The Royal Bangs: Take the Scenic Route

Music Features Royal Bangs
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Hometown: Knoxville, Tenn.
Members: Ryan Schaefer, Chris Rusk, Sam Stratton, Dylan Dawkins
Current Release: Brass
For Fans of: The Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, The Features

The Royal Bangs tend to do things a little differently.

Their humble beginnings are familiar enough: Born and bred in Knoxville, Tenn., the story of Royal Bangs kicks off with a group of boys who just liked to shred and shout. Gravitating together through the pulls of energy-infused rock, their formation in 2005 just made sense.

“We all went to the same school [and] the school we went to was like sort of a suburb kind of place,” says frontman Ryan Schaefer. “There wasn’t much to do there, and we didn’t play sports or anything, so that’s just what we did. There was nothing to do around there, we weren’t old enough to play at any clubs or anything, so we used to put on house shows.”

That’s understandable: house shows to clubs, clubs to touring, touring to touring with blues-y heavyweights The Black Keys—the natural way of things. Bands build step-by-step, dive bar-by-dive bar, album-by-album as they evolve, their music sifting through ear buds and airways while they scramble to make it.

But they usually face hiccups: drama, label woes, financial hardships. But the sibling-ish friendship between the bandmates—Schafer, Chris Rusk and Sam Stratton—and their home state’s low cost of living helped everything run smoothly until the band decided their live lineup just wasn’t cutting it. Yet it could hardly be called a breaking point or even a struggle.

“I liked making records with the three of us, but I was never really very happy playing live that way,” Schaefer explains. “It was a little mechanical that way sometimes because we had to rely on the computer so much. I don’t think we ever really intended to stay that way. So we brought Dylan [Dawkins] in, and it really like lightened everything up. You know, there was not as much reliance on the technology, and it was more natural playing like, I don’t know, playing how regular bands play.”

It’s not surprising, given Royal Bangs’ slightly unorthodox methods, that they took the scenic route while most bands get directly to it. “I think it’s sort of a pattern [that we] start out trying to do things some completely different way and eventually arrive at the conclusion [that] most bands do when they first start. I feel like we always do lots of things…like trying to bring all of this crazy technology with us on tour to do all of these things we’ve never seen anybody do before and then we’re like, ‘Or we could just get a bass player.’”

The Royal Bangs saw their break in 2008 with their debut We Breed Champions, after being discovered and signed to Audio Eagle Records by The Black Keys’ Pat Carney. While the band now resides on Modern Art, their relationship with Carney hasn’t taken a hit.

“Yeah, it seems so funny to talk about now because it was back when MySpace was a thing,” Schaefer says. “I think Chris [Rusk] randomly sent a message to the record label not knowing that Pat was the one who ran it, and he sent him a message right back and said, ‘You know, I like this record,’ and they started talking that he wanted to put it out. It’s cool because we’ve been friends with him ever since then. And he produced the record [Brass] we’re about to put out now. So it was really a low-key coincidence, I guess.”

No trumpet fanfare, no all-of-a-sudden explosion onto the charts—just a MySpace message. (Gives hope to the rest of us, huh?) Royal Bangs then put in their fair-share of touring dues, and are ready to roll back out with Jimmy Eat World and then Ra Ra Riot after taking a hiatus for some unconventional in-studio album-making—at least it was for the quartet.

“We normally write [songs] in the studio while we’re recording,” says Schaefer. “We’ll change the arrangements…we’ll have skeleton of a song, and we usually do it all in the studio. But this time, we wrote it all out beforehand and made demos and all played together as a band… I think that’s normally how bands make records, is they just would write the songs, learn them and then record them as a band, but we’d actually never really done it that way. So for us it was a weird experiment, but I think for most bands, that’s just a normal thing.”

These dudes are refreshingly laid-back— easygoing about trying new tactics, bringing fresh ideas to the table, seeing what works for them. There isn’t a formula, no harping on buzz. Even social media—in this digital age of Twitter feuds and success being measured in Facebook “likes”—is pretty nonexistent for them, a far cry from the media frenzy many artists employ.

“I definitely can grasp the importance of it but it’s not something that comes naturally to me. I like making music and I like sharing that stuff a lot, but sharing what I eat for breakfast or whatever is a little bit harder for me to do. Like I know you have to do it, that’s what I hear, all the time. But I find it kind of difficult,” Schaefer says. No selfies here, guys.

Their do-your-own-thing mentality spills over from social media into songwriting, drawing inspiration from Robert Altman movies and literary fiction as opposed to autobiographical elements. Royal Bangs craft lyrical narratives about characters and descriptions—but always strive for some change, shaking the snow globe to avoid getting trapped in a mold.

Enter Brass. After a production-heavy noise album, Royal Bangs headed in a stripped-down direction—an experiment in making “a record that doesn’t lean so much on drum machines and electronics” yet “still sounded like Royal Bangs.”

“I think it’s pretty different, than the last one. But the next one we make will probably be something completely different from that too. So I guess it’s kind of always changing,” Schaefer says, and it seems to be working for them.

Next up? Keep writing. Prepare for life on the road. Do what bands do—book gigs, rehearse. Round up a crew and have some folks figure out the set. Grab your instruments. Get a light set.

Or, you know, do what Schaefer did and build your own lighting system—Royal Bangs-style.