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Rotary Downs Talks Songwriting, The Clash, and Making People Dance in New Orleans

Rotary Downs photographed in New Orleans, LA at the Bomb Factory on Robertson.

Photo by Cord McPhail

This article was written for (thus the “we introduced” and whatnot), and you can read the original here.

We introduced New Orleans’ Rotary Downs a couple of months back just before their latest record, Traces, dropped. That turned out to be a solid followup to their hugely impressive Cracked Maps & Blue Reports from 2010, their newest a collection of taut grooves, slight psychedelics and interlocking riffs. We got to speak with frontman James Marler after the release to talk about not touring, musical repetition, perceived non-sense lyrics, The Clash, and being a rock band in New Orleans.

So, new album Traces, I’m a big fan, what was it like doing that?  It seems like it took quite a while from Cracked Maps

Yeah, we would’ve been done a year earlier but we kind of had to switch our recording process about halfway through, which is how it goes sometimes. We all like it a lot, so that’s the important thing.

It seems that, to me at least, there’s a departure from Cracked Maps in the sense that the songs aren’t quite as sharp but they take on some interesting structures and layer in some great arrangements. Was that a conscious decision to try out or is it just something that came together naturally.

I feel like Traces is our most original material.

Why is that?

Well, I think it was the whole journey of making the album. The various contributions of different members of the band. We added a new member Alex Smith, who is this English guy who’s been in a couple of prominent touring bands. He plays mostly guitar, bass on Twin Cities. So that’s one difference. I feel like Traces is less poppy than the previous two albums, but someone else I spoke to said the opposite.

I agree, I wouldn’t say it’s as poppy, but definitely more original.  I find myself thinking less of who your sound reminds me of and more of just watching the riffs and grooves come together.

Thanks, we also wanted to allow a little more repetition into the music. So something like Incognito, Tent City, Anthony’s odyssey, and Country Killers, I guess about half the album, you get longer sections of building off the same groove or riff. Something we wanted to do and want to do going into the future. Because in the past it’s been “oh we need a change, and we need another change”,  which is fine, but I like repetitive music, and we thought it would be interesting to do our own version of it, even if every song ends up having a chorus anyways.

I definitely get that.  I’m a songwriter myself and I always feel like I’m pressuring myself into writing that extra chord change and extra bridge.

Yeahhh, and then you listen to music you like and think, “there’s not much changing here”. Some of the greatest songs never change at all. Like Guns of Brixton, off of London Calling, it’s just one bass line and it’s amazing.

I love that stuff too.  I was listening to Yo La Tengo the earlier today and they love doing that kind of stuff with a single bass line and guitar freakouts and textures over top.

Yeah, have you heard Here She Comes Now, by the Velvet Underground?

I’m not super familiar with it,

Actually Nirvana covered it too, it’s just one riff and it’s great.

Yeah I love that kind of stuff, and I like what you guys did with it on a track like Country Killers.  There’s a couple riffs, one Niles Rodgers type thing and another chunkier type riff and they weave in and out of the arrangement really well.

Yeah, that’s our two guitarists, the first riff is our original lead guitarist, second one the British guy. It’s fun just providing a repetitive groove for those guys and just to let them go to town with coloring and texturing over the top.

Do you think that getting more comfortable doing that is a marker of your confidence as a songwriter or getting more comfortable playing with the band?

I think it’s a number of things. Our drummer’s really good and he can play almost anything if you just kind of give him a structure, and he gets the big picture of something. So that was one thing, we wanted to play to his strengths and kind of roll with it instead of trying to force him into conventional pop structures. That was one idea behind it. And, honestly because we play in New Orleans at these clubs, that’s always the stuff that people respond to. The stuff that’s danceable. So we became interested in trying to do our own version of it, because we found the kind of funk bands were getting cheesy. It’s everywhere, but a lot of it kind of makes me cringe. But I thought it was an interesting path forward to try and do our own version.  We want to do more of that at even higher tempos in the future, it’s something we’ve been playing around with.

So you guys have more stuff coming through the pipeline?

Yeah, we have a couple things rolling right now.  That’s been fun. We have a new band member, Anthony Cuccia, so he’s more in on the ground floor this time around. He played some percussion and keyboards on this record, like on Sandwich Islands. That song was going to have a totally different sound until he came in and was like “what if we did it with this sound” and that’s the way we went.

I’d love to see a quicker turnaround than the 4 years this time around.

I know, I know. So would I.

I got into you guys like right when Cracked Maps came out.

Oh yeah, have you listened to Chained to the Chariot?

Oh yeah, I actually re-listened to it this morning.  And going back to what your drummer brings, his work on that album is great.  He has these really complex patterns and great hi-hat work, and then when you guys need that funky back-beat he can bring that as well, it adds these different layers to the song

Yeah, he’s very much a percussive drummer. Polyrhythmic I guess you could say.

Absolutely.  So going back to being a band in New Orleans, and trying to get that danceable side of it, do you think being a part of that community and scene, working alongside the broader community, does that have a big influence on your sound?

Well it’s funny. I don’t think it influences me so much, but I think it like influences our drummer  and maybe a couple other guys in the band. One thing that’s pretty blatant, is that once in a while at the Mardi Gras/Jazz Fest gigs we’ll have these really great muscians sit in with us. Guys from jazz bands, like Marco Benevento and Mike Dillon, who’s amazing. So that’s different. Our drummer is pretty good at jamming actually, and the occasions where that happens it’s him leading it actually. So there’s instances where that happens, but stylistically it doesn’t have much impact on what I want to do.

That’s interesting.  Whenever I’ve written about you guys the thing that’s stood out is that, yeah it’s an indie rock band, but at the same time there’s this forceful back beat and great rhythm section.  You almost want to chalk it up to being in the scene with so many rhythm oriented bands.  It’s probably not fair to reduce it to that, but it’s the impression I’ve always had.

Yeah, well the crowds, we found when we play live it is the kind of songs that get people going. And as we said earlier, since we like playing out a lot, why not do our own take on that kind of stuff. Something with a danceable groove and pretty fast bpm, I guess. So, we do head more and more in that direction. In the earlier days I would just write the skeleton of the song on an acoustic guitar and plot it out. But we’re less inclined to do that now, and more inclined to build things from bass and drums. Which is fun, it’s different.

Absolutely, that’s definitely manifested itself in the growth from album to album.

I think so. Our band is so different from when it started, it’s not at all the same. It shouldn’t even be the same name, but we just never changed it.

Do you think there was a turning point in there, or was it gradual?

Well, me and Chris Columnbo, the guitar player, we’ve been playing together for 12 years, then when Zach the drummer and Jason the bass player jumped in 10 years ago, that’s when things changed a lot.

So was that for a specific album?

Well Chris and I made two albums. One is pretty cool in a ramshackle way, the other is just terrible, I can’t stand it. And then we made an EP that’s pretty cool. And after the EP Zach and Jason joined. It’s funny, I never wanted to play out, I just wanted to make one album. That was the whole goal of Rotary Downs. We recorded the first album in this great club called The Mermaid Lounge, and that was a much as I wanted to do with it.  But it just took it’s own twists and turns. We just kept working on new material and getting amped up on that. So you start talking about new material.

That’s one thing I wanted to talk about, it seems like you have the approach of, let’s just go out and make an album when you want to.  I’ve noticed you guys don’t really tour or play outside of New Orleans very much

Not much. Really, the pattern has been, we put out an album, trip to the West Coast, trip to the East coast. We always fly, then borrow gear. But we’ve never toured for mor than a week.

Why is that?

People just have other stuff going on. I’m more inclined to try and make new music and get your material together. I’d rather do that then spending all our time touring and playing the same setlist over and over again. So I’ve done it, but it’s just not the part of being in a band that I’m passionate about. Some bands love that lifestyle, always in a new town the next day. It’s a blast, but if I have to choose how to spend four energy, I’d rather create new material.

So is there, it seems like for most bands the non-stop touring cycle is kind of an economic reality.  Is that something you guys avoid with your other projects?

It is like that, but it’s harder and harder for bands to make money touring. And then, if they do, they don’t have time to write music. Alex was previously in a band that played the exact same set in the same order for two years of touring. And I thought to myself I would never want to do that.

As a fan, I think you can pick up on that sometimes.  It seems like the least (excuse the cliché) rock & roll way to do it. You wanna see someone go up there and give it their all and have fun with it.  You never want to see them going through the motions.

Yeah, I agree. I think there’s something to be said for….I went up to Coachella 10 years ago, and all these great bands that I like, Flaming Lips, The Cure, Pixies, Radiohead, and most of them had so much of their music pre-sequenced. It’s like they weren’t going to risk sucking at all. And it’s something I liked so much, rock bands that were up for having shitty shows. I thought that was cool. Whether it was the Stones or the Replacements, they could be so good or so bad, and there’s something great about that, not having a safety net. I understand why bands do it, for instance at Coachella it’s this huge opportunity and massive crowd, you can’t have anything go wrong.  Honestly, the best band I saw there was The Rapture.

Haven’t heard about them in a long time.

I know, but they were just going for it. And, not taking the safe route, I guess.

Compared to the other bands they probably had a lot more to prove too though.

Exactly. But I know what you mean, it’s always fun to see a little spontaneity. Those were always our funnest shows. When it’s like 2 in the morning and everyone’s nice and loose and you’re just kind of pulling things out of a hat. We were just talking about that the other night. The song Country Killers on the album, for a couple years it was just this jam we would pull it in the middle of the night, just to see where it would go.  And see if we could wind it down convincingly.

I love it when bands throw that kind of stuff in there.  It’s not something I really saw until I moved to a city with a strong local scene. With most of the bigger bands, they seem afraid to do that stuff.  But you get the small, local bands, told they have to play ‘till 2 AM so they have to start trying stuff, so when it works it’s great.

Oh I agree.  And when it doesn’t work, it’s worth a shot.

I agree, at least you got to go along for the ride.  Alright, so I wanted to ask about the lyrical side of it too.  I’ve been a big fan of how you work with your words.  There’s a great way of weaving disparate images and bits of dialogue that creates this surreal picture that builds to a larger theme.

I’m glad you get that, because some people think their cryptic or nonsense or something.  And I don’ tlike to correct people about it, but I don’t think it’s really that hard to get [laughs].  I’ve always liked stuff like that, like early R.E.M. and Captain Beefheart, Velvet Underground.

It makes the songs pretty quotable too.  There’s the line in one song where you sing “one said, ‘can I have more cheese and crackers’”, you can’t always follow what’s happening, but the way the dialogue slips into the lyrics is like there’s a movie happening with dialogue.

That’s supposed to be two generals looking over a war map and ordering more snacks.

I saw on your Facebook you’ve been doing explanations of your songs for Traces

Yeah, our PR company promoting the album asked for descriptions.  And initially I was pretty reluctant, but I figured what the hell, this is what they’re about.

I get the reticence of not wanting to spell it out, but on a track like Country Killers, it can sound like just a bunch of images happening, but when you hear the story behind it, it really takes shape.

Yeah, I try to get them to a point where I feel 100% about them. It’s definitely not random, but simultaneously, if I havce a line that sounds too direct or heavy handed, I’ll actually change it.

I struggle with that too. Is this too direct, will it sound like a pity party? How can I morph it into something interesting.

I also think about how the words sound, and how that matches with what the music is doing, I’ll think about, what is this the soundtrack of, if this was a movie. And push it in that direction.

It’s an interesting approach. I definitely get the feel of how the words sound in your lyrics.  I think it’s Incognito where you list start listing countries, and it just flows really well.

Yeah, I started in the last couple years I rediscovered the Clash big time. I guess as a kid I just never realized how brilliant the lyrics are. And they’re a good example of lyrics that feel like snippets of conversation, and they seem like they make them up on the spot, but if you really look into them they’re really smart and clever. I think asong like Incognito was very influenced by the Clash.

Any other writers or artist/albums you guys looked to for this album?

Let’s see. I guess maybe a bit David Bowie. Flowers in Bloom comes from 60’s fuzz and garage fuzz. Godzilla AKA, that started with a loop I did at home, that to me sounded like Panda Bear.  You’d never know it listening to the track, but just the way the main riffs bounce off each other, I was listening to Person Pitch a lot and, it’s like 9 degrees away from that but that’s how it started.  You just never know, when your influenced by something and the band takes it another way.

That’s something that I think comes through pretty well, thanks to that repetive structure, everyone gets to add their separate influences.

Yeah, there’s a lot of different tastes in the band too. And we try to stay out of each others way. In the past we would maybe over clutter things, cause there’s so many interlocking parts, this gives us a little more space.

So by staying out of each others way do you mean just letting someone else have their bit without any kind of fight against it.

Yeah, without any kind of other riff, or if anything make it so subtle

Do you guys have fights trying to bring those different tatstes together.

Not really, especially with Traces everyone was really patient. I think extraordinarily so. But we all want the songs to sound great, so no one’s going to take a stance just because. But if someone throws out a riff to start a jam, there’s always that moment where it’s a clusterfuck, everyone playing at once, and it’s kind of hellish.  I think every band does that really. You kind of have to tell people to settle down and strip it down.

Alright well, I’ve got to head out, great talking to you.

Yeah, it’s been good talking to you.