S.F. Punk Outfit Rank/Xerox on Avoiding Comparisons and Growing More Alienated With Age
Rank/Xerox performing at Fivepoints Arthouse.
After spending the greater part of 2011 absorbing the band's self-titled album and witnessing a compelling performance at the Fivepoints Arthouse, I met with the rhythm section of Rank/Xerox at their house in the Sunset to discuss their the band's internal politics, relationship with the press, and the merits of arguing. Their newest album is fraught with agitated, neurotic energy and careens between moody, dynamic passages and exhilarating bursts of frenetic noise reflecting the frustration and futility articulated in their lyrics, but don't call it post-punk. Only David West, the trio's guitarist and co-vocalist was absent, but Kevin McCarthy and Jonathan Shade openly discussed his role in the group. If he had been there, we infer that the group would have bickered a lot more.
Your performance live seems very democratic. Is that what your songwriting process is like?
Kevin McCarthy: Some songs are democratic, some songs will be written in full by David West on guitar, and then taught to us and some songs we come up with on the spot.
Jonathan Shade: It changes. We don't have a set pattern and there is a lot of arguing involved.
KM: We wrote songs in 2009 that haven't been finalized because we're still arguing about them.
JS: Other songs have been recorded but we don't play them live.
Do you think that the nature of you guys butting heads so much improves the caliber of your end-result?
JS: Yes. Without Kevin we would play pop songs. David tends toward the pop direction, so I'm glad that Kevin is so stubborn.
KM: The songs that David writes are really good, but sometimes I wish I felt more comfortable playing some of the more tuneful songs that he writes. Sometimes I feel like they stray too far from the sound that we've established.
That surprises me that he drives the pop sensibility, since his guitar playing is the most dissonant and broken aspect of your music.
JS: Well, David is into a lot of different music, and records a ton of stuff himself.
KM: He'll come to some practices with a full demo of a completed song with lyrics and we'll play it, but sometimes it just won't be a Rank/Xerox song.
What inspired the band's visual aesthetic? There is a pretty consistent theme of obscured black-and-white photographs adorning your release.
KM: David took over design for the LP. He wanted to use a photo he took, and we agreed on it. We were both supposed to come up with five ideas and decide between those together, but I didn't come up with anything usable in time. I like the cover. At first I was reluctant but as I spent more time with it, it became hypnotic and I warmed up to it.
JS: Kevin did the art for the 7-inch. He takes a long time with his art, which frustrates David.
Your band made a decision in the beginning to not specifically discuss your influences or use genre names to categorize your own music. Is that still the case?
KM: Yeah. We have to use descriptive words, especially in the practice space. We don't say the names of other bands or genres.
So it's not just when interacting with the public, the rule applies to the band in private?
KM: Right. It takes a conscious effort to not do that. Of course, sometimes we're unconsciously channeling a band or genre.
Is that because you think there are too many bands who are pastiche?
KM: Bands tend to form already knowing what past sound they want to resemble.
JS: Sometimes you see a band and it's immediately apparent what they're going for. It's not just the fault of the bands. Record reviewers do it too when they use old bands to describe a sound instead of actual adjectives.
KM: One review will compare an album to a particular old band and even if the band sounds nothing like that, lazy reviewers will reuse the comparison.
JS: We get pegged in reviews as sounding like Wire or Gang of Four, but we don't really sound like Wire or Gang of Four. Or Fugazi, that's the one that bothers me. I like Fugazi well enough, but reading reviews that name drop post-hardcore or Fugazi bothers me.
Well, that's a range of groups and eras to be compared to. You've got bands from the '70s, '80s, and '90s. It must be flattering to be compared to such diverse but classic music.
JS: We've gotten compared to bands I've never even heard of before. I've bought records based on reviews I've read where we get compared to something I've never heard.
The review that Layla Gibbons at Maximumrocknroll wrote of your LP says it evokes "collapsing modernist architecture, awkward photographs and polyester trousers." What do you think of that comparison?
KM: That's great.
JS: That's more like what we're looking for.
Your lyrics have definite themes of futility and alienation. Is that actually how you feel most of the time?
KM: I would say so. Getting older, working, and paying bills makes me feel alienated.
Do you feel alienated within your music scene?
JS: I don't feel alienated as a band. We play within a pretty small community. All of our shows are pretty small and full of mostly familiar faces. On tour, most of our shows are pretty small as well. That's one of the funny things about record reviews. When you get positive reviews there is a perception that a lot of people are into your band but you might not even sell any records.