Monday, January 11, 2016

11 Questions with Joel Tannenbaum (The Rentiers, Plow United, Ex Friends)

Joel Tannenbaum may be best known for his work in the '90s punk band Plow United but it is in his latest project The Rentiers' that his brilliance truly shines.  Losing the shackles of the framework of a traditional band and the often restrictive nature of musical genres, Tannenbaum has created a project that completely focuses on the songs and the potential of simple pop music.  In 2015 The Rentiers released two EPs (Here is a List of Things That Exist and Black Metal Yoga) plus two singles ("We Don't Cry" and "The Early 2000s"), all of which are fantastic.  Tannenbaum has a way with words and melody that is really something to behold.  In 2016 he plans on releasing another EP plus doing some things with the (somewhat) recently reunited Plow United.  For those who have never heard The Rentiers, I can't recommend them enough.  Their music is fun and clever and destined to get stuck in your head for hours on end (and that is a good thing).

This interview was conducted via email December 15 - 24, 2015.

For more information on The Rentiers check out their official website, BandCamp, and SoundCloud pages.

Dave:  When did you first start playing and writing music?

Joel Tannenbaum:  Damn. No one has ever asked me that before. I can definitely remember having ideas for songs when I was really young, maybe six, but not having the ability to execute them. I started playing guitar when I was eight, but it was very conservative Mel Bay-style lessons from very old school Italian guys from Chester, PA who had spent most of their lives playing gigs at the Jersey Shore with maybe the occasional session work in Philly. The lessons took place at a store called Caruso's, a few blocks from my parents' house in Brookhaven. Those guys all chainsmoked. It's pretty funny to remember. And they'd yell at you if you didn't practice.  Point being, with this style of guitar playing, you spend the first few years learning to read notes on a staff. Chords don't come until like book 3, and even then you're learning to read them as notes stacked on top of each other. It doesn't exactly lend itself to traditional punk songwriting. Most people I met later had learned by having someone say "put your fingers here; that's a G." You definitely move to the songwriting stage quicker that way. Now I suppose it's just YouTube videos.

Okay I'm already writing way too much. I told myself I wasn't going to do that. The first time I wrote a song start to finish, like a song with a verse and a chorus, I was 16. It was terrible.

As for playing, I started playing electric bass in elementary school band when I was 9. I kept going with all of that right through high school. The first time I tried to start a band in the conventional sense, where we got together in a basement and tried to write songs and play them, I was around 13. It was terrible.

Dave:  In the ‘90s you played in the band Plow United and in 2011 you started Ex Friends.  Plow United reunited and had put out some new records in the last few years while Ex Friends recently disbanded.  What’s the story behind both bands?

Joel:  I think the origins of Plow United are pretty well documented at this point, for the handful of people who actually care. Brian and Sean and I were band nerds in high school. They were way better musicians than me. I got into punk rock and dragged them down with me.

As for Ex Friends, there's not much to say. In 2011, when Plow was getting a lot of nostalgia hype and I was excited about playing music and writing songs again, shortly before my 36th birthday, it seemed like a good idea to try to do a fully working punk band again. In retrospect it wasn't. I suppose it was a good learning experience. I'm really grateful I got to play in a band for three years with Audrey, who is one of the greatest punk rock bass players of all time. Definitely top 20. Possibly even Top 10. Other than that I don't have much to say about Ex Friends.

Dave:  In 2015 you launched a new project The Rentiers.  What’s the story behind this band?

Joel:  It's funny; I've had a few people hint to me that they thought the Rentiers was some backdoor attempt to, like, sell out (as if anyone out there is buying, ha). It was actually quite the opposite. By the summer of 2014 I'd finally gotten the hint that the punk scene wasn't interested in what I was doing anymore, but I had some songs I'd written I thought were kind of okay and I have to admit, I really, really like the overall process of making records, so I decided to make a few more, and just make them sound exactly how I wanted them to sound, with no concession to what anyone else might think about them. By then I had absolutely no stomach anymore for the politics of being in a band so I decided I'd just handpick musicians I really respected and ask them to do very specific things. I was very lucky that Anika and Mikey agreed to participate in it. They are both incredibly talented and have far better things to do. For the first few records I cycled through different producers but then Scotty Sandwich from the band Almost People landed the role for good. The band is basically a collaboration between he and I at this point, with a bunch of our friends stepping in to do things as needed.

Dave:  For those who have never heard The Rentiers, how do you describe your music?

Joel:  It's pop music dude. Just pop music made by an old punk who listens to a lot of records and probably reads too much.

Dave:  You released two EPs and two singles in 2015.  Do you have any plans for more releases in 2016?  Any chance of full-length album?

Joel:  There's an EP called Amateur Hour coming out in a few months. It's the first one Scotty worked on start to finish. That song "We Don't Cry" you've already heard is from those sessions and is the first track on the record. I'm just releasing it digitally and on a very limited run of lathe cut 10"s. That's about all there is appetite for at this point. At one stage it was going to come out as one half of a split 12" on a pretty decent-sized punk label, but in the end I didn't see the point. I can't sell anywhere close to 500 records at this point. I'd rather a label spend that money on a younger band that is actually a band and is actually going to play shows. And in the long run I'd rather keep control of the digital rights.

All that said, it's the best record I've ever made, or been involved in. Every note is exactly the way we wanted it, and I'm really proud of every single word of every song. We tracked it in three different states, in three different studios, plus a club. There's a horn section on one song. My friend Heidi Vanderlee played cello on two songs. Horns! A cello! It's that kind of record.

I don't foresee a Rentiers full-length. I don't really believe in the full-length as a format anymore. I don't see the point. I'd rather obsess over every note of four songs then take all that obsession and diffuse it over 12 songs. The only way it would happen would be if some third party came in and was willing to drop some grown-up money that would allow us access to studios and gear and other stuff that we'd never have access to otherwise. But I mean, who would do that? Where's the return?

The idea of 10-12 songs over 35-40 minutes being the basic unit of delivery of rock music is a leftover from another era. It doesn't mean anything to me. It's the same reason novels are 300 pages and films are 90 minutes and symphonies tend to run a little over an hour. These norms developed out of the practical and commercial needs of another era. And then the practical and commercial needs go away, but we stick to the forms out of a misguided sense of tradition.

And hey, don't get me wrong, I'm happy to play the game when it comes to this stuff, if it benefits me, but the luxury of being in the situation I am, where the number of people interested in what I'm doing is so, so small, is that I can basically just do whatever the fuck I want.

Plow is putting out another full-length next year. But it's different with Plow. There's more interest (albeit not much more) and more outside parties involved, and most of all it's a band and we decide things together.

Dave:  Do you have any specific type of songwriting process?

Joel:  Sort of. It's kind of shambolic I guess. Songs usually start with either a turn of phrase I think is interesting or funny or whatever, or an idea, like a specific topic or a concept I want to address, or a specific argument I want to make. Sometimes I'll end up matching one with the other. At that stage I try to get something written down, somewhere, just so it it doesn't disappear.

The next stage usually involves walking. I walk a ton, pretty much everyday. It's my main form of transportation to work and most other places too and for the most part that's where I get my best thinking done. That's how a turn of phrase becomes a chorus usually, and gets matched with one of the melodies that are always floating around in my head, either my own or someone else's. (I'm not above occasional, mild plagiarism, and you know what, neither is anyone else who does this.)

At this point, if I've got something I'm excited about, I need to find time, usually at night, usually with a few drinks, to sit down with an acoustic guitar and whip the ideas into shape. This is where I establish a structure and fill that structure with words, melodies, some sort of harmonic structure and -hopefully- hooks. Sometimes I can get it to a point I'm happy with in a single session. Sometimes it can take three or four, over the course of months. Sometimes it never gets to the finish line. Frequently, one song will get subsumed into another or a single song will split off into two. The original "Black Metal Yoga" for instance, was a very different song, most of which eventually mutated into a song on the forthcoming EP called "Jessica and Dan and a Cat Named Bolt Thrower," whereas a fragment of the hook that was left over became the version of "Black Metal Yoga" that ended up on the 7".

Trying to understand it this way makes me feel like a paleontologist looking at a bunch of million-year-old bone fragments trying to figure out what the original organism looked like. Fortunately, the stakes are low, haha.

Dave:  You recently deleted your social media accounts (personal and for The Rentiers).  What was the impetus behind that decision?  What kind of an affect do you think it has had on your band?

Joel:  I had quit pretty much all social media by 2010. When the Plow nostalgia craziness started in 2011 and I didn't understand how quickly it was going to dissipate, I let some joker talk me into the idea that I had to be on social media to do the band thing in this day and age. So I got really into it and did all the stuff I thought I was supposed to do. It took up a lot of time and was pretty aggravating and, despite it, there was nothing I could do on the Internet that actually made a difference in terms of people actually "marketing" Plow or anything else related to it. When our time was up, it was up. Finally, after realizing this, I just pulled the plug on all of my stuff: personal FB, Twitter, band accounts. Brian still maintains the Plow stuff, although I suspect he will tire of it sooner than later.

So far I don't have a single regret. I read more and my overall anxiety levels are much lower. You can argue that without basic social media campaigning, no one is going to buy any Rentiers records, but I would counter that no one bought any Rentiers records with social media campaigning.

The only time I've felt a pang of nostalgia for Twitter was the other day when I found myself thinking "I wonder which of the 2016 presidential candidates is most likely to own a private island where they hunt human beings for sport?" That would have made a really good tweet.

Dave:  What are your thoughts on the music scene in Philadelphia?

Joel:  There are so many different scenes in Philadelphia, and they all kind of run parallel to each other, which is strange considering how small and claustrophobic the city can feel in other respects. Of all of them, I'd say the one I have the most respect for is the one in West Philly that has its origins on Lancaster Avenue in the 1990s and continues through the present in a bunch of different, ever-shifting DIY venues that I'm not going to name for obvious reasons. Of all the scenes in Philly it's the most age-diverse and has the lowest bullshit tolerance. It's very, almost aggressively, uninterested in musical trends and as a result some really, really fascinating bands percolate and disappear in that world, like Plague Dogs, or Farcial Hoodwink. The general orientation is toward D-Beat and, generally, crust, and as a result it's pretty connected to those scenes in cities like Richmond and New Orleans but, as far as just what goes on at a basement show in West Philly, it's extraordinary how many different genres of music audiences will tolerate as long as the band isn't full of shit.

There's also a pretty persistent stoner rock scene in South Philly that I really respect, even if it's not totally my thing.

Most of what gets national attention outside of Philly, however, has very little to do with Philly. Not saying the bands aren't good, I'm just saying, when you're around it it feels very much like Brooklyn overflow housing for kids pursuing an alternative career path after college. You get the sense if the economy was better they'd be living in loft apartments, working as web developers.

Dave:  This is a High Fidelity inspired question. What are your top five favorite bands, albums, movies, television programs, books/authors?

Joel:  Jesus. This is always hard. I'm just going to consolidate bands and albums if that's okay with you.

1. Carter USM - 1992: The Love Album
2. Operation Ivy - Energy
3. Bob Dylan - Desire
4. Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel (Car)
5. Schwarzenegger - The Way Things Are...And Other Stories

1. Burn! - dir. Pontecorvo
2. The Spirit of the Beehive - dir. Erice
3. Trust - dir. Hartley
4. Casablanca - dir. Curtiz
5. Raising Arizona - dir. Coen

TV (all-time)
1. Twin Peaks
2. Breaking Bad
3. The Book Group
4. The Twilight Zone (1980s)
5. The Kids in the Hall

1. The Legend of the Holy Drinker - Joseph Roth
2. The Book of Dave - Will Self
3. White Teeth - Zadie Smith
4. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
5. Nights at the Circus - Angela Carter

Dave:  What’s next for you and the band?

Joel:  Not a whole lot, to be honest. I've got another batch of songs and I'm working with Scotty on fleshing out the arrangements, etc. Presumably sometime this year I'll go into a studio with some people and finish them, and then presumably sometime in 2017 I'll release them in some limited form. The Rentiers never really got off the ground as a live thing, so that's really about it.

Plow has a record coming out in May and we will play a few shows to support it.

For the first time ever I'm producing a record for a band that I'm not in. I can't say a lot about it right now but it's a band I really like so I think it'll be pretty cool.

Other than that I don't know, I have this whole academic life I've been kind of tuned out of for the last few years and so I'm thinking it's probably time to tune back in and start working on a book or something.

Dave:  Any final thoughts?

Joel:  I really appreciate what writers/editors of small web outlets like you,  Andrea Janov of CC2K and Jen Cray of Ink 19 do. I hope you all keep doing it. Being a music writer in 2015 is even harder than being in a band in some ways. I really enjoy your writing and I hope I get to keep reading it.

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