“Like, how do we even exist?” C-U musician Ryan Groff asks the starry poster on the back wall of his studio, obtusely labeled “The Universe.”
The poster does not answer him back, just smiles with its speckled constellations and planets, and fits into its home on the back wall of self-owned Perennial Studios with its neighbors: a large-scale Bowie in blue chrome, a downtown Champaign, an almost-vintage poster for his band, Elsinore, other small frames of Jupiter and Mars, harmonizing in the company of one another into the preschool blue of the far wall.
Groff’s voice trails off when he remembers he has known me, a brown-haired 19-year old that has borrowed my sorority sister’s unripped blue jeans for this interview and tied my hair up the way I’ve seen journalists do in the movies, for only the small puzzle piece of time between 3:00 and 3:30.
“I kind of like the idea of, you know, the universe, and not in a cosmology way, but just the idea of all it all works,” he continues, “It feels like it’s all very grand scale, and I’m not a religious person, but I’m spiritual about, just the size of things. It’s helpful being a songwriter who thinks that way, because it gives me perspective on a larger scale, and how to think about things and how to think about life.”
Groff lives in the residential part of Champaign, the part of town that college kids drive past on sunny weekends when they go to Chick Fil A or Walmart. Once every few minutes, someone in the backseat will break the lull of the radio and point at a White Victorian and add “That one’s kind of pretty.”. At the same time, the rest of the carpool nods in agreement hits their disposable vapes and recedes into the 3-or-so miles of Campustown.
I have seen a lot of DIY in my journalistic exploration of Champaign culture the past year-and-a-half or so, and the way this art screams “self-made,” the way it screams, “American-made.” I’ve seen a woman compose an art gallery of rubbish and mini baby doll heads, attended the sticky basement shows of adolescent indie guitarists, and watched fraternity boys open for a semi-big alt-pop name at Foellinger. That is why I’ve grown so fond of this town, and have fostered a bit of a soft spot for its creators like Groff.
Immediately I develop a liking to Perennial Sound Studio (This Studio Is An Instrument), which is composed of kid-bedroom blue, some red, some wooden panels, lots of keyboards, and microphones, and different string instruments. There’s also an Ouija board sitting atop the shelf, as well as a little picture of Ryan’s kid, and a yellow submarine made of legos.
“That’s been a big part of my career, and my arc as a musician, is that the studio has to feel (like stepping into my brain),” he says. Often his process includes the smorgasbord of keyboards, mics, and guitars, his editing software called Protools, and sometimes the Voice Memos iPhone app for quick snippets of ideas. He tells me that of the three band members residing in Champaign, two own studios. The rest live in Chicago.
He tells me the name Elsinore comes from an idea of an idea. The name of a farm near his hometown, which the owner named after the castle in Hamlet, causing the group’s name to be composed of farmland and literature, something so collective with its surroundings that few realize the vowels and consonants that seethe into the band’s very roots.
I think of Perennial Sound, and Ryan’s band, Elsinore, this way: imagine if a milk-drinking Rantoul farmer fell in love with a pink-haired Radiohead fan and they ran away together and had a weird, but a cool kid. Listening to the music, being in that studio would be like if you could sit in a field of golden corn and still see the silhouette of Chicago in the distance, and David Bowie is there French-braiding your hair.
Elsinore is the essence of Champaign, and the midwest, and the music scene of small, but progressive field-sprinkled towns. Champaign in itself is the essence of youth, and art, and DIY, though its proclamations boast white-paint chipped farmhouses, sun-soaked fields of wheat, and the dirty hands of farmers and blue-collar. Champaign, Illinois is a glimmering piece of the American puzzle. So is Groff. And so is his band.
“I wasn’t particularly into music the way that you might think, based on the fact that this is my life and has been for like 20 years. Growing up, I was just a kid who noticed music but didn’t have a lot of favorites,” he tells me, leaning over his desktop chair when we talk about his childhood.
My shoulders lose tension as Ryan speaks the narrative of a wholesome, midwestern boy, and I realize that this time around, I will not have to tell another tortured artist rhetoric that a lot of musicians have seemed to push onto me. The love story of Groff and his music is breezy and somewhat serendipitous, perhaps that is where some of his interest in the universe’s grand workings has sprouted from.
“It happened quickly. Like, I was just a normal midwestern boy my whole life, and then got into high school. The first blip was when I stopped whatever sports I was in. I was mediocre at sports,” he says, leading into the first time he attempted theatre and drama.
“It felt way more like a creative outlet, and I was all of the sudden around way more colorful, artistic, creative people,” he tells me, “It’s always been a thing, right?” He smiles talking about his friends from high school, and a certainty in his expression tells me he hopes I know what he’s talking about when he talks about the bright and creative weirdos of adolescence. Perhaps he assumes me to understand him, as I am a writer, and that is partially a form of artwork.
“(I) kind of fell into some different friend groups because of that, and that was the planting of the seeds for me. Being around more goofballs, you know, like weirdos, and it made me feel more open to being weird and goofy and happy about it. I always have been that way. When you’re on sports teams, you’re around people who take it way too seriously. I just was so over that, so fast.”
“I think that’s when I started to find myself as a teenager.” He recalls his transition to the more artful sectors of his high school with an ease that some musicians lack when they speak about those years. It is a simple story about a midwestern teen who joins the musical at the school when it happens to offer its first music theory course. He joins the choir, picks up a guitar and learns Weezer songs, and ends up with a 2-year full ride to music school.
“My brain started telling me, ‘You could try to start writing songs.’ It just started with chords. I didn’t have any huge epiphany, but I started trying to do it. So then, a lot of people asked me what I was going to do for college. And I was like, ‘I kind of am in love with music. I kind of really like music theory, and I like singing, and I wanna just go figure it out.’” The synchronicity of time and place seems to be the theme that circulates these few, formative years. Friends go off to college with him. His parents support him in this endeavor. Perhaps this is the sort of serendipitous unfolding of events that attracts him to the greater meaning and prompts cosmic posters on his studio wall. Maybe. Maybe not.
“I was going against the grain because I didn’t want to be a high school or middle school or elementary school chorus or band teacher. That’s what everyone else wanted to do. I didn’t want to do that at all. I wanted to write songs and perform. I just stayed on that path.”
Elsinore formed organically, while Groff was designing his coursework at EIU, with some convincing of the adults around school. Though Charleston radiated an ample-enough buzz for Groff to get an amateur solo career on track, Groff describes the original lineup of the band as something that just “magnetized”.
“I was in music school, that was kind of the benefit of going to music school, just being around other musicians. If it’s the right choice for you, it can feed your needs. If you’re surrounded by a bunch of people you can be like, ‘I need a drummer!’.’ I need a guitar player.’ ‘I need a percussionist or a sax player or someone who does something cool.’ There are always going to be people around.”
Elsinore came together slowly and grew from 2 to 3 to 4 when someone just seemed to fit into the group. “It was super organic and natural, and it made sense. That quartet lasted for eight years, and then we had a change in personnel, in like 2012 and later that band has been the same since then, except we have a new bass player. “
I’m hesitant when I bring up that a big stereotype of bands, especially the types like his where he compares other members to his brothers, that they will fight and sometimes burn bridges. I know these are the things that break bands up. Often these situations bring about the imagery of big, grand clashes of Liam Gallagher throwing a temper tantrum on stage at Lollapalooza, the plane crash scene in Almost Famous where everyone in Stillwater admits that they’ve been with each other’s girlfriends. Perhaps, in real life, these quarrels are more straining than they are romantic.
“Getting our new bass player, getting rid of the old one, and getting a new guitar player to become a quintet, like those were big moments that helped because they were shots in the arm. They were these big bursts of creative energy.”
I can’t help but compare this source of energy to those changes that happened in Groff’s life when he was getting into music, and it all seemed to happen so quickly. It looks as if, for this artist, the most significant springs of creativity come from moments of change and uncertainty, where clarity is limited, and energy is high.
He assures me that these inner-personnel problems of Elsinore are pretty much just a thing of the past, and that ironing out the kinks have helped the band find maturity, especially with the new record, “A Life In The 21st Century.”
Listening to “A Life In the 21st Century,” it also becomes apparent where the spiritual elements, those same ones from the cosmic posters of the studio wall, the same ones of the lyrics of “The Human Condition”: “There is a certain flow to the circuits of the mind.”, the bending psychedelic trees in the video for “Resolution”. In the record, Tame Impala’s synth-waves and logical beats of the classics coil together with lyrics to hit a sweet-spot between spirituality and maturity. The album, in its completion, knows something about the world and shares it with you in its lyricism and subtle stylistic choices.
On finding maturity, he says, “It’s a very mature career/musician album. All of us have been doing it long enough that, like, there’s no negative messing around shenanigans that derailed anything. We just fought our way through the creative jungle of trying to find songs and song ideas and trying to get it where we needed it to go.”
“The current lineup feels to me like the happiest, most collaborative, most mature version of Elsinore, and I feel like there are more trust and more collaborative nature to the 5 of us.”
A band, a sound, and a studio that is so utterly chameleon in music is something that most artists strive for, but few may achieve with as much success as Elsinore. Groff had told me that he had first been attracted to the Beatles because their sound was so famously rich in variety, after all.
Elsinore is a hidden gem, the kind of hidden that many musicians believe themselves to be, if only. If only the right producer would pick them up. If only their records would end up on the right doorstep, in the right Rolex-d hands, on the right conference table in front of the right people. Elsinore is not this. Just as Champaign does not try to be New York, or Portland, or Seattle or even Peoria, and lets its terminals and railroads and elementary schools sing by themselves. They are, and they are proud to be. It is the name of a farm, that is the name from literature.
Make no mistake: the freshness and simplicity of Elsinore’s beginnings do not equate to a lack of sophistication in its sound. So often we are fed narratives of grandeur and instability in the stories of musicians, that we ignore that the maturity and groundedness of the band’s recently-struck disposition is an equally valid way to explore sound. Through newfound stability, it seems the group has been able to delve into the creative, lyrical, and thematic processes in a new way. Elsinore’s story, saturated by its sound, teaches us that grounded and dreamy do not need to be oxymorons in the music world. Down-to-earth artists like Ryan Groff are what make Champaign, Illinois an understatedly stunning place for art to come from.