Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea had a substantial impact on the 90’s Indie low-fi community when it was released in 1998. It’s heavy acoustic riffs combined with Jeff Mangum’s nasally croon and eccentric instrumentation demonstrated the peak of garage low-fi and its eventual fade. Now, Indie rock has become synonymous with bands like Mumford and Sons and Arcade Fire, and, while this is not a bad thing (for I do enjoy these bands), I often long for the days of Elephant 6. If you do too, you definitely want to read on.
Rat Trap, a Santa Cruz, California-based quintet, has revived those post-punk, garage, low-fi sounds of the 90s and has elegantly combined these sounds with modern influences (Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, Ramona Falls). Rat Trap represents a tornado of inspirations wrapped up like a top spinning rapidly into the ears of listeners. Oh, did I mention that none of the band members has eclipsed the legal drinking age in the United States?
That is just one of the many reasons why I find Rat Trap’s blend of old and new so engaging. The band, which formed in 2010, released its debut album in 2011 and has just recently released its new effort, Blueprints of a Paper City, in November of 2012. I had an opportunity to interview the members of Rat Trap, and, instead of introducing them, I will let them do so below. But, before I do, let’s listen to a track from the band’s most recent release.
“Birdhouses” features low-fi instrumentation and Jeffrey Lewis-like vocals. It is authentic and multifaceted. It is a solid incipient track fit with expansive rhythms and riffs. At times the song enters into a contained madness that is refreshing in its creative messiness.
Questions for Rat Trap: Music Court Interview
1.) Let’s talk about the band a bit. How/where did you start? How old are you all? Give me the name of all the members, and, hey, what the hell, each members favorite band/artist.
Grant Simmons: I’m Grant Simmons, and I’m 16 years old. I write a lot of the material, play guitar, sing, and sometimes play piano. I started really getting into music and songwriting when I was about thirteen years old. I formed a guitar/drums duo in early 2010 with my friend. I formed Rat Trap in the summer later that year adding bass and another guitarist. Oliver came into the band about four months after that. Many a gig, some lineup changes, a lot of side project activity, two albums later, and here we are. I’d say my favorite bands that influence my songwriting are Modest Mouse, Frightened Rabbit, Pavement, etc.
Sean Hoban: I play guitar. My favorite bands include Neutral Milk Hotel and Dr. Dog.
Ben Humy: I played percussion since 5th grade, but it was boring sh*t like hitting triangles twice per song. A few years ago I started taking drum lessons and I was psyched. I met Grant through a friend, and then at some point Grant called me because his previous drummer flaked on a gig and he needed someone to take over for him. I came over, learned the songs they were playing, and went to the gig. That was the first gig I did with Rat Trap. I’m 17 years old. I can see R-rated movies ALL BY MYSELF. My favorite band is Broken Social Scene.
Owen Powell: My name is Owen Powell. I’m 14. I am the bass player, and my favorite band is Animal Collective. I started playing with Rat Trap about eight months ago.
Oliver Mueller-Tuescher: My name is Oliver, I’m 15, and I play violin. I met Grant at Kuumbwa Summer Jazz Camp 2010. He then asked me to join his band a couple of months after. My favorite band at the moment is Half Moon Run.
2.) The music is really genre-bending. On first listen it was as if a wave of jam-packed musical influences smacked me in the face…which is really awesome. So, first question I have for you all is what are some of the bands/artists who you would say most influence your sound?
Grant: Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, Neutral Milk Hotel, Broken Social Scene, Pavement, Andrew Bird, The Antlers, Bon Iver, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Decemberists, Frightened Rabbit, Grizzly Bear, Explosions in The Sky, Mimicking Birds, Menomena, Ramona Falls, Sigur Ros, Wires in The Walls, The BASED God
3.) This is your second album, correct? How would you describe the differences between your first and second album? Do you think you are maturing as musicians?
Grant: I think the new album is a lot more rock oriented than our first one. It’s also a lot darker and has more depth. Overall, I think it’s just way better. We’re much more unified as a band now, and I think we’re making better music as a result of it. I’m happy to say that all the members contributed a lot to this new album, whereas the first album was mainly just me doing all the writing. We also sound so much better live. We used to sound insecure when playing.
Ben: I joined the band shortly after the first album was released. At first I was more into just doing my own thing with the drums and not paying much attention to the other members. But now I’ve gotten much better at feeding off of the energy of the other bandmates. When I play now, I feel a lot more connected to the band than I used to.
Oliver: This year I’ve begun playing guitar, singing, and writing songs. The first song I ever seriously put on paper was ‘Raindrops’ off of the new album.
4.) “Birdhouse” immediately shouted out to me low-fi 90’s Indie (Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeffrey Lewis). Talk to me about the creation of this song.
Sean: I was just messing around on my guitar, and I came up with the chords and main riff.
Grant: Sean brought the chords and riff to band practice, and I expanded it into a full song with all the arrangements. I paired the lyrics, and it was one of the first full songs we completed after finishing our first album, “The Western Boundary”. It is now a staple of ours.
5.) The instrumental portion of “Towns” is pleasant and well-done. The violin adds so much to the music. You are not a typical Indie band, though. The music is different. What influenced the addition of the violin into the band?
Grant: I was inspired by bands like Modest Mouse, Sigur Ros, Frightened Rabbit, Andrew Bird; basically everything I was listening to at the time I formed the band. Originally, I just planned on having Oliver as a studio member that would play on a couple of songs every now and then, but after a couple of practices with him, I figured the violin could work with every song and give a whole new spin to our sound.
6.) Fun question time! Let’s say you had to pick one band to play your music. Who do you think would do it the most justice?
Sean: BASED God, definitely.
Grant: I know it sounds kind of typical but probably Modest Mouse or Built to Spill.
Ben: BASED God.
Owen: I think Modest Mouse could play our music well and bring its own twist to the music at the same time.
Oliver: Half Moon Run all the way.
7.) Question for everyone. You are abandoned on an island. You have everything you need, but no music. What three albums do you bring along with you?
Sean: “Fate” by Dr. Dog, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel, and “Intuit” by Ramona Falls.
Ben: “Everything I Own Is Broken” by B. Hamilton (That album is seriously amazing. B. Hamilton is from Oakland. I saw them with Grant at the Crepe Place in Santa Cruz. Shout out to those guys.), “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank,” by Modest Mouse, which is kind of fitting for being abandoned on an island, and “Forgiveness Rock Record” by Broken Social Scene.
Grant: Of course, my answer to this question is never definite and always changing but here we go. I think I’d bring “Ágaetis Byrjun” by Sigur Ros, “Lonesome Crowded West” by Modest Mouse, and “Midnight Organ Fight” by Frightened Rabbit.
Owen: The three albums that I would bring to an abandoned island would be Merriweather Post Pavillion (Animal Collective), The Fruit that Ate Itself (Modest mouse), and Eternal Champ (Sweet Valley). That way I would have some good variety.
Oliver: I would most likely bring “Ghost” – Radical Face, Dan Mangan – “Nice, Nice, very Nice”, and “Dark Eyes” – Half Moon Run.
9.) What are the plans for the future? New material? Are you playing some local dates?
Owen: We’ll probably be playing more local gigs and such in the coming months.
Oliver: I have been starting a new project called “Grassroots.” It’s kind of shoegazy and generally just a kind of dreamy sound.
Grant: We have some new material in the works already that we plan to try something totally new with (although I HIGHLY suggest all you readers go check out the new album ‘Blueprints of a Paper City that we released two months ago. It’s streaming on Bandcamp. While I’m plugging us, you guys should also totally go like our Facebook page!). We’ll also be playing more gigs. Our side project, The Perfectly Adequate Whales, a whale-oriented rap group that a lot of us take part in, has a new mixtape in the works that will come out soon (also check out their first mixtape if you have time – you can download it for free off of Bandcamp).
Check out the rest of Blueprints of a Paper City on Rat Trap’s Bandcamp. You can also visit Rat Trap’s Facebook.