Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Interview: Ben Trokan Of Robbers On High Street

New York City indie rock band, Robbers On High Street, released their latest album Grand Animals this past July and embarked on a tour of the U.S. Before they played the last show of the tour at Schubas on Sunday, I sat down with lead singer Ben Trokan who dished on their new record, Ray Davies, and the ’86 Mets.

nql: Where did you guys play last night?

Ben Trokan: We were in Minneapolis which was great. Minneapolis is awesome.

nql: Do you find it harder to emerge from a town like New York where there is so much going on versus say Minneapolis? You know, people in New York might say, “Why should I come to your show when there are 100 other things going on that I can do?”.

BT: I don’t know, I’ve never really lived anywhere else besides New York, but it might be logistically easier since New York is so expensive but at the same time in a town like New York you can more easily take advantage of exposure and it might be harder to breakout on the national level from a smaller city. But I feel like with the internet it doesn’t really matter as much anymore.

nql: I read an interesting and funny comment you made that New York isn’t very conducive to jam bands because you’re renting out by the hour.

BT: Yeah, you’re either renting out by the hour or you sit on waiting lists to get into a monthly lockout place but there are just so many bands so it can be tough. It’s like any big city like Chicago or Los Angeles where there are a million bands and 90% of them suck.

nql: I know a lot of my favorite bands come from New York but I rarely read about a “New York scene” as it pertains to rock music. And I wonder if that’s because there are so many great bands that any particular scene is hard to identify.

BT: It’s just so segregated. There are clubs in Manhattan where local acts of a certain genre play and then there’s everywhere else in the city where it might be different. But for the most part certain clubs are definitely attached to certain kinds of music, kind of similar to Schubas.

nql: Speaking of Schubas, you guys played here last time you were in Chicago, correct?

BT: Yeah, we headlined a show here in July. We were actually on tour with the Redwalls but they weren’t playing at the show.

nql: Other than the obvious, what’s the main difference from opening to headlining?

BT: Sometimes it can be less stressful when opening because there isn’t as much to worry about but there is still more of a pressure to play all the fast songs or attention-grabbing songs. And when you’re headlining I feel if they’re there to see you, you can play some of the deep cuts and the crowd will hopefully have some appreciation for that.

nql: This is your last show of the tour, is it hard to keep the energy up when playing the same songs night after night?

BT: Yeah, we switch it up, we usually start out playing one set and then about half way through we set on to something different that we all like and we’ll try and stick to that until we want to change it. But for the most part it’s all about being in a different place each night that makes it exciting.

nql: Meaning perhaps there is someone out there that might be hearing one of your songs for the first time?

BT: Right, and obviously if there is a big enthusiastic crowd that helps.

nql: How do you feel about people taping your stuff and posting it on Youtube? I’m asking mostly because I feel like no matter how good a band is, it’s hard to sound good on Youtube.

BT: (laughs) Yeah, that’s probably true. I don’t really care. I mean, I spend a lot of time on Youtube, not really watching bands, but finding or watching ridiculous things but again, I don’t care. It’s Youtube, it can only be taken with a grain of salt.

nql: Are there any cities that stick out when going on tour that you’re always looking forward to playing?

BT: Yeah, on this tour we played in Portland and we really love Portland and just hanging out there and being there. And shows we play elsewhere, whether headlining or with other bands, have always been kind of hit or miss but Great Northern (opener on current tour) got picked up and were being played on the big commercial radio there, and we played this big huge place that I think holds nearly 1,200 people. And I thought there would be about 100 people and there were probably closer to 700 to 800 so it was great.

nql: Was it the Crystal Ballroom?

BT: Yeah, it was.

nql: I was there back in September with a friend who lives in Portland and remember from an audience standpoint not liking it so much. The floor feeling like it was about to cave in was cool but the divider separating those drinking and those not drinking just made it feel like you were packed in.

BT: Right, I think the fact that it’s an actual dance ballroom has something to do with the floor moving like that, something to do with the springs. But the dividing thing, yeah, they do that in Washington state too, it’s so annoying. Essentially if it’s all ages I guess that’s what they have to do but I think just putting an “X” on your hand is usually a pretty decent system. But Portland is a great city and it seems there are so many good bands coming out of there for the size of it.

nql: What were you looking to do differently when recording Grand Animals versus 2005’s Tree City?

BT: I think just the songs were a bit more complex. A lot of songs on the last record were just verse/chorus, verse/chorus and these had changes, two of them had key changes which was pretty exciting. And we did some stuff on the first record where we had some outside instruments, you know, non guitar, non bass instruments and we wanted to do more of that but not have the production be so modern rock sounding. We wanted to make a record that sounded more 70s, like a Randy Newman record, just something that is really calm.

nql: Tell me about the decision to hook up with Italian film composer Danielle Luppi (Gnarls Barkley, John Legend) as a producer.

BT: He put out a record of his own. I think he’s from Venice but he went to Rome and found these guys in this band called the Mark Four who are the studio band for all the Spaghetti Westerns. And he’s the engineer that recorded all those tracks and essentially played the songs. And I think their organ player passed away so he began to fill in and play the organ with them. But he put out a really cool record.

nql: And you’re pretty happy with the work he did on Grand Animals?

BT: Yeah, he mostly does film scores so we were trying to get some lofty ideas about arrangements and we figured he would really be into doing that, but he was more about kind of just recording us as a band and not dealing with bringing in too many outside folks.

nql: Was the trombone in the song “Guard at Your Heel” some of his influence?

BT: Well Morgan (King) can play a lot of brass and we sort of wanted to make that song like this drunken gypsy thing so we had a lot of ideas for it whether it be trombone or organ or accordion so we just put a lot of crap on there and then he helped do a lot of deductive mixing and stripping stuff back a little bit.

nql: I want to talk about the song “The Ramp”. The first time I heard it I thought it was such a beautiful song and it wasn’t until the third or fourth listen that I noticed something really interesting going on with the lyrics.

BT: Well yeah, the melody is just a c-measure scale which is essentially the easiest thing, and I had the melody and I sort of had a couple lines but I thought it was fitting because it was about a kid and it’s kind of sad but I still like the perspective of it even though it’s coming from a dead kid. But at the end I had to lighten it up because I didn’t want it to be really sad and I thought that would sort of happen with the detachment of the parents and wondering why would this kid be interested in meeting Leo (Dicaprio). I really just thought it was funny even though I didn’t think anyone else in the band would like it mostly because it was so random and I had never really written anything like that before where it was just a narrative straight through and doesn’t go back and do the chorus or any other repeated lyrics.

nql: What is James Iha’s (co-owner of Scratchie records with Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne which is distributed by New Line Records) current involvement with the band?

BT: Well, he still runs and is still a part of Scratchie obviously but they pretty much stay away for the most part. They stick their head in when we’re at the end of the recording process which can be kind of annoying just because you’re so involved with certain people and then some dude you rarely talk to comes in and says “Oh, maybe you should put that song on the record.” And it’s like, where have you been? But no, no one is really that pushy.

nql: I don’t know if you ever read your Wikipedia page but I think there is some vandalism going on because your old bass player, Jeremy Philips, is listed as a “noted virgin”. Your response? And any suspects?

BT: (laughs) Oh my god, that is terrible! He actually lives in Chicago now with his girlfriend and he was supposed to come tonight but they’re both sick. But that’s crazy. Maybe one of his buddies did that. Noted virgin, that’s ridiculous. Although I’m pretty sure that’s not true.

nql: Any particular music you guys have been listening to in the van?

BT: I don’t know, I’ve been listening to XTC and Dukes of Stratosphere a bunch. Dukes of Stratosphere is essentially XTC and they did this psychedelic band side project thing and it’s awesome. Pending on whoever’s ipod gets plugged in, it’s always different. But at the same time being on the road for so long I know what each person will play. I know Mikey (Post) will play some totally obscure stuff like The Records or The Waterboys. He also got this record by this guy Michelangelo who’s this psyche-lunatic and I’m not even sure when it came out. Probably the 70s or maybe the early 80s but it’s crazy, the guy is just a complete madman. Other than that, people mostly just listen to their headphones.

nql: I’ve heard you mention the Kinks pretty frequently as an influence, can you elaborate on that at all.

BT: Well he’s (Ray Davies) one of my favorite songwriters and singers, his voice is so…I don’t know, he’s just such a lazy singer and so laid back which is something I try and do a little bit but his chord changes are really cool. I don’t think anyone can really put together records like he did, so detailed and based on certain things. I feel like The Who’s Tommy always gets dubbed, or Sgt. Peppers, as the first “concept” album but the concept is bunk you know? It’s just some stoner concept. Where something like Village Green or Arthur or even Muswell Hillbillies is just so much more cohesive. I’ll take any of those records over Sgt. Peppers (laughs).

nql: Speaking of Village Green, I love that album, but it seems to be one of those that I only put on when I’m in a good mood. There’s something about the music, sort of like Pet Sounds.

BT: Yeah, totally. But I find myself putting it on when I sort of want to get pepped up. I guess when I’m totally pissed it’s not a record I reach for, but it’s just so uplifting. Kind of like with Pet Sounds.

nql: Being a New Yorker, are you a Yankees or Mets fan?

BT: I’m a Mets’ fan so I’m a little in mourning after how they finished the season.

nql: Oh, that’s right! They had a sort of rough go of it at the end there.

BT: I don’t know what the hell happened. I mean they just went downhill in one of the worst slides ever. And I think (Willie) Randolph will be back as manager, they just need to…I don’t know, they have a bunch of old veterans who can take awhile to warm up. And the second to last game of the regular season, John Maine could have really turned around the season and ended the slide because he pitched a totally dominant shutout. And then Tommy Glavine just totally blew the last game which was terrible because had we won that game we would have been headed for the Playoffs.

nql: It just seemed really weird because all season the Mets had the best team in the National League and then all of a sudden the playoffs began and they were at home.

BT: Yeah, and they have all these veterans that are for the most part unreliable but when they’re in the playoffs are often really good. But then you have these young guys like Jose Reyes who one month would bat .310 and then the next .260 and it went on like that all year. But I don’t know, there just seems to be a bunch of young guys and old guys and it might be time for some new faces.

nql: I’ve always told people that it’s time for “party like a rock star” to take a back seat to “party like the ’86 Mets.”

BT: Yes! Those guys were fucking crazy. I don’t think any team ever did it the way they did.

nql: Had they not partied so much they probably could have closed out the 80s with a few more championships but at the same time their legacy is kind of built on being able to say not only did we kick everyone’s asses but we were partying at the same time.

BT: Do you remember when they performed that ridiculous song?

nql: No, was it like the Bears’ Superbowl Shuffle?

BT: Exactly. But it was even more cockier because they recorded it at the beginning of the season. I think in April or something.

nql: I never knew that. Please tell me Gary Carter was rapping.

BT: Oh yeah, him and HoJo (Howard Johnson). HoJo was rapping.

nql: Wow, HoJo is not a guy I have thought of in awhile. Where are you guys off to after tonight?

BT: We’re driving home. Straight to New York, through the night. We’ll take some shifts driving, get to New York around noon at which point most people will be back to being somewhat coherent, but it will just be good to be home.


Matt said...
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