We spoke with Alexi Erenkov about well-harmonized flutes, the last haircut he got, what we can learn from our elders, the unique experience of creating on the fringes, what gray reminds him of and the last altruistic deed he did for someone.
I am certainly more emotionally vulnerable now. I see my son as independent, but also an extension of myself, so I feel that any kind of joy or suffering he experiences I experience as well.
I understand you recently had a baby. Congratulations! I have this compulsion, every time a friend becomes a parent, to know exactly what that’s like, emotionally. So far, does the experience of parenthood live up to the axiom that “It’s like having your heart outside your body?”
Yes, we did, thank you for your congratulations. Little Constantine is just 6 weeks old, so my parental experience is limited, but “heart outside of my body” seems pretty accurate. I am certainly more emotionally vulnerable now. I see him as independent, but also an extension of myself, so I feel that any kind of joy or suffering he experiences I experience as well. And it’s a good thing, I feel more present and invested in the world.
You and your wife Alison have performed music as the Saxophones for a number of years. What’s the secret to creative longevity when, like me, it seems like you’re happily operating on the “fringes” to a small audience? Are you adept at taking the moments of recognition with the ones where it seems like nobody’s listening? Asking for… er, a friend!
I think fringes are relative. Or maybe I’m just easily satisfied. In the past few years since our EP If You’re on the Water came out, we’ve had strangers listen to our music on streaming services and make original music videos for our songs and post translations of our lyrics in different languages. Merely reaching an audience that is outside of my personal friend group and having them interact and share their reactions to the music feels like a huge success. I guess it’s just the first step of having a “musical career,” but I’m still in a state of bliss and truly grateful that we’ve been noticed by anyone. I feel like we’ve made it to the top!
Of course, you’re right, before getting to this place of moderate internet presence we played really tiny shows for eight years; sometimes the audience would cry, sometimes they would talk at the bar. I’ve always been pretty aware of the fact that our music works in specific settings for specific people, so I don’t take it personally when our work doesn’t land and I am always appreciative when it connects.
Please describe the last haircut you got in as much detail as possible.
Well, whenever I get a haircut these days, I show the stylist pictures of David Lynch’s hair. It has still never totally come together the way I imagine it will, but that’s probably a good thing because I’m sure I would look like a maniac if my hair actually looked like his. So, in the end — and this is true for my last haircut — I get kind of a timid pompadour, longer in the front than in the back. I usually have them part my hair on the right side and use shears to cut the sides; I don’t ever have them buzz the sides.
One special thing about my last haircut is that I decided to grow out the sides a little bit more, going for a bit of a ’50s-meets-’70s kinda thing, or at least that’s what seems to be happening. As much as I try, it always feels largely out of my control.
As I think of questions to ask you, I’m listening to the John Prine song “Hello in There.” There may be many other songs out there about paying attention to the elderly, but I cannot think of a single one. It’s so unique in approaching something that’s a taboo for some reason. When you meditate on age, loneliness and the neglect we sometimes show our elders, what comes to mind?
I didn’t have a close relationship with my grandparents, but I’ve had many surrogate grandparent figures in my life. My saxophone teacher, Ernie Small, was one such character. He was about 70 when I started studying with him, so not so old, but to a 13-year-old, 70 is pretty old. He had played in the Tonight Show band with Doc Severinson for 7 years and the Harry James Orchestra for 10 years. He had backed up absolutely every crooner/jazz pop star that ever had a hit in the 40s or 50s. Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin. He had so many stories. I just loved talking to him.
It’s fitting that this Prine song ends with a direct call to action: say hello in there. It really is that simple. I work part time for a Bay Area agency called Engage As You Age that pairs people up with socially isolated seniors suffering from dementia.
One of the clients I visit every week lives in a rent-controlled apartment in Berkeley, California, that he’s occupied since 1972. He doesn’t know who sends me to see him, how his groceries are paid for, why he was in the hospital several years ago, or where all of his belongings have gone over the years, but he can play about 400 jazz standards from memory on clarinet. We hang out and play tunes and he tells me short stories as best he can. It’s so much like spending time with a child — which it seems like we, as a society, agree is the best thing ever.
I guess it’s just a fear of death that keeps people away. But I think about death all the time, so being around the elderly feels natural to me. I find something comforting in observing the regression of the mind and body as it returns to the earth.
Please describe the first time you had your heart broken.
Does unrequited love count? Sometimes I feel guilty because I’ve never been in a relationship that ended with me being totally heart broken, but since the second grade, I’ve had obsessive unrequited romantic crushes. Also, I think I’m too stubborn to be totally heartbroken, I either convince myself the other person is going to come around to liking me, and if they don’t, I convince myself I never liked them. It’s a self-protective instinct that I used to think served me well but really just allowed me to distance myself from people. I’m actually remembering that the first ever super-duper big crush I had in fourth grade, I totally didn’t act on. I think of it as heartbreak, but as I recall I didn’t even open myself up to that possibility. The fear of rejection and failure has always been so high for me that I frequently don’t act on my impulses.
The sound wave is really pure, like a sine wave, so it’s very unforgiving when played in harmony. I’m always in awe of orchestral flute sections that seem to harmonize effortlessly.
At 25, I’m coming to terms with how I’ve gotten to have this whole “artsy” life while many members of my family haven’t had an artistic struggle to bother with. I also used to be hard on myself about things I made that I thought were embarrassing, but now I realize that if I didn’t get that out of my system, I wouldn’t be able to write stuff I love today. Thoughts?
Yes, that is absolutely correct. I am so grateful that I expelled certain impulses and artistic choices from my mind when I was younger. Although, to be honest, I think I’m referring to when I was 25, so you are ahead of the game! All of the dumb saxophone solos and super earnest songs that were just about me, me, me. While the work is embarrassing, it enables you to go deeper next time. At least I think that’s what it’s done for me.
The other thing is you want to get that stuff out before anybody hears it! When I was in my early 20s, I thought it would be so cool to have people listen to and enjoy my music. I’m glad they didn’t! I think it’s totally possible to become trapped by the work you make when you’re younger. Then the thing you’re embarrassed by is the thing people love and you have to apologize for not playing those songs. Yuck. Put it on a tape and bury it. Super glad social media wasn’t as prevalent when I started. Now I can pretend I woke up like this.
What’s your favorite instrument, timbre or sonic element of an orchestra?
I love hearing well-harmonized flutes. I play flute on my recordings a fair bit, but it’s definitely my worst instrument. It’s very hard to tune. The sound wave is really pure, like a sine wave, so it’s very unforgiving when played in harmony. I’m always in awe of orchestral flute sections that seem to harmonize effortlessly.
What does the color gray remind you of?
Summer after college living with my parents in San Francisco.
I think I make music in an attempt to define myself, to articulate feelings and moods I have, but they are very nebulous. I really do feel undefined and malleable much of the time.
What was the last kind gesture you did for someone? Who was it, why did you do it and what was the result?
When we were on tour in the UK this fall, we had a day off In Brighton and went for a walk at night. We strolled down the boulevard to take a look at the first “electric theatre” ever built — the first theatre ever to screen movies. We almost watched the Aronofsky movie Mother! there, but Alison started feeling bad so we decided to walk home.
About halfway down a long block, we passed a man in his late 80s, dressed in a suit, rolling a piece of luggage, and taking the slowest and smallest footsteps imaginable. He probably moved two inches with every step and seemed to be exerting maximum effort. Since Alison wasn’t feeling well, we instinctively walked by without stopping right away, but after a few steps I came back and asked him if he needed help getting somewhere. It turned out he was attempting to walk to the taxi stand about 100 yards away. At his pace, it would have truly taken him an hour to make it. I jogged down to the stand, asked a cab driver to come around and pick him up, and in a matter of minutes he was in the backseat of the cab and on his way.
I can be hesitant to help people because I think I’m going to be sucked into some drawn-out entanglement, but sometimes it’s easy and everyone feels good afterward. Lest this story makes me sound altruistic, let it be noted that you asked about the most recent kind gesture and the only thing that came to mind happened six months ago!
Finally, please tell me about your personal identity. What led to it? What circumstances as a child, teenager or adult led you to become “you,” rather than an amorphous part of humanity? Was there a moment or series of moments?
Ha, wait, I’m pretty sure I am an amorphous part of humanity! I think I make music in an attempt to define myself, to articulate feelings and moods I have, but they are very nebulous. I really do feel undefined and malleable much of the time.
There certainly isn’t one moment that led me to being me. Some experiences loom larger than others, but they all wield influence and continue to do so.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: April 5, 2018
Total questions: 10
Word count: 1840
Reading time: Seven minutes
Alexi Erenkov, amorphous, apartment, appreciation, articulation, attempt, boulevard, California, circumstance, clarinet, client, Darren Aronofsky, David Lynch, Dean Martin, engage, experience, failure, Frank Sinatra, hair, haircut, harmony, impulse, independence, influence, isolation, jazz, John Prine, Louis Armstrong, luggage, malleable, maniac, moment, nebulous, Oakland, orchestral, pompadour, prevalence, rejection, saxophone, senior, sine wave, The Saxophones, timid, undefined, vulnerability, wield
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
Related conversations W