Interview: The El Mansouris Prepare to Release Their First, and Last, Album
At the start of the new year, I interviewed The El Mansouris about their upcoming self-titled album. The group of six, who include Alex Braden on guitar, vocalists Fiona Kohrman and Margot MacDonald, Drew Hagelin on bass, Sam Raymond on drums and Sarah Schaffer on keys, stood out among the D.C. music scene with their unique instrumentation, polyrhythmic grooves and soaring harmonies.
A week after our conversation, the group decided to call it quits and announced a farewell show with Young Rapids. At the show, The El Mansouris are giving away cassette copies of their record to the first 150 fans in the door, while Young Rapids will give away copies of their forthcoming EP to the first 50 people. Kohrman, Braden and Hagelin sat down with me, once again, to talk about their decision to move on from the group.
DC Music Download: So guys, what happened since we last talked?
Drew Hagelin: Well, since we talked with you, we had all gotten together with the rest of the group and figured that we had done everything that we set out to do. And it was just a good time, with people moving to different cities and stuff like that, to just go ahead and call it.
DCMD: What was it that you set out to do with the band and how did you achieve that mission?
Alex Braden: We had been working on this record for two years, and we threw a lot of ourselves into it. As we were taking inventory of what we have and what we’ve done, it kind of became clear that this record was what the band had set out to do, so we feel good about it. Each of us will keep making music in one way or another, I’m sure; nobody’s done with music. But, we think The El Mansouris accomplished what they needed to do.
DCMD: How did the new album play into the decision to break up?
Braden: We finished recording months ago. We’ve been writing since then and there is plenty of material that will never be heard. As Drew mentioned, two of us have moved out of town, so the original six have already kind of been fragmented. It just seemed clear that the original group had poured everything into this one record. We felt that it ended on a high note.
DCMD: Let’s talk a little about the release show. Will it be the last concert you guys play as The El Mansouris?
Hagelin: This is definitely the last show we’re playing, and definitely the last recorded songs we will be releasing. We will also be joining another dissolving group, Young Rapids, for a dual release show of both our albums.
Braden: We’re kind of excited about that because Young Rapids is another great band that has produced much more music than The El Mansouris have. It seemed just very serendipitous that both bands were kind of thinking about this at the same time, and they were both sitting on releases that they knew they didn’t want to lose.
So, we feel that this last show, while it’s a farewell show, is more of a celebration of what the two bands have done. I’m not saying this to make it cheesy, but we want to get this record out to our friends and show our support to D.C. because we are so proud of the scene and we love playing here. It just seemed like it lined up really well and has some good symmetry since it’s exactly two years since we started. It just makes a lot of sense to us, and I think it’s going to be fun.
DCMD: Do you think the band members staying in D.C. will continue to be involved in the local music scene?
Braden: Personally, yeah, 100 percent.
Hagelin: Yeah, definitely.
Fiona Kohrman: I hope to, certainly. I’ve been writing solo music and I feel like I’ve learned a lot from the band about songwriting, teamwork, and how to build a piece of music. I hope to use the lessons and these experiences in future endeavors.
DCMD: In our last conversation, you said that you all saw The El Mansouris as an outlet for experimenting musically, while working with talented multi-instrumentalists. What does this break mean individually to each of you? Do you feel any emotions connected with the loss of this musical avenue or is it more of a happy farewell?
Kohrman: Musically, I feel like I’m losing a band of experts and also taking with me a lot of tools. I will miss the creative exploration, the improvisation, the harmonies and the different ideas that we all worked on together. But it also makes me feel that I’ve grown as an artist and as a musician. I can take all I’ve learned and make some great new music.
Hagelin: I wouldn’t say that I feel sad about any of it really, other than losing the opportunity to play with someone like Sam, who is moving to New York. He’s a great drummer, and a great person to play with. And I will miss working on these songs just because we worked on them for so long and they’re fun to play. But, just like playing with any other group, the benefit of doing it is just expanding your horizons and preparing to play with other folks in the future.
Braden: I share that sadness as well. There’s a part of me that wanted to work harder to keep The El Mansouris going, to try to find a way for it to be. But, I also feel that there’s a little bit of a benefit knowing when something is done and not pushing it past its expiration date.
DCMD: What was it like writing the LP? How did you guys divide songwriting up among the band members?
Kohrman: The writing process that we engaged in as The El Mansouris was very collaborative. We did a lot of songwriting as a team. We did permutations of songs. Sam would help with lyrics, Drew would help with vocals, and Alex, Margot and I would write harmonies together on the piano. It would all be written and rewritten in small groups and then again in the practice space. It was very collaborative and each song took on many different lives.
Hagelin: We wrote all over the place. Like Fiona said, we’d do a lot of piano sessions to just work on the vocals over and over again, to work out every combination of harmony and melody that we could. We did a lot of instrumental sessions in our practice space in Adams Morgan. We also went out of town a couple times to a cabin in the woods to sequester ourselves, break free from distractions for a few nights and crank some of this stuff out.
DCMD: Sounds like you guys had some great times together, collaborating and writing. It’s sad to see the band go.
Braden: There’s no turmoil. There’s no animosity at all. We’re all friends. We will undoubtedly collaborate together.
Watch the new video for The El Mansouris’ new song, “The Greys,” from the band’s forthcoming album due out Jan. 27. The El Mansouris and Young Rapids will host their farewell show on Jan. 27 at Smith Public Trust.