Chris Sikich

Letters to Cleo Look Back on 30 Years of Their Debut Album

Brooklyn Made is gearing up to host our favorite nineties-era five-piece on November 15, which means you have one week to read this interview, get your tickets, and remember all the words to band’s earliest hits.

The alternative rock scene of the nineties brought in a goldmine of talent. One that stands out in memory is the Boston-based Letters to Cleo. The band made up of Kay Hanley, Greg McKenna, Michael Eisenstein, Joe Klompus, and Stacy Jones saw its time crest when their breakout single (and fun catalog staple) “Here and Now” was released in 1994. Letters to Cleo was a cool band – one that was known for slow, edgy verses and fast-paced choruses that made fans rush to record stores to pick up albums to listen to in its entirety. When it came to “Here and Now,” that album was Aurora Gory Alice, and it stands the test of time for the band. Although they hit some rough spots initially upon getting this record to the masses, 30 years later they are gearing up to play it in full for its anniversary. (They tell us that they will sprinkle a few melodic fan favorites from their other projects along the way, as well.)

I talked to rhythm guitarist and keyboardist of Letters to Cleo, Michael Eisenstein, about the band’s lasting success, their inescapable hit song, and the debut celebration/reunion that Letters to Cleo fans have been waiting for. 

Can you believe it has been 30 years since Aurora Gory Alice?

We really thought that album was going to be our swan song. The band was in a bad morale spot at the time; we didn’t know that it would be a long-lived thing at all. We had been plugging away and did some touring. We had a drummer leave and then a replacement come in at that point. We made this final couple of personnel changes and then the record started doing well… and then we toured another 10 years behind it!

How did the band survive the breakup?

All through the nineties we are on tour all the time. At the very end of the decade, we took a little break. I was playing with Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt. I did a tour with her and we just couldn’t get the ball rolling again with Letters To Cleo again. Everyone had different priorities. The band members started drifting apart and it was difficult to recapture the spark. We thought the band reached its conclusion.

You got back together and made more music, though!

In 2008, we were all present at this one gig in Boston and got on stage together and played a couple songs. We did a short reunion tour and did a live album from that. In 2016, we put out another release. Every November we try to get together and do a short tour. It’s a little easier now because it’s a short investment of time. We do five or six shows and that’s it. It’s usually all planned out and scheduled and everyone knows it’s coming, so it’s pretty manageable.

Lead singer Kay was quoted saying that the band would stop being a band when it wasn’t a fun experience anymore. Does that statement still ring true?

For sure, that’s why we don’t do a full out, two-month national tour anymore. We get to keep doing our things that we have got going on, play the old tunes, interact with the fans, and have a good time. We had a tough patch to get through initially. It was a pretty good run until five years later when we got dropped from our label, Giant. As long as it is a good time and a creative win for everyone, though, then we will do it.

“Here and Now” is by far the band’s biggest tune. Any regrets?

It’s a pretty unique song from that era. It has a really good arrangement to it. Our identity was wrapped into it. We are always happy to play it and it’s not a bad legacy to have that people know and love. Kay had RunDMC and R.E.M. in her wheelhouse when this song came out. Kay got the inspiration from “It’s The End of the World As We Know It” for “Here and Now,” and it stuck. 

The song was featured on the television series Melrose Place and its soundtrack. Do you think music placement with television and movies still works in 2023?

Absolutely. I think it’s bigger now than it was then. It was always huge in movies – that was the beginning of music placement in a tv show and it made a big impact. It is very coveted to get your song placed on television shows now.

For you, what is the biggest difference of recording in the nineties versus now?

The biggest difference is that we didn’t have computers then. We recorded on tape. We recorded individually and did different takes. Some things are lost and some things are gained by computer. Things are expected to sound perfect now; the feeling is what is lost. Technology changes art. It’s a big change. I think it’s easier to sound like everyone else now. However, nw everyone can do it by themselves, which is great, because you don’t have to go through industry gatekeepers.

Is there any new material on the horizon for the band?

We have a two-song single coming out. We worked with producer Billy Lefler – he brought a whole new style and creativity into the project. A little less nineties… both songs are both poppy. 

Anything else new or any surprises set on this tour?

We are playing the whole Aurora album from start to finish to begin the show. Our fans discovered us from this album. They heard “Hear and Now” and bought the album. We usually do a couple covers. We will have a nice assortment.