So Much for LeVar Burton
Apr 06, 2011 Web Exclusive
Reading Rainbow, the male-female lo-fi garage-rock duo, owes its name to the children's television show where one-time Star Trek: The Next Generation actor LeVar Burton promotes reading to elementary school children. The Philadelphia-based band owes its sound more to the likes of popsmiths The Vaselines and current indie darlings Dum Dum Girls, with a pinch of good ol' '60s melodies and harmonies thrown in for good measure. With the band's sophomore album, Prism Eyes, Reading Rainbow presents its particular fuzzed-out anachronistic vision in 12 concise pieces of lively and hook-laden bedroom pop. Currently on tour, guitarist/vocalist Rob Garcia and drummer/vocalist Sarah Everton took some time to explain themselves to Under the Radar.
Frank Valish: I wanted to start, well, at the beginning I guess. Tell me a bit about your youth. I understand you grew up in Virginia. And specifically, what sorts of music you were exposed to growing up?
Sarah Everton: I'm from Virginia. I was born and grew up there. Rob's dad was in the Air Force, so he moved around a lot, but we met in Virginia. I grew up in Richmond, and I never really listened to very much music until I was like 12. My family mainly listened to classical music, and I was kind of embarrassed. I didn't really want them to know that I was into grunge and stuff. That was the first stuff I got into. I was really obsessed with Nirvana, and I was really into the first Silverchair album, Frogstomp, which is really funny. And then I got hopelessly, ridiculously, embarrassingly obsessed with The Smashing Pumpkins for a few years —it was pretty bad —and then I transitioned to Radiohead, which is what a lot of people who got obsessed with Smashing Pumpkins did, I think. And I was really into things like Hole. Because my brother only listened to classical music, he wasn't able to expose me to anything cool. And I lived in a shitty suburb, and I didn't know any cool punk kids so I didn't get into good music until mid- to late-high school.
Rob Garcia: And my story is that my dad is in the Air Force, so I moved like every two years. My dad and my mom were able to introduce me to a lot of really good music. My dad played in jazz bands and stuff when he was in high school. He was really into that whole scene. He grew up in California, so he had stories of my uncle going to see Jimi Hendrix and stuff, and he introduced me to all this stuff, like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, and I was super obsessed with that in high school. And yeah, I went through a Radiohead phase. Britpop.
Sarah: Yeah, I was really into Britpop too. When we first met, the very very first time we ever met, we were bonding over how we were both really obsessed with Blur. Rob was impressing me by playing Blur songs on his acoustic guitar [laughs].
Where did you two meet?
Rob: While in college, I went to school at Virginia Tech at Blacksburg, and Sarah had a friend there whom she had know since middle school. I had met this guy at an open mic that I was playing and [to Sarah], What was the story? Like, he said, "Sarah, I met somebody you're really going to like."
Sarah: No, no, he lived in the same apartment complex as Rob. One time when I was visiting him, he was like, "Hey, let's go over to my friend Rob's apartment. He lives right over there." And so we did.
So I understand you had this band, Forensic Teens. Was it was when that band broke up that you decided to move to Philadelphia?
Rob: No, actually, we had that band before we had moved to Philadelphia, but then when we moved to Philadelphia it wasn't until like a year later that we started Reading Rainbow. Our friends ended up moving to Philadelphia actually, and we played a few shows in the city as Forensic Teens, but then it just kind of wasn't going out the same way, and we just I guess grew out of that. We'd had this idea to play as Reading Rainbow for a while, and it came to fruition.
Why move to Philadelphia?
Sarah: Since we were both living in Virginia, and we both spent time living in Richmond together, and I obviously grew up there, I didn't want to stay in Richmond. Of the East Coast cities, there's Baltimore and D.C. Baltimore's way too much like Richmond. And so is D.C. And then New York City is way too expensive. Philadelphia is like the perfect in between. It's not too far away from Virginia, but it's far enough from our families that we don't have to always visit them all the time, but then it's not that bad when we do have to go. [Laughs.]
Rob: We had known about the music scene here in Philly, and it seemed good to us. We didn't even know anybody when first moved here, which is kind of crazy, but it ended up working out really great.
I read somewhere that Reading Rainbow was originally a three-piece, but with a different drummer. But was that just Forensic Teens or did you envision Reading Rainbow as a three-piece initially?
Sarah: [Reading Rainbow] was always just me and Rob. Before, we had Corey [drummer, identified only by first name on the band's still active Myspace page: www.myspace.com/forensicteens)].
Rob: Which was Forensic Teens.... Reading Rainbow, as a band, was really this concept idea that we had for quite a while, and especially in the beginning, all of our songs were like kind of really mystical and about a lot of subjects having to do with things like kids growing up in the forests and stuff.
Sarah: And a lot of my artwork at the time was using that same imagery. So I think a lot of the concepts for a lot of the scenes were taken directly from the art I was making at the time. There's always been a lot of crossover. Now, it's funny because music is affecting my visual art.
Sarah: The last couple of years, I've been really into doing collages and stuff, based on old fliers. It has a lot more graphic imagery.
Did you initially envision Reading Rainbow as being different from what it has turned out to be? This band is a lot different from Forensic Teens in terms of sound.
Rob: [Forensic Teens] was totally, almost exactly, inspired by the band The Screamers, which was one of the first synth-punk bands in LA in the late-'70s, which were really jarringly fast-paced with a lot of noise. It was totally different. When we first moved to Philadelphia, when we didn't know anybody, I actually recorded stuff under a solo project that I had, and the whole concept behind that was just like super blown out, tons of reverb, kind of soul music. That was probably like four years ago. And based on that, the aesthetic that we were into grew into being really guitar heavy, with really minimal drums, but then really simple melodies, really beautiful simple melodies essentially. That's kind of the sound we wanted to switch to.
Sarah: But it wasn't a really deliberate, over-thought thing. It happened naturally.
I wanted to ask about the melodic sensibilities, the pop sensibilities in your music. Talking about your sound, you've referenced bands like Devo and Velvet Underground. Your blog has videos by Galaxie 500 and Sonic Youth. But what influences the purer pop aspect of your music?
Rob: It's funny because it probably stems back to when I was in middle school. My family always played the oldies stations on the radio, so I think it's probably really heavily influenced by '60s pop, because I can still get the songs that I can remember stuck in my head from back then when I was a little kid. And then we love The Beatles, of course. All of that seems kind of warped in my brain, I guess.
Tell about the first couple releases. I understand there was a self-released cassette only EP and then Songs to Sing To.
Sarah: The cassette was really just a demo tape that we made so when we wrote the first eight songs and I learned how to play drums. That happened two weeks before the first shows we ever played as Reading Rainbow, and we recorded all of those songs on the cassette.
Rob: It was all on a 4-track cassette and it was really all because we were supposed to play some shows as Forensic Teens, and then two weeks before the shows ourdrummer was like, "Uh I don't want to go." So we just kind of figured this was a great opportunity to just go for it. Sarah had never played the drums before that. We wrote eight songs and recorded them all, and it ended up being something real special.
Sarah: But then the Songs to Sing To, that was like our first CD-R that we put together, so obviously a lot of the songs we recorded for that are all on [the band's debut] Mystical Participation. It's pretty much all those songs plus a couple extra. I don't really look at that, or the demos, as official releases. It's just stuff that we got together to sell at shows.
I find it interesting, that Sarah, your first time playing the drums was that first eight song tape.
Sarah: Oh yeah.
But the same thing happened with Forensic Teens, right? That was your first time playing keyboards.
Sarah: Yeah, and it's really funny because with Forensic Teens, the setup was that Rob played a Casio keyboard and I played one too but mine was circuit bent. So I was just making noise, making loops and stuff, and half the time the keyboard would crap out and not even make any sound, and when we were playing live I wouldn't really know. So I wasn't really playing real parts. I never felt like I could play an instrument, or I just didn't think I would ever have the patience to learn. I was able to look at Forensic Teens as an art project, performance art-type thing. From there it was an easier transition to being able to play drums for Reading Rainbow. And I learned only two drums, which was way less daunting than learning a full kit. But oh my god, right before we played our first show, I was freaking out. And it's so funny, because those drum beats are so simple. I guess it was extra difficult because I had to sing while playing too, so it took a while to get the hang of that.
How easy or how difficulty it's been having to balance day jobs and also being a working band?
Rob: Well, up until now, having a 9 to 5 job, a full time job, has been more than anything... inspiring is not the right word. Motivating is what I mean. It's motivated me to be like, I work all day, I need to feel like there's something more to my existence. I need to be able to be creative, and have fun and be inspired. So music has been my escape from the 9 to 5, mind melting-ness of working at a computer all day.
Sarah: I'm a bum, and it's totally easy for me, because I'm not balancing a job with playing music. I was going to grad school for two years, and I graduated this past May, and I didn't look for a job immediately. As things have been getting more and more serious with playing music, I'm in this situation that's awesome in a way, because I can't really get a job right now, because we're about to go on tour. So I don't know what to do really, but it sucks thought because I don't know what's going to happen money-wise.
Rob: And I also wanted to say I would always think to myself when I'm working all day that when I come home, I want to be as prolific as possible and as creative as possible. So that's been the driving force.
What's your day job, if you don't mind my asking?
Rob: I work at an engineering firm that does HVAC for buildings, which is like heating and air conditioning systems for buildings, so I basically work at a computer all day, and it's kind of brain melting. It's interesting work, but it's not fully satisfying.
Prism Eyes represents your first time recording in a proper studio. You've said in interviews that you really like doing things yourself, because you are able to control the whole of the process. Was there apprehension for you entering the studio and with a producer [Brian McTear]?
Rob: Absolutely. We were really nervous because we didn't know. When we hear the word 'producer,' we think somebody's going to be in there hearing what you're playing and then being like, "What is that? You should do this." I think that all stems from us really being into the punk DIY aesthetic. Like why would I go somewhere else if I could do it myself and be really proud about what I'm making because I know I did it all myself. But working with Brian McTear at the studio down the street has been incredible, and we really understand and see that he spent the last 10 to 20 years or whatever recording, so he knows all of the equipment he's working with, and he knows how to make like the guitar sound like a really nice sounding guitar when it's played through and recorded.
Rob: Because all up until then, I was recording it myself, and we had never, we don't know how to mix things, you know?
Sarah: And every time Rob would get a little bit better at recording something, I always thought it sounded amazing, and then we went to record with Brian and I was like, "Oh my god." [Both laugh.]
And lastly, what's happening after this tour? More tour?
Sarah: Yeah probably. Hopefully.
Rob: Right before the tour we'll be finishing up recording for a one-sided 7" [to come out on Hell, Yes!] and then also a split 7" [to come out on Hozac Records] and then we'll be preparing to record an EP to come out later this year [label to be determined]. And then more tour and making plans to record in 2012.
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