Who Says You Can’t Go ‘Homecoming’ Again! Letters to Cleo Are Back for More

It became an annual tradition much like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and this writer watching Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, but then, like everything else, covid came and took a big giant poop emoji over it last year. Thankfully, with vaccines here and numbers declining (for now anyway), Boston alt rock legends (yeah, I said “legends” — fight me in the comments if you have a middle finger for me) are back after a two year delay for their handful of holiday “homecoming” shows. This run includes the east and west coast including two nights at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. They will also play Southern California, New York City, and Hamden, CT. Openers are diverse for the shows but awesome. Fellow 90’s rocker Tracy Bonham will perform in NYC, Dear Elise will play the LA dates, and the New England shows will be started by Charly Bliss, whose 90s alt-sound and Letters-vibes isn’t lost on this writer or the band themselves.

The idea for the annual homecoming shows began in 2016 when the band hit the road in support of Back to Nebraska, an EP and their first new music in some 17 years. I caught up with the band’s Michael Eisenstein and Kay Hanley to ask about the shows, but do I really need to brush up about the band’s history. Well, probably I should since no one knows anything anymore beyond Reels, TikTok and memes. (Insert a pic of me and a meme my nephew created with the words “old fart” on it here.) Anyway, I digress. Here’s your Letters to history lesson…

The band formed in 1990 in Boston with guitarist Greg Mckenna and lead singer Hanley. They hit it big with their single “Here & Now,” which you probably heard on the original Melrose Place, MTV, and mainstream radio (it hit number 10 on Billboard Modern Rock Singles charts.) In subsequent years, the band appeared in and contributed songs for the teen classic 10 Things I Hate About You, and honestly Google the rest. Do something. I’m constantly amazed at the lack of actually “putting in the work.” The irony is I stopped putting in the work to tell you this great band’s history to tell you to do the exact same thing. But… ANYWAY. They’re awesome, rad, and all other adjectives. Wholesale Meats, and Fish is one of my favorite records ever, and I don’t care if I’m fan-girling in the middle of this thing. Just read the interview, K? Oh, and get their 2019 Christmas album. Go!

I look forward to the homecoming shows each year. How hard was it not being able to do them last year and describe the sense of euphoria you feel preparing to hit the stage this year?

Kay: It’s funny. The use of the word ‘euphoria’ is not even a thought — it’s more like fear. I mean, for me discomfort, like ‘what are we doing’? And I think that’s what’s gonna make it a good show, being completely thrown off by what’s happened over the past two years. And yeah Mike, how was it not doing it last year?

Michael: You know, so many things were canceled. That like, I was sorry to not do it. And I’m definitely stoked to do it again. But it was like the least of my concerns, kind of at the time. It wasn’t too hard on me just because, like everything was so difficult, you know?

Kay: It wasn’t like everybody else was out on the road and not us. You know, it’s like just nothing.

Makes sense. Will the setlist vary from years past?

Both: Yeah!

Michael: Yes, it does. I mean, we’ll have the core bunch of songs that will be like, a lot of our favorites. But we go back and forth between the two OG Cleo drummers, Stacy Jones and Tom Polce. And this is a Tom Polce year. So that has an impact on what songs we choose because he can sing. Some of those songs on the third album are so his style, so we do a lot more of that stuff. And we’re supposed to be doing a new song. I think we’re gonna do at least one new song. I will play all the favorites, you know.

Kay: Yeah. But there’s no like new arrangements and shit. It’s like the way I’m thinking of it is like, just like comfort, you know, like the sort of like musical equivalent of comfort food, we’re not doing any new arrangements or, we’re going to kind of stick to the fan favorites, I think and, just kind of get back into the spirit of things. For a lot of people, this will be their first time back in a concert. It’ll be my first time back in it and, it’s certainly my first time back performing.

Michael: I played one show in that little one month period in late June, early July, when it seemed like we were all gonna be back, right?

Comfort food is a good analogy for going to concerts. I used to call it a safe haven even before this pandemic shit. Moving on… Your opening acts are pretty eclectic each time out. Talk to me about the “selection” process but also, if I may, can we hone in on Charly Bliss who are playing a few of the shows. They make no secret over their love of Josie and the Pussy Cats which Kay had such a huge hand in, and I truly get flashbacks with their sound — some tracks almost pay homage to you guys and channel that 90s vibe. Would you agree?

Kay: With all of it, yeah! Charly Bliss is amazing. I remember getting sent a track of theirs a million years ago before they really put out an album or anything, and was like, “this is Cleo.” I was like “wow, I really I love what they do.” I reviewed their record [for] a website, their last record Young Enough, and I’m such a fan. I love their energy. I’ve never met them in person, so I’m super psyched to meet them. They’re playing with us in Boston. I just think a lot of our fans are their fans. Do you love them?

Michael: I do. I heard about them from Stacy Jones because they opened for American HiFi in New York years ago. He was like “we should get them on some Cleo shows” and then the next time we were coming through they weren’t playing or something like that. It just took a while to just hook it up. But we had been aware of that and wanting to have them on the show for several years now.

Kay: And the LA shows our son’s band is opening for us. Dear Elise, and they’re fucking awesome. They had two number one songs on KROQ last year.

Michael: And we can’t forget, the great Tracy Bonham is opening the New York show.

Kay: And we fucking love her, we’ve been friends with her for 25 years or more. We grew up together. For the selection process, we pick girls that are awesome female leads.

Michael: Usually like six months out, we’re putting out emails like “Who should we ask?” Sometimes it’s bands we like but don’t know, sometimes bands that we know and like, but usually like is involved?

Kay: Yeah. Like has to be involved….

Michael: Then you know, hopefully they add something cool to the bill. We’ve always had good people since we’ve been doing these shows the last whatever it is four or five years.

With all this said…Is it a conscious decision to have these shows so close to Thanksgiving — — you guys are pretty much family. This question was a big, fat meatball.

Kay: Haha, I don’t know why we started doing it then

Michael: The first year which I think was 2016, we made an EP right when we got the band back together and it just kind of lined up like if we would make the record here, get it mixed there, have the vinyl pressed it would be about ready in November. It was just chance that first year that it was the week before Thanksgiving — we had a couple shows in Chicago around the World Series leading up to it. But then we finished this tour, it was a great success and our managers to came on stage like right after the show and said “same weekend, next year?”, we were like sure, why not? Then it was kind of a traditional thing and it’s a good weekend that people come back home anyway, so it’s a good travel weekend, so we just sort of stuck with it.

Kay: And we’re going to be back home for the holidays.

Are you guys working on new music. After Back to Nebraska and the Christmas EP, I should hope so dammit.

Kay: We are. Actually before the pandemic, Michael and I had a pretty good schedule going, we were getting together like once a week for 90 minutes and writing and then we would make quick demos and it was working really well and Greg was kind of like giving us stuff remotely and we had plans, we’d been talking to Adam Schlesinger about producing some of this stuff and we had these big dreams of making a record with Adam, then the pandemic hit and everything kind of went crazy and we stopped do our weekly thing. Then Adam died and it felt like…

Michael: It took the wind out of the sails of the whole idea of doing the record. Our original thought was let’s do it with Dineen. Denneen died, not COVID related. Then we talked to Adam, and he died, it just zapped the energy that I had for the excitement of the project. But we’ve been getting together in the last maybe a couple of months again, here and there and working on some new tunes. So yes, the plan is to make a record, we’re excited to do it, we just lost our way with this damn pandemic.

Kay: But it may have been good I think, in terms of the writing. Michael and I, as we’ve gotten back together and started talking through the songs and thinking about what we want this to be and, knowing now that we can kind of take our time with it. You know, losing our footing in that way may lead to us kind of deconstructing things a little bit and going a little darker, more thoughtful. I mean, we can’t help it, we sound like us. Like there’s literally nothing we can do, but that’s even more of a reason to try and like pull this shit apart and try and find some new interesting ways to tell stories and stuff.

How is your approach on stage different than it was back in the 90s?

Kay: Well, my back hurts. So there’s that.

Michael: We now have the glory of wearing in ear monitors. So we’re as loud as we ever were on stage, but to us we just turn our volume now to where we want to be, so we don’t have the ringing in our ears after the shows anymore, which is nice.

Kay: And I can sing without screaming. I mean, I’ve been singing, like trying to get these stinky bar monitors to give my voice back to me in a way that I can hear I’ve for 20 years. I just screamed really loud and hope that I hit the notes, now I just sing like a fucking bird. At least in my ears, I do.

Michael: We haven’t brought in backing tracks from a laptop or any of the modern stuff that people do — we just get up there and play our show, the same way we ever did. But we do it with rental equipment, we don’t carry gear. And, we save our ears with protection. The grown up rock show.

OK, off topic. Kay, my daughter is obsessed with the stuff you do for the kiddos (Doc McStuffins, etc). Do you feel like you’ve lived two separate lives there — rock star by night, and children’s legend by day?

Kay: Thank you, thank you for that compliment. I do get a great deal of satisfaction from controlling the minds of my friends’ children, one animated show at a time, that gives me a great deal of pleasure. No, I feel like these lives are very compatible, it’s the best job in the world writing music for animation. I feel like me being in a band and writing, being a lead singer of rock band and performing those songs is a great way to kind of hit reset, so that I bring a freshness back to my day job and I think vice versa. I don’t write kids music, I write pop music that hopefully is not annoying to parents. I write the songs that I would want to hear, you know?

Shifting gears, I wear Crocs. Do you think that makes me a bad person?

Kay: He (Michael) wears those other fucking shoes, what are they? Birkenstocks with socks. No, I think I think that’s fine. Crocs are fine right now — they’re good for a kid. Are they good? Are they comfortable? they’re supposed to be comfortable. They’re comfortable. I’ve never had them. Yeah, I mean people just fucking love ugly shoes. I don’t know. Ugg boots, Birkenstocks, Crocs, Dr Scholl’s. People love their ugly shoes. I love ugly shoes. So who knows? You can wear them to dinner in the Hamptons. You can also wear them on the boat on or in the water. Like you, they’re amphibious shoes. I’m kind of neutral.

Michael: They don’t look good.

Kay: No, they’re not sexy.

I’m glad we cleared that up. Maybe. What’s the last album, film and/or television show that inspired you?

Michael: I’ve been specifically listening to the original score of The Force Awakens. Film? The Summer of Soul.

Kay: On the flip side, the Sparks Brothers. We saw them back to back. You have to fucking see it. I have heard of Sparks because of Clay. But I didn’t know anything about them going in. Loved it, it’s so inspiring.

Michael: I liked White Lotus, while it maybe wasn’t an inspiring tale. I just thought the score was really inventive, and that was inspiring to me. The show was enjoyable, funny and dark and weird.

Kay: Inspiring is weird. I don’t know if I’ve ever been inspired by a TV show. I think Ted Lasso was inspiring creatively just because it kind of broke the mold in this weird way. Every time people are telling a story, the first question is “but what are the stakes, what’s the conflict?”, and this show has had two seasons of people being nice to each other, all the conflicts are resolved in one episode, it’s like it completely defies everything that you think storytelling is supposed to be — it’s so wrong, but it’s just it’s so sweet. The sweetness of it is really refreshing in a way that it kind of makes me re-examine how all of Gen-X is jaded or in the entertainment business in general, how everybody thinks that you have to be so fucking edgy and there’s no edge to Ted Lasso, it’s just great characters that you love. Not an album, but I just made an 80's disco playlist for my wedding so — I’m very inspired by my playlist.

Mazel! Lastly! If people came with taglines, what would yours be?

Michael: Come for the guitar playing, stay for the dinner.

Kay: 90 percent Lyric and melody, 10 percent naps.

Visit letterstocleo.net for more info! Their tour kicks off at The Parish at House of Blues Anaheim this Thursday!

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Jon Chattman

He once enjoyed a Reuben sandwich with Randy “Macho Man” Savage, has written eight books, hosts his own music series, and is a proud dad. He can’t ride a bike.