A seat in Bleachers: Evan Smith goes from Kessler Park to pop superstardom

Evan Smith at work in Bleachers. (Photo by Shane Timm)
Evan Smith at work in Bleachers. (Photo by Shane Timm)

Musician Evan Smith grew up in Kessler Park, on Eastus Drive and then Canterbury Court.

He’s a Rosemont Bison who graduated from the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in 2001.

Now he’s touring the country as a member of the band Bleachers, fronted by indie pop superstar Jack Antonoff. Smith plays saxophone, woodwinds and keyboards, and he sings. He now lives in southern Maine with his wife, Megan, and he spoke to us recently from Tulsa while on tour.

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I know a little bit about you, but there’s not that much online. Could you tell us about your career?
After arts magnet, I went to Montreal and went to a university called McGill. UNT was an option. Berklee [College of Music] was an option. The New School in New York was an option. But I wasn’t a very talented young musician. I was interested in doing it, and I was trying, I guess. But nobody was like “Oh, we’re going to give you a free ride.”

And after college, you moved to Brooklyn?
Yeah, it was pretty great because so many friends of mine were already in New York and were established. I was playing a lot of jazz music. I would go out and play kind of avant-garde stuff. But then I started a rock band called The Prigs with a friend of mine named Mack Price; he’s also an arts grad. He’s a guitar player and singer/songwriter.

What was that like?
That was the start of a new path because there were way more people at this show that’s a rock how, and people are happy and like, singing. To see that effect on the people you’re playing for. That’s crazy. Because in jazz, you’re playing for 20 of your closest musical acquaintances. So to see strangers who are jumping up and down and getting sweaty, that kind of show. It was amazing. That led to playing with [Dallas native] St. Vincent. That was the first big touring band that I worked with. I was introduced to Annie [Clark] and wound up touring for the album “Actor.”

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How long were you with St. Vincent?
That was, I think, 2009 to 2011. And I was doing a lot more recording at that time. I did Annie’s next record as a sax player. She and David Byrne were working on a record, and I did woodwinds for that.

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How did you get involved with Bleachers?
Jack had been touring a lot with Fun, and he was working on his own stuff. None of us knew each other. I didn’t know Jack really at all. Well, we had met for an hour at his apartment and talked about music.

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Kind of like a job interview?
Yes! It was like that. I drove down from Maine, and my hands were clammy, and I had dry mouth. That’s exactly how it felt. But we hung out and had bagels and orange juice. He showed me some of the stuff he was working on. It was pretty nuts now that I think back on it. Part of that never goes away. It’s way different now. We’ve been together in all these very close quarters. So it’s like we’re friends. But it’s pretty crazy.

What is he like, Jack Antonoff?
Obviously, he’s an amazing engineer and songwriter and producer. He’s a super hard worker. He’s really talented and he has a vision for pop music at large. To be around someone like that who’s connected to why they’re doing what they’re doing. And someone who’s in action making it happen. It’s like an education to be near somebody like that. He is a powerhouse, but he’s also like a buddy. It’s been great to be working with Jack so much this year. He’s an amazing dude. He’s a great guy.

What else are you working on besides Bleachers?
As a sax player, I played some stuff on Lorde’s record [“Melodrama”] this year. I was on the new St. Vincent record [“Masseducation”]. I was on the new Pink record [“Beautiful Trauma”].

Oh, wow. I love Pink. What’s not to love about Pink?
Yeah, she’s great. She’s very approachable. Actually Bleachers is opening for Pink on some of her arena dates this spring. I’ve never done repeated nights in an arena before. For me, I’m excited to feel what that’s like as a performer. You get some feedback from the room when you’re playing a big place. You’re getting something back from the house. But being in an arena, you don’t get anything back because it’s so big. I’m interested to see what kind of energy it draws out of you.

What is your touring situation like? Do you have a bus?
Yes, we have two buses, and the band is on one bus, and the crew is in another. When I was on tour with St. Vincent, we were driving ourselves in a Sprinter. And it’s a whole different animal. It is nice to play a show and put all my energy into that, get off stage, take a shower and go to sleep, and somebody drives you to your next show. You don’t have to wake up at 6 a.m. and get behind the wheel. It’s totally different. You can feel it in your energy level. But I miss the Sprinter days sometimes too. It was kind of romantic.

Evan Smith, left, and Jack Antonoff perform in Bleachers at Fenway Park. (Photo by Anthony Pham)
Evan Smith, left, and Jack Antonoff perform in Bleachers at Fenway Park. (Photo by Shane Timm)

I saw you on “Ellen.” Did you get to meet Ellen Degeneres?
Yes, I did. We’ve been on twice, actually. Ellen watches the sound check, and she sits out there with this huge mixing bowl of salad, munching on it. She’s just there hanging out. She’s very nice. Super cool. And I love her show as well.

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What was it like being on “MTV Unplugged?”
Oh, man. It was awesome. It looked and felt like I remember the ’90s “MTV Unplugged.” Those were such a huge part of my landscape when I was a kid listening to alternative rock. It was really fun. It was a bucket list, life goals kind of thing. We recorded it so far ahead of the album release that nobody had heard those songs yet. We already knew how we were going to perform them [on tour]. And then it was like, “OK, let’s completely redo these tunes.” It was stressful at the time to put it together, but when we actually did it, it was really special. And we’re still tapping into some of that now. The show is really, really big. When we bring it down and do these more intimate things, we do really stripped down versions of these songs, and I think that came from the “Unplugged” stuff.

What was it like growing up in Oak Cliff?
I would wish that type of childhood for anybody. I’ve moved around a lot now, and I’ve met people from all kinds of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. It turns out that it was invaluable to have that stuff around you all the time. You got to see and meet people who were into all kinds of stuff. We used to hang out at Chango Botanica, and it’s still there. I loved that place, and it was right in our backyard, pretty much. Bishop Arts has changed the perception of Oak Cliff really dramatically. And sometimes when that happens, some of the subtleties are lost. That people from East Dallas and Highland Park are interested in Oak Cliff or would consider living there is amazing. I miss the old Gloria’s, where there would be a security guard standing on the roof to watch the parking lot. I lived in a neighborhood in Brooklyn [Midwood] that was one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in America, and I was like, “This is kind of familiar.”

Are your parents from Oak Cliff?
My mom is from Oak Cliff, and my dad was born in the Midwest and went to SMU. They now live out in the country in a town called Hunt. It’s in the Hill Country near Kerrville.

What did your parents do?
My dad [David] is a lawyer. My mom [LouAnne] is a music teacher. She’s teaching vocal performance at a college in Kerrville called Schreiner University. She was a volunteer coordinator for years at the Dallas Zoo, then at a hospital in East Dallas and then in Fort Worth. She was always a music teacher, and she had vocal and piano students in the house all the time. That was a big reason why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Do you have siblings?
I have two younger brothers. Emory is in Phoenix, and Elliott is in Austin.

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Have you been back to Oak Cliff lately?
Yeah, we still have friends who are there. We don’t really have family there anymore, but I was just there visiting some friends on Edgefield. So I get to go back a little bit.

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