This conversation with Rob Derhak was originally published in the Feb/Mar 2007 issue of State of Mind‚ which you can pick up here.
Rob Derhak is a great songwriter. Sometimes it takes witnessing people react to his songs to understand just how good he is. At this past year's moe.down (the band's annual festival) when seven thousand people were pumping their fists and singing along to "Plane Crash‚" it felt like a rock and roll moment. It was like seeing The Who play "Baba O'Riley‚" but completely off the radar‚ in a strange secret society tucked away in the mountains of New York. I thought of the ringing harmony of all those voices when I reached Rob by phone and the first thing he told me was he was waiting for a flight out of JFK.
Derhak has written plenty songs that have crossed the threshold into bigger connectedness. From short songs with infectious hooks‚ to long epic tales‚ his songwriting voice is expansive. On moe.'s seventh studio album‚ The Conch‚ his songs serve as bookends‚ starting with the nostalgic falsetto singing in "Blue Jeans Pizza‚" to the dark‚ somewhat delusional storyteller on "Brittle End."
The Conch was recorded on and off over a year and a half‚ which gave the band enough time to be sure they had what they wanted. They revisited and reworked the material enough to find the sweet spots in the songs and keep the sound fresh. The process is a good representation of moe.'s career thus far: the music they play is built for longevity. They've written songs that have lasted‚ and the band slowly evolves - anytime you might think they are getting comfortable or complacent with the music‚ they come back and surprise you. The Conch is one more remarkable surprise.
You guys have been busy lately. The New Year's show at Radio City‚ then Conan O'Brien a few days later. And then a few days after that‚ you got on a boat for a week for the How was all that?
It was a whirlwind of excitement and adventure. [laughter] We hung out in New York and then did Conan‚ but it was weird because we taped during the day and then I got on a plane and came home‚ back to Maine‚ and sat in bed and watched myself on TV. [laughter] Yeah‚ it was really strange. It was a weird experience.
How was the experience of watching yourself on TV?
Umm… I could get used to it. It's not so bad‚ you know? What are you gonna do? You can get hypercritical about yourself‚ or just enjoy the fact that we got to be on a killer show and play our music. I'll go that way. I've given up being hypercritical about anything.
That's good. You have a new album out today‚ The Conch. Congratulations.
Hell‚ yeah. I'm psyched. Finally! It's been many years in the making‚ trying to get this done‚ and it's finally out.
With this album you took a similar approach to what you did with Wormwood‚ which is a hybrid of live and studio recordings. You did some tracking while you were playing live and then took it into the studio.
We started in June 2005‚ in Portland‚ Maine‚ and the original idea was to try to continue where we left off with Wormwood‚ but what ended up happening is we just used all the stuff that we did without a crowd‚ before we did a show. We set up there for two weeks or something and we just tracked. We were tracking for about a week and then we did two shows where we didn't move any of our gear or touch any of the mics or anything‚ then just played a lot of the stuff that we were working on in the studio to see how it would stack up. And after listening back and forth‚ the live stuff didn't stack up as well as the stuff we did without a crowd there. So‚ that's where Wormwood and The Conch sort of part ways.
With Wormwood we traveled and played and recordings were from a different town every night. Some of them were sound checks; some of them were in front of people. We just ended up thinking that it would be great to stay in one spot‚ where we could get the sound more consistent-you know‚ get the drum sound we like-and a big theater is killer for that because of the high ceilings and real good natural reverb. For The Conch‚ we got to do that. We ended up sticking with the non-crowd version of things because‚ for us‚ the drum sounds are better than when we had lots of people in the room. It really lets everything ring out a little bit more.
That's interesting. Did you feel much more comfortable with the whole approach to making the album than you were with Wormwood? Listening to the album‚ I feel like you took advantage of knowing beforehand what you were going for-with a lot of the interludes and that kind of stuff.
Yeah. I definitely feel a lot more laid-back about this album. But some of the stuff we didn't figure out until we were mixing the album. We were doing the last mixing sessions‚ and we'd come up with a couple ideas to make a new track or something else. [laughs] We don't really have this Spielberg kind of vision‚ where we foresee every aspect of production or something. We have a loose idea‚ and then‚ you know‚ depending on which way the wind is blowing up someone's pants that day‚ [laughter] we'll change the idea and the whole project.
Right. Well‚ let me ask you a little bit about some of the songs‚ songwriting in general‚ and where you're at. Earlier today I put together a playlist of a lot of the songs you've written. A lot of these songs have lasted; they're really great. And I was thinking about the longer songs like "Buster" or "Rebubula" and then shorter stuff like "Tambourine‚" "Nebraska‚" "New York City‚" and "The Faker." It reminded me of listening to the new album‚ and how your songwriting has developed. For instance‚ the with the bookends of the album‚ "Blue Jeans Pizza" and "Brittle End‚" one of the things I noticed is how different the characters are in those two songs. As the storyteller‚ those are extremely different characters.
What do you get out of the final song? I'm just curious. What kind of character do you get out of "Brittle End"?
Umm… borderline crazy.
[laughing] But‚ you know‚ I can identify with that feeling.