The Pains of Being in a Band After Age 30

Radical Dads jammin on some 'za down at the Y

Radical Dads jammin on some ‘za down at the Y

“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.

The Welcome Contradictions of Ella “Lorde” Yelich-O’Connor + U.S. Debut Concert

LORDE1

 

The other day, a friend of mine who recently moved to New York from Salt Lake City was lamenting the collective fashion sense of her Williamsburg brethren. Back home, she explained, you could automatically tell who was alternative and who was a square, based simply on the way they were dressed. In New York, it’s different. “Everything’s blended together,” she said. “There’s no way to tell who’s mainstream and who’s not.”
 
All due respect to my friend, there are still plenty of freaks walking around in NYC. But her observation is useful in evaluating the output of a new crop of indie singers, who, as Steven Hyden noted over at Grantland, don’t sound all that alternative. Like the kids in Brooklyn that my friend can’t figure out, these artists are mixing signals in a way that makes them hard to decipher and emblematic of a shape-shifting generation.
 
One of the best and poppiest new acts toeing that line is Lorde, a 16-year-old Kiwi with a voice like Lana Del Rey and an attitude far more interesting. Where Del Rey seems content to be a poster-girl for an industry-stamped combination of vintage style and vague, fashionable angst, Ella “Lorde” Yelich-O’Connor is more difficult to pin down, and is, as a result, a lot more fun.

The first single from her new album Pure Heroine is a good example. “Royals,” seems at first to be a straightforward song, with the same anti-consumption attitude that has powered recent radio hits (“Thrift Shop”) and avant-garde outbursts (“New Slaves,”) alike. But the song is knottier than it first appears.
 
For one thing, similar to Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank),” it’s got the potential to sound like a celebration of the very things it purports to reject. The song’s catchy, elongated bridge: “gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom, bloodstains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room” etc. will no doubt lead some epic party sing-alongs. And those signifiers’ placement within the song guarantee that they’ll be celebrated with the fervor that Lorde is initially denying them.
 
Then there’s the chorus, where things get really tricky, as it operates on a distinction between being a “royal”–someone with money–and “ruling,” which, apparently means simply being awesome, a trickier aspiration that’s less easy to assume simply by making some money.
 
This is fascinating stuff, which contains an undercurrent of political thought that has (for the most part) been missing from mainstream pop since rap found shiny suits. The difference is that there’s no confusion here about “serious” music–Pure Heroine makes it clear that pop songs are as useful as vehicles for in-depth ideas as any banjo-powered protest jam.
 
The album is chock full of moments of genuine rebellion–a spark that can’t be consistently found in any one genre of music anymore. “Buzzcut Season” opens with a line delivered innocuously enough: “I remember when your head caught flame.” The story goes on to detail a genuine devil-may-care reaction to an unintentional hairstyle change–a rebellion more difficult to signify than the simple mention of molly in an otherwise perfectly bland anthem-by-numbers. But at the same time, the song is pure pop, with girl-group cooing, another of those head-grabbing bridges, and talk of “explosions on TV” and other recognizable symbols of pop bombast.
 
Lorde – Webster Hall – 9/30/13
 
Better Than: Whatever the hell I was doing at 16.
 
Lorde has a darkness about her. Around 9:30 p.m, she slinked on a fairly dark stage that never let itself become much more brightly lit than moments of off-center spotlight grazing her dancing along to the beats of her songs. In all black herself, Lorde’s stage presence is as much an antithesis to pop as her lyrics are. But beneath her Wednesday Addams exterior and pouting lyrics that serve as the linguistic equivalent of giving a one shoulder shrug, the rapidly rising New Zealand native is beginning to cast a pop star mold for herself that’s as refreshingly moody as it is addicting.
 
In her contrarian pop way, Lorde is still very obviously cultivating her own presence on stage. It’s charming and relatable the way she moves to her own tunes by jerkingly hunching her body over her microphone in time to the drums while her fingers pet the air in front of her like a cat. She looks natural, unchoreographed, and less apathetic than her music would make one assume. Much like her audience, Lorde couldn’t help but get lost in the lush beats and sound of her debut album Pure Heroine. Its songs sound even more captivating live.
 
With only the new album and a short EP The Love Club under her belt, Lorde’s setlist was understandably short. Beginning with “Bravado,” a gothic electro-pop ballad from her EP, she sang how she wants “the applause, the approval” before becoming the hearty recipient of both from the packed audience. The repetitive but hauntingly doom-beat driven “Biting Down” followed and brought out the debut of her most intense incarnation of her clawing and hunching drum dance.
 
Single “Tennis Court” arrived early in the set and delivered the night’s sweetest moment when the audience warmly and enthusiastically cheered right after Lorde sang “pretty soon I’ll be getting on my first plane.” The applause felt sincere as the singer continued on without missing a note. Even sweeter was her crooning, swooning cover of The Replacements’ “Swingin Party” which gave her an opportunity to really show off her rich voice in all its glory. The Replacements weren’t the only artist Lorde covered during the night, however, and her version of “Hold My Liquor” from Kanye West’s summer smash Yeezus was a particular delight as it slipped in and out of her setlist with a surprising amount of ease.
 
Naturally, before the night ended, Lorde had to include “Royals.” Being the opposition to modern pop luxury, hence her reign on the Alternative Charts, she chose to not make her biggest song the bookend to her concert and completely skipped an encore despite the crowd lingering for an abnormal amount of post-concert time. Non-closer “Royals” elicited a massive sing-a-long without Lorde having to do the gimmicky microphone-towards-the-audience trick. Afterwards, she blazed through her final tracks, including a glimmering performance of “A World Alone” at the end. With that, Lorde left the stage as mysteriously as she entered it before allowing the set to be illuminated brighter than it had been all evening.
 
USA DEBUT Lorde – A World Alone (live @ Le Poisson Rouge 8/6/13)