By Orin Louis
Ohhhh dammit. After Wiki-ing “indie rock,” I can say that, from this genre, I enjoy and regularly listen to Elliott Smith, Interpol, Arcade Fire, and MGMT – but have only heard pieces of others, including The Killers, Modest Mouse, and The Get Up Kids. Yes, I am one pathetic loser, because these bands are huge. They sell out shows to tens of thousands of screaming little bastards; they are crucial links in our musical zeitgeist – indelible landmarks on our cultural landscape…blah blah…I know, and am hesitant to reveal this ignorance to you. But I suck at lying.
So why is my opinion here worth a turd? I’m rational, skeptical, and most importantly: fucking hard to please musically. There’s a solid reason I’ve avoided this style so long – it’s often sappily two-dimensional. I can’t ever tolerate country music because my dog hasn’t screwed my wife in the old Chevy pickup on the farm; likewise, I simply don’t relate to most indie. It just doesn’t speak to me. I was raised on classical, classic rock and a tinge of electronic. Truth be told, I rarely enjoy music with any words at all, especially anything current. High quality instrumentals plus meaningful prose is as common as hetero unicorns. Lo, WTF – suddenly, my car’s been blasting an indie rock album on repeat for weeks?! Republic of Letters’ new EP, Painted Hour, packs the emotion of Arcade Fire, the wisdom of E. Smith and the punchy pulse of MGMT. The resulting sound floats past those less desirable, but all too familiar, indie rock traits, while staying true to the genre. Artists of any medium who consciously work toward stretching a cluttered style in new directions – and are successful at it – are the only ones worth experiencing. ROL’s music addresses common themes – love, hope, loss, desire, frustration, but from new angles. Profound lyrics over meaty, hungry instrumentals take me somewhere else, somewhere I want to be.
In my favorite track, “Running From,” a reverby piano accompanies lead singer Chris Venti’s mellifluous voice so perfectly. Picture “November Rain” vs anything Radiohead. “Running From” never loses energy as it effortlessly builds and breaks, hitting me deep in the gut. Lyrics like, “Cause the writing on the walls today / yeah I don’t know just what they say / was stolen from a haunted past,” do not entirely make sense to me, but jeez, I don’t want to understand immediately. Robert Frost said: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” I say the most valuable art is not that which is immediately accessible, but that which reveals clear intention, while leaving room for discovery. Every track on Painted Hour has this effect. The music is intelligent; it holds back the right amount to keep me engaged yet, with each play, I hear something new.
I meet the band at The Red Fox Room in North Park, CA. I’d expected lanky, drugged-out assholes; yet, to my relief, they are sharp-witted and genuinely personable (but still lanky). They’re also snappy dressers. I ask them to start at the beginning. Guitarist Adrian tells of when he was a kid, watching his parents’ band: “She dressed up in cheetah print…they played so loudly, I’d go up the stairs and try to play along with them on keyboard. But I really wanted to be a drummer, and began by playing bells.” I asked if that was a helpful experience. “Hell no!” He retorts. “Carrying around a bell kit, you’re a target. I got beat up a couple times. But I used the bells on the last record for one tiny part. Nick gave me shit, but it worked, ya know? Now I practice guitar usually around eight hours each day.” An aspiring, yet busy, guitarist myself, I can’t help but envy the guy – perks of being a professional.
Bassist Martin began on the recorder “‘Hot Cross Buns,’ dude,” he tells me (now regretfully). “I played trumpet, then got good at baritone horn. Even got to play in a Charger halftime show. One day, my dad told me, ‘Get good at bass and you can be in any band you want.’ I started going to shows, even if I didn’t know which bands were playing. I spent all my money on CDs.” I ask if playing for a pro football stadium was difficult. “It’s much scarier playing for friends intimately. That’s the nice thing about touring—you can be whatever you want in front of people you don’t know.” I imagine meeting ROL in a few years to see if they’re still pretending, or if they will have become these alter egos.
The Venti brothers’ (singer and drummer) mother is a classically trained pianist and vocalist. Nick recalls, “Music was always around. We were always in a creative environment.” I ask about how/when he knew he wanted to be a musician. He tells me of a night in his teen years, at a Bad Religion show: “Riding the mosh pit, I got thrown into that space between the stage and the crowd. Security was walking me out when they became distracted by two punks climbing the rafters. Everyone rushed over there and I had a moment to decide…I jumped up on stage while they were playing. My friends were like, what the fuuuu?! Was just one of those moments.” He reminisces on ROL’s early days: “We were a piece for a year, until Adrian came in to raise up the musicianship, and we finally found that sound. All our music now is about creating a mood. If we all like that mood, we’ll continue with it.”
I ask Chris from where he gets his lyrics. He explains: “I go through notebooks of crap to pick out a few winners. I’ll build a song after that. I’m always trying different writing methods to grow, like maybe starting with the idea in a chorus and then going to verses. Although, I’m not totally bound to that because there are songs I love that I have no idea what the words are about, but they’re my favorite songs.” I ask why. “Probably because you can attach your own meaning, and then start to build a story around it. You connect the dots in your own way. The interaction between music and listeners…I always thought that was cool.” His brother adds: “For our sound, the song is the most important part of the song, if that makes sense. The music around it should be tasteful and interesting, but if you were to strip down one of our songs and play it on the acoustic, that’d be the most important thing.” ROL is not an acoustic band; they play electric guitars, basses, and keyboards. I am still digesting this idea, that the song is the most important part of the song. Something profound here.
Nick tells me, “It’s not real methodical. We all look at it like, how can we write a better song?” I ask, “What’s a better song?” “Cliché, but one that pulls on the heart-strings. It’s a never-ending process. If you feel it…the song will create an emotion in you. It’ll make sense. I mean we don’t wanna make people cry, but hopefully the song connects and make sense. There are rules, but it’s cool to break ’em if you can do it.” Chris adds, “It’s enjoyable when things click with four people. You don’t have control of the other people but, from nowhere, you all tap into something and it just starts to work. You might have heard that from other artists.” Adrian interjects, passionately: “What was burning behind all of it was this feeling, this energy, this basic drive from the beginning. We didn’t know how to write a song…we just kept putting one foot in front of the next and here we are.”
I ask their thoughts on the San Diego music scene. Nick says: “It’s great. Small, everybody knows each other, real supportive. SD’s missing real industry though—labels to help bands move from here to there. LA has all that, but it’s not real inviting. You come to LA to play, just to do your thing. SD’s more communal…supportive radio and people. In the 90’s there were a few labels here…but there’s just not a lot of good deals anywhere out there anymore. People who that think the music industry is dying are wrong. It just needs to evolve. It’s in that middle period. I know groups who’ve signed to labels and it works for them…but the label takes a cut of everything…which is fine if they’re making you a lot of money, but often it’s not like that. A band now gets momentum on its own.” I ask him, “Advice for those trying to break into it?” “Don’t quit,” he says. “Every band that started when we started is not around anymore, at least on the local level.” I can’t help but marvel at their determination. Although, it doesn’t hurt that they rip and, should they ever forget, they will be quickly reminded by their massive local following. They invite me to a rehearsal.
The following week, we meet at their studio, a room in a building made specifically for bands. Walking down the hallway, I hear and see musicians all over, smoking and jamming out. To my surprise, Republic of Letters sounds exactly the same or better than they do recorded. I try hard not to lip-sync, though by now I know most of the words. I enjoy a private show for myself and two photographers. I don’t intend to stay long, since I’ve other assignments beckoning, but I end up staying the couple of hours through their entire set. Each musician is focused, professional and deliberate. It is clear in their expressions and through their playing. I leave feeling extra special, having experienced this young band, no doubt soon to be a household name. Imagine seeing the Stones before they were the Stones. Yeah. Feels like that.
Sigh. Guess I’m into indie rock now. Not ready for the tight jeans yet (I’m not lanky), but I am eager to check out some of the band’s other musical recommendations, including Louis XIV and Transfer. At the bar earlier this week, Nick described Republic of Letters’ songs as “new kids, which we get to see grow and grow.” Pick up their new album ASAP, catch them live and witness their talent and notoriety grow and grow. Hendrix said: “Music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.” This band has something to say and the skill with which to say it. If their music doesn’t change this world, at worst, it is guaranteed to alter the entire indie rock genre forever.