Will Sheff / The Rock*A*Teens :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

The Rock*A*Teens were my favorite rock and roll band of the 1990s, a group that disguised heroic artistic ambitions behind a murky, mysterious, reverb-laden take on early rock and roll. I’ve heard echoes of their sweeping grandiosity in the indie-anthemic bands of the mid-2000s and echoes of their weird swampy cool in today’s crop of unpretentious garage-rockers, but I’m never sure whether they were ever being overtly imitated or had just been picking up signals in the air a decade too soon. Those who love them are obsessed with them, but too many are unfamiliar with them and that just kills me because there’s this whole intoxicating universe hidden in these records.

Lopez’s band sprung up like a weed out of the rich soil of Atlanta’s Cabbagetown neighborhood — which in the late 1980s and early ‘90s had become a scrappy community of rockabilly dropouts, gender-bending performance artists, drug adventurers and ambitious post-punks — and there’s something humid and sweltering and essentially southern about their music. Lopez writes high melodrama but with an ironic remove, and his lyrics feel informed by southern currents in literature and photography and folk art, by detective fiction, and by Hollywood epics and forgotten pulp trash. Onstage and on record, his band delivers these songs with a wild and frayed urgency that makes you worry for them.

Each Rock*A*Teens record, in its way, is perfect. Their self-titled debut — like the band itself — was birthed in the immediate aftermath of several tragic accidents and overdoses that traumatized the Cabbagetown scene, and it’s a raw wail of pain and betrayal and wonder. The following year’s Cry saw frontman and songwriter Chris Lopez take a considerable leap forward in his writing while the group refined and strengthened their arrangements; 1998’s Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall was an early masterpiece; on the following year’s Golden Time Lopez grew more narratively ambitious, and then the band packed it in right as the 1990s were coming to a close with Sweet Bird of Youth, their most psychedelic and romantic and sprawling record, which in retrospect felt almost like the band’s epitaph.

Except they’re back, eighteen years later, with Sixth House, recorded after a fun little run the band did a couple years back that slowly turned into something more serious. Sixth House is a worthy addition to the R*A*Ts catalogue because it feels like a rewarding step into adulthood and into the present moment. The band is as frenzied as ever, but they’ve washed away the sonic mud that might have kept away less adventurous potential listeners of the past, they’ve turned down the reverb knob, and Lopez’s focus has widened to something much wider and more global. Beneath the joyous racket, these songs are serious and thoughtful, and they ponder power, mortality, morality, and the state of the soul.

Sometimes when you’re as crazy of a fan as I am of this band you end up getting a chance to meet your heroes as long as you can be cool enough about it, and I’m lucky to have gotten to know Chris Lopez over the years. I gave him a call on a sweltering July afternoon. He was in Atlanta carrying his baby daughter in from the car and I was in Woodstock walking my friend’s dog. - Will Sheff (Okkervil River)

Will Sheff: Sweet Bird Of Youth, the last record, felt like it was a kind of culmination, so it’s interesting that now here you are with this record that feels like a surprise new chapter. So I’m wondering if you can tell me where all this came out of.

Chris Lopez: We were just kinda fired up. We really enjoying playing music in a band, and I certainly felt like there was more to do. Well, I’m always doing something — it’s just a part of my own sustainment system, fooling around with music. It’s just a part of my life and always has been and always will be, whether it’s in an organized fashion or not.

So, we kinda got together and were just like, “Yeah, let’s work on new songs, I got this and I got that, let’s try this and let’s try that.” I mean, it started innocently enough — doing it just to do it — but then it just kinda snowballed and then it was like a real strong feeling like, “Yes we must finish. We’ve started; we have to finish.”

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