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.”

WS: I associate so many of your old records with the high energy and high emotional seas of youth, when all the chemicals in your body that are naturally there — or are put there artificially — are surging at this high point. Do you feel like this time around you’ve somewhat adapted that approach, coming from a more mature place, or do you feel like it’s something that’s always with you?

Chris Lopez: Yeah — there’s always going to be that kind of energy, which is kinda fueled by neuroses and paranoia.

But certainly those records… At that time in my life that’s all I would do, you know what I mean? There wasn’t much else going on in my life. I was really focused on the band, and songs, so day-to-day life kind of fueled into that. So it was kind of a wide open frontier, psychologically. Like, if something happened, I’d drop it into a song — but I’ve never been a really confessional songwriter, you know what I mean? I mean, there’s a lot more going on in my mind, when I’m writing the stuff. Some of it may appear to be autobiographical, but some of it is storytelling, some of it is observations of somebody else’s experiences… But, you know, sometimes I can’t help but be hysterical about a thought or an emotion I’m trying to get across.

WS: Do you think you’re a hysterical person naturally, or do you think that a certain hysterical persona comes out when you’re writing?

Chris Lopez: I don’t think of myself as a hysterical person but I think, maybe internally, there is an energy that feels things strongly. And that’s just the way I do it, even when we’re practicing — it’s not even performing, it’s just expressing.   I can’t just stand there, you know?   Even when I go see bands, I can’t just stand there.   Even if I’m not even liking the band, just when I hear music, my legs start moving, I start moving… I mean, I’m real high strung in the first place.   I always gotta have a leg moving or something.

So, just performing the music, I want to shout at the top of my lungs. I want to get sweaty. I want to take some sort of a trip, you know what I’m saying? Come out the other side a different person. Somewhat transformed, even minutely.

WS: There’s an Amy Ray quote where she had described you as “the toreador of punk rock.” I feel like I really relate to that, because there’s a sense of bloodsport to the Rock*A*Teens in my mind. I definitely sense that there are going to be real stakes, and somebody might not be coming back alive.

Chris Lopez: Right

WS: And I remember feeling that very strongly when I first heard you guys, this sense of   “These guys are really putting it on the line.” But at the same time — with the toreador thing — it’s like there’s a ring around it. It’s contained, and there’s even a pageantry and a humor to it that keeps it from feeling emo in any way. It puts it in this context that feels very artistic at all times, for me.

Chris Lopez: It’s hard for me to look at it from the outside — I can only look at it from the inside. I mean, there’s a sort of lift-off that I’m always searching for. I’m disappointed if it doesn’t happen.

WS: You were raised Catholic, right?

Chris Lopez: Yes.

WS: Do you think that Catholicism and that stuff maybe influenced that? That all-or-nothing sort of bloody and passionate quality of what goes on in your writing?

Chris Lopez: I would assume so. When you’re growing up with a little spongy mind, and you’re going into a building every Sunday with your family, and there are bloody pictures on the wall of the Passion, and rules to live by, and revenge…   The Old Testament is a fucking bloodbath, you know what I mean? And the Passion of Christ… that always affected me emotionally. If it’s all real or not who knows, but I loved the stories. It’s sacrifice left and right, and tests from above: “Just kill your son,” and just about when you’re going to pull that knife across the throat, “Nope, just kidding! Just testing you!”

WS: [Laughs] Yeah.

Chris Lopez: And I’m sure that fuels me in some way, and I’m filled with guilt and all the stereotypical Catholic lore, you know. “Oh, You’re so Catholic and guilt-ridden” — I’ve had that said to me by people in my life… But yeah — those are stories that will stick with me.

WS: As a person who was raised Catholic myself, you start talking to somebody about real shit and before too long you’re like, “Wait, were you raised Catholic?” But yeah —   I hear it too in a song like “Go Tell Everybody”. To me, that sounds like it was written almost as if it were the first thing Christ would say when they found him alive in the tomb. But what’s interesting is that it’s sort of a radical Christ, because he’s saying, “Lay out a feast” but immediately after that he’s saying, “Just start burning everything down, just start torching all the greenery. And chewing all the scenery.”

Chris Lopez: That song kind of transforms from certain things… I mean, “chewing the scenery” is kind of poking fun at myself, and what we were just talking about, like really getting into it. That’s all I’m ever doing is chewing the scenery.

WS: Well, I code that in my mind as a kind of ambition. It feels like you’re just using the instruments of a rock band — and in the early days it’s very cobbled-together feeling — and you’re kind of aiming for some wide-screen biblical epic out of all that.

Chris Lopez: Yeah, absolutely. Particularly with this record, those were some of the visions in my mind. A lot of Technicolor, Roman soldiers and peasants, and the battle between good and evil. The battle between the empire and people trying to get over on the empire.

WS: It always seems like there are these protagonists that who are up against great odds and bound to become martyrs in some way. They’re going to go out in some sort of glorious fashion.

Chris Lopez: What other way is there to go out, you know?

WS: And sonically, this record is rather different. The first four Rock*A*Teens records almost seem so cut from the same cloth that sometimes I’ll forget what album a song is on, and then Sweet Bird Of Youth seems like it was kind of an apotheosis. But this record feels like it’s been taken down to an essential core — and you’ve also done away with some of the crazy reverb. You were one of the first bands that I heard in the contemporary era doing that thing where everything was awash in reverb to the point where it’s all just one big swirling storm and it’s difficult to pick out individual things. But with this one, it’s a lot more tightened up. And it’s cool because you can hear the lyrics a lot better. Which are always my thing. When I’m introducing people to the Rock*A*Teens I’m always like, “Just shut up and listen to the damn lyrics!” And they come through really clearly on here. Sonically, was that one of your goals?

Chris Lopez: Well, going back to those first records, they were very stripped-back. On the first record there’s just three guitars, there’s no bass, it’s just, “This is just what we do.” And Kelly Hogan, when she played with us, she just kind of worked an E string on an electric guitar, you know?

WS: She played the electric guitar with just one string on it, right? As the “bass?”

Chris Lopez: There were other strings — maybe not all the time — but yeah, she wasn’t playing chords or anything, she was just kind of root-noting it the whole time. That was her role. And her skills on the guitar, from a traditional standpoint, were skimpy, but not in my opinion. It’s like a tool; you just figure out how to get what you want out of it.

And then the second record we actually overdubbed some bass on some stuff and that was radical to us. We were just like “Oh my God!”

But all those first four records, the instrumentation was very limited and we were really into not making guitars sound like guitars — we were trying to make them sound like something else. Trying to do the string section in a song with guitars, you know what I mean? And the reverb — just other things would happen when that was all ringing out.

But by the time we got to Sweet Bird Of Youth, I was starting to record at home, and had a cheap keyboard and some pedals, and the melodies that I would [otherwise] do on the guitar I would do on the keyboard, and things kinda changed from there. Because guitar can get kind of boring after a while.   Like, even now, I have to tune the guitar to find something new. To make a different noise. But on this record, I got really interested in rhythm. With all the songs, down there at the bottom is an acoustic guitar that’s married to Ballard [Lesemann III, the Rock*A*Teens drummer since 1998], that works as a machine, as an engine, down there below.

And it’s not gonna be up loud or anything, but it’s there. And it if it wasn’t there it would really change what you’re hearing.   But it’s just kind of getting everything moving. You know, some hyper strumming that’s really rhythmic on an E can be really effective, if you just really honk on an acoustic guitar.   I think it’s more effective than a roaring Marshall.   That’s really playing the guitar. You are playing that thing!

WS: Yeah, the record sounds really muscular, in an almost bruising way. You feel fingers on the strings, and muscles clenching, and there’s this physicality.   And that’s one of the things that I love about acoustic instruments. They always sound so physical — you’re always reminded that they’re being played by a body. I wonder; when you combine that with that all-or-nothing approach that’s trying to root into the emotion of the song, how do you find the energy? Some of this stuff sounds like it would be exhausting to put yourself through in a performance setting.

Chris Lopez: But that’s the only way I that want to do it, you know what I mean? Playing music like that just stirs up something. You’re like, “Aaaah fuck I gotta play a show, and this happened and that happened…” — whatever, just real life stuff — but when you play the show it just washes that all away.

The songs are kind of vehicles to just get inside and just have it take you [somewhere]. It’s like you build this car yourself, and you just get in it, and you don’t know if it’s going to stay together or not, if this rivet is solid, if you tightened that bolt enough, but we’re going to see if we can go down the steep hill to the flat point over there in one piece. And that’s exhilarating.

WS: There’s a shambolic quality to your music that in some ways makes me think of bands like The Replacements, but in other ways I think there’s a kind of nihilism underneath The Replacements, a sort of self-destruction, like they wanna break the car, you know what I mean? Whereas I feel like what I get from you guys is you’re held together on a wing and a prayer and you’re hoping you can make it to the other side of town. As opposed to crashing it into the wall on purpose.

Chris Lopez: No — not trying to do that at all [Laughs]. Going along for the ride. Hopefully it’s enjoyable! Sometimes it’s enjoyable. Sometimes it’s frightening. Sometimes it’s like white-knuckling it, you know?

WS: Now, if you don’t mind, I’d love to give people a sense of geographical context to your music. Because when I think of you guys there’s almost a mythological aspect, in my mind, to the weird little Cabbagetown neighborhood in Atlanta you guys came from. So I wanted to ask: Could you talk a little about the Cabbagetown scene in the early 90s? Because it seems like such a freaky time. You had musicians like Benjamin [a legendary Atlanta singer-songwriter and drag performer, documented in Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen’s documentary Benjamin Smoke] from Smoke and the Opal Foxx Quartet, and you had [performance artist] Deacon Lunchbox and all these fascinating figures and really free art going on, and early music by Cat Power coming out from that scene at around the same time… Could you talk about what that was like and all your memories of that?

Chris Lopez: Sure. We’re talking about early ‘90s and late ‘80s. It was just one of those times where you kind of find your people. Or you just meet people from just hanging around, going to shows, and kind of realizing “Oh God, maybe we can do this.” You know, Kelly Hogan was in The Jody Grind, and it was her and Bill Taft, a stand-up bass player and a drummer, very minimal, kind of pre-dating the whole lounge-splosion thing that happened back in the day but in an arty, ramshackle way. I mean, there was a punk thing about it but it wasn’t punk like leather jackets; it was punk like “We can do whatever we want.” And I saw Opal Foxx with Benjamin, and Bill Taft was playing in that band, and they didn’t have a drummer — they used to play this brunch at the Little Five Points Pub, which was just a neighborhood here, it was pretty ramshackle, pretty sketchy, a weird hippie neighborhood with punks, kind of a little counter-cultural area — and I just went up to them and was like, “Hey do you need a drummer? I can sort of play the drums.” And they were like, “Sure — come next week!” And so I came the next week and it was just “Sit in for a song!” So I just sat in and never left. So we would do that, and it was just totally just winging it, doing covers, Benjamin just doing his crazy mercurial thing that was frightening… You know, he had an incredible influence on me as far as art and performance.

And I just started [playing drums for them], and there was this one particular club, Dottie’s, where someone from around was like, “Oh, I’m gonna book bands” — this total local citybilly bar on Memorial Drive, where in the afternoon guys were getting off work and they’re drinking, and she would just let anybody play. It wasn’t really organized in any rock club scenario. And it was all the same people there. And people would have a band for, like, two performances and they’d break up and those two people would form this band and those two people would form that band and they would play a show or then they wouldn’t play a show and then it would be over. And it was all wild, electric, different styles of music.

And everybody lived in Cabbagetown where it was like cheap — really cheap — and everybody gravitated to each other. It was one of those kind of things where there were house parties and everybody hung out together, and everybody would go see each other’s band. But it was fed into by where we were — in Georgia, in Atlanta. There was a lot of accepting those kind of cultural things that were considered uncouth or uncool or bad. Because a lot of people came from various different backgrounds. When you live in a big city, all the misfits from the country immediately gravitate towards the nearest bigger city where things are going to be hopefully more accepting of somebody who is different, you know what I mean?

So there were like a lot of different ways of thinking, and there was a lot of your young cross pollination influence, like, “Hey! You gotta read this book, or see this movie! You gotta listen to this record!”

WS: And Cabbagetown was pretty sketchy at that time, right? Rather rough around the edges?

Chris Lopez: Yeah — it’s an old mill village and the mill had closed a long time ago and there were a lot of inner city issues going on, and that’s why it was so cheap. It was just one of those neighborhoods where you’re just like, “Yeah, there’s gonna be some roving teens on BMX bikes who might wanna give you a hassle cause there’s a group of them…” And there’s the usual kind of drugs and other nefarious activities going on.   There was also this weird little pocket surrounded by the wall from the mill, and this mill looming over you, and a lot of these row houses, and sometimes walking down the street, these big oak trees hanging over you, it was like you were kind of on a movie set.   You could really get lost — particularly how much you put into your body — you could get lost in your imagination. At least for me anyway. A fall evening with the wind coming down across the street and the leaves kinda turning and you could be like, “Oh, this is like being in a movie!”

WS: Have I ever told you about Carl Newman and my idea of a Rock*A*Teens jukebox musical?

Chris Lopez: [Laughs] No, I would love to hear that.

WS: We picture it sort of like a Bertolt Brecht thing, like a bare, undecorated stage, the performers kind of ratty and unwashed-looking, a scrappy backing bands who are on stage… And it’s kind of this Cabbagetown fantasia, where a whole story of all these characters are kind of told in a big arc throughout. And sometimes I hear some song like “Sun’s Up” and I’m like, “Well, this would clearly be like the big final number,” you know what I mean?   I think that your music has that sense of, like, the people’s theater to it. I’ll hear songs like “The Rockabilly Ghetto” or “Little Caesar on a Bicycle” and I picture this Cabbagetown that I’ve heard described to me that I’ve never been to, and I don’t know to what extent that’s based on your memories of Cabbagetown or if it’s based on some totally other thing.   And, you know, not all bands are so strongly associated with a place, but I think for Rock*A*Teens fans there’s almost this mythological place that comes attached to the music.

Chris Lopez: Yeah — those particular songs kind of reflect that experience. “Little Caesar on a Bicycle” is about some little street tough who thinks he’s running the show but he’s only just a kid. There was this one particular intersection where these little hillbilly kids, there was this house and they would just stand there. I’m sure they were selling crack, which was happening at the time, and they would stand there in their intersection and they wouldn’t let you by, and the streets there were really skinny one-way streets. It was always like, “Ugh, I gotta go through this now.” But after a while they know what’s going on; “Oh, I see this guy all the time — he lives in on that street over there.” But it was always like, “Yeah, we’re gonna block traffic, we don’t care, we’re just going to be taking over the whole intersection for our own purpose.” Make a mini bike and drive that around and make a bunch of ruckus. Yeah, some of that its a reflection of what I was seeing around me.

WS: Well, I hope this isn’t an insensitive thing to bring up, but… There was a lot of tragic death that started to happen. [In the early 1990’s two members of the Jody Grind died in a tour-related car crash along with Deacon Lunchbox, and Lopez’s friend and bandmate Allen Page overdosed on heroin outside of Lopez’s house]. These were people who were close to you and people who were in the scene. To what extent did that inform you as a person, and maybe your writing?

Chris Lopez: Well, I can honestly say some of that stuff kind of made me… You know, before, I was just playing in other people’s bands — I played bass in bands, I played drums in bands, it was just something to do — and in my private time I was making up songs and whatever.

But some of that was like, “Okay — look at how quickly this could end.” You know what I mean? So, just at a base level, I was like, “Well, if you feel like you have some inkling that you can do this, you’d better do it. Because you never know what’s going to happen.”

And then, on top of that, there was sort of a dark cloud. Some of that stuff, just, you know… When stuff happens to people that you love, it’s kind of dark days for a while. You know what I mean?

So it was kind of a kick in the ass, and then a kick in the heart, and the soul. So that’s kind of… There was some of that… It kind of informs it.

WS: So, you did this “Episode Guide” as part of the promo materials for Sixth House, where you go through the album and describe, in capsule form, some evocative things pertaining to some of the songs. In the “Turn and Smile” description it says: “Thee groop attempts sister golden hair west coast folk rock but inevitably ends up in a humid gloomy marsh.” I feel like it seems like that swampy quality, that marsh, is sort of an inevitable destination in a Rock*A*Teens song.   When I try to describe the band to people I always say, “Well, there’s kind of like a larger-than-life teenage melodrama — like a Johnnie Ray or a ‘Town Without Pity” sort of thing — but there’s also something very southern, in much the same way that R.E.M. feels southern. Although the band doesn’t sound like R.E.M., there’s this similar sense that you can’t separate the music from the south. What do you think it is that always kind of leads you back to those marshlands?

Chris Lopez: I mean, there’s not a lot of major chords going on, for one thing. Lots of minor chords, lots of long melodies that kind of weave…   Maybe sometimes it’s going fast but it’s going slow at the same time, kind of?

I was interviewed for this thing where they’re re-issuing [the wonderful Atlanta indie rock band] The Glands’ first two records, and I was like, “Well, anybody could say ‘Oh, I love their songs, and Ross is really good, and blah blah blah,’” but when I first heard them what they reminded me of was the Athens townie experience. It was kind of this languid… you know, even if they were playing a peppy number there was always this loping  “It’s so hot and humid and we’re not going to rush to where we’re going” thing, you know what I mean? “We’re just going to hide inside until it’s dark and cool and then we’re going to go to the bar.” I think there’s just something about the environment that we just don’t know how to do it any other way. It’s just going to come out that way. What Justin [Hughes, the Rock*A*Teens lead guitarist since the first record] comes up with is a big part of it, you know? Will [Joiner, R*A*Ts bassist], Justin, Ballard, playing a certain way that just kind of makes it seem like it’s in slow motion and not at the same time. It’s kind of like a film skipping through the projector. And sometimes the film stops and melts.

WS: I think part of that comes from the fact that you’re telling what feel like long tales, but they’re coming out fast. And so it feels a little bit like you’re running but you’re stuck in tar. And there’s so much tension in the music — it’s like a bird trying to fly that’s stuck in the mud somehow, and there’s something about the fierceness of trying to flap its wings and get off the ground that you can’t look away from.

Chris Lopez: Yeah, absolutely. And musically when we’re playing, or when I’m discussing things, I like nothing better than a big finish. I don’t really like telling [the band] exactly what’s happening, but I kind of give them a vibe of like, “All right, we’ve gotten to this point now — this is make or break time. When you’ve done with this you’re gonna have to slump over the drums and lean on your amp and catch your breath.”

WS: I remember reading somewhere about “Maggot Brain” where George Clinton said, “Play it like your mom just died.” Like, talk about stakes! And I think music like that can be meaningful to people who are experiencing heavy emotions, either because of bad things that happened to them or just because just their brain is not being very nice to them.

I think all music more or less finds its audience. It’s not necessarily as big an audience as you’d like, but you tend to find your people, musically. And it’s certainly something I’ve experienced with Okkervil River, where there’s this emotional thing that I don’t even think about self-consciously when I’m doing, but it does come through, and it finds people who seem like they need it. And maybe that was what was resonating a lot when I first heard you guys for me.

Chris Lopez: Also, coming from a standpoint of loving music and art and literature and all that kind of stuff, [I’m] trying desperately to create something that is on par to those pieces of art and what they did to me, you know what I mean? So when someone says like I hit the mark — not for everybody, certainly — that’s a very gratifying feeling. Like, “Yes! Okay, I accomplished something, for Christ’s sake.”

WS: (Laughs) And then, on top of that emotion, there’s the rigorousness of the lyrics.   You’re mentioning places, like “In the Woods of Hemlock Park,” “Across the Piedmont,” or “out at the Ainsley Gates.” So there’s this almost detective fiction level of specificity. And there are all these characters that crop up in the new songs — you’ve got Billie and Millie, the Apostle Bartholomew or Nathaniel, Lady Macbeth who may or not be the raven haired woman from Rome, Jody and Chloe, Even Stephen and Sonny Boy. Where do these people come from?

Chris Lopez: Well, I’ve seen the people in the songs so I have to give them a name, you know what I mean? Sometimes it’s nuts and bolts — you’re like, “Yeah, this has gotta have a name, but it’s gotta work.”

It’s easy for me to get a theme, but it’s hard to articulate it, and then it’s hard to make it sing. So I’ve really worked really hard on making things really sing. Like, earlier records I was just like, “I’m gonna just do this thing and I’ll kind of dance around the melody…”   But [this time] I was really conscience of cadence and the way things come off the tongue and things that are rhythmic.   Singing, like I stretch things as far as they’ll go so I can jump across to the roof. Or sometimes I want to lay a plank across there, and just walk across it in an organized fashion.

I like specific things, you know what I mean? I just love when things are mentioned, even if I don’t know what they are. I can really relate to the writer because they are being very specific about some experience or what they’re trying to make me see.

WS: Yeah — with “Misty Took A Holiday,” if that song were called “She Took a Holiday”, it wouldn’t have the same feeling. I would just picture a person with a blank where their face was supposed to be. But with “Misty Took a Holiday” I feel like I can picture so much about this character because you put this particular name on her. It’s like she goes from an idea to a flesh-and-blood person with just that little change. Also, I’m remembering now that I have a character named Misty in a song. I must have stolen that from you.

Chris Lopez: [Laughs] So, giving people a name is a quick way [to give] them something to grab a hold of. Like, “I know a Misty!” That kind of carries some weight to it. Or saying the name “Bartholomew,” even if you’re not really hip to the story — is there really a Bartholomew? But hearing proper names, street signs, the word “Tennessee,” the word “Arkansas.”   Those kind of things I find important, just for me to articulate what I’m trying to articulate. So like I want to at least try to get somebody to see what I’m seeing.

WS: I remember that, when Okkervil River started to take off and we would see other bands starting to take off, I felt like a lot of the time I would hear echoes of the Rock*A*Teens in other bands. Which may mean that you had tapped into something that people weren’t ready for yet. I remember hearing the Arcade Fire and thinking, “This is kinda like if you took ‘I Could’ve Just Died’ and added orchestration and cleaned it up and took out the sense of humor.”   Or I was reading a quote Dan Bejar said where somebody had said to him about The Strokes, “You know, it kind of sounds like The Rock*A*Teens meets Billy Idol.”

Chris Lopez: [Laughs].

WS: But sometimes I feel like maybe the reason the Rock*A*Teens didn’t have an even broader following in their heyday was that maybe you were anticipating something musically and lyrically for which the context didn’t fully exist yet in underground rock and roll. Do you think there’s anything to that, or not?

Chris Lopez: I can’t really tell. From my standpoint, I don’t know. I really don’t.

WS: I feel like what’s so special about those records is that they feel like they stand outside of what was going on at the time. You were pulling from different reference points and seem to have a different idea of what you wanted to do than maybe some other bands at that time did. And sometimes I feel like that bands like that can sometimes change the whole musical scene, or they can just not read to people, you know?

There’s this fake advice that I give bands sometimes where I say, “Try to do something really unique and true to yourself and then, once you get there, remove 25% of the uniqueness, and get it back to where it’s a little less unique”. I semi-seriously believe that that’s kind of where the sweet spot lies in trying to reach a wider fan base. But sometimes with things that are really gamey or really specific or really unique, there’s a danger of it  becoming an island unto itself.

Chris Lopez: Justin certainly could always keep us in check when it came to, I don’t know if these words would apply to us but being like… commercial. Having Justin in the band, you know he’s gonna keep it in our ditch. We’re gonna just ride through that ditch. We’re all kind of aware of what’s going on in the world. But there’s also kind of an unawareness, you know? You could even attempt to try to reference something super modern and popular, or however you wanna say that, and most of the time nobody’s gonna really be privy to that.

WS: But you do reference yourself, which I was very pleased to hear, in “Turn And Smile”. There’s an overt reference to what might be my favorite Rock*A*Teens song, “I Could’ve Just Died”. Is there a relationship between those two songs in your mind?

Chris Lopez: Sometimes writing songs I like to make myself laugh, and try not to be too precious about it. I can’t remember why I did that, but that kind of works on a bunch of different levels in my mind.

When we put out Golden Time, somebody asked Chris Verene [the band’s original drummer and an accomplished photographer who has provided the cover art for every R*A*Ts album] — he was getting interviewed — “So what’s up with this record?” and he’s like, “This record is about a guy and a girl and every song is about this story about this guy and this girl and this relationship. I don’t know if this is the same thing, but as I was going I was like, “Oh — this could be kind of  how ‘Black Ice’ ends up. Like a sequel.” So I wrote a sequel of sorts. It’s just like, “Oh, they turned around and went the other way, and this is how it ended up.”

WS: Well, “Black Ice” is such a key Rock*A*Teens track, because it has that influence — that kind of Dick Dale surf thing going on — and it has that southern grandiosity to it, but for me, as a person who spent a lot of time traveling around the world in vehicles and getting into hairy situations, it channels the complete and total fear you feel in a vehicle that’s about to lose control.

Chris Lopez: For some reason in my songs there are a lot of car crashes, plane crashes. There’s a lot of crashing going on, a lot of violent metal smashing into things. I don’t know why. And things flipping over, and cars on fire.

WS: That makes me think about transfiguration and some of the stuff we were talking about before. Transformative experiences. I don’t want to draw it back to the Catholic thing again, but for me it connects with that sense of almost spiritual transformation and of life-of-death stakes.

Chris Lopez: I mean a lot of people just in everyday life are trying to transform in some fashion, or hoping that a situation will transform them — or at least that’s how I see it. It’s like, “If this person loves me, I will be transformed. If I accomplish this certain thing I will be transformed. If I can get from point A to point B I will be transformed.” And some people just kind of waltz through it, and some people run arms akimbo through it, and they don’t go from A to B, but they get there eventually I suppose. Unscathed, I don’t know. There will be cuts and bruises, and arms in slings and stuff. But Jesus got literally destroyed, and came back draped in purple fabric. You know what I mean?

WS: And one of the things that starts to happen once you get older and you start accumulating years on earth is that  you start to see transformation and destruction and really horrible things happening to people you know. I’m seeing a lot of that even recently.  And sometimes I sit around and I think, “It’s not over. There are people I know right now who are not going to make it. Something will come out of the blue, and it will be devastating. I’m not even thinking about them or I’m taking them for granted, and they could disappear tomorrow. Or maybe it will be me!”

You walk around in a trance, thinking that the normal state of affairs is that bad things don’t happen all that often, but in reality it’s just that they’re sporadic enough to give you a false state of security. But at the same time, a lot of the most horrific things that I’ve witnessed changed me and made me a more empathetic and compassionate and kind person. So, in a way, I’m grateful for them. There’s something beautiful in recognizing the fragility of your own life and the lives of those around you, and understanding that there really are things to lose and I feel like that makes you appreciate how life is this incredibly singular precious gift, and also this mystery.

Chris Lopez: I kind of think the Sword of Damocles is hanging over everybody.   And once you realize that, you feel for other people. Like, “How can I help that sword not go through their shoulder? I hope that doesn’t happen — what can I do to prevent that?” Or, if it has happened, “How can I help it not hurt so bad?” You know what I mean?

WS: I do.

Chris Lopez: But it’s hard. It’s hard to keep that in mind. I mean, in my life and struggles that I have, just emotionally, or dealing with people in my life, it’s hard not to see it. Some people it’s hanging by a thread, some people that sword is hanging by a big fat rope, you know what I mean? Some big fat rope, but it’s on fire, and it’s burning.

But that empathy, you know… Like when you’re fucking 21, you’re not thinking about that stuff. But then, going back to what we were talking about before, when people die that were right next to you the day before, that freaks you out.

WS: It’s funny, you’re talking about the Sword of Damocles hanging over someone’s head, and that made me picture the cover of Sixth House, because it has that house with about ’…” of a tree sort of sitting on top of it. With that title, are you thinking about the house as a collection of songs under one roof? Because it’s your 6th record? Or is there another meaning to that?

Chris Lopez: That kind of started out from something I had written down somewhere from astrology and then a lot of things kind of came up in my imagination, about just the simple two word thing, Sixth House… Kind of sounds cool, too! But then the tree on the house… when I saw some [photographs] from Chris [for consideration on the cover], it kind of reminded me of The World According to Garp, when he’s looking at a house and a plane crashes into it and he’s like, “I’ll take it!” And the realtor’s looking at him and he’s like, “What are the chances of a plane crashing into this house twice?” You know what I mean? “This is a safe place now.” That’s another way I was thinking about that. Is this a disaster or a disaster averted? Nobody was hurt, we just gotta get the tree off there and fix the roof, you know? Not so bad.

WS: Sort of like, “Well, the disaster’s already happened. So I don’t have to dread the disaster happening now, because it just literally happened in front of me.”

Chris Lopez: “Dodged that…Whew.”

And going back to the car thing, it’s like falling asleep at the wheel and waking up and jerking it back on the road. Like “Whoa, that was a close one. And now I’m sort of freaked out. And I’m wide awake for the rest of the night.”

(Will Sheff’s Okkervil River released their most recent album, In the Rainbow Rain, earlier this year via ATO Records. Sheff’s Rock*A*Teens primer, along with associated notes, below.)

Don’t Destroy This Night: The favorite Rock*A*Teens song of folks I know, including Carl Newman of the New Pornographers and Dan Bejar aka Destroyer, who once wrote “This Night might have been the record influenced by the Rock*A*Teens. I definitely went reverb crazy.” A deeply romantic song in a depressingly prosaic setting.

Car and Driver: A song about how you’re the pilot of your own flesh and bone and that fact doesn’t make you feel any better when everyone seems to take off from you running.

I Could Have Just Died: This might be my single favorite Rock*A*Teens song. An incredible, punishing performance from Lopez and band. Abigail Covington put it beautifully in her wonderful Oxford American piece on the R*A*Ts:

There are times when I listen to this song and I imagine myself at a house party where someone has just busted through the front door and delivered urgent, buzz-crushing news–the energy that’s left is channeled into a sorrowful swivet as people start abandoning the party at breakneck speeds; I fall on my face; I pick myself back up and keep running; I search for a safe house and a couch to crash on; I am crying in the wind. By the end of the song, I am exhausted.  

Billy Really: The kick-off track on Sixth House showcases the relentless acoustic guitar that Lopez and I talk about in our interview, laying under everything and churning away like a combustion engine. Billy, who really wants one but ain’t willing to pay, is an archetypal Rock*A*Teens protagonist.

Black Ice: A white-knuckle surf-rock nightmare about almost dying in a car crash, boasting some of my favorite Lopez lyrics — from the towering refrain “Sweet Jesus, take my head in your hands, because I feel myself going down to the Southland, where it began” to fun little details (the song kicks off in “a town north of Nashville, where the crackers go to learn how to play”) to the tossed off rock and roll hilarity of “I BROKE I THINK MY FUCKING ARM!”

Across the Piedmont: “Across the Piedmont’s” gorgeous ascending melody makes it almost take on a mystical quality, and the handful of lyrics that make it through the haze are so evocative and elemental that it’s like the Piedmont could be the Elysian Fields. I once asked Lopez what this song was about and then immediately admonished him not to tell me. What I get from it is a feeling of realizing your own vulnerability to loving and needing someone, and being scared shitless by that realization.

Make It New Again: Lopez nicks some Ezra Pound and hopes we don’t notice and gives us a little inspirational song about calling the whole thing off and starting again from square one.

Ether Sunday: I’m so tickled by the utter perversity of this song, which paints a bleak Hunter S. Thompson-esque picture of hiding out in your house huffing ether with the blinds drawn, while outside your window you can dimly hear kids hunting for Easter eggs. This song always made me think of what Joy Division would sound like if they had been Georgia boys.

Baby’s on to Me: Some of the best R*A*Ts songs are waltzes. I’ve held off on too many of them in a row on this playlist because I’m operating on the theory — which I’ve often heard attributed to Scott Walker — that if you put too many 6/8 songs in a row people will stop listening. But the romanticism of a waltz suits the band, and this one from the new record is one of their best. “So long to Munich at night,” sings Lopez, “to wine at first light.”

Little Caesar on a Bicycle: Kind of like if Flannery O’Connor was ghostwriting for The Fall. A hilarious and pungent little Cabbagetown portrait which Lopez and I talk about at some length in our interview.

If I Wanted to Be Famous (I’d Have Shot Someone): I remember hearing this when it first came out and thinking the message of it was so cynical and true that it was almost indecent to actually sing it aloud. And that was in 2000! The song has just become more depressingly relevant as the years have ground on. A great “I don’t give a shit” statement of purpose for the band, though, kind of like their “Revolution Blues.” And what a bridge!

Your Heart or Your Life: The sheer momentum of this song floors me. As Lopez says about songs like this in our interview: “You don’t know if it’s going to stay together or not, if this rivet is solid, if you tightened that bolt enough, but we’re going to see if we can go down the steep hill to the flat point over there in one piece.”

The Rockabilly Ghetto: Another grimly hilarious Cabbagetown tableaux, with music like a demented carnival. Close your eyes and some kind of lost John Waters movie. And I love that it’s lyrically tied in with “Little Caesar on a Bicycle.”

N.Y. by Helicopter: The narrator floats over Manhattan in a cloud of cheap out-of-tune farfisa. He makes a wobbly descent, and then he rises back up again. We’re not told why, and it’s not clear if any of this is actually happening, but it’s really more about the mood, this feeling of warm fuzzy calm coupled with a sense that something’s very wrong. This song, like “Ether Sunday,” is uncomfortable and uncanny in evoking what you gain and lose when you derange your senses.

Count in Odd Numbers: The verse of this song from Sixth House boasts of the best vocal melodies Lopez has penned, to my mind; the lyric is possibly a cousin to Randy Newman’s “I Think He’s Hiding” and it gets at the charm and horror of empire.

If You Only Knew: Another great big swinging R*A*T’s waltz from Sweet Bird of Youth, the band’s most theatrical album, and another great evocation of triumph and despair at a party together.

Down with People: The first song on the first Rock*A*Teens record, which is their messiest and cloudiest and most primitive, but still full of the mystery and romance they’d deepen later. It’s fitting that the only lyrics I can make out in this song sound like, “In the darkness I can hear you sing.”

Never Really Ever Had It: This epic swashbuckler kicks off the second R*A*Ts platter. “You ruined forests just to get to me. You destroyed cities just to get to me. From Manassas to Savannah, trying to get to me. I walk on dark and holy lands!” screams Lopez, before this song builds to this towering rat-a-tat mouthful of a chorus; “Neverreallyeverhadit! Neverreallyeverhadit!” — topped with a little flamenco-esque yodel for good measure.

Please Don’t Go Downtown Tonight: The classic and archetypical Rock*A*Teens protagonists. When they were young, they “ran circles around all the pretty ones, all the city sons.” Now one of them is begging the other not to ride off into oblivion.

Misty Took a Holiday: I’ve always loved how straight-up punk rock the structure of this song is. It’s almost like a Sex Pistols song, in a way. A refreshingly small pocket portrait, compared to more epic and sweeping narratives like “Count in Odd Numbers” and “Across the Piedmont.”

Black Metal Stars: The song’s protagonist wishes the object of his desire would like him in the same way that she moons over the glossy Varg Vikernes and Infernus pin-ups clipped from her issue of Terrorizer magazine.

Teen Muscle / Teen Hustle: A celebration of youth and vibrancy and, as ever, bad decisions. “Libation is our salvation!”

Sun’s Up: This would be the climactic song in my imagined Rock*A*Teens jukebox musical, when all of the smoke clears from the bare stage and the bruised and beaten lead character stands tall to face his final reckoning.

Go Tell Everybody: If you liked this playlist, check out the albums! I’d pair Sixth House with Baby, a Little Rain Must Fall first, and then proceed on to Sweet Bird of Youth and work backwards from there. And if you like those albums, go tell everybody else you know.

3 thoughts on “Will Sheff / The Rock*A*Teens :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

  1. Great job Will. (You don’t know me, I guess but we have a ton of mutual friends and I’m a long time fan). Like you, The Rock*A*Teens have been a big fave since the first album. This could even be their best yet. I brushed up against (and drew tons of inspiration from) the Cabbagetown scene and “Cry” was the soundtrack to the early days of my band, living in Athens and playing at Dotties and The Star Community Bar in 96-99. Kudos to AD for shining a light on this great album.

  2. Thanks Patterson! It was fun to do this and always awesome to connect with fellow R*A*Ts fans who are musicians. And the feeling is very mutual!

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