Interview: Grooms (Travis Johnson)
by West Philly Eats
For the first of what will hopefully be many interviews at Biomusicosophy, I had a digital conversation with Travis Johnson of Grooms. I wrote a glowing review for their excellent 2009 debut, Rejoicer, which rocked way too much to get the notice it deserved in a year of anti-rock vibes sent out from indie-power-machines like P4K. A new Grooms album will likely be released at the end of this year, but in the meantime be sure to check out a demo for new song “Into The Arms” on the band’s myspace page.
Me: What’s the last album you bought and what’s so great about it?
TJ: I didn’t buy it, but the last one I got was given to me by the dudes in Skeletons. It’s their last album, Money, and it’s totally wicked. It kinda picks up, for me, where the late 90s and early 2000s Joan of Arc stuff left off. It’s fairly self-indulgent, which I really enjoy if it’s people who know what they’re doing. It’s abrasive and tuneful at the same time. Matt’s voice is dope. I think they’re one of the more underrated bands I know of, definitely in New York.
Me: Grooms recently returned from SXSW. Where and with whom did you play? Who were some of the most exciting performers you saw?
TJ: We played with, among others, Sisters, JEFF: The Brotherhood, Darlings, Surfer Blood, A Class Actress, We Are Country Mice, and The Beets. The best place we played was this place called the Longbranch Inn. It was a pretty righteous Impose Mag party that our friend Cyrus from Famous Class curated. I’ve seen JEFF a zillion times now but this was definitely my favorite show of theirs ever, and definitely my favorite of the festival. We actually tried to take it easy and just hang out so we didn’t actually see too many bands, now that I think of it…
Me: There’s always been criticism directed against SXSW for not being “outside” enough and for embracing the same capitalistic and mainstream values it would seem to resist. Such critiques seemed more frequent this year, some even lodged by mainstream rags like the New York Times. What do you make of this?
TJ: Well, it’s tricky, because SXSW can be a great thing for a band, but it can be a really depressing one too. It’s really not the place for a band to go and, out of nowhere, get discovered, at least not anymore. It might seem that way to people who aren’t paying much attention, but the bands who get shit loads of press there already had a good amount of steam going into it, which makes sense, because how else do you know which of the 1.7 million bands to go see? In terms of being outside, it’s definitely not. It’s not like skronky noise jazz is going to be a big hit there. Outside enough? Not really for my taste. It would be really cool if there were tons of really fucked up bands doing their thing there and not getting lost in a sea of buzzy pop bands, but I’m not sure what could be done about that.
Me: In a post on the Grooms blog, you mention how indie music has forgotten its radical political roots. What do you think are the political values that indie music and culture once had and should have today and in the future?
TJ: I think it’s not even that it used to have specific political ideals so much as that it generally did have ideals. Now it’s just so amoral. “No ideals? Cool, so long as we can party to your jams.” That kind of thing. I do think the indie world used to have some ideals that were really awesome to come across when I was a teenager, and were really inspiring to me, and I’m not sure a kid just discovering whatever that term encompasses now would really get that out of it. There’s not much of a focus on inclusiveness or humility either. It really seems just as regimented as the failing major label world. And Reagan-era excess seems fairly celebrated as well. In that sense, it’s depressing. The term “indie rock” is probably dead in that way. I wish it were still a world of people testing out new ideas, were willing to be poor, were willing to do things that would alienate yuppies and their interests. That’s basically what I meant. Specifically, I would say feminism in the indie rock world is dead as a doornail, and you can see some pretty scary examples of that all over.
Me: Music writers frequently make unhelpful comparisons with Bob Dylan and any contemporary artist who creates music that can be lumped under some sort of “singer-songwriter” or “folk” tag. Since the second-wave-indie era, bands that merge dissonant guitars with a subtle pop aesthetic and noise tendencies are oftentimes, not just compared, but criticized for being imitators of Sonic Youth. What’s your response to those who claim that the Grooms sound is derivative of Sonic Youth and guilty of not doing its own thing?
TJ: I always thought it was funny that if you sounded much like Sonic Youth you were an imitator, but if you just made generic-ass pop music, you could be okay, even in the supposedly alternative music press. If we’re guilty of not doing our own thing, so are almost all the bands that are less noisy than us. I guess it takes a more discerning ear to notice different things people can do with dissonance and noise without sounding just like someone else. Maybe it’s just easy to write something off as “oh, that’s just some SY noise type thing.” I’m not really sure. As far as our record goes, hearing someone say that we sound just like SY makes me think they don’t really know much about SY. We obviously like them a bunch, but we also do things they’d never do, like use lap steel, or 13 tracks of Moogs, or construct a scream choir, etc. And we also like to have pretty stuff going on all the time, and vocal harmonies and stuff. So in that sense, I think people who say that are either not paying attention to us, or they never really understood much about Sonic Youth to begin with.
Me: The contemporary indie music climate, which has been embracing a more 80s dance/synth-heavy aesthetic recently, is not very friendly toward guitar-centric sounds. How does Grooms position itself, as a clearly guitar and rock-driven band, within this hostile historical context?
TJ: There’s actually a pretty good parallel here with the 80s. Bands that were really the first tier of indie guitar rock, like Mission of Burma or Black Flag or even Sonic Youth were kind of competing with a mainstream at the time that was celebrating the 80s stuff that’s getting recycled now. So I guess we can compete with that again. It doesn’t really concern me in the sense that I don’t swear allegiance to guitars. It’s just what I know how to play. We don’t have to be a guitar band but we have been so far because that’s what we know how to be, I guess. We definitely play shows where we’re between more synth-oriented bands, and it can be a real blast to freak people out when they’re not expecting us.
Me: On “Fag Feels Good,” there’s a lyric that claims something like the following: “_____ kids in camouflage, a time when guitars sound like guitars.” What are the actual lyrics and what are they about?
TJ: The lyric is: “Christian kids in camouflage, frottage. Where guitars sound like guitars, they’re ours.” It’s a reference to this church camp I went to when I was 12. In my hometown I got picked on, even by my friends, for being a sissy who cried a lot, got called fag a bunch. But, for whatever reason, at that camp, I felt good. So, “fag feels good.” The camouflage thing is about this capture-the-flag-type game we’d play in the dark, wearing camo stuff, and there was lots of hooking up, but I’m guessing, not actual sex, but maybe some approximation thereof, like frottage. The guitars bit (man, this is a long explanation) is about how a bunch of the Christian kids I knew didn’t like the music I liked, and would be amazed to find out that some of the sounds on the albums I’d play them were actually heavily fucked-with guitars. They liked their guitars acoustic and very guitar-like. There were lots of acoustic guitars at that camp. It was basically just a reference to this place not being in any way culturally cool or hip, but I felt good there. It’s not like I was looking for anything else at that age anyway.
Me: Word on the street is that you do some work for Death By Audio (the Brooklyn-based guitar pedal company founded by Oliver Ackermanm of Skywave and A Place To Bury Strangers fame). Is it true? Does Grooms use any Death By Audio products?
TJ: Yep, I do work there, building pedals. Right now the only one I use is an Octave Clang, but I’m sure more will work their way in.
Me: What other interesting projects, music or otherwise, are Grooms involved with?
TJ: Emily and I have a for-fun noise project called Italian Blood that’s practiced and recorded once. I started jamming with Matt from Sisters and Jay from French Miami recently too. Jim recently did a thing with Mark Shippy from US Maple that’s super awesome.
Me: What’s next for Grooms? When’s the new record coming out and, if you’re not keeping it like a secret or building a mystery, what should we expect?
TJ: We’re hoping to record the album later this summer and it’ll hopefully be out later this year. Our last album, Rejoicer, will be out on vinyl for the first time in June, too. I think this next record is going to be kinda all over the place. Some really driving stuff, some Neu!, some moody psych, and probably a good amount of washy guitar. I think it might be prettier. I like the idea of it being really hypnotic, but we’ll see. Also, for the first time ever, Emily plays guitar (instead of bass) on a few tracks. She really rules at writing stuff on the guitar, just coming to it from a really unique standpoint, I think.
Me: Last time you played Philadelphia it was in the basement at Pilam for about 10 excited heads. Planning on coming through here anytime in the near future?
TJ: I think there were 11 excited heads! We’ll be playing the Kung Fu necktie in late May!