Tim Ellis was trapped two years ago. He had a record deal with Warner Bros. but found himself lost in the shuffle as the major label acquired and merged its properties.
Warner Bros. bounced Ellis from label to label and forbade him from playing live shows to test new material that he'd been writing. Last April, Warner Bros. finally dropped Ellis. At long last, the shackles were off.
A month later, under the moniker Outsides, Ellis released "Seesaw" into the fuzzy white noise of the Internet. He wondered if people would notice. Did they ever.
The song was snapped up by hype-heavy music blogs and tucked into the regular rotation of KEXP 90.3 in Seattle. The opportunity that had seemed so promising with his Warner Bros. deal was finally happening, except Ellis was doing it by himself from his Kansas City apartment.
The irony isn't lost on Ellis. He sips black coffee in a booth at the Brick and laughs, flashing white teeth framed by dimples.
"'Seesaw' was a demo," he says. "But it had been so long since I had put something out because, for so long, I couldn't put anything out. So I cleaned it up a bit, took a chance and just threw it out there."
It's easy to see why the track has caused a stir (along with another song, "Pastures") since its November release. "Seesaw" is like a spoonful of raw sugar in a granulated pop world. Synths boom and soar alongside Ellis' silvery voice, destined for car stereos, sweaty dance floors and packed concert halls.
After being silenced by his record label, Ellis seems to have come out of nowhere with his synth-pop cocaine. But the suave-looking 30-year-old with a pompadour and a vintage leather jacket had a previous life as the frontman of Skybox.
Formed in 2005, Skybox enjoyed moderate commercial success and helped establish Ellis' music career while he was living in Tempe, Arizona. His tenure with Skybox lasted through a relocation to Chicago, until the release of the band's second full-length album in 2010. Skybox's members disbanded and scattered, with Ellis moving back to his native Kansas City.
"Towards the end of Skybox, I was really wanting to do some of my own stuff," Ellis says. "I had so many things in my head that I had been dying to just put down on tape."
Ellis' new sound, with an emphasis on upbeat, hook-heavy songs, bears some surface-level similarities to his old band. Where Skybox embedded quirks and twists — a vaudevillian flavor on one track, computerlike bleeps on another — Outsides is more distilled and concentrated.
"The reason that I'm so excited about this project in particular is because I feel like it's closer to me," Ellis says. "When I was in Skybox and I was writing the material, I was still writing parts with the mindset of, 'He might not like this song if I don't include these sorts of things or if it's too this direction or too that direction.'
"You sort of write for other people sometimes. With this project, I wrote what I liked and I wrote parts that I wanted to write, and as directly from my head as I possibly could."
When Ellis releases his self-titled debut EP as Outsides on February 1, he's likely to garner comparisons with Passion Pit and MGMT. But the four songs on Outsides are more than high-fructose anthems.
Ellis' bright synths compose the driving force in his music. But he reinforces them with elements from other instruments: electric guitar riffs rather than regurgitated samples, man-made drumbeats instead of drum machines. "Secret Places" starts as a pseudo-acoustic lullaby. These are subtle odes, Ellis says, to an unlikely influence.
"My dad was a producer and started as a folk musician, and then started making electronic music," Ellis says. "You wouldn't necessarily think of [that] when you listen to my stuff, but Americana and folk music is one of the bigger influences on my writing. It's also helped me focus a lot on lyrics — with some pop music, that's sort of a side thought, and for me, one of the more important things is the structure of the lyrics."
Ellis' words are (mostly) wistful. "Pastures," "Secret Places" and the 1980s-style "In a Dream" may sound like summer and the outdoors. But Ellis wrote them in his "dungeonlike" Kansas City apartment, recalling lost times and brighter days.
"I was just working in my bedroom and writing and recording, and it felt like I was in a basement — there was concrete everywhere in the apartment: a concrete floor, concrete up halfway on the brick wall," Ellis says. "Whenever I could get outside of the apartment and just walk around, getting out and feeling the fresh air, that's sort of the feeling that I wanted my music to give people — the freedom of that emotion."