Knoxville, Tenn., trio Royal Bangs is the type of band that defies labels. While it's party-friendly enough to be marketed by Wham-O, it resists easy explanation.
Keyboards swirl and gallivant through sometimes-windy structures. The rhythms shake, rattle and roll, passing though martial rumble, funky slink or punchy new wave-sputter. Atop the chiming, slashing guitars is singer/multi-instrumentalist Ryan Schaefer, whose airy, lithesome tenor coolly careens like a pinball through the busy arrangements with subtle soul swagger.
It's a little head-spinning at first, if insidiously infectious. High school friends who started a band together when they graduated in the early aughts, Royal Bangs received its first big break courtesy of Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, who signed the band to his Audio Eagle label. Royal Bangs released a pair of albums for him before jumping to upstart label Glassnote Records last year for the March release, Flux Outside. The band has been compared to Animal Collective and White Denim, acts with whom it shares a penchant for odd-shaped but exceptionally catchy, well-wrought arrangements.
The driving force behind Royal Bangs is Schaefer. A real music nerd and no fan of the middle, he'd rather swim along genre boundary waters. Indeed, he doesn't understand why anyone would be content to simply regurgitate a sound that has already happened.
"It's just what happens when you listen to older stuff, you listen to newer stuff--what comes out is something in-between. ... I just don't really understand the motivation to make something that's squarely in the middle of a genre that began and ended," Schaefer said. "[The Black Keys] are a perfect example of someone who is bridging [old and new styles] to synthesize something new. And that's ultimately the only important thing--that you're trying to do something different."
Which explains Schaefer's attraction to the Flaming Lips--and the band's producer Dave Fridmann. The Royal Bangs have a similarly expansive, wide-screen approach and were delighted when Glassnote sprung to have Fridmann mix the new album.
"He was also on the same page with us from the beginning. It was really nice not to have to explain to him why we wanted things to be really distorted or why we wanted to make this sound weirder. He immediately got it," said Schaefer. "Ever since we started recording, we've wanted to make it sound like Dave's recordings."
The album was engineered by Scott Minor, who also recorded with Fridmann while in the band Sparklehorse. There was constant communication between everyone to ensure a seamless process from recording through post-production.
And process is a good word for it. Royal Bangs' songs have more pieces than a puzzle, which remains true on Flux Outside, even though the band pared down to a trio from a quintet prior to recording. The smaller lineup opened space for all the instruments and sounds so that the many competing tracks and textures aren't stepping all over each other. The result is an album that sounds tighter and more focused, despite greater sonic detail.
"It's pretty dense. There's so much going on. But it felt streamlined compared to the second one," said lead guitarist Sam Stratton. "There was a lot of breathing room to do whatever--for good and bad."
For a while, Royal Bangs went to extremes to recreate its sound live. There were plenty of knobs and triggers, which helped members coordinate all the stuttering samples and additional instrumental parts. Schaefer worked to create hardware and software that could allow the computer to follow the musicians rather than vice-versa. The goal was to make it look "more like playing in a band rather than working at a computer store," according to Schaefer.
But lately, the band has moved away from trying to recreate its studio sound so closely and has come to embrace a more dynamic live aesthetic, particularly with the addition of a fourth touring member.
"Even when there were five of us ... a lot of it sounded like it was coming out of a laptop," Schaefer said. "I think we're trying to be smarter about the way that we use it so it's a little more natural."
And this more-natural, live sound may be an indication of the next album's direction.
"I think [the density] is going to be a little bit toned down, and we're just going to try and emphasize the songs," said Stratton. "We've been talking about just getting really good at playing the songs. ... Being able to translate the live show to a recording--I think that will be the best thing we can do."
And while this is a complete 180 for a band that makes fairly involved music, it's a natural progression. Having gone as far as it could in one direction, Royal Bangs decided to head back the other way.
"You could say we follow things though to their logical conclusion," Stratton said. "Or maybe we're just stubborn."
In the meantime, the band is just happy to be out on the road. And while for many musicians this is an overused cliche, that's not the case with Royal Bangs. From the beginning, the motivating force behind playing music has been shared fellowship.
"We would just get in the van and go. It didn't matter, we always had fun even if there was nobody there. ... Worst case scenario, you're in a van with your best friends--so it can't be any worse than hanging out at your friends' house," Schaefer said. "So we got really comfortable doing that, and I think in the process really, really lowered our standards so we can never be disappointed."
In the process, they've ensured their fans won't be disappointed either.[ Video is no longer available. ]