The End Men is a ragged, two-piece tin-can orchestra from Brooklyn, NY. They initially seem to tap into the rich vein of blues-tinged garage rock, only to blow your mind with Matthew Hendershot’s voice, a mixture of gutter punk and carnie. Driving this all is Livia Ranalli, an Italian expat just as comfortable drumming on pavement or with salad forks as on a ‘real’ kit. I talked with Livia over email about their influences in Vaudeville and film, learning drums without a drumset, and how the group’s sound is changing.
A good start-off question, I think: how did the group form?
Well, I like to think we formed out of good timing: Matthew’s prior band had just fired him, and my band had just broken up, and knowing each other already, we decided to start something together. Matthew sent me some tracks that he was working on, and I loved them instantly: I could picture lots of unconventional sounds in the material, and the overall playful, dark feeling was very intriguing.
Actually, it took us quite some time to get the music started, as we started dating and ended up getting married after 3 months! But at some point, one night, we were in a bar and one friend of ours asked us to play a show with his band, and there we really started the whole The End Men game! Out of a glass of wine and good timing…
Your music has this ramshackle, almost carnival-barker vibe about it. I’ve heard ‘Tom Waits’ thrown around as a descriptor, but it only sorta fits. Did you decide on this style at the beginning, when Matthew sent your some songs, or was it something you more stumbled into?
Good question! Actually, I think that the first stuff had a more bluesy vibe to it, and that I pictured some sounds in my head to compliment it, and that our shared passion for toys and random objects that produce sounds contributed to give it that particular signature, but it is always hard to tell, I guess – influences are so unpredictable, it is impossible to ‘decide’ them! I like to think my drumming style had a relevant influence on those songs!
Right now, we write all the music together, so the new, coming album will be much more revealing of what direction we are taking.
Mind elaborating? Also, your drumming on EP is definitely, well, all stripped down. What did you have in mind for those songs that came out in your playing?
I think we are leaning towards a heavier rock-noir, vaudeville and circusy vibe. In my mind these new songs recall the characters in Fellini’s ‘La Strada’, or Gilliam’s ‘Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’; I take inspiration from that kind of free, stripped down, but colorful and honest way of making art. As a two-piece band we are constantly challenged by numbers, and that usually pushes us to embrace new instruments and get them to sound about right. You do the best with what you have!
When I first heard the guitar riff for one of the songs, I immediately thought of a big band; horns, a big percussion setup, tons of shakers, big women singing backing vocals. Then, we got started working on the EP immediately after the first couple of shows we played, and those songs virtually became what they are during the studio sessions – well, living room session. Even though the first EP came out sounding very spacious, we have realized that we ARE a stripped down, rock and roll band, and that we needed to embrace that without giving up the playful side of the whole show – playing with toys. ‘Build it Up’ features salad forks, washboards, chains, an electric drill, hammers, and a ratchet – they are somewhere there, down in the mix!
The new album will have more of that. I just love that kind of stuff.
On your Facebook page you have a picture of you playing with a fire-eater. Do you try to incorporate other performers like that into your act, or was that just a fluke thing that made for a great picture?
Ha! That was our last show of our European tour. That fire-eater performed right before our act, and once we went on we asked him to keep going while we were playing. We have been planning for a while to put up a real show, a sort of variety performance featuring burlesque dancers, acting and miming, tap dancing, narrators, in the real spirit of Vaudeville! Our plan is to finish recording the album, then talk with a bunch of friends of ours about writing a script and have them participate in the show.
How often do you get a chance to tour? Did it open up a lot after the release of the EP?
Europe was the first larger scale tour since we recorded the EP. We kinda did it backwards, as we released the EP before we even barely played out… But definitely played a lot since then and visited Boston and upstate NY: we go every year to the Utica Music Fest, and we’re playing again in Saratoga Springs/Albany next month.
I think that the new album will open up more opportunities to play out; probably a tour to the Mid-west soon, and back to Europe next summer, where I am from!
Well, where exactly are you from? And why’d you move to the US?
Milan, Italy! Well, I came to NYC for a few days on vacation and fell in love with the vitality of its music scene. I was trying to make a living in Italy as a musician, and things were not going that well; many venues were shutting down, less live music support, and the SIAE (the Italian PRO) was and still is robbing venues and working artists. It was very frustrating and suffocating to witness this situation and when I saw how loose things were here, I decided to give it a chance. I moved here a month after my vacation, in 2007.
Could you talk a little more about the SIAE?
SIAE is the Italian Society of Authors and Publishers, and its goal is to protect artists’ copyrights. At least, on paper. In fact, they are asking lots of money from venues – some club owner in Italy told me that SIAE usually asks for a pretty large percentage of the income of the whole day, not just the one from the show-time. Sometimes they just make up invented fees to get more money from bars. Every time you play a show anywhere in Italy, you have to fill in this complex paper – they call it borderau – where each song performed that night needs to be listed, together with the author’s name: theoretically, this paper should be filled in by a third party in real time during the show. If a SIAE inspector shows up and this is not done according to the rules, or if there are any mistakes in the borderau, the venue can get a fine. Now, you’ll imagine artists’ rights must be very well protected by these people, but it is not the case. They are just getting more and more money from clubs that are already struggling with a bad economy crisis and are trying to keep art alive. So many of them are just shutting down.
When did you pick up drums? Did you have any drum idols that inspired you to do so?
When I picked up drums, at age 12, my main inspirations were the Beatles and Queen as bands. I don’t think I had any specific drummer idol inspire me at that time. I just remember catching myself drumming everywhere, on any surface. My drums were made of pots and pans for quite a few years; I got my first drum set when I was about 18. If I had to name any idols today, I would say Bonham and Copeland; I take great inspiration from the grand energy and groove of the first one, and the avant-garde, technical, yet very musical and dynamic playing of the latter.
Lastly, what are your goals for the band?
Our goals as a band are to keep playing music, make more records and build a community of trusted friends, artists with whom making art and promoting a support network. Unfortunately so many times I see bands compete with each other. That is not helping anybody and hurts the music scene as well. I would like to see things change in the way artists allow venues and labels to treat them. The reason why so many venues can ask bands for money here in NYC is that there will always be a desperate band ready to pay to get a spotlight. I think that is really unprofessional and contributes to maintain this mentality according to which a band should bring a paying draw to get a show. Wait, wasn’t that the venue’s job? The musician is supposed to bring the show, not necessarily the people.
They can get away with this because the music scene is so fragmented right now.
So, it is very important for us to support and enlarge our bands’ and artists’ community. Art should unite, always.