a standard song from The Great American Songbook. It has become a little signature thing that I do, almost every morning! [laughs] I pull out one of my books and learn enough of it to do a little solo guitar piece! I kinda want to have a little group that does that kind of music. About six months ago, I moved into a studio in LA, where we made the Letters To Cleo record, called The Death Star. I am starting to book clients to produce records in there and I really hope that takes off in the next year. I was producing a lot in 2005-2011 and then I started touring again. I really miss that work, so it is something I am really trying to drum back up again. Hopefully, these two records will serve as a calling card for the studio and my production!
To round out our interview, I have one more question. What is the best lesson we can take away from your journey as an artist so far?
I don’t know, man! [laughs] I guess it is to be flexible about what you want to achieve and what you want to do in music. I’ll tell you one thing, I have been in LA for 13 years and I am not sure I even have a niche yet, as evidenced by producing records, mixing records, writing music for advertising, TV scores, children’s television and teaching music. I am playing guitar, bass and other instruments. It’s all about being open to doing anything in music if you really want to make it because you don’t know where a little gig you take will lead. You would be amazed at how I do some gig with someone and it leads to something that will pay the bills for six months! [laughs]
Thanks for being a great hang today, Michael! I look forward to hearing everything you have in the works and wish you all the best moving forward!
Thanks for your time, Jason! I appreciate it!
Follow the continuing adventures of Letters To Cleo via social media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. For tour dates, visit their official site at www.letterstocleo.net. Pre-Order the band’s new EP and get some exclusive content — visit their PledgeMusic page!