Friday 28 March 2008

The Rooks

A golden age of, what can loosely be termed, power pop is upon us. Combos like The Grays, Darryl Ann, Wanderlust, Weird Summer, The Greenbury Woods, Idle Wilds, Brad Jones, P.Hux, The Vandalias and The Cauffields spring up as if from nowhere and the list just keeps on growing.
The Rooks are something special amongst all this pop clamour, a band to fall in love with. Where as most power pop is equatable to a bright summer's day, they are more like a glorious autumn, their sonic tapestry rich with golds and subtle browns, poignant and majestic. Their eponymous debut album, released in 1993 on the Guardian label, is packed with hooks and loaded with memorable songs. It's a vaguely baroque soup of intelligent arrangements, spiced by the cutting lead guitar lines of Kristin Pinel and topped by the Lennon-esque vocals of Michael Mazzarella, guitarist, songwriter, producer, arranger and budding genius.
The album brought them to the attention of Bruce Brodeen, of the well renowned Not Lame label, and led to the release of 1995's "A Double Dose of Pop", a split CD featuring nine Rooks tracks and eight by LA's Twenty Cent Crush. Three of The Rooks' tracks were brighter mixes of favourites from their debut, while the other six were new recordings. Their most recent release, "The Chimes" CD EP, also on Not Lame, is their finest yet, sporting production and arrangements that just drip class.
To kill time, while waiting for their next opus to be released, I got in contact with main-man Michael Mazzarella, at his home in New York, to talk to him about the history of the band.

So, tell me Michael, how did you first get into music?

I was first introduced to music as a small boy, 'cause my parents loved music and always had a record spinning somewhere in the house, mostly Rhythm & Blues, Elvis and country stuff ... they played Jackie Wilson a lot too. The first time I was struck really hard was by the arrival of The Beatles. I saw them on the Ed Sullivan show, I guess I was four or five, and lost my mind. I was, of course, influenced by what was going on around me throughout the 60's and grew up with a transistor radio under my pillow. Great times, wonderful music. I hate to admit that in interviews though, 'cause The Rooks are getting so pigeon-holed. The press is going to do that to you anyway but we try to keep our distance from it as much as possible. We're influenced by a wide variation of artists and songs, from swing to blues to jazz.

When did you start playing yourself?

It was with a collection of friends, who could barely play and I was the rhythm guitarist. Actually, my original choice of instrument was the drums but I realised, fairly early on, that they're not conducive to songwriting. As soon as the opportunity reared it's nasty little head, I taught myself to play chords on a guitar and from there pretty much started to write songs. The band had various names but I think we settled on The Strangers. Since we only knew three or four chords we did Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly stuff, that sort of thing, but original material was always a priority.

What was the first song you wrote?

'From Time to Time" was my first proper song, I still remember writing it on a Smallbrite organ

Can you tell us about your songwriting process.

I do have trouble with melodies, though very rarely do I have trouble writing lyrics. I never set out to sit down and write a song as an exercise, as some writers do, something will come across and I either go to the piano or the guitar and write. If something appealing to my ear doesn't happen within five or ten minutes I give up. It normally takes no longer than ten minutes for me to complete a song from start to end. The lyrics usually come straight away and are written at the same time as the music. Ninety-nine percent of the time I can hear the finished song in my head, as a record, when I'm writing it. Not necessarily the complete details but more the mood and spirit of what I want the song to sound like.

Your lyrics have a depth and quality about them, what do they mean to you personally?

The lyrics are always a reflection of what's going on around me at the time, whether it's about me, someone else, or something that was on TV or in a magazine. I never have made up a story just out of hand. Every person and situation in my songs has happened, these are real things. An idea comes across, you write it down, you sing into a microphone, you strum some chords and then you go and record it.

Which of your own songs are your personal favourites?

Of the songs available now, it would have to be, on the first album, "Reasons" and "Circle of Fools", from "A Double Dose of Pop", I'm very happy and proud of "Glitterbest" and "Music Sound Sensation". From "Chimes" I like "Fortune" and "Friends of Mine". It's difficult to talk about because you go through so many stages that, by the time the songs come out, you've had it up to here with them. I don't really have enough distance from the last two albums to make that equation work so you might be better off asking me about them in a year!

How was your first album received? What led to the release of "A Double Dose of Pop"?

The response to the first album was fantastic and that led to Bruce from Not Lame Records getting in touch and offering us something. He asked for a full album of material but we didn't have the budget. I told him that we could probably get six tracks together and then I came upon the idea of remixing three songs from our debut.

If you can decide, which release are you most pleased with, overall?

I'm proud of all of them. We make these records for what is, in the scheme of things, virtually nothing. We never have a budget, they're literally pieced together by selling off equipment and record collections. We're in a forty dollar an hour studio, not the Record Plant or Hit Factory or any of those places. Yeah, I'm proud of what we do, with the amount of money we do it with.

In my opinion, "The Chimes" E.P. is your best work so far, it's fantastic stuff!
Well, I have over three hundred songs written now. The next three albums are written in their entirety, so it's never a matter of shortage of material with this band, it's just a question of what to use.

The Broken Hearts

Your first appearance on vinyl was as a member of The Broken Hearts (whose debut album 'What One?" appeared back in 1985 on the Scarlet Records label and contained three of his songs), can you tell me more about what happened between this band and the formation of The Rooks?

We (The Broken Hearts) were originally from Hartford, Connecticut and ended up as college radio staples, they played our demos all the time. We played some big halls with Katrina and The Waves and Steppenwolf, with John Kaye in all his evil glory. After the album we moved to New York City and were preparing songs for the follow-up album, which Nick Lowe was going to produce, but ended up disbanding for various reasons. I then moved to London in 1988 and lived in Earls Court for about a year, trying out with bands around the city. When I got back to the States I decided to get my own situation happening. So, shortly after that I formed a band which featured Patrick Yourell on drums, who was also in The Broken Hearts, but that didn't workout. Then Kristin Pinell came aboard, she'd moved here from Boston with her band The Gripweeds but I'd known her for years prior to that. We connected by telephone, she came over, we started to play, with Richard on drums, and slowly but surely became The Rooks. It gets very complicated after that because we've had a lot of bass players before Anne Bacovitz joined! The chemistry of the band, as it stands now, is the best it's ever been.

Well, it sounds like it! Can you talk about The Rook's live show?
We've been playing the circuit for years, on and off. We toured Eastern Europe last year, a two week stint, Prague and places like that. We've just returned from the West Coast, playing San Diego and LA, all the shows there were great. My favourite was a place called The Mercy Club in a place called Beno. The funniest show I remember was some years ago in Hartford. We played a hall called The Cool Moose and directly over the stage was this big old stuffed moose-head glaring down at all of us as we thrashed about on stage!

What's the music scene like in New York these days?
Discounting the 70's punk scene, which really wasn't pop, New York has never had a real heavy pop scene. It's always been more of an R&B, Soul and Doo-Wop thing. There's always your Lower East Side grunge crap bands thrashing around, making the most noise and getting the best shows but they always amount to nothing. However, there now seems to be a little bit of a pop community snowballing here and we're happy to be a part of that ... I think it's gonna roll into one big pop snowman!
What other contemporary bands are you into?
I like Teenage Fanclub, Velvet Crush, Walter Clevenger, Matthew Sweet and Twenty Cent Crush. I had a nice opportunity to hear some of their new demos when we were in LA recently and it was great stuff. My favourite albums of last year were Angelli and Rave's and Walter Clevenger's Pop Goes The Music.

So, there you have it. The Rooks are a band to be cherished just on the strength of their output so-far and yet it seems the best is still to come. They deserve your support and undying loyalty.

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