“You don’t really start a band in your 30s,” Radical Dads’ Robbie Guertin says. “Well, you do, but the motivations are different.” Guertin knows what he’s talking about. A veteran of mid ’00s powerhouse Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, he’s recently started focusing on his other project, Radical Dads. Guering and his bandmates Lindsay Baker and Chris Diken are all in their mid-30s, all married, all facing down life changes like children, home ownership, and big career moves. Somehow, they all find time to practice and play in one of Brooklyn’s most exciting rock bands. Why exactly is it worth all the trouble?
It’s Friday night, and Guertin is throwing together a little dinner at his rent-stabilized Williamsburg apartment. “Sorry, but I forgot to eat earlier,” he says, standing above a sizzling pan of chard, rice, and onions. “We found this new farmer’s market and got a bunch of food, but totally forgot that we’re going out of town this weekend. Do you want anything?”
NPR is playing in the background, his wife’s old marathon bib from Wisconsin is pinned to the fridge with a magnet, and his old artist lanyards from his time in Clap are stuck to the kitchen cabinets; it’s a textbook scene of early 30s bliss. Guertin was in that band–one of the first indie buzzbands, one of the first to release their record by themselves over the internet, and one of the first to generally point the way to today’s fractured music business landscape–from virtually the beginning until last year, when he quit. Now, he’s waiting for his wife to finish her PhD in Sociology before they probably-but-not-definitely move out of the city for her to start her career as a professor.
Clap released its self-titled first record when Guertin was 26, in 2005. They were a phenomenon, playing television, touring the world, selling their album on their own. David Bowie was reportedly a fan. Yet Guertin still looks back and wonders if they could have done more, become more successful. “It’s never really been about money,” he says. “It’s just fun to advance, to make more people psyched about it.” When you start out at the top, though, it’s hard to advance. According to Soundscan estimates, the band’s second record sold close to a third of as many copies as their debut. Their eventual follow-up, 2011’s Hysterical, did even worse. Some of that had to do with the bottom falling out of the industry, but that didn’t make the numbers go down any easier.
All the while, Guertin, Diken, and Baker were working on Radical Dads. “I was having more and more fun doing this than I was in Clap Your Hands,” says Diken. It shows in the music. While Clap seemed caught trying to catch up to its audience, trying on new sounds in attempt to recreate their early success, Radical Dads have an easy vibe. Guertin laughs when I describe Radical Dads’ as loud, guitary, melodic noise “90s-style college rock,” as he met his bandmates at college in the 1990s. “We’re just doing the same thing we were doing, I guess,” he says. Today, all the bandmates live in the same building. Diken and Baker are married to each other.
Their influences include Dinosaur, Jr. and Yo La Tengo, and you can feel the pull of the classical period of guitar noise in other ways when you listen to them. “I’ve named so many different songs ‘The Sonic Youth Song’ while I’m writing them that I lost count,” says Baker. Diken’s AOL screen name was Pixies1.
Radical Dads – Serious Business on BTR [ep129]
Its members obviously feel extremely comfortable with each other and the music they’re playing. They’re also lucky in that their audience has caught up to them, with their style of fuzzy, backwards-looking alternative rock recently back in style. Still, getting to the next step seems difficult to them.
Part of the problem is not having the great asset of a band in their early 20s: a large group of friends who will come to anything you do. “In the early days of Clap, all of our friends who lived here would come to every show. I wasn’t even in the band for the first few shows, and I went to every show. Any friend who was in a band, you’d go to their show, and you’d know half the people there.” This isn’t the case any more. Guertin can barely get his own wife to come out. She’s started getting up early to do school work, and “After lunch, basically, she’s done for the day,” he said. “She wants to take a nap.”
Schedules are a larger issue. Baker is a teacher, and Diken works at a tech company. They practice after work, and tour in the summer when Baker is off of school, but can’t do much touring otherwise. “Every year,” Guertin said, “Lindsay’s like ‘maybe I’ll take a year off next year, and really do it and Matador will sign us.’ Now it’s like, OK, that’s probably not going to happen.”
So, the inevitable question: is the band just a hobby?
“That’s kind of how we justify a lot of the money we spend on it,” Guerkin says. “It’s like, ‘If this was just our hobby,'” meaning something like gardening or restoring cars, “‘then it would be totally okay to spend this much money on it.'” The idea, though, is that it’s not a hobby. It’s better than a hobby. It’s their band.
“I don’t know what I want,” said Guertin. “I just sort of want people to realize how good it is.”
Radical Dads played October 2, at 285 Kent, NYC.