By Moe Tompkins
I caught up with Hotel of the Laughing Tree’s AJ Estrada to find out more about about the band. Here’s our conversation…
MT: How did you guys become ‘Hotel of the Laughing Tree?’ How did you meet? Is there a funny story behind it?
AE: No exceptionally funny story here. Brandon and myself had been playing together for years prior to starting Hotel. We started the band and played with the original lineup for three years before recruiting Fred and Dan Ardis (Drums & Bass). Shortly after they joined, we found our final missing piece, Jonathon Streker on keys. Our starting lineup, while best of friends, just could not work within each others schedules. It was pretty rough, and we recorded two albums before deciding to reform. When the Ardis clan joined, that was the single moment that the band actually felt right to me. It was a true “Aha!” moment. This is how we are supposed to sound. We all knew each other, and became friends via playing shows together around Long Island. Fred and Dan were in Tiger Riot, and both of our bands were actually signed to the same label for a while, but we just never tried making something together until 2011. To sum it up, we all met from playing shows together during our early 20s, but didn’t necessarily become “Hotel of the Laughing Tree’ until a few years down the line.
MT: In your own words, how would you describe your music? Who/what are your influences?
AE: To describe our music..well, on one hand it’s always changing from album to album, but I think I just try to write interesting and catchy melodies that hit hard, feel good, and have solid instrumentation behind it. And I like to tell short stories, so that plays into it lyrically.
I’m also very conscious of making sure we aren’t repeating our own discography. Admittedly, I get bored too easily, (and for the most part) I prefer having something fresh, something new to release, instead of rehashing from a stockpile of discarded demos and missing pieces. Some major influences of mine include Elliott Smith, Iron & Wine, Hayao Miyazaki, and Kurt Vonnegut.
MT: I always like to ask about the business. How long have you guys been together? Has it been hard? If so, what makes you hold on? Is music how you make your living or do you have day-jobs?
AE: The current lineup has been together for about three years now. The band as a whole, going on six. I would be lying to myself if I said it was easy. We’ve ran the gauntlet of the music industry, and I would like to say, came out rather unscathed on the other side. We experienced a short-lived, high level of success almost immediately in our music career (we took home an mtvU Woodie award in 2009), signed to a record label afterwards, and then everything came to a screeching halt. There’s an inside joke within the band about how after winning the MTV award, we had a small window of opportunity and kind of closed it on ourselves. Or if not voluntarily, we saw it closing and nonchalantly looked the other way. Despite the ‘hard stuff’, I think we are pretty optimistic people. The music industry left us jaded, but that doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying to push ourselves further and grow as a band.
I can’t imagine myself NOT writing music. I think the business part is so far lost on me, where at this point, at the end of the day, I just want to be able to create, play, and record music with my friends. If people like it, we’ll play shows to whoever will have us. If not, that’s okay. Its all lots of fun, and I don’t think I could ever stop. The reality is that we don’t make nearly enough to sustain ourselves with the band. It’s always been a goal, but were all very much realists at this point in our lives. Everyone works full-time, and Hotel is very much a labor of love. So, for now, we’re okay with coughing up dust and delivering balloons to pay the bills.
MT: What inspires you? What is your songwriting process like?
AE: Our influences and inspiration come from an amalgamation of our play time together and our own listening preferences. There is some overlap here and there, but It’s really a patchwork of styles and genres. Personally speaking, if this was a few years ago I would simply rattle off whatever top bands were on my iPod at the moment. But lately, I feel like I draw more inspiration from film, books, and visual art.
In the beginning, I would write and record a fully tracked and completed demo to show the band. We learned the parts, fine tuned it, and then recorded and released a slightly prettier version of it. And this was the process for the first three albums..so starting with Mammoth Skin Pt 2, I started to record very minimal acoustic demos. These are simply an acoustic guitar and my voice. While I still envision the full band arrangements in my head, I now prefer to present the bare bones demo to the band, and have us work and craft it together as a group.I love doing this because it gives the rest of the guys a much larger voice, and is a significantly greater collaborative effort. Its super cool knowing that we can all work together and turn the smallest idea into something to call our own and be proud of.
MT: Gotta ask…how did you come up with that band name?
AE: The name is simply a nod to the building where my grandparents met. I think its somewhere in Texas, near the Mexican border, but don’t quote me on that.
MT: Anything you wanna plug? Links to music videos? Big shows coming up?
AE: Our latest release, “Mammoth Skin Pt. 2” is available here:
We are currently working on new music, finished recording a few weeks ago and we’re currently in the mixing stage. Looking towards a Fall 2014 release.
We have a show this Saturday (8/16) at the Brickhouse Brewery in Patchogue. Playing with friends The Republic of Wolves, and Clockwork Kids. Should be tons of fun, and we may be doing something very special at that show in honor of Shrek week. SO COME ON DOWN, show starts at 10pm. Just be careful because parking is tricky around there!
Here is our latest video, its the opening track to our latest release. Acoustic performance featuring various childrens toys.
MT: What are your thoughts about your “journey” so far? Insights? Successes? Failures? Regrets?
AE: The journey is super entertaining. Even though we’ve been a band for a while now, I feel like we’re just getting started. We’ve had countless ups and downs.Failures? Maybe Touring. We have been up and down the east coast countless times, and touring in a van is a necessary, hilarious, and dangerous beast.. at least in Hotels experience. Broken vans, no money, and cancelled shows seems to be part of the lifestyle, and we’ve definitely seen our fair share of setbacks. But we’ll keep trying. I like to think of tour life as a challenge we’ve yet to conquer.
If I learned anything, its that no one is going to make you happy besides yourself. It took me a great long time to realize that nobody was going to sing my songs the way I wanted. I had to do it myself. And also, the fact that we’ve had a brief glance at success and never acted on it, or took it seriously. While I don’t regret that, I think it plays into the learning experience.
MT: In that same vein, do you have any advice for anyone looking to make music?
AE: (Deep Breath) Just do it. If you really really want to, and are true to yourself, you’ll find a way to make music. If it makes the terrible things in life just a tiny bit better, you’ll be okay. When I first started making music, I found it impossible to find like-minded people. None of my friends shared my musical taste, so I remember many nights scouring MySpace and Craigslist for singers, bassists, and drummers. Eventually I became fed up and realized that no one was going to bring my dream to fruition besides myself. I went online, learned how to use a DAW, recorded my nasally teenage voice, and stayed up till 5AM humming into my laptops microphone. This was a learning process, and this is how I joined my first band, created Hotel of the Laughing Tree, and made irreplaceable lifelong friends. So..if you feel it, do it. Between YouTube and Facebook, its easier than ever to connect with fellow musicians. I think its fun to be creative by yourself, but it really is something special to be able to share that with other like minded people who are working towards the same goal.
MT: Who do you guys listen to?
AE: Lately, I’ve been listening to the new Conor Oberst, The Rosebuds,and Spoon albums. Definitely some of my favorite new releases this year. Jon has been heavily into Ben Folds and Regina Spektor lately, and the rest of the guys range anywhere from Tom Waits to St. Vincent.
MT: I also like to ask fun questions. What are you watching on Netflix right now?
AE: Its all about Kitchen Nightmares for me. I could never get sick of Gordon Ramsay losing his shit in the name of Chicken Cordon Bleu. I know Jon has recently binged the entire series of LOST, so God bless his restless soul.
MT: What do you do when you’re not making music?
AE: I recently rediscovered painting. When I’m not working on songs, I’m either doodling in my sketch pad or working on a new illustration. Oh, and working a 9-5. We all do that.
MT: Favorite movie and/or TV series and why.
AE: Star Wars, The Lion King, The Life Aquatic, and Hook are among my top favorites. I can’t help it, I’m a sucker for flawed hero characters with daddy issues.
Don’t miss your chance to see Hotel of the Laughing Tree live Monday night along with Alexa Dexa at the after party for our screening if “Frank” at Cinema Arts Centre 7pm Monday night August 18th! RSVP on Facebook here!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Moe Tompkins, a native of Islip, New York, holds a double degree in jazz studies and music education from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). Upon acceptance to the College-Conservatory of Music he began simultaneous study both with Ray Charles Orchestra alumnus Marc Fields, and Tim Anderson of the Dayton Philharmonic. For several years he worked as a highly-in-demand trombonist on the Cincinnati scene and beyond playing everything from salsa, to reggae, neo-brass band sharing the stage with the likes of Streetlight Manifesto, The Aggrolites, and Foxy Shazam, just to name a few. He currently resides in Islip, working with the Long Island Arts Alliance and finally pursuing his own musical vision with his original group Slang (facebook.com/slangthebandli). When not making music, Moe can typically be found enjoying horror movies, fusion jazz, or White Castle.