I catch Chris Rusk, the drummer for Knoxville's Royal Bangs, as he is loading in gear before the band's ninth and final show at SXSW, the music, film, and technology showcase in Austin, Texas. It is late on a Saturday night in mid-March, at a sketchy old warehouse, temporarily dubbed the Windish House, across a four-lane access road and underneath the interstate from the main SXSW action. The band's booking group, the Windish Agency, has transformed the space into a makeshift music venue for the week.
I have been trying to get Rusk's attention for weeks, but he has ignored repeated phone calls and voicemails of gradually increasing urgency, in which I explained that I would be coming to SXSW specifically to see the band and that I hoped they would make some time to see me.
Rusk looks deflated when I approach him. He seems plainly sorry that I have found him. Nope, this is not going well. At all. Which is just what I feared.
The Royal Bangs are the kind of band music critics like; their synth-heavy power pop, with traces of soul, punk, New Wave, and '80s production values, is totally in tune with the sound of the new millennium. And critics have responded, in small but significant measure, to the Bangs' latest album, Flux Outside, released in March.
At Pitchfork, Paul Thompson described it as a "generous, sweaty, markedly human record, powered as much by groovy southern-rock melodies as the steely synth shrapnel that seems to jut out from everywhere." New York Times senior pop critic Jon Pareles picked the band out of 2,000 others for a mention in his recap of SXSW this spring. In May, Pareles wrote a favorable review of the new disc:
"All the elements are tightly packed, in a crowded production that crams together (distorted) keyboards and (distorted) guitars, pushes the singers toward a tuneful yell and splashes cymbals over the top. But after the initial joyful impact, the songs are worth unpacking to find aperçus like ‘You can have everything you never wanted' (in ‘TV Tree') and the wistful intelligence that's within the barrage."
The band's climb out of a suburban garage to the outskirts of big-time success has been so gradual and deliberate that it almost seems like it hasn't happened, until you realize just how far they have come. The Bangs' early apparent promise has been followed with steady, incremental steps that have protected the band from the heady dangers of overnight success. But those small advances also seem to keep the big payoff just out of reach—which is what the band wants.
"I think that it's a really common thing that we've seen on tour—bands that we might play with that have a single that they just recorded in their bedroom, they have never gone on tour before, and all of a sudden they generate all this hype and they have to go on tour," says singer/multi-instrumentalist Ryan Schaefer. "Somebody is compelling them to because of money or whatever, and they don't know how to handle it.
"We may not be making a lot of money, but it's better than any job any of us have ever had. It's the job that everyone wants. So I don't think our expectations have changed that much. As long as we keep on the same pace as we're doing now, I think that's fine."
Schaefer and Rusk have been playing together for a decade, first as Suburban Urchins, then evolving into Royal Bangs around 2005, when guitarist Sam Stratton joined the band. In 2006, just before Schaefer left for a year in France, the Bangs—at the time, Schaefer, Rusk, Stratton, Jason Campbell, and Danny Sale—recorded and released We Breed Champions, a short, frenzied jolt of bratty, brash electronic noise-pop.
"We made that first record because we were having fun and wanted to document it," Schaefer says. "I don't think we ever thought the band was going to break up, but I was leaving for a long time, and we figured we didn't know what was going to happen, or how we were going to keep it going when I got back."
While Schaefer was in France, Patrick Carney, drummer for the Ohio blues-rock duo the Black Keys, came across We Breed Champions; Rusk had sent him a link to the band's MySpace page. Carney had just started his own label, Audio Eagle, and offered to re-release the disc.
"He called me on the phone while I was in France," Schaefer says. "Being over there, I was out of the loop, so I didn't really understand what he was trying to tell me. Here's this guy calling me, I had heard of his band but I didn't really understand what he wanted. He was really nice and just making friendly conversation, and after a while I had to turn it around—‘What are we talking about?' He said he wanted to put our record out, and I was like, ‘Wow! That's really nice.' That wasn't a big label, but that's the first time that anyone wanted to spend any money on us, and it was huge at the time. And still is a really important thing. We wouldn't be doing what we're doing now without that."
In 2009 the Royal Bangs—with Brandon Biondo and Henry Gibson in place of Campbell and Sale—issued Let It Beep, also on Audio Eagle. It was a startling step forward, smoothing the clanging sugar rush of Champions into busy, electronic head-trip pop with psychedelic and prog overtones.
In a review, I wrote, "with Let It Beep, Royal Bangs have almost single-handedly brought Knoxville music out of the shadow of the 1990s and into the 21st century." I was a little embarrassed after that review ran, because that kind of gushing praise rarely stands up to the passage of time. But I'll stick with it today—not just my take that the Bangs are a good band, but that they represent a significant generational shift in pop music, especially in East Tennessee, where rootsy, twangy, jangly, smartass college rock has been the dominant form of expression for more than 20 years.
The Royal Bangs have no direct connection to the classic Knoxville music scene that Metro Pulse covered and nurtured in the 1990s, the deep-rooted family tree that starts in the Cumberland Avenue punk clubs of the 1970s and extends through the Longbranch Saloon, Vatican Pizza, Gryphon's, Fort Sanders house parties, and the Mercury Theatre. The Royal Bangs and their friends didn't grow up going to see Superdrag, Todd Steed, R.B. Morris, and Scott Miller. Their musical outlook was shaped by a different strain of local music—experimental, underground, postpunk bands that reflected a more urban, more cosmopolitan downtown aesthetic. The Bangs (along with Biondo's current projects Coolrunnings, Wyld Stallyns, and Walsh, and fellow travelers Yung Life and the Chore Boys, among others) are part of a whole new generation of Knoxville music, a youth movement that threatens to wipe everything that came before it into obsolescence.
It's a long drive from Knoxville to Austin, Texas—more than 1,000 miles, and most of it maddeningly uneventful. It gives you a lot of time to think, especially about the dark, gnawing dread that is creeping up your spine and the vague, doom-filled premonition that the next few days aren't going to go like you want them to.
The timing had seemed perfect: Flux Outside was scheduled for release in late March, which meant that the Royal Bangs' SXSW performances might tap into whatever pre-release hype the band and its label could generate. I would be there to document whatever happened to the band, from sudden stardom to crushing disappointment or any of the more likely scenarios in between.
My first real mistake was underestimating SXSW. The $700 festival pass blew most of my travel budget, so I could afford to spend only three nights on the road, and one of those would have to be in Arkansas on the way down. So I drove 2,000 miles—30 hours in a rental car—for 48 hours in Austin. Two nights of a five-night music festival.
And not just any music festival. Almost 2,000 bands perform during official SXSW showcases, and at least as many unofficial artists pop up in bars, cafes, and nightclubs, and on street corners. Thousands of people attend the daytime conference and the nightly music showcases, and thousands more descend for the gigantic, apocalyptic party that Austin turns on for that week. And somehow I think I will just drop into the middle of all this and gather the material I need for a feature story.
Which brings me to my next problem: Chris Rusk would not return my phone calls. I had tried him several times in the weeks leading up to SXSW and never got a response. He never answered, and he never called back. I resented that, but I worried, too—about whether I would ever be able to meet up with them in Austin at all, and also about why he wouldn't talk to me.
My encounter with Rusk at the Windish House is awkward. It is terrible, really—a complete disaster. I have been in Austin for 40 of my scheduled 48 hours already, with nothing to show for it. Rusk feigns politeness for a couple of minutes, but he is very clearly not going to engage with me. He says that the band has played eight shows in five days, that their time between performances has been filled with interviews, and that he has only had 10 hours of sleep since arriving in Austin. Then he quickly excuses himself to get a beer, and disappears.
I am pleasantly surprised by the campy disco-pop of Young Empires, the Canadian trio that plays next. During the Bangs' set, I stand near the back of a crowd of about 50 people. It is probably the smallest show they played at SXSW (an afternoon multiband show they played at a vast courtyard venue earlier that day had been impossible to get into, even with a festival pass—$700 and I can't get in?) but they still deliver a feisty performance. Live, the Bangs strip much of the electronic embellishments from their songs, favoring loud guitars over synths and delivering a more straightforward shot of old-fashioned rock 'n' roll.
I don't enjoy this performance very much, though. As they play, I keep thinking about the crushing futility of this trip to SXSW, and what it means for my story.
Last year, the band—now a trio, after the departure of Biondo and Gibson—signed a deal with Glassnote Records. The announcement didn't provide the big splash of signing with a major label or a particularly fashionable indie label like Secretly Canadian, Vice, or Domino, but it was intriguing nevertheless. The label, founded in 2007 by veteran industry bigwig Daniel Glass, has international distribution and represents both the French synth-pop group Phoenix and the English folk-rockers Mumford & Sons, so it has experience with both critical and commercial success.
I reported the news, and some details about the band's upcoming third album, which would be Flux Outside, based on a brief phone interview with Rusk. The trouble was that the band's management in Nashville did not want the news about the deal published until an official press release was ready. That I didn't retract or correct the initial story—there was no reason to, other than that management wanted me to—proved to be one source of friction months later.
Also problematic, according to Schaefer: the lack of ongoing communication; the fact that I had asked about visiting the studio during the Flux Outside sessions and never followed up; instances where I had gotten the names of albums wrong in print. (I discovered one reference to We Are Champions, rather than We Breed Champions, an embarrassing slip.)
After SXSW, all these simmering issues culminated in an e-mail from Stratton on July 7, the morning after I had submitted interview questions to the band in a last-ditch effort to salvage my story:
"please do not contact us again. We do not want to work with you."
Blood rushed to my head. My heart raced. This whole long process threatened to end up as nothing.
Why didn't I follow up more rigorously after SXSW? Why hadn't I developed a relationship with the band a long time ago? Did I have the stomach to write a story about the band refusing to work with me? How am I going to explain this?
Schaefer proved to be the diplomat in the band, explaining their resistance and the perceived slights behind it in an air-cleaning phone conversation. One last chance for an in-person meeting fell through before the band went back out on the road, so we arranged a phone interview—far from ideal, but considering my deadline and the band's schedule, the only option. It was set for the following week, while the band was making the long drive between Denver and Nashville. (Stratton apologized in a second e-mail, a day after the first one, and answered most of my questions.)
Since SXSW, the band had had some bad luck—a headlining spring U.S. tour was cancelled, and the band went to Europe instead—but it also had one of the biggest milestones of its career with an appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman on April 1.
"It's something that's pretty easy for other people to appreciate, who maybe don't know what touring is like or don't go to a lot of shows," Schaefer says. "It's easier to explain to people—they can ask you how the job's going, how's touring going, and you can say, well, I think people are really into it, or the shows are getting better, and I think it's really hard for them to visualize. But being on TV, that's concrete. That's the same place the Beatles played, on The Ed Sullivan Show. That's pretty hard to top.
"There are certain things, like the first time we went to Europe, or the first time we played Lollapalooza, where you feel like you're moving on to another level of being a band. That, to me, was the biggest thing."
Flux Outside isn't as big a step from Let It Beep as Let It Beep was from We Breed Champions, but it is still a further and impressive refinement of the band's sound. Flux Outside is still dense and crammed with sonic detail, but it has more space than its predecessor, allowing the band's songwriting to reveal itself more directly. Just as the band's live performances highlight the Royal Bangs' rock 'n' roll foundation, the new trio format—and the better production values, courtesy of producer Scott Minor and David Fridmann's mix—releases the band's classic pop sensibility from the delirious swirls of arranged noise that once crowded the songs.
The disc hasn't been the band's big breakthrough, but then again, that's not what they wanted. They still travel in the same 12-seat passenger van they have had since they started touring. Things have gotten better since then—they make enough money at it now that they do not have to do anything else—but they would probably still be at it if that wasn't the case.
"We do the same thing that we've always done, but it seems like now we have better shows," Schaefer says. "More people come out to see us in whatever town we're in. Chris used to book all of our shows when we first started out, and he had to hound people so they would let us play. There are certain places where we do better than others, but for the most part we can go pretty much anywhere and have people show up who know the songs, and that's huge for us. There are starting to be more people who heard you on TV or read about the record or found it in a record store and actually know the record. People actually know our music and are coming out and actually want to hear a specific song, either an older song or something off the new record.
"That's the most rewarding part of it, because we've done it for a really long time and never really cared—we liked touring and like doing this but we never really had an idea that we were going to try it for a while and then do something else if it didn't work out. This was just what we were going to do."
And the only thing the rest of us can do is watch.