Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When we last spoke with Oscar, it was 2009. FREE! was still in print edition, Oscar's storied band, Nakatomi Plaza was coming to a close with their last tour, and he was looking forward to fresh start with some new projects. Fast forward to present day where we're heading to close out 2010 and his two new projects Ludlow Lions and Ghost Robot Ninja Bear have already begun to make their mark on the underground music community. In this interview we'll focus on the later of his two newest loves and discuss how the project came about, their new material, Red Bull's poor choice in marking campaign, and more. Bubba Crumrine interviews. 

IU: When did you first know you wanted to form a band like GRNB?

Oscar: For a couple years now I knew I wanted to do a solo project.  I had worked with many songwriters on their own projects and just thought it might be nice to do a something where I could play solo if I wanted to, or have a band, or half a band, or cowrite sometimes, and have a revolving door where my friends (who all happen to be amazing musicians) could walk in and do their thing.  It's been great so far. 

IU: Was the foundation for GRNB underway while you were still in Nakatomi Plaza or formed afterwards?

Oscar: Yes, I started recording demos for GRNB while NP was figuring out how to release our final album, "Ghosts".  We actually played our first show ever at Piano's on July 20, 2009, a few months before NP's The Coda Tour.  That lineup included me, Geoff Kraly on bass, Rachel Rubino from Bridge and Tunnel on guitar, Christopher Enriquez from On The Might Of Princes on drums, and Brendan Coon of Ludlow Lions on vocals and percussion. 

IU: How did the lot of players come to be performing together?

Oscar: Rachel and I were actually working on a hardcore band (with Al from NP/Bridge and Tunnel and Will Noon from Straylight Run) at the same time GRNB came together.  Jordan Melkin (guitar), Brendan, and I were in Ludlow Lions.  Christopher and I have a live karaoke band called Infinity Spaceship plus NP and OTMOP played a lot of shows together early on.  Geoff, Adam Christgau (drums) and I have worked together on various freelance music projects.  Liam and I were in Nakatomi Plaza and we've been best friends since college.  Gunnar Olsen (drums) and I were in De La Hoya and Fires of Rome, and are currently in the Dexter Lake Club Band, plus NP and The Exit did some touring together .  That's the long answer.  The short answer is we've all worked together before in various projects and I've always wanted to be in bands with all of them.  GRNB is the perfect opportunity for this. 

IU: How did the solo acoustic dates go?

Oscar: Amazing!  In the 15 years or so I've been playing live I have never ever played a solo acoustic show.  The first night in Oswego was terrifying actually.  But the next night in Ithaca at The Ghostcat was so awesome.  No PA,  just me singing and playing acoustic guitar sitting close to 30 or so people crammed in a living room.  Don't get me wrong, you know I love playing loudly and rocking out with a band, but this was a different kind of intense.  Also, I could hear everything perfectly since it was as quiet as it was.  I'm looking forward to doing more of these. 

IU: How do you feel this project differs from Ludlow Lions and your previous works with N.P.?

Oscar: GRNB and LL are like night and day.  I enjoy both, but it's like comparing apples and oranges since the music is so different.  Also, I'm the 'dad' and do all the writing for GRNB.  In LL, there were 3 'dads" and Brendan did most of the writing. 

I do feel that my work in GRNB is a continuation of what I did in NP.  But things are a little noisier this time around, and more 'rock' than they were in NP. 

IU: What are some of the pros & cons of being the main force behind all the music of the band?

Oscar: Pros:  No arguments!  Streamlined everything. 

Cons:  Self-doubt, like when you spend 3 days tracking a vocal for one song because no one else is around to say "that's good, stop".  Feeling like you're navigating a huge ship at sea without a map (though to be fair it hasn't really felt like that yet).  I was going to say 'not getting help with songwriting' but I did a couple cowrites recently and it was great. 

IU: GRNB has been getting some nice reviews already but has been getting the fairly generic comparisons to Hot Water Music, Small Brown Bike, etc. Which bands are you actually pulling influence from and how would you describe the band's sound in your own words?

Oscar: The reviews have been great but yeah, while I totally respect HWM and SBB I wouldn't necessarily call myself a real fan (though I did see some pretty sweet HWM shows).  When I started writing for GRNB, I wanted to do something that was lyrically like The Weakerthans and musically like Queens of the Stone Age.  I don't think I've succeeded at either, but I am very happy with what we've generated.  It's rocking, it's noisier than NP, on the new record there's guitars AND real analog synths, sometimes it's heavy, but it's all still very melodic. 

IU: Any new material in the works? If so, give us the lowdown!

Oscar: Yes!  Earlier this summer, Gunnar, Geoff, and I went to Guilford Sound in Vermont and tracked basics for 8 songs (6 originals and 2 covers;  one by Small Factory and the other by Scarce - please go check out their records if you're not familiar, they were my favorite local bands as a teenager in RI).  Guilford Sound is my friend Dave Snyder's new studio.  My words will not do it justice;  it is the Cadillac of recording studios.  See?  No justice. 

Dave used to own Jarvis in NYC (where NP recorded "Unsettled" with J. Robbins) and I knew when he said he was building a new studio it was going to blow Jarvis out of the water (which itself was an amazing place).  They were still doing construction on the lounge and bathroom when we got up there and the band residence (which is actually a house built in the 1800s) had not been renovated yet so we slept in the live room and iso booths and used Dave's bathroom at his house a few hundred yards up a hill.  So you'd wake up every morning, say hi to all the construction dudes, run up to the house, go to the awesome food co-op, then start working. 

Gunnar and Geoff completed their tracks in one day.  Unbelievable.  With practically no edits or punches.  And, we only had 3 rehearsals together.  Those dudes really know how to play. 

We also did the basics straight to two-inch 24 track tape.  Tape!  For the first time in years I was in a recording studio and the computer was off.  You had to really use your ears.  I prefer that. 

When we started recording guitars, Dave switched over to Pro Tools.  "I know you want to do a ton of guitar tracks."  And I did.  And we had 3 days left so we were really able to take our time trying out different guitar, pedal, and amp combinations.  Before we left we tracked some rhodes and piano, then made our way back to Brooklyn. 

For the next 2 months I tracked vocals at home.  Since we started recording without a computer we tried to keep that tape-mentality going with everything we did.  Minimal to no editing.  No beat-detecting.  No elastic audio.  And I was determined this time around not to pitch-correct my vocals.  And since there was no deadline, I gave it a shot.  Which at times was very, very frustrating.  But each session I got better takes of everything, and I got great advice from friends about how to self-produce and self-record.  You really have to be able to split up the duties of being the performer, engineer, and the producer.  I did not know this at first, and was trying to do a take, make sure the preamps and compressors were dialed in well, watch the computer, and evaluate the take as I was singing it.  No no no.  Make sure the gear is dialed in first then forget about that part.  Then just say "ok, today I am the performer" and just sing a bunch of takes without evaluating.  Then come back the next day and be the producer and check out the previous day's takes.  Boom.  I swear I'm not bragging;  but I am really proud of the vocal performances on this record. 

In the meantime I also enlisted Jordan to track some guitar for a few songs, Brendan to sing on a song originally entitled "It Will Kill You"  but is now called "In The Helium Mines",  and Al to sing on another song.  They all killed it. 

And then one day I came home and Geoff had sent me all these analog synth tracks.  What?!?!  Awesome!  He's been reading up on voltage controls, oscillators, etc and buying modules, keyboards, etc.  There's a lot of cool synth tracks on the record and hopefully we can incorporate that into the live show someday. 

Dave and I could not get our schedules to coincide for mixing, so he suggested that I contact J. Robbins again.  What a fantastic idea!  I sent J. the rough mixes and he seemed psyched, so a month later I'm in Baltimore for a week watching him mix my record.  It was really good to work with him again.  We get along really well and he really gets what I'm trying to do.  While we were there Shawna Potter from Avec/War on Women came in and sang Phoebe's part on the Small Factory cover;  she also killed it.  Everyone sounds so good on this record.  We had last Tuesday scheduled for revisions but we canceled.  That has never happened.  There's always revisions.  Not this time since J. really nailed it on the first try. 

And now, we're just waiting for it to get mastered.  I'm so excited.  This is the record I've always wanted to make.  I'm happy with the writing.  Everyone's performances are so killing.  Dave and J. keep complementing each other on the production.  It's rocking, a little noisy, and tight but real.  We did not auto-tune or beat detect anything.  This is what we actually sound like.  You can't say that about a lot of modern records. 

IU: Earlier in the fall you and Aaron from Attica! Attica! initiated the "Please Don't Hang Out In Front Of The House" comp in protest of Red Bull trying to throw a basement show in NJ like it was some sort of exclusive thing. The project helped turn the tide and Red Bull reconfigured their promotional game. Personally, we've been contacted by Scion and a few other huge corporations asking to help us "bear the burden" of being a DIY organization. What are your thoughts on Red Bull situation and for corporate sponsorship in concerts as a whole? 

Oscar: Scion?  Wow.  Look, I can't fault people for taking sponsorships.  It's like trying to fault someone for taking a job at Starbucks.  Maybe that's the only job they could get.  We all need money.  And maybe you'll get contacted by a 'good' company that you do want to work with.  But what Red Bull is doing flies completely in the face of what the DIY community has accomplished for the last who knows how many years.  And they know it.  They're trying to co-opt an underground culture that has worked hard to remain off the radar.  They're making something that can be very inclusive in terms of bands helping out other bands seem very exclusive.  We also don't need sponsorships to hold great basement shows.  There were times on tour where we walked away with WAY more money at a basement show than from a club.  Basements don't have overhead.  I get it, I went to Summer Stage and the Williamsburg Waterfront shows;  there's no way they could have those huge concerts without sponsorships.  And that's totally fine!  But the underground and a huge company like Red Bull just do not have any reason to work hand in hand.  And it's not like they asked permission;  they basically kicked in the door. 

IU: How is the rest of the comp project coming along?

Oscar: Really well!  The site went live this week and the stories and pictures posted so far have been thoughtful and awesome.  I heard the mastered comp tracks last night.  I love that everyone involved really went for it and wrote and recorded songs in a matter of days of the project's launch as Aaron intended.  Aaron's been working tirelessly on it and since he's like a brother to me I'm so proud of the noise he's made.  Check it out:

IU: Who from your revolving cast of characters will be in the band at Big Day In?

Oscar: Geoff, Jordan, and Liam,  We may do an old NP song.  You'll have to show up to find out!

IU: Any final words for those coming out for Big Day In?

Oscar: I hope you're all prepared for a full day of rock and Shortstop Sandwiches followed by a house party or two.

~Check out GRNB tracks online at and don't miss their performance at Big Day In with Young Widows, Bridge & Tunnel, Soul Control, Beach Parade, Zona Mexicana, and mroe!  Dec 4th, noon 'til 10PM at The Haunt. $5 and all ages.