Joshua Eustis knows the degree he got from Loyola University New Orleans in 1999 doesn’t have much cash value. “I’m not going to get a job with a bachelor of music,” he says. But last spring, while he and Charles Cooper, the other half of the electronic act Telefon Tel Aviv, were recording their second album, Eustis managed to squeeze a belated perk out of his college education.

Students in the school’s composition program can, on a certain day each semester, submit scores for unrehearsed performance by the chamber orchestra class. “You can have them sight-read your music, just to hear what it sounds like or to make adjustments to it,” says Eustis. He’d never exercised the option while he was there, but as he and Cooper–both New Orleans natives relocated to Chicago–imagined how the synthetic bleeps and beats of their songs would sound with lush string arrangements behind them, he wondered if he could persuade one of his old professors to help out. “I called him and told him about the situation and that I wanted to record it. He said, ‘OK, you’ve got 45 minutes.'”

Cooper and Eustis headed to New Orleans, and at the designated hour they and a few friends were camped in a music building hallway waiting for an earlier class to finish. As soon as the doors opened they ran in and set up microphones, a preamp, and a computer. Eustis hurriedly passed out sheet music to the 30 or so students in the orchestra as they arrived. “I was scared I would get in there and everyone would be playing the wrong shit because I charted it wrong or I didn’t change the signatures or whatever,” says Eustis. “The kids were like, ‘Oh, cool–we get to play on a record.'” In just over half an hour they got usable takes of all five songs Eustis had scored.

The string parts help give the new record, Map of What Is Effortless (out this week on Chicago’s Hefty label), a richness that belies its tight budget. The duo worked on the project full-time for ten months. “We lived on corn, onions, and ramen,” says Cooper, who occasionally waited tables at Mod. Eustis sold off unused recording gear to scrape by. “I liquidated everything I could possibly liquidate to make this record,” he says.

Eustis and Cooper met in high school, but it wasn’t till Eustis was wrapping up at Loyola that they began to collaborate. They spent about six months making purely computer-generated tracks, eventually sending the resulting demo to Hefty. “We would have sent one to Thrill Jockey too,” Eustis says, “but you can’t FedEx to a PO box.” Hefty honcho John Hughes III (son of the filmmaker) quickly expressed interest.

But right around the time Telefon Tel Aviv signed with Hefty in early 2000, Nine Inch Nails’ Danny Lohner, who’d heard their demo through a mutual friend, invited them to work on a track for the NIN remix CD Things Falling Apart. Cooper says it was a revelatory experience: “We’ve just got our computers, but then there’s Mike Garson’s piano and Adrian Belew’s guitar to mess with.” Their first album, Fahrenheit Fair Enough, took the rest of the year to make, in part because they got sidetracked making music for New Port South, a film produced by the elder John Hughes and written by his other son, James. The all-instrumental debut sounds a bit like a sound track too, combining glitchy beats and electronic squeaks and squelches with warm Fender Rhodes chords, vibrato-heavy guitar parts, and ambient synth washes. Released in 2001, it’s gone on to sell about 10,000 copies.

After they finished Fahrenheit, Cooper moved to Chicago; Eustis followed six months later. Although they wanted to be closer to their label, they mostly wanted to be part of a more stimulating music scene. “There weren’t people for us to collaborate with [in New Orleans],” says Eustis. “We wanted to come in and be the guppies in the ocean.”

Map of What Is Effortless features drums by Kevin Duneman of the Race and vocals by L’altra’s Lindsay Anderson and LA singer-songwriter Damon Aaron (whom they heard on a demo he sent to Prefuse 73). These contributions help give the brooding album a pop backbone lacking on the debut. The tracks Anderson sings on are like Everything but the Girl on ludes; Aaron’s work is too patchouli-scented for my taste, a la Dave Matthews or Jamiroquai. But the sonic depth and the diversity of the juxtaposed elements–billowing strings and tough beats, swirling guitar and dry clicking and pinging–are engaging. If the album is somewhat too uniform in tone from song to song, it’s still an undeniably well-crafted and often beautiful piece of work.

The duo has kept busy with other studio projects as well: Cooper produced a forthcoming album by the Race, Eustis is working on a new L’altra album, and together they’re producing a solo record for Pulseprogramming’s Marc Hellner. But for much of the next year they’ll be touring in support of Map of What Is Effortless. Cooper and Eustis will celebrate its release by DJing Tuesday at Sonotheque, spinning the album in its entirety. A five-piece version of Telefon Tel Aviv–including Anderson, Aaron, and New Orleans drummer Brett Calzada–is playing a handful of southern dates in March, including shows at both South by Southwest and Miami’s Winter Music Conference, followed by a European tour as a trio with Aaron. There’s no Chicago live date yet.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.