Sons of Raphael :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

The painted cover of Sons of Raphael's Full-Throated Messianic Homage.

“Love bows its head/And time morphs into space,” begins the second verse of Sons of Raphael’s “Revolution,” which opens the band’s debut Full-Throated Messianic Homage. London-based brothers Loral and Ronnel Raphael populate their debut with no shortage of mythology and the musical grandiosity to match, evoking ’60s counter culture, heady ’70s psychedelia, and new wave with touches of disco, moments of prog bombast, and AOR sheen. Moments call to mind MGMT’s creepy majesty or the uplift of prime Flaming Lips, but the Sons are set apart by lyrics that reflect a preoccupation with the vastness of “God.”

I will drop the parentheses from here on out, but keep in mind I could justifiably keep them. Sons of Raphael play with ideas of devotion, and are primarily interested in the concept of God, referred to through out the album’s sprawling arrangements of synths, reeds, and guitars, from a poetic angle. “There is no need to be absolute about it,” Ronnel explains, making it clear that while he and his brother “aren’t religious,” he fears “militant atheists” like Richard Dawkins risks “destroying future generations.” I’ll admit to not being 100% sure what the Raphaels mean when they talk about God, but watching their ornate videos and wandering through the album, it somehow makes sense anyway. The brothers joined on a Saturday morning via Zoom for a conversation about ice cream, getting album art through customs, and why they want to bring God—whatever that means—back into rock & roll. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: I really have enjoyed listening to Full-Throated Messianic Homage. I’m familiar with the religious implications of the term “homage,” the idea of it being offering. That’s the feeling pick up in this record. You both worked on this record for seven years, is that correct?

Loral Raphael: That’s correct. We regard these years as the seven years of famine. 

AD: You were wandering in the desert metaphorically?

Ronnel Raphael: It’s felt like that. Like the temptation of Jesus, you know…like in the book of Job, it’s testing you.

AD: God’s acts like a jerk in Job. But I’ve always liked that book.

Ronnel Raphael: Are you familiar with the concept of the Day of the Lord in the book of Amos?

AD: You should refresh me a little bit.

Ronnel Raphael: The Day of the Lord is a concept that’s been completely reversed in the book of Amos. Previously, it was supposed to be this day of salvation, but Amos, being quite an interesting prophet actually, he made it into a day of darkness, a day where God reverses this whole concept and punishes his people.

AD: The Old Testament is full of those moments where he gets wrathful and decides he’s going to smite someone.

Ronnel Raphael: It is full of those moments. I feel that perhaps they are not discussed as much as they should be in a way, because people are kind of afraid. There are those who want to ignore all these negative aspects of God, which are fine. You know, there is a way to deal with that too.

AD: You’ve said you consider Jesus a prototypical rock star. What prompts a statement like that?

Ronnel Raphael: I always say that Jesus had a great publicist, because if it wasn’t for Saint Paul, in so many ways, this story called Jesus, we wouldn’t have heard of him. He was a marginal kind of guy, you know? He went against the authorities. He cleansed the temple. He questioned things. There’s a feeling that the same thing should happen in rock & roll and it doesn’t seem to be happening now at all.

AD: Do you mean in terms of rock & roll’s ability to disrupt or upset?

Ronnel Raphael: In the sense of rock & roll’s ability to make the parents angry and make the kids happy. You know my brother and I noticed when we played in chapel one time, it was very interesting. They were angry at us—the kids didn’t like us. It was actually the parents who have actually experienced some good rock ‘n’ roll in the ’70s, they got it more than the kids. It’s as if something has changed recently. The kids wanted to sing ABBA songs, which is what they usually do at church [or in] school…They were angry and then we were saying, “This is a song about the last supper of Jesus.” If you listen to the lyrics, there isn’t a place more appropriate to play a rock ‘n’ roll song than in a church. I don’t mean in the sense of Christian music, which we have no interest in whatsoever.

AD: If you believe God created all things, then you understand the division between the sacred and the profane or however you want to draw those lines, can be very arbitrary.

Ronnel Raphael: Absolutely. This idea that God is everywhere, you know absolutely everywhere, with no exception, that exactly applies to that.

Loral Raphael: Sorry guys, I’m back. I just had a bit of a situation at the ice cream shop.  

AD: Is everything alright?

Loral Raphael: Well they ran out of pistachio. I was very disappointed, but I made some calls. I apologize I missed some of the conversation.

AD: We’re just talking about like God, you know, nothing nothing major. 

Ronnel Raphael: Loral, you know what? Whatever is unknown is magnified.

AD: The sonic footprint of this album is huge. It was mixed over a few months with the late Philippe Zdar, but the actual recording of the album, were you recording consistently over those years?

Loral Raphael: We started working on this album after we had a title. Ronnel was in boarding school and he was writing songs. We were both still studying and then when the songs were ready, which was a few years ago, we started looking into production. The next step was actually producing the album, arranging the album. We met a bunch of producers in the states and in Europe. Because we’d been working on it for such a long time and we had such a specific vision, we realized that really no one else should do it besides us, so we decided to produce ourselves, which was an interesting adventure because we’ve never done that before. But we had, again, such a meticulous vision. We knew exactly what we wanted to achieve and we ended up recording some of it in Los Angeles, some in Paris, some of it in London. It was a very long process

Ronnel Raphael: I always say that we are dictators when it comes to making music. There was no compromise. As producers, we’re quite strict, old-fashioned.

Loral Raphael: Yes. Meaning it’s our show. We run the show. We had a lot of session musicians who would get angry at us. Making an album is like going to war. You have to be prepared. We were very prepared. These songs have a lot of arrangements. I’m not even talking about the orchestral arrangements, but the instrumentals. Some of the songs have 300 or 400 tracks on them, meaning like 20 different guitars.

Ronnel Raphael: The amount of instruments that we multiplied making his record is greater than the number of Abraham’s descendants multiplied by God. And we made sure to double every instrument ourselves. Even if we had the best guitar player in the world, we doubled it ourselves.

Loral Raphael: These songs played in our heads for years before we actually came to the studio. Imagine living every day of your life with this song just playing in your head, and your vision, and you imagine things every day, every day, every day, every day, so when you get to the studio, it’s absolutely obvious how you want things to sound like. When we get those session musicians we use them like tools, like soldiers in your army.

AD: How many times over the course of the seven years did you feel like, “Ah, we’ve got to just knock this off.” Did that ever happen?

Loral Raphael: No but it happened to a lot of other people. We’ve had a lot of managers that we’ve changed and people that actually worked on the album that just couldn’t take the pressure. For us, everything else is irrelevant: the only thing that matters is to achieve what we wanted to achieve, our ambition, and some people, they can’t really take that, it’s too much for them. Not even with the music but even with the artwork, for example. It took us more than a few months to complete the artwork for the record because we had this very ambitious idea of getting this painter that we really like. You know very complicated stuff in a way, but nothing is complicated for us.

Ronnel Raphael: This is someone who’s been commissioned by the Vatican.

Loral Raphael: When a band comes to him to do a record it’s not obvious that he’ll say yes. It took us months of correspondence and phone calls and emails but we got it in the end. We went to France and we sat for him. He was painting this canvas for months until he was ready. Then we had to smuggle the painting across the border, which was another struggle.

AD: Was it an adventure?

Ronnel Raphael: I will tell you it wasn’t a Swiss picnic.

Loral Raphael: In fact we carried the wet painting on seven trains on the way back to London and then they put in a special room where a dog had to sniff it to make sure we’re not smuggling drugs.

Ronnel Raphael: We did all of this and just last week we had an interview with some French magazine and after all of this pain and nightmare the first question was, “Is it you in the painting, who is in the painting?”

AD: You were invested in a very specific vision with the album. How does it feel when you listen now? Can you listen to it now?

Loral Raphael: I just listened to it today in fact. I think it’s great. One of our missions was to create a timeless record and I think we achieved that. People say to us, “It’s very retro” or “nostalgic,” but actually, I think that there’s nothing nostalgic about the sound. I think there’s nothing nostalgic about the production. I think that people use the word nostalgic because in this day and age, people forget songwriting.

Ronnel Raphael: We’ve reached a new low of rock & roll bad taste.

Loral Raphael: I think that a lot of people nowadays are what me and Ronnel like to call “short term visionaries.” They write songs that will fade out tomorrow, songs that are here to disappear. This is why Ronnel is, I guess, attracted to writing lyrics and finding ideas in theology. Themes of theology are timeless and universal.

AD: And that’s what you hope that this record is?

Loral Raphael: This record will stay for a thousand generations, our children and great, great, great grandchildren will never have to work because they have all the royalties.

Ronnel Raphael: People will just show up at the house and lay wreaths and give them their money. 

AD: They should be able to use it to afford any ice cream they desire. 

Ronnel Raphael: They’ll buy the ice cream shop.

AD: They’ll never run out of pistachio; it’ll be properly managed at that point?

Loral Raphel: Like the painting and like the album, in the end we get what we want.

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