A conversation The Thin Air’s Stevie Lennox had with Chris Ryan that delves further into Robocobra Quartet’s process, including authorship, membership of the band, the philosophy of creativity or ‘good art’, punk rock, some stories regarding how the lyrical content of the album came about, as well as a little ‘Phil Collins in-the-studio’ self-indulgence.
Photos by Ruth Kelly
Art is defined by those who have achieved autarky in their process, and if drummer, vocalist, composer and producer Chris Ryan is the brain and beating heart of the idiosyncratic avant-punk collective Robocobra Quartet, he’s fully aware the remaining organs and limbs are necessary for full functionality. With their debut album, Music For All Occasions, he’s put himself through a lot to get to this point.
With 9 songs clocking in at 25:30, the LP is a short, yet broad in scope, genre-defying album that seamlessly veers from Dischord-recalling minimal post-hardcore jazz to spoken word-based musique concrete. It credits 13 contributors, ranging from assistant engineering, to oscillators, to the extensive brass section – so how were vision and membership kept in check, let alone distilled into a concise artistic statement, avoiding many of the possible pitfalls of D.I.Y. music? How does the management of such a large group work?
It feels weird to formalise it, but your intuition is right – trust yourself, baby.
A lot of the time it’s the result of thinking about it and the actual doing it is quite simple. You think a lot about a song or a record, or not even creative outlets, you think a lot about a tour or how you’re going to do press or something, or you think about how it’s going to be recorded, and the actual process of recording it takes a minute. And as a result, a lot of what happens with this band comes from thinking about things a lot, and then it’s like ‘Who’s available to do the thing?’ And in some cases, a lot of things come about, whether it’s an idea for a video, microphone choice or a song, it ultimately coalesces into the band.
For that reason, you could say that some people are more a part of the band. For instance, Chris Brazier does sound for us, he’s been there for almost every recording session we’ve done recently, and will suggest ideas for the band. He’s never played on anything, but he’s such a significant part of the band and excellent moral support. Maybe Tom Tabori plays sax, but he’s a busy man, maybe he’s not around for much of the preamble. He’s a massive part of the aural experience, but the number of hours he clocks in is significantly less. For that reason, it makes sense to just have things super-open, and because it’s getting more open, I find a huge value in ownership. Some lyrics are from conversations I’ve had with people, so maybe they should get credit because they’ve had a significant input on the process.
It’s fucking management, that’s the bones of it. For me, I want to be surrounded by people who are like “this is my shit” because they perform better. If that’s not the case, the other framework is like you’re a session dude that’s come in, like when Thibault or Tom play, I can tell the difference sometimes between whether they play melody I’ve written for sax and melodies they’ve improvised or come up with, and there’s a different level of vigour. In some cases, people doing the session thing suits, but in some cases if you want something that sounds raw, and sounds unbridled, you have to let that person create the energy that makes that. You can’t be like ‘here’s exactly how you should play’.
For example, I’ve learned more about how to write for Nathan, because you’re not writing for instruments, you’re writing for people; he’s a great player but there was a tune on a bass 6, and I had a different rhythmic idea, and a different level of attack and so much was different, and when he played it in the exact format that I wanted him to play it, it sounded shit, because he wasn’t putting any energy into it because he was thinking about it – it wasn’t his.
Some people are oscillators. Nathan’s an oscillator, he’ll just be playing a bassline and just messing around, and I’m like ‘Those 5 seconds sound awesome, now what if we play that but skip the first beat’ and it becomes music even though he’s just fucking around. Sometimes you have someone who does that – you can make other things your generators.
It’s like Messiaen being in the park listening to birds and writing music from hearing it – birds wrote that, basically. Maybe Messiaen should’ve registered birds on PRS for royalties. I think it’s really cool when you watch a band and it’s the same four dudes, say Fugazi, and if one of those four guys wasn’t there, they wouldn’t play, you know? That’s a really cool idea as well, it’s just a different thing. For us it just makes sense to adapt.
It’s like the improvisation thing – ok, improvisation occurs in music, but it also occurs like, “Oh, this person isn’t able to play a show, so someone else comes” or, “this person’s not here for this thing, so let’s try something out”. Not even people, it’s like, something happens and you adapt. Improvisation in all senses, so I think it helps for sure.
It makes sense in the way that you can add and substract, without losing any of the band’s structural integrity – it’s the classic “90% of life is being there”, 90% of being in the band is just being in the room to play, or record to let that particular energy or chemistry happen.
You’re better just to jump in and make the approach, and just adapt, and see what happens, because maybe it’s going to come out with something subpar, but at least it’s something that actually happened. All that thinking takes all the time and it’s super helpful but there’s no fruition until the thing gets done. Sometimes it just makes sense to throw things at the wall and try it. It’s like when you’re playing music, and someone starts playing drums. If everyone’s just thinking about the drums, you get silence. Einstein talks about thought experiments and stuff, and it definitely helps, and that ties into considering things, so just the idea of ‘Be Considerate’. A lot of the time, especially in music, the actual reality of it should just kind of happen.
Are the intentions pointless? Is the only thing that matters the end result?
Well, I think you just don’t have control over the intentions. I mean, the intentions are so important, but like, the reality is that you have the context and the abstract, and the context is where you know what you’re writing about and you’ve been recording it and you know you were in this state of mind. But the reality – and all you can deal with is the reality – is just this standalone thing, the product or whatever. So I think the other stuff’s important, but if you really look at it, people aren’t going to be looking at the process, but they’ll look at the result.
Does it ever bother you that you might be misinterpreted?
You can’t curate your audience. I feel with music, or at least the reality of which is creating sounds that turn into mp3s or wav files, or Vorbis or vinyl or whatever. You owe it to yourself to put equal effort into the right brain stuff as the left brain stuff, you owe your left brain that much: to light a fire under it. We’re doing a PR campaign for this shit, right? So one part of it is sending stuff out to reviewers and some stuff came back, and some stuff came back – you know Prog magazine? They’re gonna review the record! Someone from Kerrang! might be doing it.
Funnily enough, when I first saw Robocobra live, I thought I could hear elements of prog coming through – King Crimson, Red-era especially.
I’ve never even listened to King Crimson, but my initial reaction was: “Prog magazine? Put us in the Quietus, come on!” But do you know what I mean? It’s not up to me. As soon as I put that thing out there, I have no say on it. I can do my best to curate my audience, but the only thing you can do is say “Sure, if Kerrang! want to fucking put us next to an Enter Shikari record, or maybe put us in a very small corner of a review with the Shikari record, then cool.” So, long way round, to answer your previous question, no, it doesn’t really bother me. I’ve definitely misunderstood bands before.
The most you can ultimately do is to make your music as widely available to people as possible.
That’s it. I’m not going to do a late Black Flag record like The Process of Weeding Out. You can do whatever you want. I’ve certainly heard lyrics wrong and thought “That’s my favourite song ever”, then when I’ve heard the right lyrics, I’m like “Eh, I don’t really like that song anymore.” So, in actuality, getting it wrong is fine. A lot of the time, mistakes are really creative, so even if they’re mistaken, even if I think they’re wrong in how they’re perceiving the music, it’s not my job to say, that’s not for me, so eh, doesn’t bother me. I think it’s cool actually.
It can often be a huge hurdle to actually put a stamp on music you’ve written sometimes, and you can end up with tonnes of unfinished material because of fear of how it’ll be perceived, or just general doubt about the quality.
It’s so defeating, and you what it is? It’s self-defeating, and I fall onto it as well, all the time. But it’s like, a thousand unfinished songs: you’re getting the satisfaction from the process but nothing’s happened. If it’s all in your head, where’s the tangible thing?
Because I’m so firmly framed in reality, a lot of the time I’ll write music and am kind of not even thinking about how we’ll do it live, I’m just writing, but I’m so fucking framed in reality that I realise that no, this is very real and I’m writing for people who I know will be able to play the instrument, writing within ranges of the instrument that I know will work, and I know what room we’re going to record that in, so even though I think I’m out pushing the boundaries, it’s just real. So for me, things just have to be there.
That sounds like a creative blessing.
No. You know what it is, is that I have no imagination; I honestly don’t. Like, I just try things a lot and that looks and tastes like that imaginative, creative process, but I’m just attempting numerous things and then I choose one of them in terms of composition.
There are some references to conversations you’ve had in the lyrics, particularly in ‘Correct’: “You’ve got the look of someone who’s got the world figured out”. I’m sure many of us have heard that outward assessment about themselves, when it’s not necessarily the case inside.
You’re going to find me quoting my own lyrics, and it’s not because I quote my own lyrics, but it’s because it’s just my lyrics are just me talking, so I’m sorry for that.
My brother said that to me. “You got the world figured out”, like, do you know what it is? It’s a viewpoint of people who deal in absolutes. It’s the exact same thing, “Well, when the band makes it.” when people talk about like “well we just have to get there and everything’ll be fine. I just need a job and I’ll have enough money to live”. These sentences are not real. Your band doesn’t make it and then you’re sorted. Your band plays a pretty big show, maybe makes some money. Then a few months later, your booking agent might not get you a good show, and after that, the record makes a lot of sales, but it doesn’t ‘break’…
The world is changing, all the time. There’s no endgame, so it’s the same thing, when you see someone and they got their life sorted out. Fuckin’ Lars Ulrich in his gold bathtub. So it’s exactly that thing about absolutes you’re talking about. Maybe today I’m feeling pretty good, and today I do what I need to do, today I don’t need to work so I eat nice food, y’know? So today, I got the world figured out, but only for me. But maybe next week I fucking won’t, and that’s the world. Everything changes, even really good awesome things will also change. You know that phrase, “this too will pass”, you know? Everything will pass, all the good shit, all the bad shit, everything’s gonna fucking go, and there’ll be new good shit and new bad shit. The world is dynamic.
On the note of conversations and authorship – I’ve written a few things based on chance lines from conversations too, but it’s impressive how ideas like that take seed, just from a throwaway line.
It’s like when you remember really specific things about people or places or times, and they have no idea that’s like a headline for you. So I think it’s a cool thing. But that’s creativity too, and the memory is so prone to chance, and they’re probably making mistakes. Meaning, and intention is so important, but really, it has no tangible…
Midway through the conversation, the cat in the room throws up
Do you think he heard us talking about our music and just went ‘You guys make me sick?’
… but the thing is, sometimes, people latch onto different things, so you can’t curate your audience, and how people are gonna take your words, you know?
It’s the Stewart Lee thing, where sometimes you do need to contextualise something – not to justify racist statements, obviously, but some level of framing device is needed if you’re speaking esoterically. Maybe I’d be writing lyrics, and have about 5% of it is the message, but to get there, there’s 95% framing and contextualising, or storytelling.
I get this thing where, sometimes my memory is a little poor, and I forget things and I forget how I felt about something or thought about something. I think you maybe do the same thing where the lyrics are like… You’re not like ‘Hm, I’m just gonna write something now’, you’re writing down the thing that you’re feeling. Sometimes, you come back to songs and you think “Oh yeah, I remember how I felt about that thing” and it’s kind of comforting to know that you were able to express yourself. Because we’re all changing constantly and sometimes you don’t feel like yourself and it’s kind of nice to have an artefact where you’re like “that’s me.” “That’s me and I’m still consistent, or that’s me but I’ve changed a lot”, sometimes you don’t even recognise it, but in some cases it’s just nice to have – it comes back to the reality or physical artifacts. It’s kind of nice to have signposts of little permanent things that were the way you’ve felt. I guess songs are that and other things like if you keep a diary, it’s kind of nice. It’s like a yearbook or something.
It’s interesting when you take a step back and look at what you’ve made, and sometimes you have it with an objective feeling and sometimes a little subjective. Sometimes concepts happen in reverse, and you’ll realise the shape that things are making. Ok, that song’s about this, and then you might add the watercress on top, or crème fraische and that is what it is. It’s a process of ‘what am I talking about? Why am I saying these words?’ and you’ll realise that ‘oh, it’s about this’.
I’ve definitely went back to listen my own music and realised I’ve accidentally made links between first and last verses with some words. It probably comes from some subconscious idea that’s always there.
Yeah, I realised this whole record, I talk a lot about days and weeks and months and years, and it’s all about time and shit. I didn’t realise until I came back, that I had that.
It’s interesting that you mentioned listening back to your music. It’s often a topic where some people say ‘I never listen back to my songs’ or ‘I only listen to my music’, but I have this weird relationship with it, being a producer/recording engineer, there’s a songwriting element, and maybe if you’re just ‘the band’ the song is there, but the way it’s presented is someone else’s doing, but obviously because it’s self-produced, I’m always thinking of how that sounds, or maybe how it works in terms of my skill as an engineer. So, as a result, I listen back to my music only really to reference against other songs.
I get that ‘I was better a year ago’ but I go back to something from then and hopefully say ‘oh ok, my standards have just gotten better, or it’s coming more naturally now’
Ha! I don’t really get that with the writing, I only get that with the sound. Like, I’ll listen to a record and think it sounds amazing, then I’ll listen to our record and listen to some of our stuff afterwards and go “hmm…could’ve taken a little bit less 200Hz there, that snare drum is far too dry”.
No-one’s going to notice anyway.
But that’s the thing, because I’m the drummer but I also record it, book stuff, tour manage – it all is just one thing, so you know if there’s a little bit of top end, or it needs more, I’ll just hit the cymbal a bit harder instead of adding 2k in recording. Or maybe there should be a sax part that plays in the upper register to get that top end, so there’s actually equal weight in terms of the toolkit of writing, it’s not just the chromatic scale of C to C, and octaves. That’s one of the tools to write, but also, equalisers or…
All these things inform the whole, just thinking about reality. Sometimes it’s more about a thought first, like ‘I really want the snare drum to be punky sounding’, then the actual melodic material just happens, but I’m thinking so much about that it should be towel on a snare, or like if the sax part needs to be recorded far away.
I’ll always write with how it’s going to be recorded in mind, for sure. I did some classes in orchestration and arrangement, and I learnt in terms of composition, you cannot compose music in the abstract. The world has all these parameters, like, you’re making a vinyl record, there’s only so many songs that can fit on it. When you get to the inner grooves, there’s a higher amount of distortion so top end needs to be thought about. If you’re making a bit of art, matte stock is gonna make things look darker. So, in the same way, you can’t just write a melody like ‘doot-de-doot-de-doot-de-do’ it’s a sax melody, and a saxophone in the lower register, or in some certain keys, sound out of tune. If you play a lower B on a saxophone, you hold all the keys down and the sound projects from somewhere else. These are all real things, and I’m thinking about all these things when I’m writing the thing, you know?
It’s kind of like musique concrete, the composition of the song is based in these realities, so all the time I’m thinking really far ahead. It’s not like the guitar will be like ‘do-de-do’ or bass like ‘do-de-do’. It’ll be specifically this timbre.
Do you write the bass parts, or does Nathan [Rodgers]? Bass anchors your sound very effectively, as well as the leading a lot of melodic and rhythmic content.
It’s 50/50. I think it’s all context, but the reason why the bass can sound so big is that there’s so much space for it to do that. It’s the same thing I’m talking about here, where bands are like ‘these are the sounds, this is the song, let’s let the sound guy work it out’. For me, the writing has a direct impact on when the guy is at the sound desk trying to notch out the EQ. If you have a song that doesn’t play on the lower strings on the bass, then it’s not gonna sound heavy, and if you want it to sound heavy, you gotta play something down there.
Sometimes, it’s just considering the entire world and reality. If you can make things sound really good in practice or writing, onstage it’s 10 times easier to come across, because you’ve mixed yourself. Not only in how you’re listening, but you’ve mixed yourself in the writing. It’s like that age old thing where you have a singer in a certain register, it’ll be a really quiet, nude vocal which needs an instrumental in sympathy to it. But sometimes you get bands with a really low, quiet vocal and a really loud band. It’s like, you’re not making music in sympathy – unless your idea is to subvert that thing. More often than not, you haven’t thought about it, you’ve just plugged your guitar in and let someone else think about it and they’ll sort it out. So, for me, I never just think ‘oh I’ll just let someone else do it’. And sometimes it’s damaging, but I just think ‘how does this all work’, you know?
So, when you say you want something to sound ‘this’ kind of way, then let’s just do that in the genesis, I guess.
You need to take something down a notch every so often to give that light and shade. The Fall, for example, will have Mark E. Smith ranting incoherently for several minutes before stopping to actually sing a line like “I’ve never felt better in my life” – even just throwing in a strong evocative word can make such a huge difference.
That’s the thing, you take something down a notch, then it’s the dynamic range thing. You need the troughs to make the peaks seem really big. And dynamics, that’s a very obvious thing in recording, but if you want the next bit to sound big, you play the bit before really quietly.
For me, everything is really cross-platform, so that idea of dynamic range, that makes sense to me in talking to an audience in a show. Before I say something I really want them to listen to, I’ll be really quiet before. That’s something I picked up off Stewart Lee, he’ll be like “I’m don’t…I’m not…saying that we do that” and you’re listening to “saying we do that” and dynamic range, all these things, they occur in life.
It’s the holding out that fucking wins sometimes. It’s hard to get yourself to do it, but it’s so good. It’s to do with dynamic as well, like, if you can trick an audience into thinking that ‘this is the way it is’, this is our steady state, then you add something, that’s when things become transcendental, next level shit. You became so lured into this band without lyrics, and then the words happen, it fucked you up.
There’s a line from Richard Dawson’s ‘The Vile Stuff’ that talks about someone who works in Halifax: “He reckons I should try meditation” – it sounds like it’s about a person who’s learned to control their neuroses and get on with life.
This is the thing! He’s gone to live in a Buddhist Monastery, it’s like the thesaurus thing, but he’s talking about Halifax the place, in the northeast of England! He’s aware that you can misconstrue it.
See, this is the thing where you’ve received the song wrong, but actually you’ve enjoyed it more because of it. So maybe Richard Dawson would be upset that you’ve misunderstood what he’s saying, but in actuality it’s better this way. So it’s the thing where do you get upset because someone might misunderstand it? No, because that has improved it greatly.
It’s the mistakes that are cool, for sure. I always try to do that when I’m recording bands as well, and sometimes people make mistakes and make something so special, and your inclination as a human being is to correct mistakes, but mistakes are fuckin’…
The fact, whatever the actual outcome was, my inclination is just to say ‘yep’. That person has thought about it more than me, so they win, and I love that, when in the studio there’s a real fucking “this is my thing, this is the way I’m doing my thing” when people have a voice. Sometimes, it’s just the medium that you’re using to express yourself.
I went to see Stars of the Lid recently, and that was a masterclass in restraint, just no words or conversation for over an hour of music, and waiting 15 minutes of ambience and gradual build before an audio-visual explosion that blew the audience away. That’s why I’m glad there are spoken word tracks with sparse accompaniment on the album. It breaks it up, hits you with some emotional heft before going back to your default state.
It’s the holding out that fucking wins sometimes. You became so lured into this band without lyrics, and then the words happen, it fucked you up. The reason it sounds so impressive is that your perception was that we’re at full now, and it’s actually that they were holding back and were at 80%. That is so cool and I appreciate so much being tricked by music like that. It’s like putting into this person into this sense of comfort and then subverting it. Like a song that has 4-5 minutes of stuff, going through it, and then the first word starts.
So yeah, the spoken word thing, this sounds kinda silly but I don’t want to think of those ones as non-songs – where do you draw the line at music? That kind thing, but I will cop to the fact that yes, it’s vocal with accompaniment when it’s normally the opposite.
There’s a lot of things we recorded with those vocals and there were a lot of things we got rid of. There were drums, brass parts, there was a lot going on on those 2 tracks we got rid of because it was like, ‘Are these servicing the vocals or are they masking it?’ and they were masking it, and those lyrics, when I’m writing, a bunch of songs occur at the same time and an idea’ll get pulled across and those lyrics had been in previous songs before but they hadn’t been conveyed correctly, like we talked about this thing where words have to be delivered appropriately, and I thought those words should’ve been delivered starkly.
All that stuff, all the songs was the idea of the bigger picture of stuff as well, like sequencing thought process, that stuff gets considered at the same time as when I was first writing the songs. The last lyric of one song is connected to the first lyric of the next song, so that’s what I’m talking about. I’m thinking about the vinyl distortion thing, I’m thinking about the flip of the A-side to B-side, I’m thinking about all the parameters when I’m writing because it just helps me to contextualise more.
I always thing of the Continuous Battle of Order thing, “We are all just pattern seekers”, because that’s exactly what humans are. Order is excellent, you know?
I think frameworks are so important, if for nothing than to then destroy them. If you have a melody, that’s your framework, let’s see how we can do this with sound. It’s the same thing as just doing something. You can always adjust things later, but I get the visual thing of just throwing paint at the canvas, and I don’t mean that in an artistic way, I just mean ‘put it out there, and then we can adjust it’. The paint’s still going to be wet, we can brush things around, it’s not gonna be dry just yet, but you gotta throw it out there, because otherwise it’s just a concept it’s not a thing.
It’s very important to leave that gap for spontaneity without forgetting there’s an end goal, for sure.
Weirdly enough, I started writing that way after like – I just like throwing myself into shit – I did this thing where people were looking for people who wanted to go to start their own business seminars. I don’t want to start my own business, I have no interest in that, but I was like ‘fuck it, I’ll go for it’. I went to it for months, and there were all these people who were like ‘I’m doing a startup’ or ‘I have this Etsy page’. All these people who had these aspirations. I don’t really have any feelings, but I went to it just to experience something, you know?
They were doing these clichéd team-building exercises, but one of them was coming up for ideas for business, and typically that’s not how my brain works, I’m not like “come up with an idea”. It was alien to me, so I thought OK, this is interesting, I’m going to listen to it. But I thought it was interesting how they approached it, because their art is commerce and making money, so their expression is business. They can sell chicken or bath balls, so coming up with the idea for what to sell doesn’t really matter, that’s not really how my brain works, but they were doing this brainstorming thing where someone comes up with an idea for anything, and someone would be like ‘cars with fridges in them’ and you don’t say ‘that’s stupid’ because that stops the flow, so someone else goes ‘but what about fridges that are on wheels’, ‘what about offices that need to deliver refreshments’ and eventually you come to this idea that’s credible, but had some stupid things in the first place. I thought it was so cool to hear someone do that, where they’re ok with their first step being a mistake.
When I heard that, that was a completely new way of thinking. And it’s not something I ever really think. I can’t just put my hand to something else, I can just put my hand to what I’m interested in doing, but these people are like ”what do we sell?” So it’s really interesting to see someone else’s take on life.
It’s the frameworks that make you creative, it’s the barriers that start you. If the first step’s a mistake, that’s fine because you made the first step. There’s that cool Matt Sweeney guitar moves thing, with St. Vincent where they’re talking about coming up with guitar songs but using the rhythm of a rap song. I’ve pretty much ripped it off. That’s the generator of the idea, and then you can start to chip away. It’s the same thing as putting the tracing paper down, because you’ve arrived at something cool because you’ve put something that you’re responding to.
How do you go about the process of writing? Do you give examples or try to explain via reference points or analogies?
I typically don’t sit down to write, so vocally, it’s just things that come out. Then I have to dedicate a few hours and put off a few plans so I can get things done, because the song is rearing its head.
How have things typically formed in the past the past?
The lyrics and the music sometimes occur differently and sometimes they get bashed together to see what makes sense, you just kind of collide things to see what words but usually, but at least with this record, music has almost entirely been from me fiddling around with a piano or fiddling around with a bass or something like that, and then, I definitely don’t get that thing where you hear about some composers, they have a whole thing, a whole melody in mind and you just need to write it down. Like, I find, everything for me starts in demo form, and it’s always getting played around with. I find I have to try different things, like: “what happens if I use this melody, what happens if I repeat that in this way” and I’m constantly adjusting. You know how children have those little boxes where they try to put the triangle in the square hole and it doesn’t fit, you try to put the circle in the fucking triangle…I’m always just bashing things together and seeing what happens, and pushing things around and seeing how it works.
I’ll cop to the fact that I have a knowledge of music theory and stuff, but it never informs how I write, but it informs how I can then communicate it to the rest of the world, with the rest of the world being the musicians who are gonna play the music. Like, if I’m noticing that this thing is exciting, ok, it’s in 7, ok cool. Whereas sometimes, you’re not conscious of that you might limit it or frame it in a different kind of way and it might lose the magic or something. It’s hard to describe I guess, and the more you think about it, the more you read interviews of people talking about writing songs, most people actually just kind of write in the same sort of way. I know we think we write in a bunch of unique ways, but I don’t think we’re all that special. I think in a lot of cases we all do the same sort of thing.
Where did you record Music For All Occasions?
We recorded originally in Start Together Studios along with Chris Brazier, who operates Pro Tools when I’m on drums, and is also generally excellent moral support, like a member of the family type thing. So we tracked drums and tried a bunch of different things, with different drums and treatments of the drums. A lot of that was to click and some were without – just live tracks. I think there’s some songs that are serviced by having a grid, for example the last song, ‘Album of the Year’ was meant to sound like just a drum machine playing on loop forever, so it most definitely has to and is serviced well by the click track. For instance, the second song, ‘You’ll Shrug’, there’s plenty of push and pull tempowise and for that reason a click track wouldn’t have worked. I don’t think in huge, abstract terms, grandiose terms like ‘analog is good, digital is bad. Clicks are good…” I just think in all cases, everything works for different purposes. We tracked all the horns, woodwind and brass at Start Together again too.
We tracked all bass in my house – in a very literal way, mic on a bass amp, or effects. After that we had some fun, overdubbed some drums in Mandela Hall, little bits of percussion, some vocals in there, and some piano in the Harty Room at Queens. It’s all about finding the right place for the right thing. If you can get the room that has the sound you need, then you can just plug it into the mix, you know?
The album finishes with the piano-led ‘Album of the Year’, which is compositionally is very unexpected, but in terms of the thematic imagery – of times, dates and isolation – it’s an apt closer and summation of the LP.
Yeah, it all leads up to that. I don’t know, my life, I spend a lot of time putting frameworks in place so I can operate. I’m actually not really that focused, or really that…there’s a lot of things that are my shortfalls, but I spend a lot of time to try and make those shortfalls not limit me, to try and build something around it, like a safety nets in place. One of the things is that I have to live by a calendar, so I’m constantly thinking in terms of dates, constantly looking at the clock, I’m always thinking in terms of that framework, because if I don’t put that in place, then I just fucking fall apart. If I don’t have a really good breakfast, my fucking day is destroyed.
I’m not one of those people who can just wake up in the morning and just see how it goes and just hang out. I need like, some order, then, you set the order and later in the day you can break the rules or whatever. But in the first place, I need that little framework. So, I’d imagine probably subconsciously, all those words come up, talking about days or months or years, because I’m just always thinking in terms of that.
With the album being as short as it is, and lyrics like ‘Leave more on the cutting room floor’ that are very self-critical – is there a message in there?
Are many of the lyrics ‘notes-to-self’?
A lot of them are notes to self, yeah. I think you’re most genuine when you’re writing about exactly what your personal experience is, and that’s what hits, you know? I take so much value in seeing how other people perceive what’s being created. I’m interested in the perception of it, but the thing that’s so important about it is designing it for yourself though. Because notes to yourself, doing shit for yourself, you’re always at the forefront. If you’re thinking about what the audience wants, you always steps behind. If you’re thinking ‘the audience would like if you played this song’, well there’s a time difference there where they know the song from months ago so you’re always gonna be retracing your steps, you know?
Or even if you look at the larger scale, like ‘I should make music that sounds like this band that’s kinda big’ whether it’s conscious or subconscious, a lot of people do that. ‘That sounds like a good idea, we’ll copy this band’s style’ but in reality, you record it, you wait a couple of months for it to get mixed and mastered, you release it. By the time you’ve released the ripped off sound, you’re a year late. By the time the audience hears that, you’re gonna sound passé as shit. I think you serve no purpose trying to provide an audience with something. Sometimes audiences think they want to hear something they know, but I know myself as an audience member, that I get most excited when I’m presented with something that’s new and challenging. You don’t think you like challenge, but it’s one of the most exciting feelings.
Where the music could meander, it’s a short listen – was it very intentionally concise? ‘You’ll Shrug’ has the line ‘Leave More on the Cutting Room Floor’
I’m absolutely interested in the concise thing for sure. What’s the real subject of this – some songs need an intro, but a lot of songs don’t. Even when we play shows, I don’t stick click in any songs. An intro, in some cases, like in an overture they play a lot of melodic and harmonic ideas that occur later on in the piece. Like “here’s what’s coming up” That’s a terrible idea, you’re giving away all the tricks! You’re telling them what all the cool things are and now they have to sit through all this prose before they get the cool shit. Don’t give it all away with the overture. For me, the stick clicks or things like that, I do count in a few songs by speech, like DeeDee Ramone counting things in, but that gives it away.
There are very affecting vocal performances on the album – were you crying at any point during the recording?
Yeah, there were two parts on the record where I was actually crying, yeah *laughing* I was going through some shit during some of the vocal takes, and was not in a good place mentally, but I’m that much of a cunt that I’m like “that’s gonna make great art. I’m gonna record this.” The thing is, shit like this has silver linings, and the silver lining is that you get to make a bit of art out of it. Should you put yourself in shitty situations to make art? That question is open, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that; I don’t want to say yes or no because I don’t want people going out and fucking themselves up to make good art. But the fact of the matter is, content impedes content. Like, if you’re happy, you’re not gonna… it’s hard to write a song about being happy.
The album leaves me with a flavour of “That guy had a hard year” when it’s over.
Yeah, I think it’s a seasonal thing as well, I definitely knew that. I don’t like the idea of sitting out for a long time to work on an album but it kind of had to be that case because I wanted that shit to come out in winter, because this is the right time to get bummed out. These are not like club bangers. We probably could have put the record out in July if we wanted, but I don’t think that would be a good idea.
Album of the Year, which is my favourite song on the album, that’s when I was crying, and there’s a few lines in there where I didn’t quite get something else right and I was like “naw, I’m gonna use the crying take. Might as well.” December’s gonna be shit, I mean, December that time was shit. Normally I hate December really. I don’t really care about Christmas, I’m not good with occasions. I grew up in a Muslim country where Christmas isn’t really a big deal at all. I haven’t live with my family since I was 18, or been in the same country as them. So that just leaves December as a cold time. I have very little work or recording work, you aren’t doing many gigs, so December’s just like shit.
The lyrics to ‘Correct’ are definitely amongst the strongest to come out of here. I’m sure many of us have heard that outward assessment about themselves, when it’s not necessarily the case for yourself.
I kind of noticed that in my life at that point as well; it’s kind of what ‘Correct’ is about as well, ‘You look like the kind of person who’s got the world figured out’, Well, maybe I do but only really for myself? I can’t actually…I fucking break if I get relied on too much to solve problems or other peoples’ things. I have to work really hard to make my own life stable, and it looks like, “Oh, he’s fine” but it’s actually because I’ve had to put a lot of effort in, like the frameworks of the calendar, to make things work out, but what happens when people identify you as someone who fixes things. You get hired as that.
How about ‘Nice Life’?
The entire song is about being let down. I was sitting on the Lagan, just, I was very depressed, looking at the rowing club, and I thought someone was waving at me, and it was just someone cleaning the window. I thought it was like somebody saying hi, or a connection or whatever, but it was actually just “No, nope, nah.” Yeah, that’s kind of a bummer of a tune. There’s a sax solo at the end, and this is such a Phil Collins in-the-studio thing, making the album, but it was decided that Thibault would take a solo on that 18 bars or whatever. And he was like, “Yeah cool” and he plays and did a few takes. Thibault’s an excellent tenor sax player, but it was a bit extravagant. And he was like “yeah, I’m not sure” and we did a few takes, back and forth, and it was kinda like, he was kinda schmaltzin’ it a bit, and it was kinda like “Hey-heey!” So I said “the song’s pretty much about not being able to get out of bed in the morning”. And he was like “Oookay” and he just did this take that was just this fuckin’ heartfelt thing, and I was like “My boy” – I’m really happy with how it came out on the record. He plays this one note a bunch of times and it’s really fucking frustrating, and he sounds really fucking frustrated when he plays it, and I just was clapping when he’d finished. Sometimes you just need to communicate things to people.
Sometimes I’ll be like “Hey Thibault, why didn’t ya play anything there” and he’ll say “because I didn’t really think I could add anything” and I’ll be like “yaaaaas”. He’s good at that, and Tom is as well. I have a lot of respect for those guys, because exactly that, he’ll be like “yeah Tom! You fucking nailed that, man!” not like “I’ll show him”. It’s sick, man. They’re very idiosyncratic in their playing, well, not so much Thibault, but Tom very much so, he never traditionally learned how to play the saxophone, he’s just kinda tried things out and figured it out. He does his thing. He’s an excellent musician so he can put his hand to things and try them out, but he very much has his own style, so he kind of freaks out sometimes when he has to perform as a sax player for other people. But he’s so good that you never see the cracks. But yeah, a bunch of times he’s recorded stuff – we were just recording in here one time, we didn’t need any ambience in the room, and we were just kinda sat here, and it’s a small room. And he was like “I’m actually really nervous at the minute” before doing the fucking sickest solo ever. I’m like “ma boiii”. I love the guy, I got so much time for him. It’s really cool to see that shit, it’s a lot riskier when you don’t play if you’re playing the drums, an accompaniment instrument. Like, he’ll stop playing sometimes and the whole fucking thing stops, but I’ve kinda been inspired to do that after watching them.
It’s always a back and forth, and they just have good sensibility, this natural thing of knowing where to come in. Sometimes, even if they didn’t get it, as a musician, you just have to say a couple of words and they totally understand. It’s because they’re sympathetic to what’s going on musically. Good boys.
Is there something deeper behind ‘Straight Lines’, which opens with “I wanna be a doctor”?
I guess, “I wanna be a doctor, I wanna be a vet.” It’s like trying to mine, like the way pop music is designed is you have memorable things that people know and then add a little something that makes it different – and that’s how you make pop music. Like, if you use the same chord structure that’s been used in a thousand songs before, people will know it and it’ll click, we add a little different melody and we have a hit. So I’m kind of interested in that in what we do as well, in lyrics. So if I use a phrase like “I wanna be a doctor”, like, everyone says that all the time, that’s a phrase that’s used.
Like, if you mine things from the world, regular ephemera or whatever, then “I wanna be a doctor. I’ve heard that before.” That’s chords 1, 4 and 5, C, F and G, that thing that they know, and then you hit them with something they don’t know, and that’s how you engage them in the first place, but if you do too much of the same chords and melodies it’s boring, if you do too much of talking about shit that happens around you that’s boring, but then you hit them with something that’s kind of unusual, and it’s just that bait and switch thing.
So is the switch when you say “I wanna be Gordon Ramsay”?
Well, my friend Connie asked what personality type I am, and I was like “thoughtful?” So I did the test, but the people I was similar to were Margaret Thatcher and Gordon Ramsey. And I was upset at that because I’m a bit compassionate whereas these people are cunts.
I suppose might think in a similar manner and have completely different end results. Another recurring theme seems to be the idea of independence or working things out for yourself.
Yeah, it’s funny how these things affect you. I’ve been told since then that Gordon Ramsey isn’t that much of a dick, I don’t really know that much about him. I just remember being like “I don’t want to be those things”. But yeah, those lyrics as well, there was another thing about this idea of isolation, or even individuality, this thing I learned pretty early on from listening to punk. That you’re the master of your own fate, and that just completely changed my entire worldview, and I was like 13, everything just flipped and I thought, “Not only can I do all this stuff for myself, I have to do all this stuff for myself”.
I don’t need to say it but I’ll say it, there’s obviously levels of privilege, being born to western parents, being male, whatever, but beyond that you are the master of your own fate and it’s important not to let other things become a crutch for that in terms of privilege. There’s a lyric there when we were playing some shows, we were in Dubai playing gigs in backyards and old disused amusement parks. I said “let’s tour” and I wondered what Black Flag would do, and they’d play cities nearby, and that’s impossible because desert surrounds us. So where do we go nearby? We had a lot of friends from India, because where we were had a huge Indian population. Someone said their friend could put on a show for us in India, so I saw bands that tour, and it’s like “what’s that? A bunch of bands playing shows next to each other” so I said “ok let’s try that” because there was no concept of industry that existed there. There kinda is now, but there was nothing at that point.
Loads of kids would come! It wasn’t even about wanting to see our band, because we were pretty poor musicians, but it was to do with being part of this community because there’s literally no subculture. We went and did these shows in India, and they were all very weird, no, a couple of them were terrible and we got asked to stop playing. It was bad because we booked a show we wanted to do with a friend and booked the other ones around it, and they were pretty bad. I was just learning how to book shows too. We did that, and at one show we had a day off. I left my bag in the back of one of those auto-rickshaws, and my passport was in there, I lost my passport. And a lot of these lyrics are kind of memories and stuff. It’s in ‘Straight Lines’ or ‘Problem Solver’, one of those talks about a guard in a white uniform. I remember distinctly, really visually going to find how I was going to find how I was going to get my passport back to see if there were any police stations or whatever, just being in this new place where I had no help.
I asked my parents and because I normally just did my own thing, they were just like “I don’t really know. We don’t know what to do, you just do your thing”. I was about 15 or 16, and I realised it’s just me here, I need to sort this out. I called up embassies and got a replacement passport, got it signed by the police department. I just remember really visually this guy dressed completely in white with a helmet, like a guard in one of these places. That was around the same time I realise that I’m galvanised, they galvanised me to know that it’s just me. Sometimes if you feel alone you’re like “Fuck, I’m alone” but “Ok I’m alone. Ok, that’s fine, that’s my parameter, that’s the card, I’ll fucking do it.”
You’re one of the most engaging live bands on the island, musically and verbally – how do you approach your live show?
If you do the theatrical thing, the planned encore, the intro song, I think if you’re making music, and I’m so interested in deconstruction, and that if we can deconstruct this to the point where there’s as little a divide as possible between the audience and us, then we’re gonna do something cool, and we’re gonna enjoy ourselves, and you’re gonna enjoy yourselves because you felt like you were having a conversation. I just try to be as natural as possible, and so real. Last time at Bello Bar, I was like “Hi, we’re Robocobra Quartet, we’re from Belfast. This room is long, and it’s got space at the sides, these are the parameters, so if you’re a short person you might wanna come up closer because it seems like there’s more space on the sides.
I’m interested in playing to people, and so I’m happy to usher. I’m happy to talk about things that are exactly occurring, and just deconstruct as much as possible. In that way, they’re gonna respect you, I think. You want to get put on a pedestal and be referred to as Belfast or Dublin, they’re human beings. But if you treat them as human beings, they’d be like “remember those human beings?” it’s going to benefit you from not behaving like a rock star. I just think about these things logically. We don’t go onstage and think “let’s just rock right in” So we get on stage, we’ll chat for a little bit, like, let’s see how we’re doing. So deconstruct it, demystify it, then people are gonna want to listen to you.
I do a lot of very intense eye contact with as many people in the audience as possible. They’ll do this, you’ll look at them and then they’ll look away for a second like you just did, then you look at me. And they’re like “he’s looking at me?” and now they’re engaged. Like, if people are talking through our set, why are they talking through our set?
Do you specifically stare at them?
That helps; people stop talking. But I don’t mind if they’re talking. Why are they talking? Maybe your music isn’t interesting enough, maybe they have something better to talk about, maybe they’re talking about how much they like your band. Why weren’t people dancing? Because they were listening. So all these things I think you have to interrogate, you know? And I’m excited to interrogate it, and I’ll do it onstage.
Robocobra Quartet, by how you approach things and musically, are simultaneously the least and most punk band going around in Ireland – do you consider yourselves a punk band?
For sure, I consider that. I can’t not do things under this framework we call punk. This idea of D.I.Y., or independence, or whatever word you want to use. And a lot of people describe that same thing that we’re calling punk as jazz, like a lot of jazz dudes sometimes would call it jazz. I think about it as well, and in terms of how I perceive punk. I played in bands before that sounded a lot more like a punk band, and for me, punk has always been this thing of like, pushing boundaries and subversion, and I find that in playing to the quote/unquote ‘punk audience’, a lot of those situations are not conducive to subversion. They kind of wanted the 3 chords, the sound you expect of punk, which to me, I wouldn’t call punk at all. You’re just looking for the exact same thing.
Looking for a sound rather than an idea?
Exactly, so it was a lot more freeing to not be in that framework anymore, but in terms of a personal point of view, the fact that it just makes sense and seems clear and logical to do things in a punk band way in terms of adapting and doing things as you need to do it. Let’s say we get funding from the arts council, we maybe wouldn’t have got that funding as a punk band or whatever, but if we didn’t get it, we’d still be doing the thing. We’re just a very easily, and I am, an expanding, contracting adaptable person. So it’s like “Do we have enough money to make this record?” Ok we’ll do it here. “Oh we don’t? then we’ll do it here.” Or we’ll write the songs in this way. No-one wants to book us in Germany? Then who do we speak to to book us in Germany? To me it’s just a thing that makes sense. I don’t want to know what the other way is like, and to not be doing this thing where you’re constantly pushing the rock forward and trying to do things in your own way. Stevie Lennox
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