Monday, October 4, 2010

The Nerds Inherit the Earth

A question that I ask myself a lot while absorbing new music (and discussed at length in the most recent Demo Sweat) is whether the subject matter will interest anyone beyond the songwriter's immediate circle of intimates. As a prose writer who has written more than his fair share of lyrics it is always surprising to me how little self-awareness a lot of lyricists exhibit. If you're going to write about how much you love your girl, or how pretty the mountains are, it's going to be an uphill battle separating yourself from the untold millions of verses written on the very same topics. Then there are the many writers who don't have subjects for their songs at all. Coherent, structured songwriting, where the verses tell stories that set up a big payoff in the chorus (if you don't know what I mean by this, go buy several XTC records and study up) isn't a prerequisite for masterful pop songs. Beck and Dylan prove otherwise. But, if you've been writing songs for a while now, and are having trouble convincing people that they are as good as you think they are, you might be able to learn a thing or two from World Racketeering Squad.

With all due respect to drummer Bruce Chandler and his notable knack for high harmonies, the engine that makes WRS go is the partnership (and friendship) between bassist/singer Reed Oliver and guitarist/leader Isaac Priestley. The duo has a particular kind of relationship to which I can relate -- they're not all that alike, they have violent differences of opinion on nearly everything they hold dear from music to film, but they're both weird dudes and weird dudes have to stick together, even if they're not offbeat in precisely the same manner. Isaac lived in New York for years and recorded by himself with a four-track, but never found much of an audience without a band. Reed had never written a song or played bass before Isaac moved back to Austin and dragged his old friend half-accidentally into beginning World Racketeering Squad. Reed's natural gift for lyrics ("Sometimes," Isaac says, "it feels like Reed is writing just what I want to write") and theater-honed sense of showmanship complement Isaac's rock-nerd attention to arrangement details and drive to get the most out of his music. Reed and Isaac's differing values make for songs, recordings, and shows that are far better than either would be able to do on their own.

"Every relationship has tension," says Isaac. "We had to put aside the idealistic notion of a beautiful partnership where everything works." Reed has no illusions about getting Isaac to agree with his every whim, but even when he can't get his way he makes sure the band knows how he feels. "I'm going to hammer at this until I'm sure that you know what I'm saying!" For these two stubborn, highly intelligent individuals to maintain a collaboration, it's obvious that the end results must be worth all of the bickering. "If we didn't fight about stuff, it wouldn't be as good," Reed says.

But why do their differences lead to stronger songs? It's because their separate goals, as strongly as they might feel about them, aren't mutually exclusive. "When I write a song I'm nervous when I play it for Isaac," Reed says. "He's the arranger, he can see what can be done with it. My songwriting has been honed by his feedback. I have higher standards because I'm bringing songs to him." Lyrics are preeminent in Reed's writing process. "I get in my head, do it over and over, then sit down and type out the whole song. Only then do I pick up the bass." By contrast Isaac writes music more closely and leaves his lyrical notions more open-ended. Based on a single verse or even just a couple of words, Reed finishes Isaac's initial ideas. "He's good at fitting things into a scheme," says Isaac. Because of their different approaches, they're well-suited to turning one another's blind spots and weak points into strengths.

This extends to World Racketeering Squad's live shows, which have grown by leaps and bounds since they began hitting open mic nights as a duo. "When we started we had zero stage presence," Reed says. Isaac: "We have different goals for what we want the audience to experience." It took them months of playing together before they were able to balance Isaac's drive to rock ("This is a live show, no one's listening to the words") against Reed's concern that the lyrics be audible ("To me, the lyrics are always important"). Again, the path of compromise led to them becoming a better band. Gradually they learned to structure their setlists such that moments when the music takes control are balanced by points where the band backs off and lets the singer be heard. This makes for a more exciting show for the audience, and lets them appeal to different kinds of listeners in turn. "It gives us places to go in a live show," says Isaac.

If songs about zombies playing ukuleles, Summer Glau, and electromagnetism didn't tip you off, WRS are some nerdy dudes. And they're not afraid of it. Their debut full-length What Is Nerdwave? is titled after the tongue-in-cheek genre designation they have self-applied. More than a marketing hook, their nerdy tendency to analyze everything helps them improve as musicians. "I've learned a lot from 'lean startup ideology' as a programmer," Isaac says (while Reed attempts to mask an eye roll). In a nutshell, what he means is that when beginning to market a product (or a band), you start by offering consumers/listeners the most basic elements. Then you collect data (or listener feedback) and you respond to it. "I take copious notes after every show," Isaac says. "Do we like it? Are people moving around? Cheering? Do they talk about it?"

"We videotaped ourselves for months," adds Reed. The main question he asks himself is, "Are people looking at us?" Although he's used to performing, "learning to be a lead singer is completely different." Performing as himself, as opposed to as a character in a play, has an entirely different set of requirements. It's "a little bit fake it 'til you make it. Am I slouching? Stand up straight!"

"Lean" is a good description of the approach they've taken to recording to this point. "We don't take two months off," Isaac says, and "we make sure whatever we're recording we're also playing live." What Is Nerdwave? is a pretty straightforward representation of their sound as a live band, absent a stray recorder overdub here and there. Most of the CD sales they've made have been at shows, and staying active and visible as a working band is something marketing obsessive Isaac takes very seriously. "There's a lag time whenever you do anything" before potential fans really sit up and take notice. To not lose momentum you must "do it consistently -- web page, Facebook, people want to see that a band is alive."

"I've been fascinated by marketing, branding, promotion my whole life," says Isaac. "I would encourage musicians to learn about marketing and persuasion. I'm not an expert at it yet!" He has crafted a appeal for tips for Reed to deliver on stage employing "six or seven" different marketing techniques. "Every person in the band does not need to be a marketing expert," Reed adds, "but other people need to be open to the theory. [Isaac's] goal is for our band to do better." He continues, "We all have day jobs we actually like and are good at. But tips mean albums."

Isaac is all about getting the most out of his music that he can. World Racketeering Squad gives him outlets for many of his talents beyond playing guitar and songwriting -- web design, marketing, booking, networking, drawing sexy robot women. But what it all boils down to is that there's some things you can accomplish playing in a band with your friends that you can't singing alone into a four-track. "About a year and a half ago I realized I wanted to feel a part of a community, something exciting. It just occurred to me recently that it's happening!" "We had people come to our CD release and were shocked," says Reed. Including a couple with their one-month-old infant. World Racketeering Squad onesies, sadly, are not yet available for sale.

Speaking of community: WRS's favorite local bands include You Might Think We're Sharks (Isaac moonlights as their bass player) and Day Vs. Night (formerly The Night), who will join them for a show at Emo's October 25th. Conquistador Inc. and Bare Bones Orchestra are also recommended. You can also catch World Racketeering Squad this Wednesday the 6th at Red-Eyed Fly or Friday the 8th at the Rockin' Tomato.

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