When Eli Mardock met Lucas Kochbeck, he had no idea that he and the German musician would put together a band, much less get signed to Warner Brothers Records.
But that’s what happened for the Lincoln musician, who was introduced to Hamburg’s Kochbeck online a couple years ago and has made multiple trips to Germany, three in the last three months, to create the music that got the duo a contract with one of the four major record labels.
“This is a recording project that got picked up,” Mardock said. “We sure didn’t go into this thinking we’re going to be a major-label band. The three of us, two musicians and a producer, were just getting together to make something, shooting ideas back and forth to do the best we could.”
Mardock led the Lincoln band Eagle*Seagull, which in the late 2000s was signed to Starbucks' short-lived coffee chain imprint that included Paul McCartney on its roster. Eagle*Seagull didn’t release anything on Starbucks and broke up in 2010, seemingly ending Mardock’s rock star dreams.
“I never thought, 10 years after the first Eagle*Seagull album, something like this would happen,” Mardock said. “I’m incredibly grateful. It’s interesting. I don’t care about the ego stuff any more, only having fun. I’m enjoying doing this with every part of the process. I feel so lucky.”
Mardock, 37, was introduced to Kochbeck through mutual friends via the internet and, after some online conversation, decided to fly to Hamburg to see if they would work well playing together.
“It was like a blind date,” Mardock said. “He met me at the airport. He’s like 6-foot-7. He makes me look like Danny DeVito. We went right to the studio. I was probably pretty sleep deprived. But we started working on songs and it clicked.”
Along with producer Marcus Brosch, Mardock and Kochbeck created the songs in trans-Atlantic fashion, emailing the digital files back and forth between Hamburg and Lincoln.
“He’d send me demos that were bass and drums, basically, maybe a few keys,” Mardock said. “I’d add stuff, arrangements, guitar, keyboards, some vocals and send them back.”
Primarily recorded in Hamburg, the duo’s EP, “We Play” was finished at Silver Street in Ashland, mixed by James Fleege and mastered by Doug Van Sloan at Focus Mastering in Omaha.
Those songs made it to Johann Scheerer, who runs Clouds Hill, a German music group that has a studio, does artist management and operates a highly respected independent label.
“He basically took one listen to it, didn’t pay much attention to the band, and said ‘That sounds amazing, I want to get this out now,'” Mardock said of the EP that was released on Clouds Hill last month.
Enter Warner Brothers, which, after The Kiez was signed to Clouds Hill, reached an agreement with the independent label to take Clouds Hill bands.
“It’s kind of like a major league/minor league thing,” Mardock said. “If they like it, they get the right to pick it up. They hadn’t even heard the album. They heard the EP. They’d listened to all the Clouds Hill bands and, Johann said, they really like The Kiez.”
In December, Mardock returned to Germany to play the Clouds Hill Festival at the label’s studio.
“Right after our set, the head of Warner Brothers came up to me and said ‘I like your band. Let’s talk,’” Mardock said. “When we finished talking with him, there was kind of a handshake agreement. Now it’s signed.”
While major labels no longer dominate the music industry as they did before the digital era, they still offer promotion that independent labels cannot provide. That includes radio promotion — radio remains the primary generator of hit songs — and other marketing efforts around the world.
“That’s the appeal of this,” Mardock said. “With Clouds Hill, they have U.S. contacts, but their push is in Europe. So we get all the benefit of being on Clouds Hill and now we have the power of Warner Brothers behind us. That puts us in the U.K., the U.S., Asia and Australia. That’s why we’re excited to work with them.”
The Kiez’s first Warner Brothers release is planned for September. The recording is finished, but the album remains far from done.
“It’s half mixed,” Mardock said. “It’s what we did when I went over there in January."
The album is being mixed by Peter Schmidt, a Brian Eno collaborator who Mardock calls “a German mixing genius.” Demands on Schmidt’s time have set the timetable for The Kiez album.
Schmidt won’t be available to mix the second batch of songs until mid-summer. So the as-yet-untitled album can’t be released until September.
Until then, The Kiez will release some singles and at least one more video. But its major effort over the next six months will be in turning the recording project into a real band.
“Our focus is getting the live stuff together,” Mardock said. “We’ve done seven or eight shows, but we don’t have an agent yet. We hope to do some shows and get things ironed out before the album comes out.”
If the shows are in Europe, Mardock and Kochbeck will use the band that has already been assembled there. If the shows are in the U.S., the band most likely will feature Lincoln musicians.
“For the live stuff, I’m mostly fronting and singing,” Mardock said. “I’m the frontman. I’ll play stuff now and then. But my job is to make sure the crowd is having a good time. It’s a total show. For me, it’s a huge adjustment coming after the self-absorbed, moody stuff Eagle*Seagull did. It’s the most fun I had.”
Fronting the band in Germany is a challenge for Mardock, who is not yet fluent in German.
“I’ll say a few things and then say 'I’m from Nebraska,'” Mardock said. “I can read German a lot better than I can speak it. I studied it for two years in college. But I’m not quick enough speaking to really take part in conversation. I’ve got to work on that.”
While he’s working with The Kiez, Mardock is also running the Royal Grove with his wife Carrie and brother Luther and raising his two young children in Lincoln.
“2018’s already been crazy,” Mardock said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t like to be bored. I’m definitely not now. It will be really interesting to see what happens when The Kiez starts playing and touring. It’s going to be fun.”