By Brendan O’Brien
So far, there’s one clear-cut contender for the “Best Album of 2002” title, and it’s The Anniversary’s Your Majesty. Not enough good things can be said about it. I’ve been whoring these guys out since mid-2000, when I first heard their debut, Designing a Nervous Breakdown. That album got them lumped in with all the “emo” kids” which is unfair because they have a lot more substance than most of the other bands in that movement.
Your Majesty should help them assert their own identity. It is so much more assured, so much more accomplished, that it sounds like the work of a different band. …Breakdown was rocking and anthemic; Your Majesty is epic. It’s like the difference between Come On Pilgrim and Bossanova – in just one album’s time. At this rate, The Anniversary will either create the definitive “alternative” rock album of the ‘00s with their next release, or they will spontaneously combust.
Justin Roelefs, guitarist, vocalist, and one of the two principal songwriters, was kind enough to answer some of our questions recently and give us the lowdown on touring and Radiohead wannabes.
Nada Mucho: Just for the record, tell us who you are and what you do – both in a universal sense, and within the confines of The Anniversary.
Justin Roelofs: My name is Justin Roelofs and I play guitar and sing in The Anniversary. I write half of the songs. I also do interpretive modern dance routines to Bell Biv Devoe and Tony! Toni! Tone! songs at the local Lawrence community center. I’m a trip.
NM: Your Majesty has a very different sound compared to your debut, Designing a Nervous Breakdown. More organic, maybe less… perky? What precipitated the change? Was it a situation where you sat down and said, “Hmm, here’s our new direction,” or does it just reflect a natural growth as songwriters and as a band?
JR: If you listen to this record compared to the first, it doesn’t even sound like the same band. And this was a natural progression. I wrote a few of the songs on the first album when I was 19. I am 23 now so obviously, as with anyone (but especially a songwriter), I’ve gone through countless musical phases in the last three years. So for me, and the rest of the band, it was totally natural. There was no striving for a new sound, no calculating or goals being set. The handful of recordings we did between these two records certainly showed that we were moving in a new direction anyway. It might seem like a drastic change, but we just learned a lot in the last few years – about song writing, as well as how to play our instruments.
NM: How would you describe the new sound, then?
JR: I don’t know. This question is impossible. We are definitely a “rock” band. And that explains nothing. I can’t tell you what we sound like exactly. I definitely know that anyone that calls this music “emo” is a complete moron. Our new record was heavily influenced by old rock music, old soul.
NM: How does the songwriting process work for The Anniversary? Do you bring complete songs to the band, or do you bring concepts that everyone else works to flesh out? Do all the members have autonomy as far as their own respective parts go?
JR: Everyone writes their own parts. As far as the song, the real foundation, the melody – Josh and I do all of that ourselves at home in our bedrooms. When either of us brings a song to practice, it is mostly finished as far as the basic structure and melody goes. Things definitely mature, or get shifted around a bit. But this band definitely doesn’t come to practice and immediately start writing a new song. It’s never been like that in the past, and especially not now.
NM: Designing a Nervous Breakdown was very accomplished for a debut record. Were those songs that you had lived with for a long time before recording them? What was it like putting that album together – the big, scary first album?
JR: Well like I said earlier, a few of those songs were pretty old, written when we were just out of high school. I’d say the rest of the songs, maybe six of them, were written in a two-week period prior to leaving for Chicago to record the album. So it makes sense that a lot of those songs have a similar sound and energy. As an album, it’s not really an accurate cross-section of what we were as a band. We were babies. To think about what I know now about singing and writing and playing compared to then, it’s almost sickening. But that’s natural I suppose… I will say this, though. I have always been very comfortable in the studio. I always knew how the song would turn out after it was all laid down, and I was always thinking ahead. I think that is why our record “sounds” good, compared to say maybe a lot of other bands’ first albums. It wasn’t really scary at all. It was just really exciting, knowing that we were going to get to record for almost two weeks, our first record. We were so excited it, and so naive at the same time…
NM: Can you talk about what influences your music? Both musical and non-musical things…
JR: Old rock music, blues, and country. It seems like the more I learn, the deeper I go into roots music. I’m in a serious early blues and folk stage right now. It’s like this: You just keep tracing the roots farther back. In the last three years I’ve gone and went through my Beatles phase, my Stones phase (and I’ll never get out of my Dylan phase). But then you realize it’s even more important to find the music that these musicians were listening to: Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, etc. I draw more inspiration from these artists now than I ever did directly from 60’s rock n roll. I don’t want to sound exactly like the Beatles or the Stones. I want to hear what influenced them, though, and then do my own version. The real roots of rock n roll are blueprints for any good songwriter. So that’s where I’m at now…
As far as non-musical influences, movies influence me, especially old movies. The perfect movie – there is nothing more powerful to me. Visually perfect, perfect acting, perfect score. This makes me go insane as an artist, because to make a truly wonderful film, it takes such an intense collaboration (much like being in a “band”, as opposed to being just a solo act). But I’ve seen certain films that make me pick up a guitar and write a song immediately. Film impacts my life greatly.
Besides that, traveling and the constant changing of landscape definitely influences my songs as well. Being in a touring band, you meet so many people, hear so many stories, see so much land and experience so much conflict. This ultimately ends up in your music, though it might be hard to trace it directly sometimes.
NM: What newer bands are you guys into?
JR: Oh… I’m not the right person to ask about this one. I’m not totally ignorant to new bands, but definitely some of the other members of The Anniversary have a much greater knowledge and appreciation of newer music than I do. It’s just hard for me to justify spending money on a brand new record when I know there are about a hundred other old records that I still need to buy, which will without a doubt have a much greater impact on my songwriting. New music can be dangerous. I hate hearing it sometimes, because I don’t want to be influenced by it. So I haven’t bought any new music for almost two years, I can honestly say.
Having said that, I will try and think of just a few of the “newer” artist I have heard that I can stomach: Built to Spill, the Flaming Lips, Neutral Milk Hotel, Supergrass, Dr. Dre. That’s about it really. The thing is, listening to these bands’ music, I can directly trace the influences a lot of times. Like Built to Spill – all he is doing is his take on Neil Young. Without a doubt, it is Neil Young! At the same time, it’s fresh and original, because it is a unique take, and there are undoubtedly other influences that come into play. So I’ll listen to a Built to Spill record and I’ll love it, but I can’t listen too much, because I don’t want to sound like Built to Spill. I’d rather listen to Neil Young just like he did, and then do MY own twist on it.
I just think that sometimes new music can be destructive. Just like all the lame-ass bands that will listen to Radiohead over and over, and then put out a shitty imitation. Why don’t these songwriters figure it out, and listen to Can and Kraftwerk and Led Zeppelin – all the shit that Radiohead was listening to when they were making their last few records (or at least, those are the bands I imagine they were being heavily influenced by). By listening to their influences, you might be able to make your own version, something original. I think that is the only possibility left for originality in rock music nowadays anyway – a mixing of genres and influences of old.
NM: What’s the plan for the band in the coming year? Any more releases?
JR: We’ll probably end up going overseas to both the UK and Japan over the summer and early fall. I don’t think we’ll be recording anything soon. Mostly just touring on the new record.
NM: Speaking of touring: necessary evil or the best part of being in a band?
JR: God, it’s definitely equal parts both. Touring can make your band so much stronger. It can teach you so many things, and it’s oftentimes an invaluable experience. At the same time, it can tear your band apart faster than you ever thought imaginable if you aren’t careful. We’ve had some pretty horrible times on tour, but I think as you grow older, and learn what each other’s limits are, and how touring can be made easier, it tends to get better and better. Also, when you first start out, like when the first record came out, we were on the road for nearly a year straight. That is an entire year of your life, living like an animal, sleeping on floors, your whole life in a travel bag and a shitty van. It definitely sucks. The good thing is, the more successful our band becomes, the less time we will have to spend on the road. And each time we go out, it will be more rewarding, and certainly more fun and fulfilling.
NM: If The Anniversary weren’t a band, what do you think you’d all be doing right now?
JR: I’d still be in school maybe, but I’d definitely still be playing in some sort of band. Adrianne would be teaching music education to kids. Josh would be in a band. Our drummer, Janko, works at Radio Shack whenever we’re back in town. He loves it for some reason. So I think maybe he would just be a little bit higher up the Radio Shack totem pole than he is now – maybe a general manager or something. Jim, our bass player, I’m not sure about. He’s a multi-faceted guy. He could be doing anything right now, and he’d probably be good at it.
NM: Uhh… Radio Shack?
JR: I don’t know why he does it. I really don’t. No one in the band can wrap their heads around it, because he certainly doesn’t HAVE to hold down that job to support himself. I think he just gets off on shoddy electronics. And dudes with mustaches in large collared shirts and pleated khaki pants.
NM: Quick, what gift are you supposed to give someone on their 36th anniversary?
JR: I think you’re supposed to give them one of those stuffed Taco Bell dogs.