In Pound For The Sound, Phoenix New Times gets technical with local musicians about what gear they use to create their signature style.
Joel Ekdahl really loves The Beatles and is all about harmonies. The guitar, banjo, and ukulele player for both Manic Monkeys and Exploding Oranges is an old soul with a strong preference for the sounds and styles of the 1960s.
Ekdahl was born in Tucson, Arizona, and his family made the move north to the Valley and ended up in Mesa, where he grew up and spent his formative years. Ekdahl started playing trumpet in fifth grade, but that affair was short and sweet.
Eventually, when he got to high school, he started playing acoustic guitar — and it stuck.
Ekdahl started performing at church to develop his skills, and he credits the development of his musical ear to that time. After that, he moved up north for a brief stint at Northern Arizona University's music program. However, he changed degrees and moved into graphic design. He still does freelance design work and recently created the album art for Manic Monkeys' for the band's latest release, Business.
Ekdahl also got an interesting start in the Tempe music scene. Years ago, he would come to shows as a photographer and meet bands, but never played out. But eventually, at a party, he was pushed to play around the "campfire," and the beast was awoken. Now, he plays in two bands, writes his own music, and sometimes sits in with friends, and vice versa.
Joel, and the rest of both Exploding Oranges and Manic Monkeys, are scheduled to perform on Saturday, December 16, at Time Out Lounge in Tempe for the Time Out For Toy Drive. With the big toy drive happening in time for the holidays, New Times was able to get some words in with Joel via phone and email about Bessie, playing in church, and his upcoming performances.
New Times: What's the secret weapon of your sound? And how did that help you find your "signature" tone?
Joel Ekdahl: I'm not sure if I have a secret weapon, per se. I believe that your tone is more in your fingers. Most of the time, on electric guitars, I have it in the middle pickup setting. I like the jangly tone. I feel like there's a little more tone control in the middle, too. I think, that when you have a guitar solo, it shouldn't be, "Check me out!" It should be melodic and serve the song, like George Harrison.
What's your favorite piece of gear in your collection and why?
I have this Ibanez Artcore Hollow Body guitar that I got from my friend Zac when I lived in Flagstaff and was going to NAU. It's been a great guitar. It was out of commission for a bit, but it's been nice to have it back. It's just a fun guitar to play. Also, because it's a hollow body, you can play with feedback in key.
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Any special pieces of gear acquired over the years? Any special story, or stories, behind your collection of tools?
On the Exploding Oranges EPs I’ve made, I’ve used the acoustic I started learning on: my Yamaha, Bessie. She goes a lot of places with me and the tone gets better with age, too. I also have a Dean Backwoods 2 Banjo that I’ve used on our new Manic Monkeys album. I picked it up from Banana Gun. Banjo's name is Hal, after one of their songs. The last couple of years, I started playing harmonica and have incorporated more of it lately. I really love Hohner harmonicas. I love how they sing and how tough they are. A few years back, I had a friend that wanted ukulele at his wedding. I didn't know how to play uke, so I got a cheap one and started learning. After that, I was given a really beautiful Lanikai concert uke that gets a lot of use with Exploding Oranges. I actually made a whole EP with it, Peel Back the Uke.
Just listened to “Susie Sunshine” from the latest Exploding Oranges release. Beautiful tune with just the voice and ukulele to support. You had mentioned that you loved songs that are able to stand up on their own. Can you expand on this and how it relates to this track?
I’m a big Beatles and Beach Boys fan. Both their music has been a big influence on how I write, especially when it comes to harmonies. I'm a sucker for really good harmonies. There’s just something about folks singing together. From junior high to high school I was in choir, and it just kind of rubbed off on my own music. I love layers, but I also think a song should also be able to be played solo and stand on its own. Layers should only enhance and serve the song.
When you first got into performing back in your teenage years, you said that you started playing in church. How did those performances help shape the musician and songwriter you have become today?
It helped me become a better listener. Church is where I really developed my ear. We didn't always have chords to follow if we were playing hymns, so I just got better at hearing what was happening and what to play. There was a guitar player, Allen, who played at the church for a while. He taught me a lot about chords and ways to use different voicings. That has always stuck with me.
Both Manic Monkeys and Exploding Oranges are performing at the Time Out For Toy Drive this Saturday at Time Out Lounge in Tempe. Any words you wish to share with your fans about your upcoming performance?
Come out and bring a toy. It's gonna be a really fun night!