Michelle Rose is a writer and musician living in New York. We’re huge fans of her band, Frances Rose. Every week, Michelle will chat with her favorite local bands and musicians in that specifically charming, fangirl-y way only another musician can.
It’s easy to like Luke Rathborne. With his laid-back confidence and new-wave meets classic rock sound, he’s become somewhat of a staple of the New York music scene (if such a scene still exists). With a sound that fuses early R.E.M with Nick Lowe, his sweetly deranged melodies bring to mind 70s art punk, complimented with an accessible boy-next-door charm. Rathborne had been making music since his early teens, playing in high school punk bands, and sneaking into his local college radio station at night to record his own music. Like many of us, his hunger for something more brought him to New York sometime around the time he turned 18.
I’ve known Luke for almost a decade (when did we get so old?), and he’s never once failed to sonically impress me. This is especially true of his latest tracks, “Don’t Call Me Baby,” an evocative pop tune, and “I Wish I Was A Bird,” a dreamy ballad, both of which are out now on Ribbon Music and can be streamed below. I sat down with Luke at a hookah bar in the East Village with to catch up, discuss recording techniques, long songs, and the creative process.
Michelle Rose: Let’s talk about the current state of the music industry. We’ve known each other and been at it for a while now. How would you say it compares to, say, eight years ago, when we met?
Luke Rathborne: I think that it probably hasn’t changed a whole lot. I mean, obviously the music streaming changed a lot, so I think that that’s pretty different. But I don’t think people ever bought records in the past eight years, so that stayed pretty much the same. People still don’t buy records.
MR: What is it like putting sounds out that you know people are going to listen to without actually paying for it it?
LR: I like streaming and I always used to download stuff on Napster and something called Soulseek. I have been streaming, or at least downloading, music for a really long time. I guess it’s just a quicker way of doing that. So it doesn’t even seem that new to me.
MR: Soulseek…What is that?
LR: That was, like, a place that you could download all record collectors, and you could look at all their music and download all this rare, different music. And different artists.
MR: Can we talk about how you used to sneak into college radio stations in your hometown to record music? You were always into archiving and finding things. Was college radio a big thing for you? How did you get in there at night? Did you ever get arrested?
LR: I lived in Brunswick, Maine, so we had Bowdoin college in our town. They could sign up to do radio shows. So I figured out that there was a recording studio in there and I couldn’t find anyone or pay anyone to record the music. I realized that I could check out a key at anytime by having a radio show. I’d just play music on loop and go record music for free all night there. And that’s how I taught myself to record music.
MR: Did you find out about a lot of new bands through all the music that was archived there?
LR: Yeah. And you would get the new music every week that people were putting on CMJ. So that was an easy way to hear records too, because you still had to pay for records then.
MR: CMJ, RIP. Okay, so you used techniques from 50s recording on that new song you just put out, “Don’t Call Me Baby,” which I love – it’s awesome. You seemed to have taken a super clear inspiration from Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.” Do you want to talk about those recording techniques and how that came about? Were you learning things like that as a kid, were you trying to emulate that sound?
LR: Well, yeah. I think that there was elements of the song that had some sort of similarity. The idea was to use old equipment to recreate some of that 50s kind of sound… But we didn’t end up really using a lot of equipment. This guy Claudius Mittendorfer, who produced it with me, he recorded us twice and then panned the whole band to each side. It made this very classic kind of sound. Which also sounded new, but kind of like a callback to the 50s style of production.
MR: So were you guys all in a room playing together, live?
LR: Yeah, and then we tracked over ourselves again.
MR: That song is recorded in the Chelsea District in Manhattan, in the same studio Wu Tang recorded “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers.” Can you talk about this experience and cross-genre spaces in New York? Do you feel that you took a lot of energy from being in that room?
LR: Actually, I’m not sure that I knew that at the time. Someone told me afterwards. But I thought that that was amazing. And they’re like…that record is incredible. It’s cool to think that they did it in such a small room and that someone else ended up in it being creative and it remained a music studio.
MR: How did you end up working there?
LR: Well this guy Claudius, it’s his studio. I think him and this guy Tim from Ash bought the studio. Or leased it, or whatever.
MR: Do you ever feel like you have to get into a certain mindset to write? Do you feel like the climate and temperature of New York City is something that drives your music?
LR: Yeah, I think that a lot of the times you’ll be walking around and trying to work on stuff, and listening to stuff on your headphones. But I kind of miss being in a car and driving around and listening to music. So, that’s definitely something that I wish I still had the ability to do in New York. Because whenever I’m back in Maine, or in California, I really like listening to music while driving.
The other song “I Wish I Was a Bird” was recorded with Ted Young at Room 17. And I think that it was cool, because when we finally finished it, I looked over at the length of the song…
MR: That song is long.
LR: …And it was like 8 minutes long. So I was just blown away by the fact that you can think you’re making like a bite-sized thing and have done something that’s like…a 10-minute long song.
MR: I loved how episodic it was. I felt like it was a journey. It reminded me of my favorite songs when I was a teenager that were b-sides. It was very emotionally charged but also very narrative. The lyrics are amazing. Do you want to talk about three of your favorite lines from that song?
LR: I like what you were saying about how it’s kind of like if you’re reading a long poem or something like that. How each little section contributes to the greater whole of the thing.
MR: That’s interesting, it’s like a play. Where every piece of that song is intentional and it can’t be stripped away to create something commercial. Would you ever consider making a short film to accompany it?
LR: Yeah, I was actually thinking it would be the best way to make a video for it. To like, put a plot to it or something like that.
MR: As a teenager, I really liked the idea of a song not ending. I feel like when I was a teenager and I would find these b-sides that were these long episodic love songs, I became so obsessed with them because it fed the craving that I didn’t want the song to end. I just wanted to keep feeling in the world of the song. That song for me, your new track, definitely captured that. I wanted to keep playing it, because I liked the idea where I didn’t have to transition so quickly.
LR: I like those kinds of songs the best, where you just keep repeating them over and over and over again. It seems healthy to do that with different artwork.
MR: I also feel like your stamp is very much nostalgic and sentimental. And that song transports you into the world of the relationship that you’re exploring.
LR: Yeah, and what’s funny is that it’s like not really about anything specific. I feel like a lot of the songs are like that, where the lyrics will be kind of vague situations and different people talking to each other. I think that I would probably do something different if I could.
MR: Talk about what the song is about, what inspired you to write it?
LR: “I Wish I Was a Bird”—I actually remember. I remember that before I just had that chord progression of “I wish I was a bird, I would have flown” or something like that. I had that line and a few chords, like, 10 years ago and I was kind of sad that I hadn’t actually used that. So I was like, “Oh, well I can do it now.” So it was this idea of resurrecting this whole lyric or idea and actually making it into something. It didn’t really have cohesive lyrics until we did it kind of live. Yeah, but that song is pretty much live. All the keyboards I tracked over were after the fact. Darren Will played bass and Jamie Alegre played drums.
MR: Love Darren. Can you just state two of your favorite lyrics from the song?
LR: Oh yeah, I like the lines at the end, where it’s like, “Honey I am just a man I make mistakes” and also, “Everything you do can break your heart” – it’s just an emo kind of line. It’s cool where it comes in the song because you’ve been listening for so long and then you get depressed. But maybe not…well, maybe in a bad way.
MR: So, what was your first day in New York City like? Do you remember it?
LR: Well I came here actually after 9/11, probably a month after, with my family. We saw one of the store windows, they put glass over it with all the dust still on it. So you could see everything. That was pretty intense, because it was just crazy to think about.
MR: How was it when you moved here as a teenager?
LR: By the time I got here it was more of the remnants of a scene. Even places like Cake Shop and The Living Room, and Mercury Lounge, all these venues where it’s like—they didn’t really have any united scene. It was a lot of different bands from out of town coming. It seemed like by the time I got to New York there was less of a scene. And people move away, too. A lot of people move away. You can have a group of friends here…and then you know, people have expiration dates on the amount of time they can be in New York and then they go. It’s hard to live here for some people, sometimes.
MR: It’s really hard. Growing up outside the city, I feel like if I didn’t have that escape and be able to get on a train and go back to nature for even like 5 days, I’d go nuts.
LR: But it always seems like it’s about to turn the corner. Like you’re going to feel comfortable here. I never relate to that when people are like “I love New York, it’s so awesome.” I’m just like, “Really?” It is cool, but it’s also crazy.