Royal Bangs have carved a niche with their brand of genre-defying kinetic rock but they’ve yet to conquer the radio. The band released their fourth album, Brass, in September and are highly touted by Black Keys drummer/producer Patrick Carney. Even though mainstream success eludes the group, they still put out captivating songs — the band hits the road this fall in support of Crocodiles after playing gigs with Phoenix, Ra Ra Riot, and Portugal. The Man.
I talked to lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Schaefer about their latest record, their relationship with drummer/producer Patrick Carney, Knoxville, and the band’s dynamic.
Lucien Flores: Flux Outside and Let If Beep have a cool chaotic sound that I enjoy a lot but with Brass, there’s a more simplified and controlled sound. It’s a nice refreshing change to the band. What inspired the change? What was the process of recording the new album and what were you trying to bring into the studio?
Ryan Schaefer: I think that’s right. That was deliberate. Especially after the last album, I think we set out to make a certain kind of album. It was noisy, it was big and there were a lot of things going on and I feel like after we made that album, we all felt that we had gone as far as we could go in a direction and maybe it would be interesting to try to do something else. So, all of our other records, we basically had skeletal demos and then fleshed them out in the studio as we were recording them. …and then see if we could play them live later. This record was really all just about the songs. Everything was written out beforehand and we rehearsed it as a band and then tracked it almost live. There are overdubs of keyboards and vibraphone and all kinds of stuff like that, but mostly the core of all the songs the songs is a live performance, which is sort of different for us. It was fun to make. It was pretty relaxed. It was pretty laid back because we had all of our bases covered before we got into the studio. I’m sure the next record we make will probably go in a different direction but with this one we wanted to try and experiment and do things differently than we’ve done on any of our other records.
LF: You had Patrick Carney (of the Black Keys) producing you guys for this one, right?
RS: Yeah and that was a big part of it. That made it really fun too because we’ve been friends with Patrick for a long time but we’ve never actually got to work together. His label put out our first two records but we didn’t actually get to work in the studio together. He was always on tour or we were on tour. It was something we’ve wanted to do for a long time and it just so happened that our schedules lined up. He lives in Nashville now so we went and made the record in Nashville, which was cool because Nashville is only a couple of hours away from us but we never really spend any time there. So we were in Nashville for about a month making the record and it’s a cool town. There’s a lot going on there now. All around it was a good time. It was very laid back working with him. We’ve known each other for a while so it wasn’t hard to figure out how to talk to each other. It was pretty relaxed.
LF: I want to talk about being in Knoxville and coming out of that music scene. Do you prefer coming out of a music scene like Knoxville, which makes you one of the more popular bands of the area and gives that communal support? How do you prefer that to being just another band out of New York or LA?
RS: Well we’ve never lived in either of those places so it’s hard to say what it would be like to be from there but I know what it feels like to go there. We’ve always had really good luck in both places. Chicago, New York, LA, Austin…we’ve always had good shows there. We’ve stayed here as long as we have because, honestly, it’s just economics. It’s so cheap to live here and to have a studio. We make a music video this past weekend where we built sets and stuff for nothing. It’s like you can do whatever you want here. The cost of living is low enough that you can go on tour for a while and not worry about it and take time to set up a studio and record stuff on our own. There are definite tradeoffs to living in a place like this. If we were to live in New York, there’s the cultural aspect of it that you can’t get anywhere else for sure. There’s a certain freedom that comes with living in a place like this where money isn’t as big as a concern. For instance, there’s a couple of arts spaces and venues here where it’s just not a big deal if you want to go try out some new songs. I built a lighting system for the band recently and we just wanted to have a night where we just go try it out. I just called up our friend who runs [a venue] here and just scheduled a show the day of. We spend so much time traveling anyway. We’re in New York all the time. We like traveling and I think it’s nice to come home to some place where it’s not super stressful when we can go visit those places as often as we want. I think it’s a good thing. It seems like people are always surprised when we say we’re from Knoxville but there’s more going on here than you would think at least in terms of music. There are a lot of cool bands here, a lot of people making interesting music. I think that’s why we stay here as long as we have. We’ve played around with moving at different points in the past but it’s a nice place when you spend all your time traveling, it’s a nice place to have as a home base.
LF: You, Sam, and Chris started playing music together in high school. I’m wondering how the creative process has changed because back in high school, it’s a little different playing music together compared to now. What has stayed the same and what has changed?
RS: I think when you play together for that long and spend that much time together, it’s not even just playing music together, it’s just spending that much time together, we’ve listened to so many records together or seen movies or read the same books, or whatever, we all have so many cultural reference points in common and shared experiences. I think after that long of a time, you just develop shorthand for expressing ideas so it’s really easy to communicate things. I think the difference is that when you’re in high school you’re still trying to figure out what kind of music you want to make or what kind of sound. When it comes to high school, you’re figuring a lot of things out and very early on, I feel like…we’d discover some new thing and then we’d be like, ‘oh, we want to do this’ and we bounced around a lot for a really long time. Then by the time we made our first record as Royal Bangs, we kind of had some idea of what we wanted to do. There’s a lot of jumping around still but I think the longer we’ve been together, it’s less like ‘let’s make something in the style of this.’ We never really have those types of conversations anymore. It’s easier to talk about ideas and to understand where the other person is coming from and so I think it gets easier to make stuff that is actually creative.
LF: You’re not a trio anymore after Dylan recently joined the band. How did he come to join you guys?
RS: He’s from South Carolina and he always played music on his own… He was looking for a change of scenery and wanted to move somewhere and knew some mutual friends of ours that played music here and ended up moving to Knoxville. We had been doing the three-piece thing for a while and we were really trying to add somebody to the band that could cover bass and keyboards but we just couldn’t find anybody that could do all of the things that we wanted to do or that we felt would be a good fit so we continued the three-piece thing for a long time. Dylan just kind of showed up one day. He had moved here and we met him through these mutual friends and it was immediate when he started playing with us. That’s the amazing thing, we talked about that musical shorthand that we developed, and he’s a couple years younger than us but seems to know all the same records and quickly fell right into that stuff and there was very little catch-up, which was pretty unusual. I think anybody else, there would have to be a period of catching them up. First they would have to learn all the songs and then they would have to learn the way you get in and out of songs and the transitions and there was none of that. He basically listened to the record, showed up, and got what we were going for. He plays very similarly to the way that we do, so it was really easy to relate on a bunch of different levels. It’s been great. The shows are so much more fun to play now. The three-piece thing was an interesting experiment for a little while but it’s definitely a lot more fun for us now. It’s a little looser and we’re not as tied down to the computer and technology quite so much.
LF: The album cover is quite interesting. Was that taken the same day as the “Better Run” shoot? What’s the story behind the cover.
Well the album cover was actually our friend Eric that was shot from a couple different angles so it’s him twice on the front. That was a couple of months before the music video then when it came time to make a music video, we had a different friend of ours, Josh. It was kind of a last minute thing, he was going to be in the rest of the video and the director [Brandon Langley] had an idea at the last minute to go back to the same place as we shot the album cover and then basically recreate it with Josh. So it’s not actually the same person but it was shot in the same place.
LF: I imagine you’re going to go on the road somewhat soon. How do you guys stay entertained and relax when you’re playing so many shows in so many cities?
RS: I don’t get super stressed out about going on tour. I like going on tour but I think that there’s usually one or two shows that we all kind of try to watch together. So when we’re on tour, it’s usually Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones or whatever seems to be going on at that time that we all try to watch together and catch up on. There’s definitely been times when we have a drive day and we have chosen where to stay based on whether we could get there one time to watch Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. I feel it’s nice to have that kind of interaction…that super heavy involved with shows when you’re on tour for a really long time. It seems like that’s a good time. It’s a pretty deep distraction.
LF: How is your relationship with Modern Art Records? How have they helped you with this record? Have you had a lot of freedom to do essentially what you’ve wanted?
RS: It’s great. It’s been really nice so far. They do exactly what we had hoped a record label would be able to do for us. They give us the resources, budgets, and stuff to make music videos. We like to do it where we don’t ask for a ton of money but we also have complete creative control over it. That last music video, we made it here in Knoxville with our friends [“Better Run”]. We made an album and gave it to them. We made [a music video for “Octagon”] that’s going to be really awesome…and they just trust us. We don’t ask for a crazy amount of money. We just ask for enough to cover our own expenses and then we’ll do a good job, we’ll work hard and then everybody is going to be happy. So far it’s been working really well. I think it’s the best way that it can work at this point. You work with somebody that you trust and nobody goes crazy on spending half a million dollars on a music video and expect something insane to happen. I think with this kind of relationship, it’s much easier to be creative and do the things you actually want to do. So far it’s been great, it’s been really fun.