Back in September, one of the regular “new arrivals” emails sent to me included Chris Robley’s second solo album, The Drunken Dance of Modern Man in Love, in a list of albums that included better known talent such as Michelle Shocked and Iron and Wine. The name looked familiar to me. Was this the same guy I knew back in high school? After sending an email to Chris through his MySpace profile, sure enough, he confirmed that it was the same guy! What’s more, as Chris was swinging through San Francisco on a brief tour in support of The Drunken Dance, I had the opportunity to speak with him, up close and personal, before his appearance at a unique venue called BrainWash. This promising new voice in music, who counts Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson among his influences, talks with Bullz-Eye about his musical journey from the state of Rhode Island to his current home base in Portland, Oregon, as well as the genesis of some of his new songs. He even asks our interviewer a few questions of his own and shares some hometown gossip!
Bullz-Eye: So how did you find this current band, the Fear of Heights, that you’re playing with?
Chris Robley: The drummer and I actually went to college together in Richmond. We met in our first class of the first day of freshman year in a music theory class. Both said that we really just wanted to "rock" (laughs) and exchanged numbers. And then wemoved out to Portland after school. He and I started my other band, the Sort Ofs, too. As well as him playing in my solo band. And Rachel, I played a show with her a couple years back. She’s a singer-songwriter herself, with a kind of creepy piano pop thing, so I really liked her style and tunes. And then we started opening for each other at gigs, and then we were like, “Well, why don’t we play on each other’s recordings?” Then she knew all the songs. Time to go on tour. “Come with me!” And then Arthur, the bass player, one of my friends who plays saxophone and clarinet in my band. I was looking for an upright bass player and my friend Benny recommended Arthur.
BE: There is a saxophone and clarinet in the Fear of Heights?
CR: Yeah, although he’s not here, of course. I couldn't afford to bring the whole nine-piece orchestra on the road. (laughs) So I met Arthur through that guy. And then it ended up that the show I was looking for him to play upright on, we realized there were going to be too many people onstage, so he just played electric bass to save some room. Yeah, that’s how I met them. And then the rest of the folks that are in the band when I play in Portland… all kinds of ways, you know, finding horns and strings, flutes, guitars, banjo, on and on… mostly it’s through playing with other bands I like and then stealing their players. It’s really incestuous. So lots of people play in each other’s bands in Portland too. That’s how that worked out.
BE: So why Portland?
CR: Um, well we … at the time it was John and I and another guy who all moved out here together from Richmond right after September 11. Great timing! There were absolutely NO jobs. Anyways, I was from Rhode Island. The other guy was from Philly, and John was from Mississippi. So none of us wanted to live that close to home, which pretty much X’d-out the whole East coast. But we wanted to be near the ocean, so we drove around the country for like two months and looked at Seattle, Portland, here [San Francisco], L.A., San Diego and Austin. A big beach town. We narrowed it down to Austin and Portland. And pretty much, sad to say, it didn’t have anything to do with music. When we went to Portland, it was early July, so the weather was 80 and sunny and beautiful. Then we went to Austin, and it was 112 the whole week we were there. So that made up our minds for us.
BE: Have you been back to Austin since you moved to Portland?
CR: No. I keep meaning to go for South by Southwest, then lots of friends go and say it’s a nightmare, so… have you been?
BE: No, not yet. I’ve been meaning to get down there though. You’ve got some East coast dates coming up, is that right?
CR: I actually just took that off my MySpace ‘cause it didn’t work out. I started booking it too late. It would have been a tour of playing really crappy places and not very well plotted out as far as driving, I‘d be doing a lot of back and forth. So I just cancelled it. I’ll try and do it next year though.
BE: Some of the places that you probably would have played are gone. Like the Met Café is gone.
CR: Oh, right. That’s the one that was attached to Lupo’s, right?
BE: Yeah. And there’s another one I’m thinking of that may be gone now.
CR: AS220, are they still open?
BE: I think they’re still there, yeah.
CR: I don’t remember if they were cool or not.
BE: Yeah, it’s a non-profit arts organization, so if you play there, you’re probably pretty hip.
CR: Interesting. I’ll have to get the hip endorsement from them! (laughs) Yeah, so anyway, I just cancelled that. But I am going to go home anyway, just to take a vacation, see my parents.
BE: For the holidays?
CR: Before the holidays. I work at, you know CD Baby?
BE: Oh yeah! I’ve ordered from them before.
CR: Okay. Yeah, I work there, and obviously it gets pretty crazy around the holidays, so I can’t leave between like mid-November and mid-January. So I’ll just go home a little early.
BE: Are they selling your CDs too?
BE: How are they doing sales-wise?
CR: Good! It’s funny, because like, the owner makes our business reports public, and he loves little graphs and colored flowcharts and whatnot. So sales have, I think for the first 10 years it was just like this huge increase. And then over the past two years, it’s a little leveled out but it’s still growing each year. So like that, in comparison to the horrible fear-mongering major label crashing sales thing… it’s interesting because like, yeah, maybe Britney Spears is selling a lot less, but those sales are being picked up by lots of little people, you know. It seems like it at least, as far as we can tell. That whole Long Tail economic thing.
BE: Are you selling your music on iTunes also?
CR: Uh huh. CD Baby does digital distribution, so basically we sign it up with them, they’ll send it to iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster, like 50 companies, eMusic, you know, those kinds of places.
BE: How are the digital sales of your albums compared to the physical ones?
CR: Um, money-wise, it’s maybe like a fourth. I mean, I’m not doing huge sales or anything, but… and CD Baby just started doing full album downloads off their site, which are a higher resolution, I think, than any download site.
BE: Higher than 160?
CR: I think it’s 200. It’s variable? I don’t really understand the technical stuff, but like, it goes between 240 and 160, depending on how much information, sonic information is going on? I don’t know. But yeah, the average is 200. [editor’s note: about 200kbps VBR]
BE: That’s better than iTunes!
CR: Yeah. So, once they launched that, it was like a month or two ago, and I put my new album up on there. And, including download sales done directly from CDBaby.com, it was probably about half and half. So I guess people are going more for that route now.
BE: Yeah, I mean, Radiohead certainly saw that.
CR: I haven’t gotten that yet. Have you heard it? Is it awesome?
BE: If you liked the last album, Hail to the Thief, then you’ll like this one too. They haven’t really deviated too far from that sound.
CR: That’s cool though, because that album was sort of eclectic and had everything they’ve ever done in the course of an hour.
BE: This one’s shorter though, it’s only 10 songs, so it’s easier to digest.
CR: Nice. Yeah, that’s a cool idea, if you’re at that level. If you’re me, you probably don’t gain too much from it. Exposure, sure. But I don't think folks would pay money for a lesser-known indie act's music if they're given the option to take it for free. I think Radiohead's fans felt a kind of duty to rise to the occasion since they're in the public eye with this thing. Humanity on trial.
BE: How long have you been touring around now?
CR: On this particular tour, you mean?
CR: This is, like, 20 days, I think? It’s been great. Getting a ton of good ink thrown about and playing with good bands. Selling merch, of course. The Key! I made a merch display that resembles a junior high school science project. It conjurs up some kind of sympathetic nostalgia in people that makes them suddenly want CDs and t-shirts. We played at a private prep school in Ojai where the kids swarmed the merch booth after the show. It’s all about Prep schools for us now. Rich kids with credit cards. That is our target market now. Anyways, we go home tomorrow. So we hit San Francisco on the way down and played at the Make Out Room, and we’re playin’ at this place on the way back. Interesting club, by the way. (laughs)
BE: It’s a really interesting concept, combining the Laundromat with the restaurant and bar, and then the internet portal. I’ve never seen anything like it.
CR: It’s a good idea though, because then you get lots of different people in there for different reasons, and hopefully they’ll stick around for music. I don’t know, we’ll see!
BE: We got at least one fan waiting in there.
CR: Yeah, that was random. I haven’t seen that guy in a while. But yeah, we’re ready to go home. Three weeks is about the limit at this point. We’re all like… did you know I got married to Krissy Weseloh?
BE: I did see that on your MySpace!
CR: Oh, okay (laughs). Just thought I’d throw a little East Greenwich gossip into the conversation.
BE: I hadn’t thought of her name in years. It was maybe last year or so that I was hearing about Mike Weseloh again. I think he may have gotten in contact with Scott Goldis. You remember him?
CR: Oh yeah.
BE: He’s down in L.A.
CR: Oh wow. What’s he doin’?
BE: That’s an offline conversation! (laughs) We’ll talk about that offline.
BE: That may even be source material for new songs.
CR: Okay, good. You’ll have to give it to me then. Nothing like exploiting other people for the sake of art. In fact, I've been filming this whole tour for a vidcast. I've been a little dictator. Demanding. I wanted to capture the sad goodbyes from the loved ones before leaving. No privacy. Just a camera in their faces as they kissed goodbye. My band grows weary of my damn camera.
BE: You’ve got some really interesting characters in your songs. I was listening to “The Love I Fake” on the way here. That was a really good song, one of the best songs I’ve heard about a prostitute.
CR: (Laughs) Are there many? You have a whole iPod subcategory of prostitute songs?
BE: Gonna make a prostitute mix! (laughs)
CR: I’d like to hear that!
BE: Where did that idea come from?
CR: Um, I don’t know. Someone else asked me that in an interview recently. I think that sometimes I’ll just come up with these little mental problems in my head that need solving, and like, it might have been a movie or a discussion or something where I was pondering, well, everyone at some low point in their life needs to feel empowered, and how could a prostitute feel empowered given the daily horrors? And the answer I came up with was by sort of having an air of superiority and making fun of the dude in her head while it’s all going down. Quiet condescension. So, I thought that was an interesting thing to write about (laughs) For me, at least. I don’t know if anyone else is interested! (laughs)
BE: Well I certainly was.
BE: That, and the other one I’ve been listening to the most is “A Vague Notion of Nothing Much,” the couple that’s having the baby they don’t want anymore and then the lesbian couple, you know, wants a baby. I bet there are a lot of folks in this town that could relate to that one.
CR: I don’t know where I came up with that one! (Laughs) I think I got that line "A vague notion of nothing much" in my head first. And then rather than the song being about an idea, it was about a person... or baby. "The baby in your belly is a vague notion of nothing much." Then I thought, God, what a terrible thing to say. But it'd be even more terrible if it were the father talking to the mother. So I guess I think of these things and then wonder how I can make them the most cruel. In fact, another Portland songwriter took one of my songs called "XMAS Card from NYC to Anyone Who'll Read It, 1946" [from The Sort Ofs’ Anxiety on Parade], which is basically a depressing missive from a lady who doesn't like how life is turning out, and basically answered the letter in one of his own songs from the perspective of someone in love with the character. So I'd pretty much consigned the girl to her horrible fate, and out of nowhere this guy comes and writes this positive ending for her. It was really very touching, artistically and personally. He saved my character... from me. Ha! And it was tastefully done, too. Krissy thinks I should start a contest for people who want to write new songs to save my sad characters. Maybe someone will eventually save the deadbeat dad in "Vague Notion" and they'll end up a happy family. Or maybe just a functional family would be okay.
BE: I’m listening to that one and I’m thinking, who’s having a baby that suddenly they don’t want anymore? (laughs)
CR: I’m sure lots of people. Not me though.
BE: No kids in the future yet?
CR: No, I don’t know. A few years off, maybe. I wanna try and milk the touring, recording thing for a while without worrying about taking care of another life. Krissy’s good about it, she’s totally supportive. I’d say three weeks is about my limit for touring at one time, though. But I can go and come back pretty often. And CD Baby’s really understanding of the touring thing. This is kind of unrelated, but there’s this one song that I haven’t officially released yet [editor’s note: “Movie Theater Haiku,” from Shorthand vs. Shorthand: A Tour-Only Preview]. I put it out on this tour-only limited edition disc, and this guy bought it at a show. And he came up at another show and said that he and his wife were listening to it as they drove home that night, and they looked at each other and realized that there was no point in continuing their marriage.
BE: (laughs hysterically)
CR: Then he was basically blaming me for his failed marriage! Quite the musical moment.
BE: Wow. Now that’s heavy! I’m hearing this and I’m remembering a story that Paul McCartney had told to some interviewer about a song he had written two albums ago that he ended up playing at someone’s wedding because the person heard it and loved it so much. Polar opposite.
CR: Right, and I remember Sting, someone asking him to play “Every Breath You Take” at a wedding. And he’s like, “It’s kind of a stalker song, it’s a little creepy.”
BE: It’s a very creepy song. (laughs) Did you get to see the Police?
CR: I didn’t. The drummer did, John, up in Seattle. He said it was kinda, too loose. They sounded bad. Did you see them?
BE: I saw them twice, actually. I think they got the kinks out the way by the time they came to Oakland. They seemed like they were having a good time.
CR: That’s cool. I’d hate to go and be disappointed after paying that much money. Do you get to go to that stuff for free?
BE: That one, no. It’s kinda hard to get into sold out shows comped. I tried to do that with Elvis Costello a couple of years ago, and they said absolutely no way. But Dylan, I was able to do that a couple years ago.
CR: I just saw him last year, I think. Finally enjoyed it! I’d seen him like four times and hated it every time. Finally I saw a show where I was like, oh, sounds good!
BE: I also really like the instrumentals on your disc too. I’ve been hearing a lot of independent discs this year, writing for “Performer,” and every time I hear an instrumental, I single that out.
CR: Cool. Yeah, I think it’s a good palate cleanser, especially after the first three proper songs that are all kind of dense and poppy and fast, I thought it would be good to just, you know, pull in the reins a little bit. And then it gets kinda folky for a while. The acoustic guitar one called “388 Hate House” I just recorded on a four track at home. I liked how it came out, so I just threw it on the album.
BE: There’s something about those four-track recordings, it captures something you can’t get on digital.
CR: Right. We did most of the album on 24-track, two-inch tape in a proper studio, but I did that one at home, mistakes and all. There’s a little squelched note in there! (Laughs)
BE: You know, all this time that’s gone by, I’ve only really known you as a jazz player. What was the road from jazz to singer-songwriter pop, when did that start?
CR: I was wondering if you were going to ask that, ‘cause you wrote, “is this the same guy that introduced me to We Want Miles?” I thought, oh no, he’s gonna think I should’ve been some, you know, John Scofield virtuoso type or something. I think late in high school I started writing songs on my acoustic guitar, kinda finger-style singer-songwriterly kinds of things that were probably terrible, I don’t even remember them. But I was really shy about it and I wouldn’t sing them for anyone, they were just kinda, my private tunes. And I went to college and played guitar in the jazz band at the University of Richmond, and started a sort of jazz fusion instrumental group that played funk, rock, prog, some sort of instrumental pop stuff all mixed in. And then we played the whole four years I was there. We did really well. Party music, ya know? And… I liked it, I thought it was fun, but it was never like "this is me," I don’t know, I just like those quick succinct pop songs, so eventually I got up the nerve to sing tunes for a guy that was in the same dorm with me that was a musician, and he was playing guitar and singing too. So he liked the tunes, and I kinda got him to sing most of them, just ‘cause I really wasn’t that comfortable as a singer. So I wrote the songs and he sang, and we started a band with John, who still plays drums with me. But then, I was always a little… although I felt like he had a better voice technically, it never felt, like, honest, like he seemed like a faker, and when he sang it didn’t seem honest in some way, which, I don’t know if that’s just in my imagination. He's really a good singer. Maybe I was just possessive of my songs. So I started to sing more and more, and then he left finally, and John and I started the Sort Ofs together at the same time as I was starting to make my first solo album, which Krissy kind of prodded me to do. So that was the transformation. I studied music at school too and did a lot of composition and theory stuff, so there was some string quartets, and a little art leider kind of songs that we had to write for class that I did, and hopefully some of that stayed with me.
BE: And when you did the leider, were you writing in German?
CR: No. (laughs) That language frightens me when it’s sung.
BE: Oh, but it sounds so funny!
CR: Yeah, that’s true. No wait, actually I was taking, I forget who it was, Berryman I think, some poet, and setting his poems as the lyrics, so, yeah, slow slow transformation. But now I feel like I’m doing what I should be doing. I wish I had my jazz chops still, in some sense, but this is more me. Like, when I’m home alone, I want to be writing songs.
BE: I wasn’t hearing a lot of long-winded solos or anything.
CR: (laughs) There’s no guitar solos on it, are there? Maybe one.
BE: I don’t think so.
CR: There are a few on the Sort Ofs record, but they’re like, they’re more sort of just noisy attack-y kind of things. I’d like to start an informal jazz group just to play every once in a while and exorcise those demons.
BE: You always sounded good playing that stuff, and like you said, it’s good to exorcise.
CR: It’s weird, because this group the Fear of Heights is entirely acoustic guitar for me. The Sort Ofs is, I’d say 90 percent I’m on the keyboard, piano, or synths or whatever, Rhodes/Wurlitzer kinda stuff. And then I play in two other bands, Norfolk & Western and the Imprints, on electric guitar. So I get some compartmentalization, they’re all very regimented as far as instruments.
BE: Their own little silos.
CR: Yeah. It’d be cool to mix it all up at some point, but, that would require roadies! (Laughs) ‘Cause I’m not carrying that much gear.
BE: You gotta get that East Coast tour booked and try to build the fanbase up.
CR: Yeah, totally. I don’t know how that would go. I feel like there’s enough people I still know back there to wrangle them and their friends together and probably have a good tour.
BE: Oh sure! And then those people probably know people, too.
CR: True. This is the second time we’ve done this, this year, here. On the west coast. And we noticed a lot of people coming back. Like, we played in Modesto last night, and there were maybe like 10 people who were at our last show that came back. And then they brought their friends, so, it seems to be working, slowly, bit by bit.
BE: It’s a slow process, but if people really like you, they’ll keep coming back.
CR: It’s fun too. I don’t know anything else I’d rather be doing.
BE: We’ve done 30 minutes, I think that’s good.
CR: You got what you need.
BE: Yes, and I’m looking forward to the show.
CR: Is it going to be an interview piece?
BE: It’s going to be a verbatim transcription. (Editor’s note: more accurately, an edited verbatim transcription
CR: Oh, sweet! (Laughs)
BE: It’ll be up there with asides and all.
CR: Awesome. In that case, let’s start over! (Laughs) I didn’t sound quite pompous enough.
BE: We can plug in some pompous asides.
CR: Yes, email it to me and I can put in all these huge words and stuff.
BE: (Laughs) We could have a lot of fun with this.
CR: Okay, good (laughs)
[…and from here, the recorder is turned as Chris runs off to join his bandmates, who are already setting up their gear for their performance…]