Emmett Kelly learned a valuable lesson while playing guitar and collaborating with Bonnie "Prince" Billy and co.: how to free himself through exploring more deeply his own long-time musical influences. Kelly's newest mini-album release is an homage of sorts to the classics. Tiny Rebels came out on Empty Cellar Records July 23rd, clocks in at about twenty minutes and stands strong on just six songs.
Kelly adopted "The Cairo Gang" as his moniker early on. He was exposed to the actual Cairo Gang, a group of British Intelligence agents sent to Ireland during the resistance to spy on the Irish Republican Army, through his father, who was working on a piece of artwork about Irish history when Kelly was in high school. Kelly's relationship to the name is complicated, but boils down to the idea that "someone was fighting the good fight and of course was trounced by a bigger power."
While Kelly's larger ideologies about himself and his music are deeply rooted in intellectual endeavors, this new album began simply with one desire. The making of Tiny Rebels started with a twelve string guitar. "I knew I wanted a huge sound and the things I was thinking about was The Byrds' and The Beatles' stuff and some of the early Who. Listening to "The Kids Are Alright," it's a beautiful song and the guitar is so intense. It's a pop song, but it sounds like the most emotional sounding thing, the most crazy, psychedelic experience. When you strum a 12 string, it sounds like 20 guitars."
"Take Your Time" recalls The Beatles' White Album, but carries the softness and harmony of an early Simon and Garfunkel hit. When I asked him about the Tiny Rebels' distinct sound, Kelly said, "It's definitely referential. I'm down with that energy, it's cool to compliment people you are influenced by."
The writing and recording style for this album was very different than Kelly's usual process. He opened up about laboring intensely over past projects and wanting this one to be a true classic rock record, one that followed a single breath and didn't challenge the listener in the same way as earlier Cairo Gang releases. The Corner Man (2012) was not an easy-listening album, but a conceptual one that required more thought from the listener in order to get in sync with the music.
For Kelly it's always been about the music and he's conscious of the music industry's ability to stifle creative energy to ensure record sales and radio play. He recalled when he first started playing music with his friends, "our ethics were really serious and important as kids and as you grow older, life delivers you certain information that augments the way you think about certain things." Even though he'd been making music his whole life, playing with Bonnie "Prince" Billy and his band was hugely influential on Kelly as a musician. He was able to return to those values he and his friends shared as teenagers and liberate himself, "If you're lucky the things you do not only enrich you but hopefully your brain is allowing itself to grow in a way you could never imagine."
Other highlights on this short (or just right?) album are the opener and title track "Tiny Rebels" and "Shivers." The former is gentle and tense, but easy to listen to, like a slower Byrds song. Its psychedelia recalls an afternoon spent in a friend's living room gathered around a record player under the influence of mellow, elicit substances. "Shivers" is a cover of a Ronald S. Howard song, originally made famous by The Birthday Party. Kelly has never released a cover before, but felt drawn to the work of Howard, who wrote this particular song when he was sixteen. Howard didn't record the song until he landed in The Birthday Party. Kelly's version is haunting and emotional, with barely-there percussion, full electric guitar and silky vocals.
Tiny Rebels is a refreshing turn from Kelly. It's nice to look back on the path from which you came. Sometimes the things we hold closest, like inspirations, are the key to creative transformation. Everyone could learn a lesson in letting go and this album might just be the thing to get you there, especially if you're a fan of the classics.
For a more detailed look into The Cairo Gang and some interesting music webs, read our full conversation on placeswedontknow.tumblr.com.
Tiny Rebels came out on Empty Cellar Records on July 23, 2013. For more information, visit emptycellarrecords.bandcamp.com.