When the Straight catches up with the Cairo Gang’s Emmett Kelly, he’s en route to a studio in Ojai, California, where he’ll be laying down drum tracks for a new album by Joseph O’Connell (better known to his fans as Elephant Micah).
Given that he is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist who plays pretty much everything on the Cairo Gang’s albums himself, you’d think that Kelly could carve out a decent niche as a Los Angeles session musician.
“I guess I would do it, in general, but I’m not really that into being a workhorse,” he says. “I like to be creative, and so if people want me to be creative, I like that, you know what I mean? I’m totally down to play music with anyone. But I don’t really understand if someone has me come in to do a session and they’re like, ‘Can you do this kind of thing?’ and it’s just, like, ‘Well, why don’t you do it? You could probably do it. I guess I’ll take the money from you if that’s what you want, but it doesn’t make sense to me.’ Guitar is kind of an easy instrument. Guitar players are a dime a dozen. Every single person I know plays guitar. So I would hope that when I get called on a session it’s because I do something special, you know?”
The Cairo Gang’s latest album, Goes Missing, suggests that Kelly does something pretty special indeed. The record’s songs nod toward the ’60s, with the jaunty-sounding (but lyrically despairing) “Be What You Are” evoking the Beatles in their matching-suits days. “A Heart Like Yours”, meanwhile, could pass for a "Turn! Turn! Turn!" outtake. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that Kelly plays a Rickenbacker 360, the same guitar that Roger McGuinn helped popularize. There’s also the fact that he’s just a big fan of the Byrds.
“That sound is just transcendent,” Kelly says. “It’s so beautiful, you know, the sound of that electric 12-string. Everything about it is totally heavenly. You know, you get this crazy overtone series, and you hear this beautiful harmony voice. It’s my favourite thing. It’s rock music, psychedelic, and also very touching and beautiful.”
In Kelly’s capable hands, it certainly is, but it’s arguable that the Cairo Gang has yet to get its due. Kelly has been prolific, releasing half a dozen LPs (not even counting EPs or live albums) since 2006, but those have largely been overshadowed by his high-profile collaborations with the likes of Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Angel Olsen. Kelly readily acknowledges that this has been the case, but, on the verge of his first major full-band tour—for which he’ll be joined by guitarist-vocalist Jeff Harms, bassist Ryan Weinstein, and drummer Marc Riordan—he’s hopeful this will change.
He’s also happy to be living in his native L.A. again, immersing himself in the underground scene that is currently home to the likes of Ariel Pink, White Fence, Mikal Cronin, and Ty Segall. Kelly spent a decade or so in Chicago, but got burned-out negotiating the divisive politics of that city’s music scene.
“Chicago really bummed me out,” Kelly admits. “I love Chicago, and I spent 10 years there, but I’m really into community. I’ve contributed a lot to the communities that I’ve been involved with. The Chicago community is not my favourite. I mean, there’s an aspect to it that’s excellent and like no other, and I’m happy to say that I’m involved in it, but there’s a whole element to it that I find to be really distasteful. You pick your battles, you know?”
He adds with a laugh, “I don’t really give a shit about it anymore, so I came back to my hometown, where everybody is way more obviously fucked up.”
The Cairo Gang plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Monday (September 7).