Chicago’s Paper Thick Walls tap into the recesses of your mind, recalling past loves with their lyricism, stirring the ghosts that idly exist. They paint a cinematic sound, creating music that orchestrates life perfectly. Theirs is the music that is truly crafted—not just composed in a manner to lay down some sick beats or a hook that’s going to lodge itself unlawfully into your mind. Paper Thick Walls’ sound is that of the Midwest meeting the South in a harmonious blending of fiddle, acoustic guitar, keys, upright bass, and drum set.
In live performance, they’re attentive to the playing of their instruments, each member proving his or her prowess on a chosen instrument. Jacques-Rene Hebert erupts with excited energy as he dances bearing a mandolin, fiddle, or guitar. Singers Eric Michaels and Kate Schell weave their voices through each other’s, while adorning the music with guitar or keys. Upright bassist, Roger Sherman, exudes as much energy as Hebert, slappin’ the bass and singing back up vocals. On set is the notable Andrew Sabo, who happens to be quite a formidable drummer.
I had the opportunity to interview Paper Thick Walls recently. Here’s the exclusive on the band’s genesis, Kate’s thoughts on being the only girl in the group, and the music they grew up listening to.
What did you grow up listening to?
Schell: I grew up listening to oldies music. My parents had a juke box in their basement. Other than that, I didn’t listen to any music at all. I just took piano lessons, sang in choirs, and played in marching bands. I am currently inspired by artists such as Tori Amos, Emily Haines, Catpower, Bat for Lashes, Bon Iver, and I proudly say that I most recently dig on Devil makes Three!
Sabo: Classic rock, Zappa, Hendrix, Paul Simon, Beatles…
Tell me a little bit about how you all met.
Schell: Eric and I met in college at Loyola University Chicago, where we had a similar producer [Stefan Clark of Cassette Company] for separate projects. We began writing together almost immediately after we met. Andrew, Jacques, and Eric were bandmates in a previous group called Glasko. I stole them. We heard about how awesome Roger was at playing bass and decided to give him a call.
Sherman: I got a phone call while I was pumping gas from Eric; he wanted me to check out the rough tracks to A Thousand Novels. This was Spring 2009. I kinda brushed it off before I listened to the tracks, thinking, “La de da, another so-so band wants a bass player. I’ll just tell them I am too busy to be bothered.” After listening to about fifteen seconds of “Old Weathered Wooden Dock” and “Sighs Of Relief,” I called Eric back and told him I was in. I spent the next few hours writing bass lines to the tunes that wouldn’t tromp all over the bass heavy piano parts. I still use the majority of the lines I wrote that night.
What’s the story behind the name?
Michaels: Our music tells many fictional stories that relate to the sometimes unspoken and unresolved problems that can separate close friends and lovers. This “wall” between people is what we are describing in the name.
Sherman: After thumb wrestling a polar bear and beating him, Eric was mauled and rushed to the hospital with serious lacerations across his chest. The only thing we had to hold against the wounds was a yellow pad of note paper. As he slipped in and out of consciousness, we joked that the only thing keeping him alive was a tiny wall of paper, thus paper thick walls. Tada!
How would you describe your sound?
Michaels: Boot-stomping-grab-your-girlfriend-by-the-hand-and-rock-the-folk-out music.
Hebert: I like the phrases “folk rock” and “alternative rock” the best. I think our sound reflects our love of contrasting dynamics, overlapping melodies, lush harmonies, and big-ass kick drums.
How do you approach the writing process?
Sherman: Kate and Eric take care of melody and lyrics and present the rest of us with a bunch of parts, kinda like puzzle pieces. That’s where I like to add breakdowns and build-ups and really work on the layering of the parts. Jacques and I usually tinker around with the form and the feel, sometimes totally changing the format of the tune. In “Infinite,” the original is very slow and mellow all the way through. We had never played it as band, and after about a year and a half, Jacques and I decided that we should give it a shot. We agreed that we could turn the placid ending into a monster.
While working it out, Eric changed the feel on the third verse to this slick little groove, Jacques added a fiddle breakdown that can only be described as “tiddley-dee-tastic,” and I said, “Let’s pull out all the stops and make the ending tear the roof off the mother.” The end result is Drew absolutely going nuts on the kit, me flailing all over the place, Eric and Kate banging away and singing at the top of their lungs, and Jacques dancing like a leprechaun. That is a seriously fun song to end any show. We get a great response. A lot of the newer stuff reflects a more collaborative song writing process, but there is no question that the tunes and lyrics come from Kate and Eric working together; those two really make each other shine.
How do you feel about the resurgence of vinyl as a recording medium?
Sherman: I love the physicality of vinyl. It’s sort of a sacred ritual, going album by album though my collection, taking a record off the shelf, pulling it out of the sleeve, seeing all that artwork, all those lyrics, all the work that has gone into it, blowing off the dust, and dropping the needle on Side A, then Side B, then starting the whole thing over again. It’s so much more gratifying than clicking a triangle on iTunes or loading up a 5-disc changer that you will skip through most of anyway.
Hebert: I think it’s incredible. The sound of vinyl is so unique to its form and material, and the art is just so cool when it’s that big. I’m all for it. To me it’s an indicator that people want to get more from their music than just an immediately digestible single. People want to soak it in. At least, that’s how I feel when I listen to my records.
Kate, is it difficult being the only girl in the band?
Schell: Yes. I have driven around the country with these guys and have smelled things that I never thought one could smell in such a world. Also, I must say that there is no such thing as euphemistic hold backs with these guys. They are extremely blunt about pretty much everything. In ways that no woman should hear. Ever. Don’t get me wrong though, these guys are great and have the biggest hearts ever. Aside from smelly eating habits, the aftermath of those eating habits, and ridiculous descriptions of certain things, I really enjoy them.