The Rosebuds' Kelly Crisp: First Loves | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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The Rosebuds’ Kelly Crisp

First Loves

Jun 10, 2011 #36 - Music vs. Comedy
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Under the Radar’s Music vs. Comedy Issue, which is on stands now, features an article entitled “A Mutual Admiration Society: Where Comedy and Music Meet.” For that article we interviewed The Rosebuds’ Kelly Crisp, among others, and included a few quotes from him. Below is the full transcript of our interview with Crisp.

When bands finish up the laborious gestation period that produces an album, they recover in different ways. Some go on vacation and try to focus on anything but music for a few weeks. Some go right from the studio to the tour van. Some dive back into the songwriting process and work on their next masterpiece. When The Rosebuds finished 2008’s Life Like, vocalist and keyboardist Kelly Crisp did none of those, instead deciding to leave the band’s North Carolina home base to go to New York City to work on an entirely different endeavor. One half of the Rosebuds’ songwriting team with former husband Ivan Howard, she has developed her skills as a songwriter remarkably quickly but her progress has come at the expense of her first love. In New York City, she returned to her comedy roots, immersing herself in a crash course of comedy club shows and occasional standup sets that gave her an opportunity to soak in the work of the masters and hone her craft to apply what she learned. The flipside to her somber and solemn songwriting, her comedy presents another window into her art, an outlet for someone whose observations can’t be contained by only one craft.

Matt Fink: Since you have roots in both music and comedy, which did you start out with?

Kelly Crisp: Comedy. I was in a performance art group, and Ivan used to come to all of our shows and made me be in The Rosebuds, because he knew I wasn’t uncomfortable being on stage. But I didn’t think I was going to be in a band. I didn’t want to. I said ‘no’ and then he made me do it, because I was more comfortable doing comedy [laughs]. I don’t know why, because doing comedy is a weird thing. But comedy was the first thing.

Did you start out doing sketch comedy stuff or more standup?

Both. I was really drawn in high school to sketch comedy and stuff like that, just with my friends in drama classes. But I started doing standup because I was auditioning for theater roles and didn’t have anything on my resume. So, I thought, well, I’ll just create something. I’d do standup, because that’s something you can just do [laughs]. You don’t need other people to do it. You can just tell other people you’re a standup comedian, and you can start doing shows.

That must have been terrifying.

Yeah, because you’re basically just relying on your own reputation. If you’re bad, then you’re bad. It was scary, but I had so much naiveté that I thought it would be fine. But I think it was more fun than scary, which is, I think, a unique experience. Standup comics are such weird peoplelike methat they think it’s going to be more fun than terrifying.

How long did it take you to develop your craft as a comedian?

I’m still working on it. I guess being in a band has made me split time, so I’ve had a chance to develop a lot of comfort with both, but I’d say that I’m still working on both. It’s an interesting question. I don’t know anybody who would say, “I’m 100% where I want to be.” I don’t even think comics who have had really long careers in standups would say that. My favorite comic to watch is Todd Barry, and I think you and I would say that he has a really developed approach to comedy completely down pat, but I wonder if he feels that way. I think everyone feels like they’re still working on it. As professional and perfect as he is, I kind of feel like he’s there. And I’m not there, so as long as there are people like him who are out there doing it that well, I feel like I have places to go.

Do you think that dynamic of not being content with your craft is similar in music?

Oh yeah. I would say so for sure. It’s the same with music, because we’re entertaining ourselves. But in order to do that you have to find things that interest you. I feel like we’re getting better as a band and that our albums are getting more sophisticated and our tours are going better. But it still feels like there’s something new to learn every time we get together. It’s exactly the same, actually.

Coming from a comedy background, was making music something that you were interested in?

Yeah, I’ve always been a kind of creative person, but I didn’t have any interest in being in a band at all. I come from a pretty creative family. My dad was in a band, and I always thought that was something that dads do with their buddies. Or I thought it was something that five dudes do, all dressed in black and standing around looking unhappy. That was so unappealing to me that I was like, “Fuck that. I don’t want any part of that.” So when we started The Rosebuds, I told Ivan, “Ok, I’ll do this, but we are not a band. We’re going to have fun, and if I have to be on stage and be like those guys, I’m not going to do it.” So we’ve always maintained that we’re an art project and not a band, because a band seems cool, and we’re definitely not cool.

So before starting The Rosebuds you hadn’t written songs or anything like that?

Hell, no! No way [laughs]. I mean, Ivan had. Music is his calling in life, and he had written songs and had been playing the guitar for a while and had told himself how to write songs, but I had never thought about it. I love it now. It’s a really great creative outlet for me, because I love writing, too, so I love writing lyrics. But I didn’t think about myself as a musician before I was forced into this [laughs].

So if Ivan hadn’t come along, you never would have tried it?

No. Probably not. He just believed that I could do it, and I didn’t. He made me do it, and he was right.

Would you say that writing a joke or a standup routine is at all analogous to writing a song?

Well, where they are similar to me is in writing lyrics for songs. You’ve got this idea for what you want, and you know it can be better. In my mind, I know these words are fine, but they don’t sparkle the way I want them to. I know there’s a better combination of words, so if I work on it enough, I’ll unlock it. Then I’ll have the lyrics, and when I have the lyrics, I know it. The exact same thing happens when you write a joke. It’s like, “There a funny idea here, but there’s something that needs to be unlocked.” Then once you find it, it’s like, “Ok, that’s the exact thing that I wanted. I knew it was back there. I just had to think about it long enough.”

Some folks I’ve talked to have said that joke telling is based on good timing, and it seems that songwriting has that element, too, where you need to arrange words and sounds for maximum impact.

Yeah, I think that’s probably the same. Timing is something where I think that way already. I just kind of know the timing should be a certain way. I don’t worry about it, but it’s 100% important. I know that once you have the words right, it will fit the timing. If the words are right, you have to deliver them correctly. With a joke, you have to get it to fit the timing that you know is funny. And it has to be clever if it’s a joke, and it has to be clever if it’s lyrics.

Do you think a songwriter has more room to work in the sense that you can be more abstract or ambiguous, but as a comedian you have to make it so an audience understands what you’re doing on some level?

Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that if you get someone to follow you down a really weird road in standup, all of you understand that this is an abstraction. So, in order for that to work, you all have to be in on [the idea]. That has to be the jokethat it’s abstract. For me, lyrics can be totally abstract. You can do whatever you want to with them. I don’t do that, but you can. Ivan, for example, when he writes lyrics they just come out, and they’re already fully formed. Sometimes they’re really abstract and there are total genius moments in there, and it’s like “This idea doesn’t go with this idea,” but in its own way it has its own rules. Mine, I think, are more story-driven.

It must be hard to find time to devote time to both of these crafts.

Well, yeah, I don’t have time to devote to either of them. That’s the problem. I think I’d love to do both fulltimeand writing, too, because I write on my own aside from that. But I’ve had so many opportunities because I do both things that I never would have had if I only had done just one of them. I feel lucky that I can do both, even if one of them is suffering.

Would you say one is more difficult than the other?

They’re both really difficult in their own way. I think of them both as total packages that have their own rules. But with music, I have my own band and we tour as a group, and there’s a whole lot of things that go along with that. With comedy, I can either do sketch comedy, which I love, or standup. I love working with other people. But sketch comedy vs. being in a band? They’re both fun and really rewarding creatively. And even with this record that we have coming out [Loud Planes Fly Low], it’s really solemn and a lot of the lyrics are really personal and sincere. It doesn’t seem like that would be a lot of fun, but it is. To do those songseven the sad onesmakes me feel like clean living. It’s like I’m cleaning my house emotionally and getting it out that. Once you do, my experience as a person is that I’m so much better and have so much more fun. In this band, when everything is on the table and we’re being honesteven if that means we have to be solemn in a songI still think being in a band is just fun.

So it doesn’t feel like a job yet?

No, and I wish everyone’s job could be like that, where you just feel like you love what you do and it doesn’t feel like a job, even though it totally is. I totally have to do accounting and all this lame boring stuff that I don’t want to do. But I do it for the thing that I believe in, and that makes it not so bad. I have had the experience of having to go to work, and it sucks. That’s not what this is.

It’s interesting that you talk about your lyric writing on this album being a cathartic process. Would you say that your comedy serves a similar purpose?

[Laughs] Yeah, I do. You try to keep it lighter, but, yeah, for sure. I get more opportunity to explore more territory in lyrics, at least recently. But I think both of them do that.

A lot of the people I’ve talked to have said that the comedy and music scenes overlap so naturally because the day-to-day lives of musicians is full of so much absurdity with touring and so much downtime.

Totally. Some of the funniest people I know are the people around me. Some of the funniest comics that I know are the musicians that I tour with.

Do you think musicians and comedians have similar creative aesthetics?

Yeah. I think that’s true. Even just socially. I’ve met a lot of comics and musicians through doing the other thing. Like I said, the funniest people I know are the people who are on tour with me. There’s so much time together, and you have to be engaging, and it’s so absurd. It’s the most ridiculous lifestyle, and you get put into these situations like, “Seriously?” It’s like having a crazy boss. If I’m hanging out with comics, I’m often also hanging out with musicians. I’ve met a lot of cool musicians because they are friends with the comics that I know.

It’s interesting because I wouldn’t naturally assume that someone that likes The Rosebuds would also like Todd Barry, but it seems like there is that kind of overlap.

Well, there has to be an overlap because I like Todd Barry, and Todd Barry likes The Rosebuds. We met at a comedy show, and we were introduced, and he was like, “Oh, you’re a band. That’s cool.” And you just have an affinity with people, and what you mean by overlap is that identity that we share. You’re creating something out of nothing, and you have some limited and rudimentary tools. You’re creating something and trying to do that thing, and it’s scary and you can rely on the support of those around you or who are in the same circle. I see the same kind of people in both circles. It’s really just one big circle.

Have The Rosebuds ever toured with comedians?

We’ve performed with comics before, and we’ve done some short tours. But we’ve never done a huge tour [with a comedian]. I’d be down with that, though. Seven or eight years ago that seemed like such a strange idea, like when David Cross was touring with Ultrababyfat. Do you remember that? That was the first time that I’d seen a band and a comedian together. I see it all the time now, and I think audiences are seeing it more and more and know what’s going on.

We did have a comedian open up for us in L.A. and he had this elaborate set up, and he came out as this ordinary guy, as a character in a sketch. And people didn’t understand what was happening, like, “What are we seeing right now?” I remember Danny McBride was there, the guy from Eastbound and Down, and he’s so funny. And he was in the audience, and half of them were furious. They thought they were being made fun of and didn’t understand what was happening. And the other half of the audience understood that it was comedy from the beginning and this weird, character-driven stuff with a couple guys on stage pretending to be a band. That was their sketch. And I remember thinking, I don’t care what the half of this audience that doesn’t get it thinks. I mean, they were so furious that they left. But I remember thinking, Danny McBride probably knows what’s going on right now, and all of my friends understand what’s going on, and they think it’s funny. And if people are here because it’s a radio station sponsored show, and they don’t get this sketch, then they’re probably not going to get my band, either. They can just leave.

From the comedians I’ve talked to, it sounds like the reaction varies from crowd to crowd. Some say that they have to be prepared to see a comedian and not blindsided by it.

Right. I think that’s the key. At that show, that experiment proved one thing: if you’re going to have sketch comedy, you have to set that up. You can’t just let the audience figure it out. Todd Barry has done so shows with us before, and people loved him so much. And I think that’s because he’s such a good comic that he knows how to do standup for any audience. But he was so funny the last time we did a show we were at The Bellhouse in Brooklyn and our friend Phil [Cook], who is in the band Megafaun, came out with Todd and did some piano, too. There was so much improv with it, and I felt like Todd was having so much fun that the audience loved it. He’s so good at that.

As someone who has performed as a comedian, do you think there’s a smaller margin of error than if you’re performing as a musician?

There’s a pretty high level of calamity in both for me. When it’s just me, I have to hold myself 100% accountable for whether it’s funny. But when it’s with the band, it’s more like, “Well, that was all of us.” In the band, we are all serious about doing what we’re doing well, and we know if it’s not connecting and we’re all thinking the same thoughts. If it doesn’t make sense in the room, then it doesn’t make sense to us, either. It doesn’t feel right. I want to feel connected to the music, and the same goes for comedy. I want to feel connected to it, and if I’m doing it in front of people, the experience that I’m relating to an audience needs to have felt a certain way that was funny. If that’s the feeling that I’m trying to convey, and everyone is laughing, then it feels that way again. Like, “I’m right in think that was absurd, because we’re all laughing together.” But if no one is laughing, it feels like, “Well, I’m not telling this story the right way. It’s me. I need to adjust this.” In both cases we’re thinking how we can make it make sense to people, because we’re doing it live. When we’re recording, I guess we don’t care, because we’re doing it for us.

Is it more difficult for a band to bomb in the same way as a comedian?

A.D. Miles, who is an incredible standup comic, told me that he thinks it’s funny to watch his friends bomb, and I couldn’t understand that at all. At the time, I was thinking about music, because it’s really uncomfortable to watch a band bombing. But it’s funny sometimes to watch your friend totally bombing as a comic, because you’re all in on the joke. I will say, though, that it’s funny to us in the band if we’re playing a show and it’s just a disaster. We laugh about it later, so I guess in that scenario that it’s funny to us as friends when it goes wrong and falls apart. There’s something pretty hilarious about that later, no matter how difficult it is at the time. Ivan and I have looked at each other and just fallen over laughing on stage before, because it’s going so horribly. If it goes bad enough, we look at each other like, “We’re killing these people!” and it’s funny how bad it is.

Is it more difficult to get a sense of whether you’re bombing or not as a band, since if you’re a comedian you can tell if people are laughing or not? It seems like you might not know if you’re not going over as well as a band.

Oh, you know. You completely know if it’s bad. If you’re not connecting with an audience, you know the feeling. It might be a little more obvious to everyone else in the room if a comedian isn’t doing too well. Because you’re a singular person on stage, it feels a lot weirder to bomb as a comic, I know that much. I’ve done that, and you just can’t pick yourself up [laughs]. Midway through the set, you just want to bail out. But what you end up doing is raising your voice and getting louder and triumphantly bombing. When you put yourself up in front of people and you’re bombing, my natural responseand I wonder if this is true of everyoneis to just get louder.

They’re not hearing you clearly.

Right. They’re not getting it. They clearly don’t get me, so I need to get louder [laughs]. It’s just obscene.

Well, the musicians I’ve talked to say that comedy seems all the more terrifying because there’s nothing you can hide behind. No instruments or sound or whatever.

Yeah, that’s true. But I just had this thought of a 14-year-old with nothing but a guitar going for it at an open mic night, and that would be pretty terrifying, too. I’ve never done that, but I’ve played a solo show, and that was kind of scary because I didn’t have my guys with me. There’s some comfort in having the band.

Have you ever tried to write funny songs?

No. You know, as The Rosebuds, there’s some humor in early songs on the first record, stuff that we left in there because it made us laugh. But that was just silliness. But I don’t think we ever tried to be funny. Those two things never crossed for me. Some comics do it so well. I’m thinking of Zach Galafianakis using the piano. Even the piano is part of the joke. I don’t think I’d be very good at that. Maybe I should torture some people with it sometime. I think I like both of them so much that they’re separate things. The best case that I can think of succeeding with Zach or with Steve Martin with the banjo. There are other bands that are funny, but I don’t think that’s our thing. I could probably be a member of a funny band, but I couldn’t make The Rosebuds be funny at this point. That would be awesome, though, if we just decided one day, like, “Listen up, people. We’re going to change it up.” But I think we’re too deep in it now. But that’s the thing. When you put bands and comics together, the bands aren’t funny. But that’s totally fine. Those worlds never collided for me, or haven’t yet, but I think it’s probably for the best.

(The Rosebuds’ new album, Loud Planes Fly Low, is out now on Merge.)


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