Almost two years ago, E and I interviewed Paperhaus at their home and DIY concert space of the same name. Paperhaus has become an institution in the DC music scene and perhaps what we love them for most (besides their musical vision) is their sense of community and their commitment to empowering local bands.
Their composition has changed since we interviewed them, but the band’s core of Alex Tebeleff and Eduardo Rivera has remained constant. We thought this would be a particularly apt time to pull this interview out of the archives at our previous blog (Northeast x Northwest) as the band is about to release their first full length album. Check out their album release show at the 9:30 Club if you are in DC tonight. You can bet we’ll be there cheering on these talented men whom we are inspired by and lucky enough to count as friends. For a preview, check out the band’s Bandcamp, their freshly minted website for upcoming tour dates, and the music video for their song “Helicopters” and see if you can spot us….
The scene was the stuff of local music legend: four guys, two cats, several rivers of stamps, and a single cardboard box overflowing with envelopes that nearly covered the floor where Alex Tebeleff, Eduardo Rivera, Brandon Moses, and John Di Lascio were seated, quietly immersed in addressing said envelopes with an almost rhythmic precision. Collectively known as Paperhaus, the four gentlemen were, they explained, saving themselves a buck by doing their own mailing from their live-in studio and concert space in Petworth. Lucky for us, they were kind enough to break for an interview and a couple photos on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
While we must admit we were a bit intimidated at first, the guys of Paperhaus did away with our nerves as they offered up coffee and an open, easygoing vibe that immediately put us at ease. Once we got over the sheer coolness of their studio, we got down to business and asked the burning question we’d been wondering since the moment we first heard it: what’s the story behind the name? Paperhaus, we discovered, is a reference to Can, a German band from the ’70s whose members eschewed their classical training in favor of a harder, more experimental sound. They were, we learned, “fearless artists,” notorious for turning their hours-long jam sessions into songs that later gave rise to the modern foundations of hip hop.
If one is to compare the roots of Paperhaus and Can, it’s safe to say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Paperhaus began as the product of a childhood friendship between Tebeleff and Rivera, whose upbringing in the DC suburbs included a shared guitar teacher and a healthy dose of bands like Radiohead, Fela Kuti, and Television. As the pair matured, so did their sound, and it wasn’t long before they were making the rounds on the DC music circuit. Tebeleff often found himself jamming with Moses, a drummer from Philly with a wicked taste for the blues (and, as we witnessed during the course of the interview, a penchant for origami). One evening, Tebeleff and Moses were playing at the now defunct Red Door, and were introduced by chance to Di Lascio, a skilled bassist who’d cut his teeth on the one-of-a-kind sound that is absurdist prog-pop. Knowing they had something special on the horizon, Tebeleff called up his childhood pal Rivera, and it was on that night in December, 2010 that Paperhaus had its first jam session.
Fast-forward several months to the release of Paperhaus (listen to it here), their eponymous debut album of down-home music that the group describes on their site as “alt-country alternative blues.” Like the gentlemen themselves, the album puts you immediately at ease, cutting through any pretension you might expect from such a talented bunch and delivering chilled out tracks that sound like something you’d play at a backyard barbecue for all your coolest friends. While some of their influences are immediately apparent (spend a few minutes with “Diamond Days” and try not to think of The Beatles), others are far more subtle, and it’s only on repeat that you’ll detect the dulcet tones of Johnny Cash or Hank Williams. It’s this blend of seeming simplicity with a diverse pool of influence that defines Paperhaus’ first album, and it has left us (and all the other diehards) coming back for more.
Unfortunately for the fans, the wait has been a long one. Thankfully, however, the boys have done exactly what you’ve hoped they would do with their time between albums: had one quality jam session after another and, in so doing, really come to define their collective sound. Noted Tebeleff, “We’ve all grown together so much musically, that the songs change drastically [from when] they come in…we might come in saying, ‘Hey, I want to sound like this or that,’ but eventually it starts to sound like us.” Between hours-long jam sessions, local gigs, and late night debates about the merits of a punk versus dream pop direction, the guys have been putting in (as Malcolm Gladwell might say) their 10,000 hours.
While it hasn’t been completely smooth sailing (as Di Lascio puts it, “We went through some shit. But it wasn’t that bad…”), the boys agree that the implicit trust they now have in one another has come to be invaluable. Speaking of a single from their next album (entitled Lo Hi Lo) Tebeleff explained, “It was a huge positive experience in my life to just let the song go, and [to] let these guys let the song grow. And the song was better for it.” Seconded Di Lascio, “That’s a big theme of Paperhaus, giving up control. Very often I was the lead singer in a band or the driving force in writing the music, and I joined Paperhaus and it was four guys who are also songwriters and who have experience being leaders…It’s really felt cathartic to have four people who wanted to step back and let the music dictate where things went.”
While the band swore us to secrecy regarding the specifics of Lo Hi Lo, we can certainly confirm that it has been worth the wait. The influences are less readily apparent on the second album, but this is a good thing as it shows that Paperhaus has really carved out a unique sound for itself. When asked how they’d describe their sound now, the gentlemen agree that they’ve moved away from any hint of country twang, replacing it with straight up psychedelic pop. If you can’t quite wrap your head around how that might sound, you’ll just have to stick it out till May 28, when Lo Hi Lo is made available to the public. On their third album, we’re told, the boys plan to diversify even more, broadening their sound to include blues, jazz, and even a touch of swing.
Between cutting the new album, making rent, and fulfilling their other musical commitments (check out Moses in local bands Laughing Man and Joy Buttons, for starters), one might think that the men of Paperhaus have no time for extracurriculars, let alone sleep. But they’ve proved us wrong in a big way during the past couple of years, as they’ve opened the doors of their live-in studio to an incredible array of up-and-coming bands (highlights include Brooklyn-based duo She Keeps Bees), allowing them to perform free of charge for fans of all stripes.
While it would be easy for Paperhaus to turn a quick profit at these studio shows, Tebeleff explains that they’re not in it for the money. The point of the free shows is to offer a platform for emerging artists to show their stuff, period, and any money that’s raised goes straight to the performing band. “People,” Tebeleff observes, “get to look into themselves and say ‘Well, I’ll spend $5 on a mocha at Starbucks; how much am I willing to spend to help support an artist?’” (karma, if you’re reading this, we’d like to remind you that Paperhaus is due for something big).
As if delivering a steady stream of consistently rad performances from their studio isn’t enough, the gentlemen have also found time to plan their first tour. Starting April 2nd, the band will hit the road for two solid months of cross-country music-making (a full list of tour locations may be found here.) Post performance, we’ve heard tell that you can find the guys at any whiskey bar worth its salt. If, like us, you’re prone to separation anxiety, you also ought to know that they’ll be giving one last performance this Friday evening, at DC’s Rock & Roll Hotel (event page here).
Before they embark on their tour across the country, we asked the gentlemen to reflect a little bit on where they’ve been. How is making music in DC different, say, than in Portland, Seattle or any other scene with coffee shops and flannel to spare? Di Lascio was quick to point out the downside: “We [often] think in terms of our DC and our places where we go see shows, the bands that we know, the people who come to the shows, and the DC music scene. And then you go to these other parts of town and [all of] it just means nothing.” In a time when local scenes can be made or broken by how a city treats its musicians, Di Lascio’s words definitely gave us some food for thought.
On the upside, the boys paid homage to the intellectual and worldly tenor of the city, citing DC’s academic atmosphere and never-ceasing array of cultural activity as excellent fodder for creativity. While it might be overreaching to credit Embassy Row with the one-of-a-kind sound we heard on Lo Hi Lo, it’s worth noting that Paperhaus does seem to benefit from the continual pool of global influence that’s uniquely available to musicians in the district.
As our afternoon with the gentlemen came to a close, we asked them to describe themselves as a musical hybrid. Unsurprisingly, their responses were creative, original, and sublimely witty. Perhaps, they proposed, we might bill them as a cross between James Joyce and James Brown, or possibly Kafka meets Cat Stevens? Our favorite, however, had to be Goethe meets Gotye. Though all are indeed apt descriptions, we’d like to offer a fourth hybrid, as a sign of our gratitude to the guys and a big thank you for all they’ve done for the music scene in the district: Paperhaus is the band -and the place- where the hardest working musicians meet the nicest guys in town.
Check out their answers to our Tonic survey below!
xox E & J