Interview: Elizabeth Ziman of Elizabeth & the Catapult

Taller Children
Two years ago, Elizabeth Ziman of the Brooklyn-based band Elizabeth & the Catapult revealed in the song "Waiting for the Kill" that she's "just a good good girl with a troubled mind." During her call with LAist last Friday, those words still rang true. As she sat outside her practice studio, she declared it to be one of the most beautiful days of the year. A few seconds later, she noticed she was surrounded by pink goo as a result of illegal dumping—courtesy of a chemical plant across the road. In the end, her good humor prevailed and she commented, "Well, maybe this means I'll become one of the X-Men!"

For the time being, Ziman and her bandmates Danny Molad (drums) and Peter Lalish (guitar) have left the pink goo behind to tour in support of their forthcoming album, Taller Children. In typical Elizabeth & the Catapult style, the band has thrown off the restrictions of genre and created a full-length debut that both cleanses the palate and serves up a satisfying meal. Over the course of her conversation with LAist, Ziman opened up about the band's name, flirting via the songwriting process, and tonight's gig at the Hotel Cafe.

LAist: I read somewhere that you met Danny Molad at a party and the two of you started recording immediately. What was your first song? Was it one from your self-titled EP?

Elizabeth Ziman: I think the first song we recorded together was "Waiting for the Kill." Our EP was our first endeavor together before anything else. He wasn't playing drums yet; he was the engineer/producer. We really just rushed into it and then everything else flowed after that.

Given that the two of you are a couple now, was making music together a great way to flirt?

Yeah, something like that! I was like, "Man, you've got some nice recording gear. Come hither..." (laughs)

You've said that the name for your band was based on the fact that you wanted something whimsical, like James and the Giant Peach. Can you remember any of the rejected band names you came up with?

You know, I honestly can't remember. I do recall that we came up with all of these band names that were already taken. Everything we thought was really clever or cool was unavailable.

Where did the word "catapult" come from?

With "catapult," we just figured that there are so many jokes that can come from it, such as "we want to catapult ourselves into your iPod" or "we want to catapult ourselves into the world." (laughs) At the end of the day, our EP cover was exactly what I imagined when I thought of that word. It was this girl holding a slingshot, slyly looking at some paper cranes in the sky and searching for mischief.

Elizabeth & the Catapult
Elizabeth & the Catapult / Photo by Peter M. Van Hattem
Getting into the new album, Taller Children, I've noticed that a good girl/bad girl theme seems to pop up in your music. On your EP, "Waiting for the Kill" and "Devil's Calling" definitely have it. Which songs off the new album do you feel really reflect this juxtaposition/dichotomy?

I think "Momma's Boy" probably has the most childish, rebellious quality. It's about the Oedipal complex and there's also this running theme of a Veruca Salt-type girl who doesn't want to grow up and is maybe a little pissed off about it—but can laugh about it, too. And I think that theme runs through "Hit the Wall" as well.

If I think about it on a personal level, "Taller Children" is really a song about me trying to avoid adult responsibilities—not wanting to grow up. I've learned that you have to be able to poke fun at yourself.

When I originally wrote it, however, it was kind of a call to the people on Wall Street who couldn't handle their responsibilities and their power, so I think there are a couple different levels to that song. It's an innocent-yet-rebellious good girl/bad girl theme.

I really enjoyed your self-titled EP and noticed that only three of the songs from that album were included on the full-length record. Was it a tough decision choosing which three to include?

It was really difficult, because I think with certain bands, there's usually one song they're known for and that everyone's crazy about. That creates momentum, and they go forward from there. But when it comes to our songs, there's such a wide spectrum of what we do—from comical to sentimental, and from sparse to orchestrated—that everyone has a different favorite song.

Our fans gave us a lot of feedback, and within the band it was sometimes (though not always) like a model UN trying to figure out which songs would make it to the CD.

Did you spend a lot of time sequencing?

Yeah. Even in our shows, sequencing is extremely important. I really believe in the shape of a show and the shape of a storyline, so we were definitely working on that puzzle for a while. But I think the album came together pretty naturally. That's something we thought a lot about, because you have to be careful with keeping the natural flow between the songs.

What inspired the song "Rainiest Day of Summer"?

That one's pretty literal—I always forget my jacket when it's the worst weather outside. It usually happens when I get up too early, haven't completely woken up yet, and am just looking at everyone and wondering, "How are they so functional?"

"Complimentary Me" has a great country influence. What's the story behind that song?

That song is kind making fun of the idea that we're all sort of reaching out for people who are just like ourselves.

It does have a country influence and I think a lot of that comes from Pete, our guitar player. He definitely has more of a down-and-dirty, twangy sound. I always have this more whimsical cinematic sound in my head, and when I bring it to the band, they turn it into more of a rocking, gritty thing. I like where those two realms meet.

There's one cover on Taller Children, and I was curious what drew you to Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows." What is it about that song and about Cohen that you love so much?

We've been singing this song for years and Cohen is one of my favorite writers. There's something timeless and universal about his lyrics—you can apply them to any age. I just felt like, when I sang those lyrics, I really had to give it my all. That song has a very personal quality to me.

Elizabeth & the Catapult
Elizabeth & the Catapult / Photo by Mitchell Davis

What did producer Mike Mogis bring to the table for Taller Children that you didn't have on previous recordings?

We love Mike, and working with him was the biggest gift. We were actually a bit intimidated by him, because he has this amazing history of working with Bright Eyes, the Faint, Jenny Lewis, M. Ward, and all these people we love listening to.

We were used to doing everything on our own with a Pro Tools rig in our bedroom. We hadn't really gotten out of our own little world, and we were used to wearing all these hats and doing everything ourselves. When we got someone else on the scene, he really helped take us out of ourselves. The world didn't completely revolve around us anymore.

We were in the middle of Omaha in this huge, amazing, beautiful studio with all of these new toys to play with. We just felt so lucky—like kids in a candy store. It was so relaxing compared to the kinetic energy of New York and how crazy it is trying to record after your job and fit stuff in during the middle of the night. Recording in Omaha was this completely different, quiet, almost-zen experience.

So you have a day job in addition all the stuff you do with the band?

Of course! I teach little kids classical piano and it's really fun. Every single musician I know has a day job unless they're constantly touring.

What did you feel was the most unexpected moment or happy accident that took place during the recording of Taller Children?

A lot of really cool things came from recording to tape. Mike has this sound that's very authentic and almost vintage. He records to tape to get a live sound. The band plays the whole thing together, then you have the option of overlaying some stuff if you want. We weren't really sure how we were going to do "Hit the Wall," but then it came together really quickly as a live band performance.

Mike's also a big proponent of incorporating Omaha musicians into his projects, so had some great last-minute additions—such as tap dancer who stopped by and ended up performing on one of our songs. Another time, some musicians who play violin and cello in a metal band popped in to say "hi." They were on tour and happened to be in Omaha, and we ended up using them at the end of "Hit the Wall." We just completely improvised in the moment and it came together in a couple hours. That's the kind of stuff where you just sit and light a candle or something and say a little "thank you."

Prior to your signing with Verve Records, you and your bandmates did everything yourself—from promotion to production to travel arrangements. Do you think you would have been a different band if you didn't have those do-it-yourself beginnings?

I think that's a huge part of why we've even survived to this point. You have to find your voice and you have to keep finding your voice—changing, evolving and keeping things fresh. I think that when you're doing everything yourself, there are definitely huge challenges, but at the same time it gives you freedom to keep things on your own terrain.

Elizabeth & the Catapult
Elizabeth & the Catapult / Photo by Darcy Fowler

Is it true that some of your music is playing in Victoria's Secret stores? Do you know which song they're using?

Yeah, that's really hilarious and great. They're using "Momma's Boy." I think that women just want to feel empowered and sassy when they're trying on their lingerie in the mirror. If that's what we can add to their lives, then we're all the better for it!

I read somewhere that you used to sing backup for Patti Austin. What was the best advice she ever gave you?

She has this whole thing about fearlessness. I don't remember any specific advice, but I do remember one instance where an audience wasn't giving her the support she definitely deserved, so she told them to shut up. And they all loved it. They wanted to be mistreated and they started clapping louder and screaming for her. I loved that. For me, I learned how to make light of a situation and then take control of it.

Do you have any hobbies?

Well, my biggest hobby right now is my bunny, Patty Moon. She came to Omaha with us and made all of our most important musical decisions when we were in the studio. She would wiggle her nose when she was happy with a take. We made a video at Mike's house last year called "Christmas With the Jews," which is about how Jews can have fun on Christmas, too. Patty Moon was the star of the video. And she pooped all over the house. (laughs)

The band is also obsessed with Pee-wee Herman, Mr. Rogers and Creature Comforts. We love all things claymation, like Wallace & Gromit and Robot Chicken. I'm also really into film and film scores.

Pete is really into cartoons and he's actually writing a comic book about his childhood right now. He also did the artwork for the first album cover and he makes all our posters for us, so he's really hands-on about stuff. So we'll just sit around and doodle in the car.

Is there anything you're looking forward to doing in LA this week?

I'm still looking for it, but I've heard there's this really sweet old restaurant that has a Korean Elvis who serenades you. So that's the number one thing I'm on the lookout for. And my closest friend from college lives in LA, so I'm definitely going to hang out with her. I just want to hit the pool!

Have you played the Hotel Cafe before?

Yeah, I have, and I love it. It's gorgeous and so intimate. It reminds me of the Rockwood Music Hall in New York, which is our homestead and where we developed our following by playing residencies. It's kind of this glorified hole in the wall where all these renowned songwriters drop in and have a community. And I love that about Hotel Cafe, because there's a similar vibe to it.

Thanks for speaking with LAist, Elizabeth!

Don't miss Elizabeth & the Catapult tonight at the Hotel Cafe beginning at 10 p.m. And be sure to pick up a copy of Taller Children when it's released on June 9. To learn more, visit www.elizabethandthecatapult.com.