Fifteen years in, the rock band has adjusted some goals, but not the priorities that drove it in the first place.
When Tiffany Lamson told Rotary Downs to sit, they sat.
At the My Spilt Milk Awards this spring, the vocalist and percussionist for GIVERS took the stage to give the band its Carton of Honor Award and remember her time as a member. The band was onstage and about to get ready to play, but when she told everybody to get comfortable, they sat down on the stage like third graders ready for their graham crackers and milk.
Lamson remembered the respect with which they listened to her ideas even though she was younger than they were, and their openness to her ideas despite having been together for eight or nine years before she joined—long enough to have established a strong identity.
“She liked our band and was so motivated to play as much music as possible,” singer James Marler says. “We told her we needed a female vocalist and she was totally dedicated to it. She’d drive from Lafayette just for practice sometimes. A total pro. She’d know everything she needed to know. All the lyrics. All the percussion parts. Totally on it.”
Rotary Downs will play Gasa Gasa Saturday night with Bantam Foxes and A Living Soundtrack, and when they performed at the My Spilt Milk Awards, they showed what a special band they had become over the last 15 or so years. When Rotary Downs began, it was hard to hear the band and not hear Pavement, but that had more to do with how large Pavement loomed over the indie rock that followed than the band itself. By 2006’s Chained to the Chariot, Rotary Downs had become far more lyrical and often much lovelier than Pavement ever was, and in the years since then, the band’s sound has grown richer, reflecting the breadth of the music the members have internalized. On 2014’s Traces, new wave textures were clearly evident, but the album didn’t sound like anyone had a Rhino ’80s compilation stuck in their car stereo. The songs seemed more like the natural result of sounds heard years ago finally finding organic expressions. When Rotary Downs performed at the awards show, there were moments when Chris Columbo’s guitar sounded like something out of The Velvet Underground, and others that echoed The Grateful Dead. The songs they appeared in sounded like neither.
“I’m a huge fan of Chris Columbo’s guitar playing,” Marler says. “I think he’s really original, and it’s great to be able to make music around stuff he does.”
In recent years, Rotary Downs has faced the challenge more bands face every year—how to age. There was a time when teenagers grew up, got jobs, got married, had kids, and put down their music. That doesn’t happen, and bands don’t move on like they once did either. Some musicians lack the marketable skills to do anything else, while others have other sources of income that allow them to keep chasing some version of the dream. Rotary Downs falls in the latter category, so they don’t have to gig until going through the motions counts as a good night. At the same time, their goals have and haven’t changed, and that makes a difference.
Rotary Downs formed in the early 2000s and Marler insists that nobody in the band harbored secret dreams of making it. “That version of the band started to make one record,” he says.
The now-defunct Mermaid Lounge was Rotary Downs’ home, and they recorded the first album there. That was Marler’s main interest. “I didn’t even want to play gigs,” he says, but some vestigial back brain band ambition kicked in. When he met Smith there doing projections for a band from Austin, he asked him if he was a drummer—something Smith hadn’t played since high school—because he needed one. In 2003, Smith and Rhein joined, Rhein picking up the bass for the first time. In both cases, Rotary Downs added personalities first, musicians second, and that helped as the band moved forward. “We’ve always remained pretty copacetic with each other,” Smith says. “We realize we’re all there for the song.”
Those additions shaped Chained to the Chariot, which was largely written and recorded pre-Katrina, then finished in Lafayette afterwards.
“It’s lucky we were able to keep it together after all that,” Marler says. “It’s kind of unbelievable that everybody made it back to town.”
With Rhein and Smith, the band’s sense of its possibilities changed. Musically, they were stronger, and Chained to the Chariot could hold up to national scrutiny. The band’s one must-play, “Sing Like the Sun,” comes from that album.
Smith’s experience as a photographer touring with bands meant he had a network that Rotary Downs could plug into to tour, as did Marler from a previous band. “We had a pretty good splash with Chained to the Chariot,” Smith says. “We were doing a lot of traveling and things were happening.”
At the same time, they were aware that the album was eclectic and random in a way that made it unlikely to get truly big, so they tempered their aspirations.
“We saw a little of success with Chained, success meaning people were interested in it,” Smith says. “The shows had energy sent back from the crowd. I think we just wanted as much time as possible playing the music we love, and if something awesome happened because of it, great.”
Rotary Downs planned to record its follow up quickly, but everything worked against that possibility. In retrospect, Marler thinks they started recording too soon and really only had three-quarters of an album locked down. Trying to figure out songs in the studio while on the clock made the band money-conscious and uncomfortable, and sorting out tracks was made trickier because they were so dense. In the end, the album took four years from writing to market, and by the time Cracked Maps and Blue Reports was done, the band had become bigger. Percussionist Anthony Cuccia was part of the mix (and still is), as was Michael Girardot, who played trumpet and keyboards in the band starting in 2008 or 2009, and Lamson joined during that time as well.
“I knew that we only had them for a little while,” Smith says. Girardot left to join The Revivalists, and by the release of Cracked Maps and Blue Reports in 2010 , Lamson’s attention was shifting toward GIVERS. Rotary Downs played Jazz Fest after the album’s release as a nine-piece, but Giradot and Lamson's departures made some of the album's songs hard to play live.
“It’s a really dense record,” Smith says. “There are a lot of sounds we’re trying to bring back when we play it live. I’m singing more, Anthony’s doing more programs and percussion, and some songs still aren’t there. There are missing layers.”
“We can’t do some justice live, so we don’t worry about it,” Marler says.
Still, Smith says that despite Cracked Maps’ traumatic process, it’s the one he returns to with the most pride. “There are moments in some of those songs that I don’t know if I’m scared or want to dance. That to me was a good dichotomy. This band could go anywhere.”
Traces came out four years later—by coincidence not design—and it’s the one Marler looks back at fondly, particularly for its sound. He’s not inclined to revisit old records more than necessary because doing so is often the sonic equivalent at looking through high school yearbooks. There are pleasant surprises, but there are also, like some haircuts, moments and touches that seemed like good ideas at the time.
The band only did a few weeks of touring after Cracked Maps and less after Traces. If getting big—or at least bigger—isn’t a motivation, why spend the money, take time away from home, family, and jobs? If it’s all about making music, you don’t have to travel any farther than the place where you play.
After the release of Traces, that became a problem. The gigs were still there, but Rotary Downs only plays about every six weeks. The members were accustomed to getting together twice a week to work on music, sometimes honing a riff for an hour until it locked in perfectly. When they lost their rehearsal space, they unexpectedly lost a sense of itself. Without the bi-weekly practices, the closeness band members felt wasn’t quite as close. Without those times to talk in familiar, safe contexts, things started to go unsaid. “I was confident about our musical abilities, but not about how to move forward,” Marler says.
He says because Traces was musically adventurous and sonically strong, he didn’t see any point in breaking up, but the statement is a tacit admission that the thought crossed his mind.
“We were trying old things while living in new skin,” Smith says. “Something wasn’t working.” Frustrations began to set in and older songs started to feel like covers.
Getting a new rehearsal space seemed like its own dubious idea since everybody in the band had so many demands on their time, so they decided to meet weekly in Rhein’s studio with the simple goal of doing something creative. Nobody was to come in with anything planned—no beats, no riffs, no parts—and somebody had to simply start playing. They’d let the person go and find ways to join in when they heard them. “Usually within 30 minutes, we have something we want to pursue,” Marler says. That is currently the way Rotary Downs hangs out now, and Marler has been pleasantly surprised by the results, particularly the way that work to everybody’s strengths. “It’s been truly democratic that way. Go unfiltered, do a quick arrangement, and see what the vibe of that thing is.” In the first four sessions, they came away with four tracks that excited them.
Marler misses the time he, Rhein, Smith and Colombo spent chewing on parts, but the current system is also a reflection of the band’s chops over the years. “Everybody’s refined what they do a lot anyway,” he says.
Now as at the beginning, the point for the band is the time spent being creative and the respect for each other that accompanies it. “If you have those two hours in the studio, you want to bring your A game,” Smith says. “You don’t want to waste your brother’s time.” Guitarist Alex Smith for example, in addition to his other musical gigs, is the father of young twins.
“The cool thing at this point is that there’s six of us, and if two or three of us get together in any configuration, we’re going to come up with something I like and that’s worth pursuing,” Marler says.