People with Passion: pop duo A&R

ALEXANDER KRAMER & ROCKO WALKER (A&R)

Interview February 26, 2010

a&r

Electro pop duo A&R. Vocalist/song-writer Rocko Walker and producer/guitarist Alex Kramer formed the electro rock band in 2008 following the dissipation of their previous four-man group, Welcome to Cambridge. Their relationship in conversation matches the one they share on stage; an animated Rocko fires out thoughts and stories at an accelerated rate while Alex paces his words more slowly. And yet they seem to instinctively know where the other is – they finish each other’s thoughts without ever interrupting.

ROCKO: When I started the band, I started it with the original bassist, Tim Ritchey. I was talking to him back and forth online, and I was like “Do you want to start a band? I have a drummer I work with. Name’s Chris.” I had written the song and played guitar and recorded it, and when I met them I brought it and was like “Okay, this is what I sound like.” And Chris was like, “Oh… I don’t want to make R&B music.” He was so like (deflated sound).

ALEX: Was that before I came into it?

ROCKO: Yeah. Chris was like, “Uh, I don’t know if I want to work with this guy.” (Laughs) And I told him, “Dude, I will not sing like this live. Don’t worry.” So the first practice, it was almost Screamo.

I was listening to the Strokes at the time. We had the microphone plugged into the amp. I’m singing like Julian Casablancas. Our live shows – there was a lot of screaming in the band. My voice would be shot for a week after every show. It’s almost night and day from what we’re doing now.

ALEX: When we were recording and writing the first couple songs, we didn’t even think about playing live. That wasn’t an option. When we got the EP together, we were like “Fuck, we should throw an EP release show.” And then we started talking: “Well, how could we play? How is this even feasible?”

I did a lot of research on bands – at this time, I was just getting into recording, all this techy shit. I watched other bands that could play live like that, and I started noticing, “Fuck, they have a massive backing track.” You don’t need to play all the instruments. Crystal Castles? Huge backing track. He’s doing some stuff but he’s not doing all of it. So I started going into Logic, and started to find which parts would be best to play live, muting those, and then taking out the drums, and then taking out all the vocals, and then you have a backing track. You’re still able to play live, because you’re still playing something.

I felt bad about that for a while. But more and more bands have this huge backing track. I don’t think people mind. I don’t think that the audience minds that much. They’re there to hear the songs, and they’re hearing the songs, and you’re playing it live. You just have a little help from the computer.

ROCKO: And we try to make sure that the live experience is a lot more interesting so you’re not so focused on the fact that – you know, if we just got up and sang the songs, they’d be like “Wow, these guys are boring and I’m listening to their CD live.” So we try to make sure our stage presence makes you feel like you’re at a live show. But even at the beginning, we tried at that first show, we played a photography party for Kevin Bana, and we did that with just the two of us. We were like, “Okay, maybe not all backing track.”

You said earlier about needing more members and stuff like that – the reason I don’t really feel we need that, and why I don’t want that: when you deal with more than – you know, right now, Alex makes a beat and he asks me “Do you like this?” And I go, “Yes.” “Do you want to write a song?” And I go, “Yes.” Or, “Do you like it?” “No.” Or, “Can you practice today?” “Yes.” “Alright, then we’re meeting.”

ALEX: You can’t exclude anybody because it’s just the two of us. We really feel like we only need each other’s opinions. We’ve always written songs well together. The writing process has always been a breeze. So bringing somebody else into that where they’re going to have opinions or feel like they have to have opinions –

ROCKO: – and coordinating times, it’s entirely too much work for how easy it is right now.

And I suppose it’s the same as, say, Bob Dylan, where it’s still “Bob Dylan” but he’s got a whole band with him…

ROCKO: Yeah, yeah, that’s what we’re trying to go for once we get to that point.

ALEX: We lay the foundation and structure everything, and other people can play the parts.

ROCKO: We’ll make the songs in the studio, and we pay people to learn what we did. (Pause) Which would be pretty hard since we don’t know what we’re doing. (Laughs)

ALEX: Neither of us have any idea how to read music. I don’t have the first clue.

ROCKO: I’ve talked to a lot of artists and they don’t want to learn.

ALEX: I don’t want to learn, because then I think about it. It was funny: in Welcome To Cambridge, our bassist knew music theory back and forth, and then I would come with a guitar riff and would start playing something and he’d be like “No, no, wait.” He’d be playing bass and counting “1, 2, 3, 4” and I’m just like “Fuck that! Just play something that sounds good. Play what you want to play.”

ROCKO: If you go with the emotion of it, then part of you comes out, instead of part of the mathematical equation of music. I don’t play keyboards at all. But I play synths in the band every once in a while.

ALEX: Right. But in recording you come up with a lot of the synth parts too. With music you’re just strumming things and pushing buttons and hitting things. You know what sounds good.

Do you see any value to the math?

ALEX: Probably. Yeah. Because when you get frustrated you don’t know how to write something to it. Where if you did know music theory, you’d be like “Oh, obviously it’s this.” But I think more times than not, I’m happy that I don’t know anything about theory.

ROCKO: That, and the fact that when you have a musician who wants to play with you and is like “What key are you playing in?” “Uh…this finger?”

ALEX: Whenever we tried out new guitarists in Welcome To Cambridge, they’d be like “What key is that in?” And I’m just like, (laughs) “I don’t fucking know. Look at my hand. If you know you can figure it out.”

They talk about music that has a soul. There’s a purity to blues, or to jazz, or to country, or to rock, or to hip-hop. Does electro have a soul?

ROCKO: (long pause) Yes, because it’s a mesh of three or four. You get the blues, you get R&B, you get the rock. You can’t take the soul of other music and then say that this doesn’t have a soul. It has a soul. It’s definitely a different direction. It’s less organic. But yes, it has a soul.

ALEX: I think it has a soul because of the way it impacts you. Electro music makes you move. It’s gotta be catchier than all hell and it’s gotta have a beat that makes you want to dance. It has to have something deep in order to convey that.

ROCKO: And the fact that it’s influencing a lot of music right now. Hip-hop right now, ya know, the 80’s was straight “1, 2, 3, 4,” that kind of beat. And then the 90’s was really hard and gritty. And then all of a sudden Pharrell comes out and Pharrell and Flo Rida, and you have all these artists who collaborate, like David Guetta just did a song with Kid Cudi, and Kanye did a song with – you know what I’m saying? Electro is influencing hip-hop, and then you get the rock bands who originally would just do guitars and drums, and now they’re incorporating keyboards and are like, “Okay, it makes a really cool sound.” And I have to have that whole (makes a drumming sound) high-hat snare, 1,2,3,4 thing going on –

ALEX: And I love that with electro music. With rock bands, you can fall in love with a guitar riff, and it’s a guitar. But with electro, there are so many things you can do with synthesizers, and there’s sampling, and so many different ways you can spin it that you can fall in love with a part of a song and you don’t even know what it is.

There are so many different sounds that you can experiment with that are acceptable in this kind of music. In a rock band, you have guitar, bass, and drums. Here, you can do anything. Make any noises you want and sample anything you want, and it can be cool as long as it makes you move.

Any frustration playing live to something that’s set, because you can’t really improvise…?

ALEX: Absolutely. And that’s something that is hard, going from a rock band where you’re making everything – you know, everything you hear, we’re making right now. That was a different world to go into, where you need to be tapping your foot, you need to have that metronome in your head to know where you are in the song, because you can’t look at each other like you can in a full band and communicate. There’s none of that. You need to be very well-rehearsed and play.

ROCKO: I think it’s going to lean back towards organic. It’s not going to keep going computer. Where it’s fun to see Cut Copy or Hot Chip – actually Hot Chip’s awesome – but seeing Cut Copy live, part of me wants to go, “Yeah, but I really wish I could see everything.” The electronic rock movement might stay, but I think you’re gonna see a lot more bands – if they have that sound – come out more with the drums and the bass. And that’s what we said we want to do if we get money to do that, to have the live band behind you. As much as people like to dance, eventually they’re going to be like, “Well, I’ve danced enough. What else can you do?”

P. Diddy’s “Making His Band” – the keyboard player had all these sounds that were produced by Dallas Austin. They’ll sample a drum and then add crazy effects to it, and then add a hand clap, and then a voice behind it yelling. Well, the keyboard player can do that. He programs it. It’s still live, but he’s able to go, “Okay, I’m playing this part, and when I tap this key here, it makes the sound that it needs to make.” It’s all live. You’re not getting any less of a feeling. Let’s say someone messes up or he wants to make the song longer, he can still recreate that sound. But in programming the keyboard he’s able to make that sound on (snaps fingers) command.

ALEX: Have you seen any video of the XX? Them live?

ROCKO: No.

ALEX: All their drums throughout the record are all programmed. But live, they don’t have a live drummer, they have a guy with a little mini-pad, and he’s just going (makes tapping sound and motion), but I mean, he’s doing it. Just getting rid of the backing track and making everything organic. Not going back to organic instruments, just making sure that everything you’re hearing is created right there. And then that goes back to, you know, you have the ability to improvise, and do all that different stuff.

ROCKO: Perfect example of that. Kanye West’s music. It’s very digital. Very hip-hop. He recreated every single aspect of that with a live band. He had a string section – and I feel like that’s the direction it’s going to go. People are gonna be like, “Alright, you made this awesome sounding track on the record, and then live you created this whole new experience.” He literally had it where the song would last, like, eight – I went to go see him at the “Glow in the Dark” tour, and I was like, “Oh my god, this song will not end.” He had a live band there, recreating every single sound he had on the CD.

Music has almost a control on you as a person. You wake up in the morning – every morning I wake up with a song in my head, and that song dictates my mood for the day. I will have had a bad dream, or had a really “meh” morning, and I’m listening to really depressing or really chilled out music, and that keeps me in that same mood the whole day. I don’t want to hear anything upbeat. And then the next day I might be really up-tempo.

You’re able to say things in music – you know, you can say it in real life, but when you’re able to create a picture – like you can describe something awesome, but when you’re able to create that picture in music, and you can see this whole beautiful world in music, I think that’s amazing.

ALEX: Nothing makes me happier than music. As far as making it, as far as listening to it. I’m listening to music constantly, all day, and it is all totally mood-based and it changes day to day. It makes you happy. It makes you sad. When you are sad it comforts. It’s everything. It’s something everybody loves. Not one kind of music, but everybody loves music because it’s able to carry something so heavy…

ROCKO: That’s why even during a recession, people still go to concerts and still download music. It’s the soundtrack to life.

Do you get a greater fulfillment in being able to take that which you love and put it out to people?

ALEX: Oh my god! Fuck yeah. I’ve loved everything about music my entire life. But playing live and seeing people like it or even sing along, that’s the coolest feeling in the world. Seeing people liking the music that you make, or people saying “I fucking love this song. I listen to this song when I’m getting ready in the morning.” I don’t think I know a cooler feeling yet in life.

A&R’s hit single “All the Pretty Girls”

A&R music video shoot for “All the Pretty Girls”

For more on a&r, click here.

A&R in RedEye, June 2009

***MAY 4, 2010 UPDATE***

Check out the A&R music video for “All the Pretty Girls” directed by Paul Matian

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