Palehound's Ellen Kempner: "All of My Heroes Are People Who Are Playing Right Now"

Boston trio Palehound has been taking on the DIY scene by storm the past few years, with each of its releases surpassing the last in effortless complexity.

Palehound’s latest, A Place I’ll Always Go, explores the explicit truths of love and grief in relation to different environments through guitarist Ellen Kempner's fuzzy, intricate, and infectious riffs.

Palehound - A Place I’ll Always Go

I sat down — or stood up, rather, outside of the Empty Bottle here in Chicago — with Kempner in the middle of Palehound’s current tour to discuss all of her discoveries: guitars, effects, and her present–day heroes.

You recently posted a screenshot of a fan’s post that said “I hate Ellen Kempner’s guitar, but she’s amazing." What’s the story behind your guitar?

It is a Harmony Bobkat from sometime between the ‘60s and ‘70s. I found it in Raleigh, North Carolina when I was on tour playing Hopscotch Festival a few years ago. I guess that was probably 2014. And yeah, I saw it and our eyes met from across the room. I don’t see why that guy hates my guitar, what is there to hate? It’s such a sexy guitar!

I agree! What was your first guitar? How did you start playing?

I started playing because my dad plays — not professionally, but he plays. I just love my dad and wanted to do something that my dad does. I guess my mom found a guitar at a yard sale or a toy store, and I started strumming it with a marker cap as a pick one day.

Someone asked me how long I’ve been playing guitar last night, and I hadn’t thought about that in a while. The answer is sixteen years, which makes me feel really old. To say that I’ve been actively doing something for sixteen years is weird.

What were the first songs you learned when you first started playing? Who are some of your guitar heroes?

Avril Lavigne, just Avril Lavigne. My dad taught me how to play Led Zeppelin songs. The Elvis Presley version of "Hound Dog" was the first song I ever learned.

Ellen Kempner (Photo by Julia Leiby)

How has your pedalboard changed throughout the course of Palehound?

So much! At first, I was like, "Fuck pedals, pedals are just cheat codes. Whatever, I don’t need one." But then I made the band a three–piece instead of a four–piece.

I had a lot more weight to carry as a guitar player at that point because there wasn’t a whole other guitar player there who had a pedalboard. And then I kind of just got hooked on them. I think they’re so much fun. I love my pedals. I use them a lot now.

What pedals do you have right now?

I have an Empress Fuzz pedal, a Fulltone OCD pedal, a Boss tuning pedal, an Earthquaker Devices Dispatch Master, an Electro–Harmonix Freeze pedal, a Micro POG octave pedal, and a Boss chorus pedal. I had six, but I just got the Freeze. We call the Freeze the fourth member of the band.

What are some goals for guitar tone that you had on this album? Any particular ideas or visions in mind beforehand that you ended up implementing?

I really wanted this album in general to have a warm feel to it. I got really into Here Come the Warm Jets by Brian Eno.

I feel weird giving that answer because the reason I got into that album was because I read an interview with Angel Olsen, who I’m obsessed with, where she says that her favorite guitar tone is the one from that record. So I thought, "If that’s Angel Olsen’s favorite guitar tone, then I have to make my whole record in that guitar tone." That’s a really geeky thing.

This record was pretty heavily inspired by the production on her latest record, and the production on her record was basically what I was trying to go for. It’s not the same at all since we just are different songwriters, but it was just a goal. The album was very influenced by her.

Palehound - "Molly"

How do you feel like your approach to songwriting and your music on a whole has evolved from the Bent Nail EP to now? What do you think were contributing factors to the change?

Just touring with a lot of bands that I ended up learning so much from has changed a lot.

When I first started doing Palehound stuff, I felt like I hadn’t really started discovering current artists that much. I was just like “Oh, I love ‘90s music, and the Breeders are my favorite band." I was very inspired by music of the ‘90s at the time, and I hadn’t really done much digging into current stuff.

And then, once I started playing shows, I started seeing all of these incredible acts. We toured with a couple of amazing bands. We toured with Alex G, and that was honestly pretty influential.

It’s funny, all of my heroes used to be people who existed a while ago. And now, all of my heroes are people who are playing right now." - Ellen Kempner

It’s funny, all of my heroes used to be people who existed a while ago. And now, all of my heroes are people who are playing right now. Alex G is a hero of mine, and Angel Olsen. I just heard them and a bunch of new artists and thought, “Fuck, what have I been missing out on this whole time?"

And that’s really what changed. Just discovering new music and wanting to be like them. And shamelessly wanting to sound like other people who I thought we just amazing. That was the first time that I ever actually got my head out of my ass and looked around at all of the bands that are currently making music.

Places seem to always be a central idea in your songs, and this is obviously a huge part of the new album. What were some of the places you went to in the creation of this album? How do you feel that your environment plays a role in your songwriting?

My environment plays very, very heavily into my songwriting because I get really nervous when I write songs, and I need absolute silence. I need solitude. But recently, I’ve gotten better at just putting in headphones in the van and stuff.

It was hard on tour, though, because I wasn’t writing songs since we were touring so much, and there really wasn’t any time. And then when I got back from tour, I started working a job at a book warehouse that was empty a lot of the time, which was awesome because I would just be at work or after work I would just be in this empty warehouse, and I had a guitar there.

My coworker brought his sister’s guitar in so I could play it, and that’s where I did a lot of writing for the album. Just at the warehouse that I work in. A quiet, empty space without a TV. And on the bus on the way to work a lot of the time. Just moments when I felt alone.

Ellen Kempner (Photo by Julia Leiby)

What are some other new bands led by queer people that people might not know about but should?

Dump Him is a Western Mass band, and they just put out a release called Venus and Gemini. Lars plays drums in that band, and she plays drums for us. That’s not why I am saying you should listen to them, but they’re awesome.

There’s a band called Birthing Hips from Boston that’s really amazing, and they’re avant–garde art rock. Hand Habits is amazing, and she plays guitar for Kevin Morby, do you know her, Meg Duffy? She’s amazing. She put out an album this year that is really underrated.


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