I have fallen asleep to the band Earth for the past 15 years. Their third album, Phase 3: Thrones and Dominions, is the best way I’ve found to cancel out tinnitus and assure a good night sleep.
In February 2012 I attended an Earth show at the Highline in the Capitol Hill neighborhood hood of Seattle. Having seen Earth numerous times without hearing anything from my favorite album, I about shit my pants when they started to play the opening track, “Harvey.” This rendition was beautiful; there was something different yet very familiar about the guitar tone, phrasing and style coming from stage right. Being all of 5′ 7″ I got on my tip toes and spied a mysterious figure with his head bowed in concentration. Who was this man delivering incredible sounds? That man was Robert Roth.
Roth has been giving fans memorable music experiences for a long time now. His fantastic 2004 solo album, Someone Somewhere, pairs his soulful voice with melodic glam rock in the vein of the best Bowie and T Rex, but he’s perhaps still best known for his 1990s band Truly, who put out an album and an EP on Sub Pop and were quickly signed to Capitol in “the great grunge-rush of 1991.”
As a reunited Truly prepares to help Neumos celebrate their tenth anniversary this month, I chatted with Robert online.
NadaMucho.com: It was a real treat seeing you perform with Earth a couple years back. How did that come about?
Robert Roth: Thank you! I’ve known Dylan for a super long time and he’s a longtime friend of my wife Lynn. Truly and Earth played this thing in New York City called Macfest in the East Village back in 95′ at Howie Pyro’s club Coney Island High. We became re-acquainted in the last few years. Throughout the Summer of 2011 Dylan and Adrienne, Earth’s drummer, used to come up to my studio in Mission Beach and we would record, jam and write riffs while my kid Henry tried to pop his head in and see what we were up to. I also helped Dylan record this limited edition, cassette-only solo project for this British label. It was called Edward Kelly’s Blue. I hope to do some more stuff with them at some point down the road.
NM: Wow, limited edition cassette only! That’s awesome. I am eagerly awaiting Dylan’s solo album House of Albion too. But let’s talk about Truly. Obviously, forming a band with Hiro Yamamoto and Mark Pickerel (of Soundgarden and Screaming Trees, respectively) gave you instant credibility in 1991, especially to those who were not familiar with your previous band The Storybook Krooks. What is it like play with two fellas with such impressive rock pedigrees?
RR: I’ve always felt very blessed to be able to create and play with these guys, but I don’t really think about their pedigree or their previous bands. That was so long ago, but I didn’t really think about that when we started either. What I do think about is that, in my opinion, Mark Pickerel is one of the best drummers the world has ever seen. He’s right up there with Keith Moon, John Bonham and Hal Blaine. He has as strong of a signature style as any of them. Hiro is a bass player’s bass player who creates a sound and feeling that is very much his own. I hear from so many Truly fans that Hiro has inspired them to play, or that he is their all-time favorite bassist. I’m not comparing bands here, but I think Mark and Hiro’s gifts flow out more abundantly in Truly than with either of their other bands. A lot of music these days is premeditated. It’s perfect and up tight. We speed it up, freak out, bring it down, and blow it up. You don’t have to be correct and precise to achieve perfection.
NM: When I first heard Fast Stories… from Kid Coma, I told myself that this was the type of music I wanted to be a part of. There was as much being said in between the lyrics as there was when you sang, an almost other worldly drone that spoke to me. Was this psychosis on my part or was this a product of the organ you used?
RR: What you’re hearing are mostly overtones. Next to vocals, guitar and Mellotron that was my main instrument back then. It’s the relationship between the guitar the amp and the mic…and the walls. Or the relationship between the band members and the way the band resonates as a whole. There is a tiny bit of B3 on two songs and of course the Mellotron is on a handful of songs too, but I think you’re talking about that gooey ectoplasm that’s in between the actual notes. It’s hard to get this gooey spiritual matter to gel in the digital realm. It thrives within the world of tubes and tape. That’s why there’s this huge debate about analog versus digital.
NM: You had me at Tubes & Tape! Let’s talk about your guitar style. It is very unique and recognizable. Did you make a conscious effort to keep a cohesive sound throughout the years, or has this just evolved over time?
RR: I think it’s just the way I hear and feel it. I never liked that clean, razor sharp metal sound. It washes away one’s identity. I prefer the sound of an amp on the verge of blowing up. And I like texture. The Roland RE-301 Chorus-Echo (tape delay) was a huge part of my sound. I still have it, but I now use the RE-20. There’s digital version that sounds great in a live situation and won’t break if I bring it to a show. I also have always used a Big Muff too.
NM: It is difficult for some of us who are over thirty-five to admit we sound like our parentsdidtwenty years ago. “Sonny, the music back in my day was real music, none of this bubble gum pop bullshit.” With the advent of nostalgia, especially in Seattle (The Sub Pop Silver Jubilee was one of the greatest showings of sentimentality I have ever witnessed) how does a musician who has been playing fairly steadily for the most part of two decades keep things fresh and innovative? I assume things like your 2004 solo release, Someone Somewhere, help?
RR: If you compete with yourself rather than compete with whatever you think is going on in music at the time then you’ll never run out of things to try and accomplish. Doing my solo record was great because I could go anywhere or try anything and not have to worry so much about people expecting it to sound like Truly. I was also in a position in my life where I could take the time to learn recording on the computer and do everything myself. I want to do the same thing with Truly, but it’s hard when you’ve taken time off. People don’t necessarily want you to innovate; they want you to be what you were. I’ve struggled with that somewhat, but I’m feeling confident that we can deliver on both fronts. We’re about two thirds finished and I’m think I’m about ready for some outside help with engineering and production.
RR: Well, the very old band the Flaming Lips are a good example of artists who are competing with themselves rather than their peers. They’ve stayed relevant by leading and not following. I hear lots of new stuff I like. They’re not that new, but I really like the latest Yeah Yeah Yeah’s record produced Nick Cave’s producer Nick Launay. Do you have his number, by chance?
NM: No I do not have Nick’s number but I could do some stalking for you…. I am very excited to see, or I guess mostly hear, the band live on Sunday at Neumos. What can we expect from the set list? A steady dose of Fast Stories & Feeling You Up? Or are you going to spring some new material on us your adoring fans?
NM: Thanks for taking the time to talk to the Nada Mucho faithful Robert. I have one request, a new Truly album, any chance you can make this happen? Heck I would even break my “No Bandhandling” rule and give you at least $50 via Kickstarter or one of the other cyber-begging sights.
RR: I’m doing my best to make that happen. Like a lot of people I know, over the last few years I’ve had an onslaught of curve balls thrown my way. Things I could never have imagined ten years ago. Without going into detail I can say that there has been a fair amount of health related hardship in my family, mixed with my own parents passing, and on-and-on. All this “adult stuff” has interrupted the progress of the new Truly record. It’s still getting done, but every time I come back to it after a break I have new ideas and new songs, so the process continues. I feel it in my bones that this is all leading somewhere good, so I’m stubbornly sticking it out.
NM: Glad to hear it. Stick it out and remember: I am good for at least $50 towards the project.
RR: Thanks man.
Truly play Neumos Sunday, July 12 with Sage, Hyperlung and Bali Girls as part of the club’s 10th anniversary.