Ego Vs Id: A Pandora’s Box of Rock ’n’ Roll
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
Near-fatal car crashes, naked arm wrestling, runaway girlfriends and drummers, and even the unfortunate deaths of two dear friends. That’s the short story of Ego Vs Id’s debut album, Taste (Abattoir Records), recorded next to a strip club in Boulder over the past two years. But to see outspoken young singer/guitarist Nate Cook lead his raucous Thursday night acoustic sets at the Speakeasy, you’d think being in one of Boulder’s most promising bands was all whiskey and roses.
“Performing acoustically for three-and-a-half hours, it’s kind of a playground,” Cook, 24, says of the weekly, off-the-cuff residency that began as a sort of solo rehearsal and now often features his bandmates and other special guests.
“Playing acoustic opens up the world of subtlety, which is something that we’re not necessarily known for,” Cook tells Boulder Weekly. And that’s an understatement.
In concert, Ego Vs Id has evolved into one the tightest, most professional-sounding rock groups in Colorado, the volatile Cook jumping all over the stage while EVI slashes its way through a brash, earnest and surprisingly original brand of countrified indie-rock and a few choice covers. In person, the band’s three core members — Cook, guitarist/ singer Robbie Steifel and bassist/singer Jesse Parmet — are the kind of frank, hard-partying guys you’d expect from their simultaneously heartfelt and decadent lyrics. But in the studio these past few years, Cook and Co. became somewhat work-obsessed, nearly to the point of destruction. At first, however, the work environment while recording and mixing their debut LP was a little too much of a playground.
“We were so green going into it that we made some pretty classic mistakes,” Cook says. “Especially in treating it like a party towards the beginning, and I wish we hadn’t done that. The next record will probably take a month and it’ll be raw and ‘balls to the wall,’ but this one — I’m glad we did it that way.”
“Spending so long in the studio as we did really wasn’t intentional,” Steifel adds. “I have a feeling that, looking back in 10 years, Taste will be the most produced of all our music … but I guess in the end we came out with a record that sonically and artistically rivals bands that are on major labels, and I think we can perhaps use that to our advantage.”
A Pandora’s box of rock ’n’ roll ambition, it’s impossible to describe Taste — which traverses mellow ballads, punk-influenced rock and poetic Southern rock — with blanket statements, although a few media outlets have already tried. “All American Love” and “Lenny Bruce,” two lyrically and musically vigorous tracks that previously appeared on a self-released EP, showcase Cook and Steifel’s individual talents for writing and playing mid-tempo rock that juxtaposes heavy subjects and mercurial music. Cook wrestles with the English language like James Joyce observing a modern hipster bar, while Steifel takes a more straightforward approach that has been compared to Springsteen and Tom Petty, only with a lot more drug references. Overall, Taste is a grab bag of intensity, pop satire, tongue-in-cheek beauty and self-loathing debauchery.
Taste has been called over-produced, and a few tunes certainly did lose the bombast that makes Ego Vs Id so entertaining in concert, but the majority of the album’s 13 tracks feature distinctly poignant moments that represent what Cook describes as “an amalgamation of our influences.”
“Our tastes are always evolving and changing,” he says. “Maybe some people think listening to Phoebe Snow and then listening to the Slits creates a lack of focus, but I think it just adds more dimension to the music.”
Ego Vs Id — and especially the layered harmonies and overdubs of Taste — are obviously not trying to impress Denver hipsters or earn the opening slot on Ani DiFranco’s next tour. Taste isn’t for everyone, and pleasing everybody was never a goal, according to Cook.
“We’re not really trying to be one thing,” Cook says. “We’re just trying to be a band that makes music we want to hear, and because we’re all involved in every song there’s kind of an implied continuity to it all. We always wanted to be a good band and make good music, so that didn’t change [in the recording process]. We lost some of the assholishness of thinking it all had to be recorded in-room and analog; we kind of came around on some of that stuff.”
Perhaps most interesting, however, is how glaring an irony it is that after almost two years in a professional recording studio, using some of eTown’s priceless guitars, Ego Vs Id struck gold with the lovely “National Disaster,” the only song on Taste entirely recorded live. It’s a sure-fire radio hit a la U2 and Wilco — if the band can get it out to the right people — and also the track the band spent by far the least amount of time on.
Whether the album would’ve been better as a whole if such a minimalist recording technique was used on its other 12 songs will always be a mystery, but Cook says he wouldn’t change a thing.
“We’re known as a raw live band and we wanted to kind of round out what we were doing and even see for ourselves if we were capable of doing it,” Cook says. “The only real goal was to make the best music we can and that’s what we did. You can make a great record in three weeks, and we’ll probably make the next record in three weeks, but primarily we were just trying to make the best record we could, and something like that takes time.”
Over-production arguments aside, for some it will take significant time just to process Ego Vs Id lyrics such as “bombastic plastic men carry guns of fantastic calibers / made by native sons and gentlemen giving pearly dreams to all the girls / who wait all day on iron trains playing doctor and familiar games / and everyone wakes up or they don’t.”
It’s not too much of a stretch to call those Cook-penned lines slightly Dylanesque — “you used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat / who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat,” anyone? — But in a town where 3OH!3 is the only real breakout band of late, one wonders if the simultaneously P.C. and dance-party-obsessed Boulder is the right place for Ego Vs Id.
“I’m completely baffled by 3OH!3 and that’s the honest truth,” Cook says. “People like it; they can dance to it; it has that appeal to the ‘tween’ market, [but] our music is kind of heady in a way; it’s not simply love songs or songs about just getting pussy or whatever. I do my best to find the worst parts of myself and try to explain them to myself, you know?” “We thought the hipsters were going to be our fanbase,” Cook says, “but we’re a rock ’n’ roll band. Trying to be cool sucks.”
Having your music called “boring as fuck” indie-rock that “treads water and ends up nowhere” by Westword must also suck, but for now Cook tries to take the criticisms and compliments equally un-seriously.
“We don’t have to pull a cat’s tail, add some fuckin’ reverb, play it in reverse and then sing over it to make interesting music. And we’re not in it to make friends,” Cook says. “My mom always said, ‘It takes a carpenter to build a barn and it takes a jackass to knock it down.’”