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There is one thing I can say about Robbers front man Ben Trokan without question, and that is that he is a great guy with his head on straight. He knows where he's going and I don't see any roadblocks in his path that will stop him from getting there. Doesn't the good guy always win anyway? I sure hope so.
On their third (albeit short) tour behind their album Tree City, Trokan took 20 minutes out of some band-bonding Golden Tee playing before their set in Chicago to chat with me about the current situation.
LAS: So this is your third tour this year for this record. Tell me how it started.
Ben Trokan: It started on September 29th and we were playing around New York and the East Coast for a while, then we played [out to] Minneapolis and [then] we're heading back east after that. It's pretty short. We've been touring a lot this year. The first three or four months were just a solid tour. Even through June and July we were touring.
And how has life on the road been treating you?
I don't know. That first long stretch was pretty rough toward the end. It may have left some permanent damage. It has some grueling effects on you. Just chasing around a tour bus when you're opening for a bigger band is pretty painstaking when you're the little guy.
Was it worth it?
Certainly. It was a great time after the fact, it's just during the tour you begin to feel pretty... out of it.
What's the largest venue you've played while being the opening act?
We played a hockey arena in Denver, Colorado. It was ridiculous. They put the mats down on the ice. It was crazy. I thought it was strange, just this massive show and the audience is at least twenty feet away from the stage and there were hulking security dudes between you and the crowd. It's kind of impersonal, but I suppose it's sort of its own thing. At the time it sort of felt like Spinal Tap, just being in this huge venue and getting lost while walking to the stage from backstage.
Compare that to this venue, a smaller sized bar.
We can deal with this.
What other venues have you played in Chicago?
We were supposed to play the Metro when we were touring with Brendan Benson, but that got cancelled. We played the gymnasium at Loyola when we were touring with Cake, which was another weird and terrible venue. We've spent a lot of time on the road.
So, what's the plan for you guys when you get back?
We're going to take a little break. We'll probably spend the rest of the year writing and hopefully start recording in the spring.
Are you working on any new songs now and will you be playing them?
We have one new song we've started to play. I've been working on stuff, but we haven't worked on too much new stuff as a band recently. We're going to spend pretty much all of December getting all the songs hashed out so we are ready when we start recording in January. Hopefully it will be ready to be released by mid to late summer. Tree City will probably get a European release before then, so we'll probably do some touring for that over there... hopefully.
How's the label [New Line Records] been treating you guys?
It's good. I think they've been doing a great job. It's kind of an odd label because it's part of a film company that is ultimately owned by Time Warner, but the people we deal with, the small staff of four or five people, they give us a good amount of attention. There aren't a lot of bands on the label so they treat us well.
Can you give me, a Chicagoan, the connection you have between your band, the label, and James Iha?
He is part of Scratchy Records, which has a very small office above his studio, and he sort of seeks out bands to make a connection for the label. Nowadays we don't really deal much with him as the money is ultimately coming from the label. Scratchy is more like a small imprint of New Line, kind of like the little sister in the family who is still growing up.
Do you chat with James Iha very much?
Yeah, he lives in New York so we see him around. Actually, the last time we played Chicago he was here. He introduced us when we played the Bottom Lounge. He's a pretty reserved guy, but very nice and very funny.
Is there anything in particular you look forward to when you find yourself visiting Chicago?
Our time in Chicago is always so slim. We generally don't have any days off when we come through here. It's just a Midwest layover while we're on tour. It's pretty limited. I could tell you what I like on the menu here at Schubas, but I haven't really spent enough time here to really have anything to mention.
I guess the first time we played here we stayed with a friend, so we had a good breakfast, but honestly I can't remember anything about it.
I guess that means you don't yet have any Windy City memories, 'eh?
I know it's called the Windy City for political reasons. It doesn't have anything to do with the weather, but that's more knowledge, not so much a memory.
Perhaps some memories will be formed tonight. Speaking of, how did you guys get hooked up with Wolf Parade?
It's basically a chance crossing of paths for tonight. We were booked here and then they were going to be in town, or vice-versa. I just heard that it should have been booked at a bigger place, so we'll see what happens.
Yeah, it was two or three weeks ago that they opened for the Arcade Fire - and after that show, this show immediately sold out.
Well I suppose that's good for the venue and for us.
Do you have any favorite bands that you've toured with? Any weird road stories?
The guys in Ambulance Ltd. were really cool to tour with; we get along pretty well. Our tour with Brendan Benson was great. Those are a bunch of great guys; we had a lot of fun on that tour. Sometimes when you're opening for a band you get these weird expectations and you just hope they are cool. We haven't had too many incidents as far as tours and shows go.
I know everyone in the band has been friends for some time, Have you been able to keep the friendship alive while working together?
On the road it seems that about every three weeks there will be some sort of scuffle or minor setback, but me and Steve Mercado, the guitarist, have known each other for a long time, so we've developed this brotherly relationship where we can wale on each other and not take anything too personally. It all definitely wears on you, but it's for the best I think.
Is there any pre-show ritual you guys have to get ready for a performance?
We have when we've played at those bigger shows, where we actually have a dressing room. If we're a little more nervous than usual we'll use that time to hang out and try to get on the same page, I guess. We played with the Sleepy Jackson a while ago in San Francisco and they did this group "ohm" thing to get on the same page. From the outside we were thinking it was so lame, but actually very cool at the same time. He said it was good for your soul and we were like, That's where your soul is?
Any bands you're currently listening to or anything inspiring you lately?
Well, while on the road we listen to a lot of stand up albums like David Cross and Patton Oswalt. We like to laugh in the van. It helps to keep morale up and gives us the opportunity to make each other laugh by memorizing lines and reciting them at the most inopportune times.
Have you heard Eugene Merman? He released a stand up album on Suicide Squeeze last year. I guess he's friends with David Cross.
I haven't heard of him. As far as listening to music goes - we generally listen to the same things over and over. I mean, we all like the same sort of records so after a while we have to change it up a bit.
It's always good to look outside your usual surroundings for inspiration. Any wise words from the road you'd like to end with?
Umm. I don't know. Touring is such a weird thing. It always seems like time just stops. You get back home and at first nothing has really changed, but the closer you look you see a lot of little things have changed. It's never too drastic, but the thing that makes it different is the fact that you weren't there. Sometimes it feels like touring really messes me up. I can't really describe it. On the road it seems like you're constantly in motion and when you get home you think, What do I do now? It makes me feel like I'm constantly looking for excuses to travel around the city with friends, just so I'm not standing still I guess.
Standing still is certainly not something Trokan does in the live set. Constantly moving from Guitar to Piano he keeps busy and occupied while playing one of the cleanest live sets I've seen in a while. While obviously having fun with the songs, the band stays true to the sound they use while recording their albums. I usually get a little disappointed when a band's live set sounds nothing like their album, but I certainly did not walk away unhappy from the Robbers on High Street and their hour long set. SEE ALSO: www.robbersonhighstreet.com
Having been introduced to good music by his sister in the early years, Bob Ladewig has been searching out all the best in indie music ever since. He also rides a skateboard and performs/directs comedy shows and, like all great men, he's afraid of really growing up.
See other articles by Bob Ladewig.
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