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How the guitar talents behind Jay Som and Palehound joined forces for one of 2021's essential indie-rock albums

Bachelor
(Image credit: Bachelor/YouTube)

When it comes to making memories, power pair Bachelor carve out theirs alongside a strong line in meal-making, too. Whether it’s their first co-bill together, ducking out after the show to grab grilled cheese and chicken tenders from Mel’s deli or last week’s impromptu rotisserie chicken chow-down (“We FaceTimed and I went back in for seconds”, boasts Kempner).

This isn’t first-date food. This is homely, family food. Because Bachelor, despite the name, is the sound of two artists no longer flying solo but cementing a longstanding love-in. 

Cooked up by bedroom pop-singer Melina Duterte (better known as Jay Som) and Palehound leader Ellen Kempner, Bachelor began as a transnational affair whilst Kempner was still living in Boston. Between weighty touring schedules, they found a pocket of time to hang out in Duterte’s home of LA.

As she recalls, “We walked around the hip part of the neighborhood and got coffee. Then we came back and tried to write this song which ended up being Sand Angel. We were both embarrassed about doing the wrong thing, but we ended up making a song that day.” As Kempner jokes, “We were testing the waters of friendship. You and I had not yet broken through to the truth.” 

The truth exists in Doomin' Sun, the band’s first full-length project and a '90s-informed indie-rock tour de force, which came together in an Airbnb in the Santa Monica Mountains. Loading up their cars with much of the gear that surrounds Duterte on our call, they headed into the unlikely studio setting for two weeks.

“Both of us were more drawn to the idea of living where we could write and record. Even studios that have good vibes, there's still something nerve-wracking,” admits Kempner.

“There was a baby grand piano in the living room so we pushed the furniture against the walls and set up drums and amps there. Melina set up her computer and interface gear on the dining room table.”

For two artists who have an impressive discography as separate entities, coming together felt surprisingly natural.

“It was so easy and so fluid. It is shocking that something happened!” jokes Kempner. But then, as Duterte surmises with no hint of sarcasm: “When Ellen grabs a guitar, it’s game over.”

Even Kempner’s father spotted her talent from the off as she recalls fiercely strumming with an orange Crayola marker cap on his acoustic at eight years old.

“He was like, 'Oh, wow, do you want to play guitar? Well, that's not how you do it, but I can teach you,' so he gave me lessons.” Duterte quickly interjects: “Don't you give him lessons now?”

Kempner smiles shyly and adds, “We jammed together a couple of days ago. He's taking lessons over Zoom and he's gotten so much better. It was wonderful.”

I ended up teaching myself Blink-182 and Green Day songs – I would print the tabs out

Melina Duterte

For Duterte, it was the era of music video marathons on VH1 and MTV, and seeing a certain New York art-punk outfit supercharged her desire to play.

“I got obsessed with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, [seeing] Karen O rocking out. My mom saw that I was taking interest and got me a guitar. I got lessons for two months and then couldn't afford it, so I ended up teaching myself Blink-182 and Green Day songs on Ultimate Guitar. I would print the tabs out.” Kempner picks up on the nostalgia note. “It would always print out all weird and shifted!”

Fittingly, then, Doomin' Sun is steeped in retro guitar sounds, with Duterte following Nine Inch Nails’ Alessandro Cortini’s unusual rig setup, putting a Tascam Portastudio at the heart of music-making. The result is rich in instrumental layering and playful vocal takes that quiver in the back of the mix like the ghost of a memory.

Jay Som performs on day two of the Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park on July 20, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois.

(Image credit: Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Likewise, on the guitar rack, there are a few choice cuts from the vault.

“We brought the same guitar that Ellen hooked me up with which is the Godin Stadium ‘59. Every time I play that guitar, that's the Palehound sound,” Duterte smiles sagely.

We brought this Stratocaster from the ‘70s that I bought from a guy who needed a pair of new teeth

Melina Duterte

“We also brought this Stratocaster from the ‘70s that I bought from a guy who needed a pair of new teeth, so he was selling his guitars. He was a collector and he was crying when he gave it away to me. Every time I look at that guitar I'm like, 'Oh, that's so sad. I hope that he got new teeth.'”

The generosity continued on the record as Cali local and Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek offered the band a loan of some of his gear as he was out of town on tour.

“He brought over this 1940s Martin guitar. It was the most beautiful guitar I've ever played. It was one of those things where as I was playing it, I was gingerly holding it,” Kempner confesses.

With such a slew of strings to choose from, it’s unsurprising to hear the songwriting came thick and fast, particularly as Kempner came loaded up with a vault of voice memos. “I had the Stay in the Car and the Back of My Hand riff [but] I didn't like any of them on their own enough to pursue them before we got into the studio.”

It was only with the power of two that the songs began to take shape into the Bachelor sound. “I could show the riff to Melina and she’d say, 'Oh, I hear it like this,' whereas I'd been hearing it in a whole different way or something. That breathed a lot of life into them.”

Single Anything At All showcases this interplay perfectly with its sporadic lead lines and Jay Som’s signature palm-muted, textural playing (“You should patent that, I rip it off all the time,” jokes Kempner).

Both musicians share vocal duties and there is, of course, that huge bass riff.

“Melina is also the best bass player,” Kempner continues. “She knows how to write a perfect bassline for whatever's happening on guitar and that's encouraging.”

When the question of how to recreate this synergy in a live space comes up, predictably the duo has already been hard at work. 

We did it already!” beams Duterte. The pair will be joined by Total Slacker’s Zoe Brecher on drums and Oceantor’s Elise Okusami, who picks up keys, bass, and rhythm guitar duties. The foursome got together a few weeks ago and, even after over a year not playing, Duterte admits she was surprised by how well it all worked.

“We naturally got into the groove with each other. We would always stop and be like, 'Wow, we're good.'” Kempner continues. “It was that feeling of, 'Fuck, this is all we've wanted to do and we're finally doing it.'”

Bachelor

(Image credit: Tonje Thilesen)

Aside from their debut release date in the calendar, there’s also another incoming moment on the horizon as Kempner is finally moving to the West Coast. The excitement, and innate connection, is palpable.

“We only see each other in these short bursts, but they're always so fun and I'm always so sad when it's over. We're on the same…” “...wavelength,” Duterte adds, completing the thought.

And then, like any long-awaited reunion, talk turns to food again. Duterte’s working on plans for a deep-fried karaage and a home-spun aioli while Kempner is instating a weekly chicken night. It’s fair to say the pair have big plans – and there’s room for us all at the table.