STAY DIRTY Royal Baths

Nevermind
that “better luck next life” mantra – these genre-busting garage refugees are
too busy bum-rushing their current karmic incarnation. It’s paying off, too.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

“It’s a very clean, positive time right now,” says Jeremy
Cox, the singer and lead guitarist for the decidedly decadent Brooklyn-via-San
Francisco band Royal Baths. “A lot of music just isn’t very involved. It’s
missing the passion. I think that’s where this kind of clean, happy sound is
coming from.”

 

Cox and his band – lyricist and guitar player Jigmae Baer,
bassist Turner Halsey and drummer John Rau – were for years the dark underside
of a sunny Bay Area garage rock scene. “Yeah, it’s darker. Seedy hard-boiled
degenerate filthy American rock n roll noir, right?,” observes Baer, who has played
with two of the scene’s mainstays, Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall.  “I love Dwyer and Ty’s songwriting, but we’ve
approached this band in our own way.” 

 

Baer was on a heavy diet of Byronic heroes when writing the lyrics for
this album, reading Pushkin’s Eugene
Onegin
, Baudelaire’s poetry, Miller’s Tropic
of Cancer
, Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.  “I love a complicated anti-hero.  They fascinate me, but it seems to me music
is interpreted on the surface. The ‘darkness’ is not for everyone,” he
adds. 

 

Indeed, the Royal Baths’ murky, clanky, cadaverous sound
harked back to a more twisted, dangerous vein of rock and roll, echoing the
Velvets’ fur-lined whip cracks, the Jesus & Mary Chain’s dark turbulence.  Cox says when the Royal Baths tried to write a peppy, upbeat love
song, they ended up with “Darling Divine,” a skewed, sexually obsessive take on
the romantic pop oeuvre.

 

Cox and Baer started Royal Baths in mid-2008; both had been
playing in another SF band. At the outset, Royal Baths was an acoustic enterprise,
Baer writing the lyrics, Cox figuring out the guitar parts. Baer explains that
they still do it that way, “We write for a few hours until inspiration
dwindles. Our writing sessions involve chain-smoking and silence.” 

 

The two of them played one show as a duo, then expanded into
a full band line-up.  The band’s first
album, Litanies, out late in 2010, got
a 7.5 from Pitchfork‘s Larry Fitzmaurice,
who observed, “Litanies draws from the noisier, more freaked-out side of
early garage rock. It also takes cues from Neil Young’s lightning-struck guitar
sermons and the Velvet Underground’s creeping paranoia.” Royal Baths wrote and
recorded the follow-up Better Luck Next Life in California, but afterwards moved, en masse,
to Brooklyn.

 

“We’ve been to New York on
tour a couple of times, and I think the first time I came through, I decided
that I had to, at some point, move to New
York,” says Cox. “It’s always one of the most exciting
places to stop on tour.”

 

Royal Baths’ sound is wreathed in drone and overtones, and
many listeners assume that they use a lot of effect pedals to create it. Actually,
no, says Cox, “That’s something that people kind of get wrong about us.” Jigmae
has a distortion pedal and vibrato. Cox has a tremolo pedal. The rest comes
from the blues-based alternative tunings that Cox and Baer have always favored.
“I feel like the guitar was kind of built to sound any way you want it to,
without the pedals,” Cox adds, “but we definitely do experiment with tunings
and that changes the sound. A lot of what you might think is delay was, in
actuality, just from the tunings, which can make this strange sound.”

 

Cox first became interested in alternative tunings listening
to John Fahey in the interim between his first band and Royal Baths. “I was
playing by myself and lacking a rhythm section,” he remembers, “so I started to
pick up the finger picking style. When I changed to open tuning, I noticed that
I could create some strange sounds. Even just using an acoustic guitar, if I
tuned all the strings to the same note, I could get almost a Middle Eastern
sound.”

 

The band also picked up its signature drum sound from a
blues player, putting a galloping, thumping Bo Diddley
beat under many of its songs, notably “Burned.” Cox says that both he and Baer
have been Bo Diddley fans for years and that, even before that, both played
drums in Afro-Brazilian ensembles, learning the hypnotic possibilities of
repetitive drum patterns.

 

Royal Baths made its first album at home on an eight-track
recorder, but Cox and Baer decided to work with an engineer for follow-up,
looking for a cleaner sound. “We wanted the production sound only a studio
could provide, but we had a very small budget,” says Baer.  “For Better
Luck
, we had to know what we were going to do beforehand. With Litanies, we had the time to explore,
but the Tascam 388 has that inescapable grittiness. I like both.”

 

Cox agrees that the way the first album sounded was largely
a function of the equipment that they had access to. “I understand and
appreciate and enjoy lo-fi music, but the lo-fi aspect of our first record was
certainly very circumstantial,” he says. “We like to experiment with the sound,
with different sonic dynamics. I would hate to be tagged as a lo-fi band.”

 

He adds, “It does get kind of incestuous when every band has
a lo-fi sound. Especially when they start to become more successful and in the
mainstream, and they’re still sitting there recording off a four-track. But
some people just like that sound.”

 

Better
Luck Next Life
– released in February on Kanine – does sound
clearer, especially in the vocals, but Cox says he doesn’t know if the band
will ever go the professional route again. “We’re not session musicians. We’re
not perfect. But we do have a vision for what we want to do for each song,” he
says. “It’s so hard to realize that vision when you’re recording on the clock.
We kind of found that out the hard way.”    

 

Both Cox and Baer say that people pick up on their band’s
darkness right away, but many miss the underlying humor.  “Humor and self-awareness is a large part of
the message. Reflecting our petty lives without whining or judgment, poking fun
at our mistakes, addictions, depression. I think people who have gone through
that stuff get it, but it might be scary or silly to the rest,” says Baer.

 

[Photo Credit: Fatos Marishta]

 

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