“When I got the Strat, I was like, ‘The bitch is back!’”: Why Palehound’s El Kempner is re-embracing solos – and the Stratocaster – on one of 2023’s essential indie-rock releases

Palehound's El Kempner
(Image credit: Polyvinyl Records)

Palehound were about to play a string of sold-out shows when the pandemic struck. The band, the project of lead songwriter and guitarist El Kempner, had to turn the van around. The tour was canceled.

Thousands of miles from their homes in Brooklyn, they began the 45-hour drive east taking in the shuttered-up service stations and closed motels. It was also around this time that Kempner’s relationship began to fray. Suddenly, the pair were launched into a global lockdown together which only further unravelled the close-knit bond. 

With Palehound on pause, Kempner threw themselves into other creative collaborations, teaming up with bedroom pop singer Melina Duterte (better known as Jay Som) in indie duo Bachelor. But, much like the name of their debut Doomin’ Sun, the band’s hopes of performing live were also ill-fated – “The past two albums I've had have been robbed. Hard,” they reflect now.

With the live music sector poised for a “roaring era” and a new Palehound release in tow, Kempner opens up about writing through heartache, coming full circle with guitar and embracing the need to shred.

Eye on the Bat is your first Palehound release since Black Friday in 2019 and Bachelor’s Doomin’ Sun in 2021. When did the songs for this record start to take shape?

“I had this group of songs that I felt proud of [but] I didn't think to make it into an album until Bachelor and my breakup stuff calmed down. I was thinking about options and producers. One was a fancy studio, a fancy producer, and then Polyvinyl recommended Sam (Owens). I had known Sam for years. We used to play shows on the Brooklyn DIY scene together. As a guitar player, he was such an early influence on me.”

You’re a skilled musician in multiple guises, as a collaborator, as a soloist, as a songwriter. For a track like The Clutch, what comes first: the lead line or the melody?

“That was the first song that I wrote for the record. We had stopped on our way back from our hell apocalypse road trip. We didn't drive home because we were being told this will only be a couple of weeks… I'm not one of those songwriters that's like 'The song just came out of me!' That's not how that process is for me. But that song did flow. When I finally got home, I did a full take of the song demoing all the parts which is when I wrote the solo.”

And the video celebrates your love for Fender’s classic Stratocaster – what drew you to that guitar?

The Strat is light, it's small and the shape of it works for anybody. I was getting a lot of sponsorships [but] when I got the Strat, I was like, ‘The bitch is back’

“This record was so full circle with the guitar, not just my style of playing but my instrument of choice. I started playing guitar as a kid with a Strat and then I was like, ‘I need a weird vintage guitar. I need to play that Harmony Bobcat that Annie Clark [aka St. Vincent] plays!’ The D'Angelico guitar I have is gorgeous [but] I've struggled with a semi-hollow body guitar. They’re incredible instruments but they're not built for bodies like mine.

“I have a big chest. I'm fighting with the neck of the guitar. Every time I'm playing, it's falling out of tune. [With] the Strat I don't have to do that. It's light, it's small and the shape of it works for anybody. I was getting a lot of sponsorships – I got a Godin guitar – [but] when I got the Strat, I was like, ‘The bitch is back.’”

What are some of your other essential pieces of gear right now? 

“I had a gorgeous gifted 1976 Vibrolux Reverb Fender amp. It's living at a recording studio upstate right now because I couldn't tour with it anymore. It's too fragile. I'm currently playing a [Supro] Black Magick Reverb. It's possibly too rock for some stuff so I'm gonna go back to a Fender for this next round of touring.

“It's an incredible rock amp, though. If I was a lead guitarist where I could shred the whole time, this amp would be perfect, and I want to do that. I want to be the lead guitarist for a band that's on a tour bus.”

You’ve spoken about being self-sufficient early on with your songwriting, carving out a melody and a bassline to your parts. How has your technique developed over Palehound’s catalog and after collaborating with Melina Duterte in Bachelor?

“This record would not sound anything like this without the Bachelor record. Learning from Melina was so empowering. She gave me the confidence to feel confident in my decisions. Without that energy, I wouldn't have made The Clutch sound like that.

“[But] there was also a period of time that I didn't pick up a guitar, and when I listen to those records, I can hear it. Between Dry Food and A Place I'll Always Go, I don't hear guitar growth. I wasn't focused on that; I was focused on the songwriting element [thinking] maybe I don't need to rock as hard. But then I was like, ‘Man, I love to shred!’ 

“I went into this record embracing riffs more than anything and not wanting to hold back. I grew up on classic rock, but I was like, ‘I can't make cock rock,’ and then for this record, I was like, ‘I can't make cock rock but I can make strap rock!’”

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Cheri Amour

Cheri Amour is a writer, editor and broadcaster intent on amplifying the voices of women and non-binary artists in print, online and on air. During her twenties, she played lead guitar in a touring two-piece, sharing the stage with The Slits and John Peel-approved punks The Nightingales. Formerly Deputy Editor at TGA Magazine, Cheri headed up its Tech section pouring over pedals with everyone to indie icon Debbie Smith (Echobelly/Curve) to multi-instrumentalist Katie Harkin (Sleater Kinney/Waxahatchee/Wye Oak). She's currently working on an upcoming 33 1/3 book on the unassuming influence of South Bronx sister troupe ESG, out in Spring 2023.