By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Royal Bangs frontman Ryan Schaefer once expressed his bewilderment that any artist would want to plant themselves in the middle of an already well-defined genre and regurgitate music that's already been made. It's not a novel observation, but it's definitely emblematic of the Knoxville combo's difficult-to-pigeonhole sound.
Their two albums—2008's We Breed Champions and 2009's Let It Beep—bristle with a spiky, clackety, hard-boogieing blend of electro, glam and classic- and indie-rock influences. Sputtering beats stomp careening synth samples cooking on greasy rock bass lines and spunky slashes of guitar. Schaefer's adenoidal croon manages a certain swagger despite his confessed geekiness and self-consciousness—it's like Devo coming out of an LCD Soundsystem.
Some songs, like "Shit Xmas," bubble with catchy garage-pop abandon. Others, like "Waking Up Weird," wind bouncy new wave synths around clattering percussion that erupts in grimy guitar around the middle like an outbreak of acne. Their pop-smart pastiche receives a boost on their forthcoming, still unnamed third album from a kindred spirit in David Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse). Schaefer admits to idolizing his work and nearly freaking out when they mixed the album with him.
"It was a total nerd dream for us. He was a huge influence because we used to always record our own stuff," Schaefer says, explaining how hearing the Flaming Lips in Batman Forever sparked his fascination with music. "After that, I borrowed my mom's karaoke machine and started recording little pieces myself. With that in mind, it was awesome to mix with Dave, though I felt a little embarrassed telling him that right off."
Fridmann's assistance may explain why Schaefer reports the album's louder and even denser after losing two members. Though they've been a five-piece practically since they started performing, the core of the band is the trio of Schaefer, drummer Chris Rusk and guitarist Sam Stratton, who went to high school together. When Brandon Biondo left to concentrate on his other band, Cool Runnings, and bassist Henry Gibson decided he might not be cut out for life on the road, they played a few shows as a trio and chose to stick with it.
"We sort of grew up playing music together," Schaefer says. "It's really easy for the three of us to communicate, translate ideas and make stuff really quickly, especially in terms of writing this record. Just less people to explain things to."
But there's definitely been a period of adapting. For one, they've had to make some technological adjustments. Mostly it was a matter of rejiggering the balance so they controlled the equipment instead of vice versa.
"Even when there were five of us, a lot of it sounded like it was coming out of a laptop, so we're trying to be smarter about the way that we use it so it's a little more natural, but also is not too limiting," he explains. "About a year ago, we realized we're doing everything to make sure that we can like synch up with the computer. Well, hold on a second, the computer should follow us. So we've been kind of building things to get around that and not be held up so much by technology and not have to think about it so much. To make it more like playing in a band than working at a computer store."
They're expecting good things for the new album on their new label, Glassnote, especially after a year with well-remarked live performances at Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and CMJ. But as Schaefer explains, they've already exceeded their expectations.
"We realized worst-case scenario, you're in a van with your best friends," he says. "So it can't be any worse than hanging out at your friend's house."