Purr Is a New Beginning for Jack Staffen and Eliza Callahan

Purr interview with Northern Transmissions
Purr

For years, Jack Staffen and Eliza Callahan have released music together simply as Jack + Eliza, but the Brooklyn duo is back with a new project called Purr and a brand new album appropriately titled Like New, out February 21 on ANTI-. Like New is an album about beginnings and endings and continues in the vein of Jack + Eliza’s sunny psych-pop. Northern Transmissions shot a few questions at Staffen and Callahan.

Northern Transmissions: Were Jack + Eliza players Max Friedberg or Maurice Marion involved in Like New? Will they join you when you tour behind the new album?

Jack Staffen: Max played drums on the album, as did Sam Glick, who plays bass in the band. (He also recorded the first two tracks we released). Maurice has played live with us for two years. They will be all playing the album as we tour it.

NT: You and Jack have said you wrote Like New during a time of change, uncertainty, and transition. What were some of these general changes? Were some of these specific changes? What “new patterns took hold,” and what old patterns faded away? Did you try to hold onto any old patterns? Were you ultimately able to come to terms with all these changes?

JS: The songs have specific stories or are their own specific things, but those feelings of change, uncertainty, and transition… that is something we were both experiencing when we wrote the album, so that energy was a general sweeping thing that seemed to just naturally surface in a lot of the songs. We didn’t set out to write an album about that. It was just what we were going though.

NT: It sounds like one of the most supportive figures in Eliza’s life was Jim Hall. How did he influence your music and life? Did he ever give you constructive criticism on your music?

Eliza Callahan: Jim was just a very special presence. We met on the sidewalk when I was really young (we were neighbors), and he became like a god-grandfather. (All of mine were dead.) We mainly shared books, actually, and he’d write me postcards from wherever he was on tour. I’d go see him at the Vanguard or the Blue Note whenever he played in town. The last book he gave me was Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle. He was humble to the nth degree and wasn’t one to give criticism. He really never had a bad thing to say about anyone… except for George Bush. I miss him every day, but do find peace in the fact that he didn’t have to experience the current state of things.

NT: When I think of New York City, your sunny psych-pop is not what I immediately think of. I know you recorded Like New in LA, but where did you two write most of the album

JS: We wrote it all at home in NYC and arranged and demoed it here for the most part as well. A lot of this music was written about 3+ years ago and the record was tracked 2 years ago. We’re excited to get sharing. We’ve written another album and then some since…

NT: In an interview with i-D, Jack described your music as “elemental,” saying it can be interpreted as many genres because it’s so stripped down. Your word of choice, in the same interview, was “naked,” because your music is so exposed. Would you agree that the test of a truly great song is how well it holds up when stripped to its most basic elements or how well it can be arranged into a variety of musical styles?

JS: Well, depends on the song. Some songs are all in the lyrics, some all about the melody. The best of course are both. And some songs are just about the vibe, which usually comes down to arrangement, and that’s special, too. But yes, at the end of the day, if a song feels right stripped down, then something has gotta be working well on a foundational level.

NT: Your songs as well as your videos are very thought out conceptually. How have your backgrounds – visual arts and writing for you and audio and visual politics for Jack – helped in crafting your music and videos? How much of the videos were entirely your ideas? How much input on them did you have from other collaborators?

JS: This album was very collaborative visuals-wise. We reached out to friends and artists/filmmakers whose work we admire and just began conversations from there. We worked with Guy Kozak on the video for “Avenue Bliss,” which was probably the biggest production. We shot overnight in the woods upstate in negative degree weather. For the “Hard To Realize” video, we got a motor gang of retired firefighters and EMTs to ride in exchange for footage of just them riding. It was hilarious. They were lovely.

EC: My art and writing practice has always been strangely separate from my music, but of course, the ideas turning over in my head at a given moment might naturally pop up across the different spaces.

interview by Leslie Chu

Like New by Purr comes out on February 21, via ANTI-