The Mascot Theory
photo by David Jackson
If you’re trying to pin-point who’s currently a fast rising male star on the music scene, look no further than Erik Kjelland. The Madison-based, Mineral Point-born musician is part of an award-winning band with a new CD on the way; plus, he’s about to partner with another successful area artist for a special winter tour. This is all happening after a well-received Summerfest performance with his band The Mascot Theory, a featured performance with the Madison Youth Choir and Black Star Drum line at the Madison Area Music Association Awards (where The Mascot Theory took home 4 awards), and a sold-out Barrymore show with Vance Joy, just to name a few of the highlights.
But Kjelland isn’t taking any of it for granted. He’s open about a recent health issue, which may be making him even more determined to reach his goals. He took time to answer my questions about his plans moving forward, and as one of the local bands hosting the Flannel Fest show at the High Noon Saloon on Saturday, November 7th. It’s only in its second year, but Kjelland is proud that it’s already one of the hottest tickets in town due to the quality of musicians taking part in the fundraising show in support of the Keep Wisconsin Warm Fund. Just one more thing to add to his list of rewards this year.
Maximum Ink: Congratulations! 2015 has been quite a year for you and The Mascot Theory. It must be very rewarding to see your efforts pay off?
EK: It’s been an incredible year! Even considering all of my previous musical endeavors, I’ve never been involved in a band that has such a loyal following, and such a high ceiling for continuing to grow our success.. It all seemed to click when we released our first album in 2012, and now its so satisfying to reach the other end of our hard work, perseverance, and constant networking. But, I am also very proud of all 15 of my previously released albums with both my past and presnt collaborators, as each represents certain notches in my life, along with my growth as a songwriter. The hardest thing for me is to pause and reflect on accomplishments, as I’m always looking to the future and working on new goals. But, with all the amazing opportunities the band has seen this year, I feel like I have finally learned how to allow some pride and satisfaction seep in during the big moments. I also use those as fuel for what’s next, and a confirmation to keep on trucking down this path.
MI: So, on the path to 2016, how do you set even higher goals? Or are you now targeting specific steps you want to take?
EK: In general, I plan to spread our music as far as I can, one song at a time; while also studying the industry and new music trends to see what’s next in what is a rapidly changing music business model. Locally, I hope to sustain and build upon the success we have seen to date, and to help attract national attention to the amazing music that is being created right here in Madison! My bigger goals include the possibility of national and international touring. And of course a Grammy would look really nice next to our MAMA awards!
MI: Now wierdly in theory, I’ve heard The Mascot Theory shouldn’t really exist?
EK: Yes! The Mascot Theory formed accidentally a couple of years ago, and after I semi-retired from playing late night gigs with the Fallen Roadies and Crimson Vim bands. I had scaled back my performances to winery and coffeehouse shows with my friend Arthur Ranney (now tour manager for The Mascot Theory). It allowed me to get home at a respectable bedtime-hour as a father of three little ones. A few times Art couldn’t make a show I had booked, so I called Nick Fry (upright bass) to bring some of his musician friends to play the gig with me (Adam White on electric guitar, Paul Metz on drums). Something “clicked” as they say, and pretty soon after I convinced the guys to record some of my original tunes under the band name The Mascot Theory. Suddenly we were a real band with a real album.
MI: And you’re now working on new music. What’s the process like for you?
EK: I write the songs for the band on my own, create crude harmony-filled demos in my home studio, then bring it all to the other guys to work out. Most of the time we debut a new song at our intimate acoustic shows which gives us a chance to see how it plays in front of a forgiving and enthusiastic audience. Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to be a part of – and eventually win—105.5 Triple M’s “Project M” competition, which was an especially fruitful songwriting experience and led to 6 new songs for The Mascot Theory after the contest/ We now have twelve new original Americana/folk rock songs, and one cover song in various stages of the recording process at Clutch Sound. Some of those songs we’ve been playing fairly regularly and we plan to release an EP later this year so we can get a handful of those songs to our fans who are begging for them! Plus, I have about 4 or 5 songs in reserve to bring to the band early next year, so we’ve got plenty of new material. Also, on one of my trips to Nashville this year I had the pleasure of co-writing 3 songs with the uber-talented Gabe Burdulis. He released 2 of those songs “Louder” and “Cold Sweet Tea” on his latest “Youth City” album, and I’m considering working up my own renditions with The Mascot Theory for a future release.
MI: You are also collaborating with musical powerhouse Beth Kille. But what’s new here is some winter shows you’ve just scheduled together?
EK: Beth and I met when we were both involved with the Madison chapter of Nashville Songwriters Association. Co-writing is a huge part of the Nashville songwriting process, and we tried to get together every other month to see what kind of songs we could write together. Some of those sessions produced holiday-themed songs which led to our “North Star Sessions” album in December of 2014 (winner of 2 MAMA Awards). So we just decided to start performing under the band name Kerosene Kites, and will be playing a handful of shows in December to share and promote that holiday album. We’ve also written some other non-holiday songs we plan to record and release next year, and will tap the rich talent of the Madison music scene to help fill out the songs in the studio, and on stage.
MI: And knowing you have all of these music projects, but also have a family and job, how do you keep your focus?
EK: A couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with a panic disorder, and the sporadic attacks would leave me physically ill and dizzy, and unable to focus or even drive a car. It forced me to reevaluate the areas of stress and anxiety in my life so I could have a chance at controlling the severity. For me, writing music is something I HAVE to do, it’s in my veins, and although it can be extremely stressful and demanding at times, I knew I couldn’t stop that area of my life. So earlier this year I decided to cut back on my full time management job of 12 years at a local print shop—which allowed me to focus on my music and family and health. I do what I can to balance things out, but my wife Sara is the one with the skills and patience to keep track of the day to day lives of our amazing kids (they are 3, 6, and 7 years old). She also puts up with a stubbornly chronic songwriter, and runs her own hair salon business. It really is only through her unwavering support that I have been able to accomplish so many of my musical goals this year.
MI: That got serious. Is there something funny most people don’t know about you?
EK: Well, before The Mascot Theory was formed, I was considering using that as a band name for a special project of mine, a folk rock version of the Gorrilaz. I wanted to find a local cartoon animator to partner with and create music videos featuring animated band members. The lead singer/banjo player’s name would have been Wailing Tom The Chicken (he would’ve been a chicken). Actually The Mascot Theory released a crudely animated video back in 2012 for our song “Up In Smoke, Down In Flames” that featured a version of Wailing Tom The Chicken. It is the only little nugget that remains from my original plan for the band, and I’m really glad it didn’t come to fruition as I would much rather play in a band with real musicians than with an animated chicken!