Old School / Fresh Sound: An Interview with The Rooks

“I don’t think we would have the same chance in this city
if we went to any other school or formed in any other way. It had to be Wesleyan.”
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Forget MGMT. Amanda Who? Das What? Wesleyan’s biggest hype band is The Rooks, a six-piece R&B/indie-soul band made up of a group of friends and members of the Classes of 2011 and 2012. The majority of them have settled in New York City after graduating, and since then, the band has released a handful of singles and now – finally – their debut studio EP, Something You Can Take. The album, now on Bandcamp for your free download enjoyment, is a must-hear for anyone who has a taste for classic rhythm and blues, hip-hop, indie rock, or really has ears at all. And, if you’re in the NYC area this Friday, June 21, The Rooks will be playing Fat Baby at 10 PM, so you can experience them live.

I had the opportunity to sit down for a Google Hangout with The Rooks frontman/lead singer Garth Taylor ’12 and drummer Nate Mondschein ’12 to talk about their new album, the forming of the band, the support of the Wesleyan community, and the difficulties of labeling a music style.

Wesleying: Thanks for taking the time for this interview. Can you tell me a little about the band?

Garth Taylor: We’re called The Rooks. We all played music together at Wesleyan in some capacity, I guess very early on. I know that as early as freshman year our sax player and Spencer Hattendorf ’12 was playing music with Gabe Gordon ’11. They were in a group together. Maybe Nate should talk about this part.

Nate Mondschein: Freshman year, Spencer was playing in jazz ensemble with Gabe Gordon. Spencer and I, without knowing it, were from a similar area back in the Western Mass. Area. Turns out we had some weird connections with musicians we both played with, and we started talking about starting a band. Spender started talking with Gabe about pulling a band together. Gabe pulled in Louis Russo ’11, our bassist. The group of us formed a band called Mad Wow Disease that then pulled in a couple other members we’d been playing with for a while.

GT: It’s a lot of names, I know. We should really start a sitcom.

NM: Over the next two or three years, a bunch of us played in a bunch of different incarnations, one of which was Fly Machine, which was the band in which Garth was the front man and Graham Richman ’11 was the guitar player. Graham and Garth were the last members of the Rooks to join together. Mad Wow Disease became Mad Wow, and we were also playing in Wordsmith and the Concert Gs.

GT: Nate, we should really come out with a book about this.

NM: ?uestlove is coming out with a book, so I think that makes sense.

All these bands are revolving around each other, and at some point toward the end of our junior year we decided we would pull a bunch of people together and make one big band that would be our push in what we wanted to do after college. The summer after our junior year, the summer of 2011, a crew of us got together and started writing together for what became The Rooks. It sort of went from there. The people who graduated commuted the next year to Wesleyan. Gabe stayed in Middletown, Louis and Graham were both living in New York, so they were both commuting regularly.

GT: We would have rehearsals and school for upcoming shows. The fall of 2011 we started doing that, and it’s funny to think back on that now, almost two years ago. A lot of commitment for people.

NM: After our graduation, everyone moved to the city except for me. I am living in New Haven right now, but I might as well live in New York because I couch surf every weekend.

GT: If anyone is paying it back for commuting to Wesleyan for our shows, it’s Nate.

NM: The rest of The Rooks owe me and Louis a whole lot of money.

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Wesleying: You guys just released your debut EP, Something You Can Take, a few weeks back. Can you tell me how that came together?

GT: After we finished our freshman year of The Rooks, the summer after the class of 2012 graduated, we played a few shows in New York, and by the time fall came around we sat down and had several discussions about recording and putting together a full EP. We wanted to step it up a little bit. We were feeling good about the shows we were doing. Wesleyan was so supportive after we graduated. We played a few shows in New York, and people showed up in numbers we couldn’t believe. Our first show was June 1 or 5, 2012, and 300-plus Wesleyan people were at this one concert. When we saw that, we were just like, “Let’s get our professional game up, make a solid studio recording.”

So we talked and we knocked ideas around. We took a three-month break of performing in October so we could flesh out the material we wanted to record so we could start recording in January. We used an engineer that Nate knows from this music camp he’s done for several years, and from high school. His name is Andrew Oedel, and we were definitely looking to record, and he heard about that through Nate, and one thing led to another, and we started recording at Connecticut College.

We took four or five weekends throughout January and February and maybe March, so there would be two or three day weekends and we would all drive up to Connecticut and record it there, do the whole mixing thing with Andrew as well, lived in his lake house. He’s renting a beautiful lake house from one of his professors there. It’s such an amazing experience compared to a lot of bands that early. It feels like we’ve been spoiled by Wesleyan by how supportive they’ve been, and now that we’ve left we’ve been finding new supportive people. We got into his cabin and had a totally creative headspace for what we wanted to do.

Wesleying: What is the songwriting process like for the band?

NM: The writing process in general for The Rooks is varied up. Everyone in The Rooks writes in some degree, and the amount someone has input depends song to song, but almost always the idea is generated by one person who brings it in, and the composition and arrangement is fleshed out by all of us playing or all of us talking or recording multiple layers on GarageBand. There were a few on here that were fairly through composed when they came in. “Rita,” the opening track, was written by Spencer pretty front to back. Individual parts were fleshed out, I tweaked my drum part, by most of it was written by Spencer.

GT: “Come Closer” was the most group-composed.

NM: “Come Closer” was an idea that was there, and everything was tweaked a million times in rehearsals and brought back and forth.

GT: Lyrics, arrangements, meaning of the song. We worked hard on that song, for many months before we were even able to think about what we wanted it to sound like live.

NM: “Lefty,” also, was brought in at the second to last rehearsal.

GT: I have a recording from December 16, that was the first time we performed “Lefty,” which is our second song and closest to what’s our single. I sound whack. Spencer wrote the lyrics and melody to that. The tempo was very different. I remember I was coming up with other melodies too, and sometimes when you’re improving it’s not cute, it’s really not great. But I’m so proud of where that’s come, because it’s hard to pick your favorite child, but I’m very proud of where that song is.

NM: It really varies from song to song. We do pride ourselves on being very democratic and group-minded, both in how the band runs and in the compositional process.

Wesleying: With “Lefty” in particular, it sounds very much like Ben E. King’s song “Stand By Me.” Was that on purpose? I was sitting in a Starbucks and “Stand By Me” came on, and it just hit me that it had so much in common with “Lefty.”

NM: You’re the one who wrote that Tweet! We loved that Tweet.

GT: I think when I saw that Tweet, I called Graham, because that was exactly what I wanted to see as the reaction to that song.

NM: That song was actually never mentioned as a reference point for “Lefty.” The name “Lefty” comes from the song “I Can’t Write Left Handed” by Bill Withers, and the story as I remember it from Spencer having told me, was that Spencer was hanging out at home having a drink and the one bass rift came into his head, and wrote the entire song in a night. That was the name of the rough demo he sent out to us without ever thinking it would actually take. The intention as a whole was to get at more of the old school, soul vibe, some of that feel good, something you can sing along to and get people moving, not upbeat dancing but something that makes you want to move to some extent. Which I think is very true of “Stand By Me” as well. While the similarity did not come inherently as that song as a reference point, I think that’s stylistically within the wheelhouse of stuff we want to draw on a lot.

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Wesleying: The Rooks overall has a sound that’s very reminiscent of classic soul, while never seeming derivative. How did your band settle on the style you have now?

GT: That’s a question we’re always asking ourselves, if we’re doing what you’re saying. We’re still working on it. We’re exploring new territory. Putting together this album has been key in helping us kind of settle, as you say, into this old-school soulful music while still being fresh. I think that’s something we work on every time we play. At the beginning of our band, we had to have a lot of conversations about what we want to sound like. A lot of different members of the band are coming from different musical spaces, and sometimes putting those together is easy and beautiful, and sometimes it’s difficult.

I don’t even know what we would say we were doing when we started. We just wanted to play music together. From the beginning we just struggled to find that common ground. Some times we feel more rock and sometimes we feel more pop or sometimes we feel more jazz or soul, so what are we? One of the earliest songs we have, “Nothing Wrong,” we recorded with Jared Paul ’11, who recorded some of our first material. That was something that came together easily and become what we would become musically. I wouldn’t say that’s the old school soul with fresh sound, because I don’t know how to place it. It’s just us, just our song. We play it all the time. Can’t stop, won’t stop.

NM: In the lead up for the promotion for the album, there was a lot of writing band bios and coming up with tags for the genre of the band. What we’ve been dancing around is between R&B and indie soul, drawing from this very old story tradition, this music that’s very familiar and comfortable but pulling on a lot of the playing we did before this band in indie bands or hip hop outfits. “Nothing Wrong” has a huge hip-hop influence. The chorus is very related to this producer J. Dilla, who’s an influence of mine and others in the band, while being very influenced by soul. Blending these influences has been a goal of ours, and it has been very hit or miss. The goal has been finding this balancing point and making it not feel forced by finding the commonalities in many different genres.

GT: You have to be careful with us. We like to talk. I know I do.

Wesleying: What are you planning to do as a band now that you’ve made this first step?

NM: A big part of it is spreading it around as much as possible. We’ve been pushing it to blogs and radio stations and have been featured on podcasts and spreading it to the Wesleyan community and any other colleges and friends we have, while at the same time using it to help pick up some steam in the New York scene and procure more gigs. We have a bunch of gigs lined up to play this summer. We’re playing at Fat Baby this Friday, and then we’re going to be playing at our home venue at this point, Sullivan Hall. That will be on July 18, and then we’re going to be playing down in Virginia on August 2, which will be awesome. It’ll be one of our first big out of town shows. Picking up as much scene as we can gigging, we really want to hit up more colleges and put together a college tour. The Wesleyan scene has been so supportive and we want to capitalize on that, and we want to bring some of that Wes energy to any other schools.

Wesleying: Will you be playing any shows at Wesleyan in the coming year?

NM: I would be shocked if we didn’t. The show we played back in May was, as always, one of the most fun shows. Really great time, it’s always being great being back on your home turf. Ask us to be back, and we’ll be there.

GT: Even if you don’t, we’ll be there.

NM: We’ll just squat in Psi U until they let us play. That’ll definitely happen. We’ll also try and wrangle some festival gigs.

Wesleying: Is there any alumni network that helped the band through its career, with navigating the industry or just getting a leg up?

NM: There’s such an incredible system of connections and people involved in the arts coming out of Wes. But for us, it’s more about the support on the immediate level of people coming out to shows or people blasting out about new material. There’s a group of people from 2012 and 2013 that have been playing music together, a lot of whom are based in New York now, and that more than any individual connection or having an “in” with a label, the community that has existed at Wesleyan, has translated into this unbelievable safety net. We know we can pull a crowd at a show because these people have our backs. We know we can put out an album and put money into it because we know people will support us. Everyone has each other’s backs and loves the work each other is putting out. Knowing you have that makes all the risks you have to take an all the free falls you have to be willing to throw yourself into in the arts a lot easier because you know there’s a crew there.

GT: That being there, I wouldn’t mind twerking in a video with Le1f. Where you at? That being said, the support there, from the audience, has been unparalleled. I don’t think we would have the same chance in this city if we went to any other school or formed in any other way. It had to be Wesleyan.

Wesleying: Anything else we can look forward to from The Rooks in the near future?

GT: I will say this, because if people are doing the red carpet thing or on television they say this sort of thing, we have some very exciting things in the works that we are not able to speak about contractually. But in the next year, that will come to the light, and we are excited for those opportunities.

NM: We love talking to people about music, so hit us up and tell us why you love the music or why you hate it. We’re all music heads, which is all very conducive to the collaboration element.

If you haven’t already, grab Something You Can Take on Bandcamp and tell us what you think in the comments. Read more about The Rooks’ rise to fame in the Wesleying archives, and follow the band on Facebook and Twitter.

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