The Rapture's Luke Jenner on Living in San Francisco, Being the "Black Sheep" of Sub Pop, and Learning to Be Positive
Touring on In the Grace of Your Love, the first album by his rhythmically aggressive, now gospel-influenced NYC-based band the Rapture in five years, singer/guitarist Luke Jenner took a moment to look at what he has accomplished to date. Turns out he's still a little sad he's never been able to get critics to refer to "dance-punk" as "dunk music." The Rapture headlines Blow Up Forever II at the Factory this Saturday night.
When you survey the last decade, looking back from when the band launched as serrated post-punks to now, what are some memorable phases that led to where you're at?
Well, our band started in 1997 in San Francisco. We used to share a practice space with Steel Pole Bath Tub, and we tried to go record with Helios Creed, who was in Chrome, which was a band we looked up to. He used to record bands for $10 an hour. I loved San Francisco. It's my second favorite city in the U.S. And a lot of reasons I liked it was because it was wide open.
The biggest band when we got there was the VSS and everyone would go to their shows and stand outside because it was the cool place to be. A lot of people didn't even go in to watch the show. I found myself thinking we could really make a dent here, and we did pretty fast. But moving to Seattle was going to be our big ambitious move to make it on an indie rock level, since K Records and Kill Rock Stars were up there.
K wasn't interested in us, and Sub Pop at the time was really uncool, bloated with coffee-table music and rock like the Hellacopters. But they wanted to sign us, help us buy a van, so I took the money from Sub Pop and took off for New York, because the Seattle scene was closed.
So we got a couple thousand dollars from Sub Pop and bought a van from a dude who told us a story about making love to his wife for the first time in that van. And it lovingly got us to New York and died. The reason we moved to New York was there wasn't any set scene, and we wanted another S.F. but didn't want to move there again. In Seattle it was all about who you knew, and in S.F. there was no label support at the time. So we got to NY and met the DFA, which was just two people at the time. It wasn't a label; it was more a crazy idea.
We were the black sheep of Sub Pop, while they were super stoked on this band the Go. We wanted to tour Europe and they told us to be patient, but I got tired of that so I left. I was young and full of piss and vinegar, so I wasn't patient. We got to New York, met other snotty kids that turned out to be DFA, and there was a millionaire kid who funded the entire thing with this recording studio in the West Village James Murphy had built. So since we didn't have to pay any bills and there was no clock, we spent two years making a record however we wanted, which would have never happened in Seattle on Sub Pop. It would have been $5,000 and a week top.
New York provided us with a lot of opportunities. But anything good we've ever done hasn't come out of trying to be famous, it's just been from doing stuff for fun or for the right reasons, and it's a lesson I've had to learn over and over again. Being on a major label was miserable, because that was trying to be famous, trying to do things for the wrong reasons. In a lot of ways signing to Sub Pop was for the wrong reasons, but signing to DFA wasn't. It's this yin and yang thing, trying to make a living playing music, while not being a douchebag, basically.
Once you were in New York, what were some pivotal moments?
Coming to NY and going to proper dance music clubs, that was pivotal. I was hearing dance music over a big system and realizing it has the same energy as a hardcore show, the idea that a kick drum can be so powerful, so tough-sounding in a song like "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" by Michael Jackson on the right system. I think also, just the raw power of dancing, and the kind of communal aspect that could be created, like the same thing that sprouts up around punk rock kids, it could be the same with dance music.
You seem very pro-scenes, but only if they don't stagnate and become too predictable. Was there a point with the Rapture that you felt people had too concrete an idea of what the band should, rather than could, be?
That happened a lot internally. Mattie [Safer, bassist from 2000 - 2009], there was a lot of arguing about that with him before he left. He started talking to me a lot about how he didn't think he was an indie rocker, and he wanted to be a pop, R&B artist. And I was like, when I met you, you were a straight edge hardcore kid, and you're telling me that never happened? There was a lot of conversation internally. I wanted to move on, push our sound around, and he wanted to stay in the same place, to stick to a style. But that's not why I started the band. I didn't want to be in a band like the Ramones, putting out 20 records that sound the same. I didn't want to be the AC/DC of punk-funk. So internally there was plenty of expectations about that.
How did working with [album producer] Phillipe Zdar allow you to push in those new directions?
I think the biggest contribution he made was the song vetoes. We really threw a lot of songs at him, and he gravitated to the most positive ones, and helped find the core of the record. He has a lot of sayings, and one is 'the brother and sister songs,' and he'll help find what goes together best. And we'd get rid of songs where he said there was already a pair in that vein.
When you look at the songs selected, is there a vast divide between the vibe and attitude between what was selected and what wasn't?
There were a couple of non-positive songs, or more just angry songs, but I think in general I wanted to make something positive. That was my mission on this record. My mom took her own life and my grandmother took her own life, and I have a little boy and I'm 36 years old. Before I was a guy in a band, but now I'm a dad, and I've been married for 10 years, and that's my life more than being in the band. Also, we grew up in this super-nihilistic age of gangsta rap and grunge and suicide and all this, and I felt we needed to move on from all this. Also, when you make a record you live in it for two or three years, you can't take it off, it's stuck to you. Wherever you go you have to perform the songs, so I wanted to create a life that was joyful and happy, something fun to live in. I remember the last record, making Echoes was cathartic and there are light parts and extremely dark things in it, but I got tired of fighting myself and everyone else and being fearful. I desperately needed to move on from that in my life. I was really exhausted, was tired of fighting the people in my band. I just didn't want to fight Mattie anymore; I didn't want to fight anybody.
It's how I operated for many years, being confrontational, making confrontational art. That was the legacy I was handed from my musical forefathers, from Sonic Youth, the Sex Pistols, from all the angry teenagers, the Melvins and whatever. Before it was "Screw you, dad," but I am the dad now, so it doesn't work in my life.
So, thinking about the different ways people now work together, and going back to your love of baseball, is it possible to equate the roles in a band to positions on a baseball field?
[Laughs] Sure, I guess the singer is the pitcher, the drummer is the catcher, and you have other support dudes around ... The thing I loved about baseball was and is that it's another community thing. My family wasn't very healthy, so I needed to get love from somewhere else, and I got that from baseball for a lot of years. Then I got it from music, and it saved my life to have other people with shared intentions taking care of each other, even loosely. It's the feeling of being on the same team. It's been a blessing, and I'm lucky that people came before me helped set all that stuff up.