Letters To Cleo // Photo: Chris Sikich

OK Christmas: Letters To Cleo Guitarist Michael Eisenstein on the New EP

Hearing the same dozen Christmas songs on repeat gets pretty old pretty fast. Luckily, Letters To Cleo’s new EP will add four more songs to your holiday playlist. Whether you’ve been a fan since 1990 or discovered them in this decade (possibly through Parks and Rec’s Cleo super fan Ben Wyatt), OK Christmas will have you wishing for more 90s alt-rock this season. They recently came to DC to rock out at Union Stage. We talked with Guitarist Michael Eisenstein about OK Christmas, touring and what’s next for the band.

On Tap: What inspired you guys to reunite in 2016? What was it like getting back together after a 15 year hiatus?
Michael Eisenstein: It was our drummer Stacy Jones who really instigated the whole thing. Three of us lived in Los Angeles and we would occasionally run into each other. Stacy had been on the road for a long time and was back, going to be having a kid and taking some downtime. He said “Hey, want to maybe to do some Cleo stuff? Get together and write?” I said if Kay [Hanley]’s into it, I’m into it. We kind of got together, worked on writing a song, wrote the song the first day and [Jones] right way was like “let’s record!” We were at the studio and started recording that day. Within a month, I think we had three songs and said, “Okay, we’re doing this!”    

OT: How has the band’s sound evolved over time? In what ways has it stayed the same?
ME: We’ve tried to keep it the same, as much as possible. Obviously, we’re different people and we’ve been playing a lot of different music over the years. Just starting out with the band together, the concept was not to stray too far…the two guitars, bass, drums. You know, “dance with the one that brung ya,” as they used to say. We try to bring in different influences. We’re working on new stuff now that’s less like the old Cleo of the 90s. We try to always keep it about the two guitars, Kay’s voice and some rocking drums but every song we approach differently now, too. 

OT: What is it like to tour again? How is tour life different now? What are your audiences like now?
ME: Well the audience is… mostly older. They’ve grown up with us. But we also have some audience members who never got to see us back in the day and maybe through Josie and the Pussycats or 10 Things I Hate About You or even an older sibling have gotten into us after we split up. They’re now seeing us for the first time, which is kind of cool. The thing that’s different about touring is that we do it in small doses now. Instead of going out for two months, we’ll go out for two weeks and come home for two weeks. 

OT: How did you guys enjoy your tour stop in DC?
ME: It was excellent! We hadn’t played a DC show since, I think, 1997. We had a great show and people came down since we play less now, people will travel a little bit more than they maybe would have in the old days, and they always come back around again. We had people coming in from all over the Mid-Atlantic area. Some old fans we recognize, some new fans and some random people– it was an awesome show. A great little venue too.       

 OT: There is a lot of nostalgia surrounding the 1990s, especially in music. Why do you think that is?
ME: Two things: I think it was the last time that rock was the most popular music in the world, so people have a glorified memory of when Weezer, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alanis Morrisette were on the radio all the time. And also, it gives some nostalgia about that pre-social media, pre- really even high-speed internet time, when you weren’t wired into everything all the time. If you found something, a band or an album that you loved, you had to work a little bit harder to find out about it [or] go see it. Now, all of that stuff comes easy. So I think people are longing for that less wired-in time.     

OT: Why was now the right time to make a Christmas EP?
ME: I’ll be honest. [It’s] a very interesting answer. We had planned an LP of new original music this year. With people getting involved with other projects, we didn’t get to do that. We demoed a bunch of songs but not enough to get in the studio and make the album the way we wanted to. Since we do these shows through November, we kinda wanted to have a new release for it. Our manager had this idea of doing a Christmas single for a few years now, to coincide with the November concerts we do. Stacy, our drummer, said “why don’t we just do a Christmas record? We can pick songs and write an original and get it out really quick.” And that’s more or less what we did.    

 OT: The EP doesn’t feature covers of well known Christmas songs, which is typical of a lot of Christmas albums. How did you go about choosing the songs?
ME: We wanted to avoid the tropes of the same Christmas songs that everyone else has been doing for all these years. “Father Christmas” was one we chose right away, everyone loved that song and it’s kind of in our sound, it’s an uptempo guitar number. It’s a little bit more about how Christmas is different for people of different economic backgrounds. We decided to write an original and Kay had the perspective of writing from the viewpoint of her cousin’s wife, who’s home while [her husband is] off overseas in the military. The Elvis Presley one, “If I Get Home On Christmas Day,” was a suggestion of our other guitarist Greg McKenna. The original version is really kind of schmaltzy and he wanted to make it more of an intimate, country thing. The final song, “Xmas Time, Sure Don’t Feel Like It,” is a song by an old Boston garage punk rock band from the 80s. That was really the start of the whole project. Our manager had been harassing us saying we should record this song for our Boston fans for a couple of years now. The list came together pretty quickly, we had a few other songs that didn’t quite work out and that’s how we arrived at those four.  
OT: Do you have a favorite track off of the EP?
ME: I like the original, “Missing you this Christmas.” Just because we really got to do our own thing with it from the ground up. I had an idea of how the harmonies should work and I think Kay wrote a great melody and lyrics to it. The production just all came together really nicely.  

OT: Do you and the band have any fun holiday traditions?
ME: We always all send text messages to each other on holidays. My son’s birthday is Christmas Eve and my birthday is December 27th, so we always do sort of a group birthday dinner because I think our birthdays can get overlooked.  

OT: What’s next for Letters to Cleo? Any future plans for a full-length album?
ME: Yeah, we have a bunch of songs and we’re still planning and the plan is to get that done in the spring or summer of next year so it will be out for the Fall. We also have more touring plans than usual but the contracts are not signed yet so I can’t talk about what it is yet but we will be around playing more shows than we did in the past three years. 

For more information, visit Letters To Cleo’s website here.