If you're going to celebrate 10 years of band-hood, as Washington, DC-area band Rocknoceros are doing this year, you may as well celebrate big time. In their case, the trio is celebrating by releasing Plymouth Rockers, the first of several albums over which they plan to record a song for all of the 50 states. (Note: status of Washington, DC is unclear, though you gotta figure that's going on the list for pure hometown bias.)
With that anniversary in mind, I interviewed the trio -- Coach Cotton (lead singer, percussion), Williebob (guitars, etc.), and Boogie Woogie Bennie (keyboards and assorted miscellany) about music pre-Rocknoceros, when they decided to go full-time, and how they're going to show Sufjan Stevens what it takes to make music about America.
Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?
COACH COTTON: I remember listening to early rock songs alone on a stereo in my basement. Songs like "Run Around Sue" by Dion, "Blue Moon" by the Marcels, "Little Darlin'" by the Diamonds, etc. I think my first vinyl record was "Copacabana" by Barry Manilow. Or maybe "Reunited" by Peaches and Herb. My first LP was Zeppelin IV. I bet I was 6 or 7 years old at the time. Within a few years, I was listening to Beatles records with Boogie Bennie.
BOOGIE WOOGIE BENNIE: My sister and I got a stack of Beatles and Monkees records from our neighbor's garage sale. We'd pantomime along with the records for hours. I have MANY early musical memories, but I think about this one a lot because parents tell me about their kids who "play" Rocknoceros at home. It always takes me back to my living room with my sister growing up.
WILLIEBOB: I have one amusing and vivid musical memory from the year 1976, when I was 5. My brother, who was 7 years old, had purchased a vinyl 45 RPM single of the song "Carry On Wayward Son" by Kansas - a big radio hit at the time. One afternoon, our parents went out for a short errand and left him in charge (it was 1976, so nobody called the police). We had a turntable in the family room that he assured me he 1) knew how to use, and 2) had permission to do so when our parents weren't around. I was led to the family room for a listening session with my big bro. However, he was apparently unaware of the speed dial on a turntable. We listened repeatedly to the first 20 seconds of "Carry On Wayward Son" at 33 1/3 RPM, which of course made everything slow and creepy sounding - the singing at the beginning was magnificently weird. Brian kept messing with the machine, moving the needle back to the beginning, hoping the problem would work itself out. He finally gave up, angrily (kids today would say he "rage quit"), but I loved it and couldn't understand why we didn't listen to the whole thing!
What tipped you over the edge from someone who liked making music to someone who wanted to make music as full- or part-time career -- what made you change directions?
COACH: My desire to perform was present very early on in life, but manifested itself through sports more than music. The idea to make music a career blossomed when I struck upon the idea to entertain families, and subsequently formed Rocknoceros.
BOOGIE: I always wanted music to be my full-time career, probably since I was 9 years old (seriously). I’ve been very lucky to have the opportunity to do it.
WILLIEBOB: Parenthood and entertainment-related work don't mix too well; all the jobs are happening while your own kids are home from school or asleep at night. So I didn't think I'd have any chance at a music "career" until sometime after my daughter grew up. Coach and I somehow kept up a part-time rock band through our early days of juggling kids and jobs, and though we worked hard on music it wasn't a money maker - I remember the emotional chafing I'd feel whenever friends or family used the word "hobby" to describe what we did.
In an unusual turn of events, in 2004 my big break came when my daughter's mom got married. She and her husband offered to take an extra share of the responsibilities related to child care, financially and logistically, so that I could commit fully to music and build something from the ground up. I jumped at the chance. Their kindness and generosity allowed me to start over as a private teacher while I pursued professional gigs, taking the risks I couldn't afford prior. This all led to Coach starting Rocknoceros with me, which afforded a work schedule that allowed me to continue being an active dad to my precious girl. My life changed completely for the best, and the extended family is still going strong.
What did years of playing for adults teach you about playing for kids?
COACH: Kids don't get drunk and ornery. Just ornery. And at some point or points during every show, no matter how well or poorly the band is performing, the entertainment becomes incidental to the audience. People of all ages tune in, tune out, and tune back in. Ideally, then, the band will be compelling to hear whenever folks tune back in to the performance.
BOOGIE: Years of playing for adults eventually brought me to study with jazz pianist Wayne Wilentz. Wayne expanded my harmonic vocabulary exponentially AND he showed me why they call it the GREAT American Songbook. Long story short: playing for adults eventually taught me how to write better songs.
WILLIEBOB: I discovered that I could be myself on stage for both adults and children alike - with appropriate moderation of language and electric guitar volume, of course! When we first started I was self-conscious and felt I had no talent for the kind of performance I assumed kids needed to see - colorful, zany, over the top... I have a comparatively mellow personality and no acting experience, but I play good songs with all my heart, and that was enough for my part in the band to get things rolling. Along the way, we have developed little stage-y things that arguably make a modest "act," but they are natural extensions of our everyday selves.
What inspired you to make an album with state songs (Plymouth Rockers)?
COACH: I was partly inspired by Sufjan Stevens, partly inspired by the song "THE UNITED STATES of AMERICA" on our first record, and partly inspired by a need for a subject matter that would provide ample writing opportunities over an extended period of time.
BOOGIE: We’ve been talking about it for a long time. I can’t remember when the idea started. It may go all the way back to our song “The United States of America” from the first CD. IF it does go back that far, then I can say (because I had the original idea for that song) that the idea can be traced back (through a twisted path) to Animaniacs. But, regardless, the real push for “a song for every state” has been spearheaded by Coach Cotton, and, as usual, I have no idea what motivated him.
WILLIEBOB: The need for inspiration itself! Some combination of American pride and a love of Big Idea type projects.
Did you find that it got easier or harder as you wrote songs inspired by states? Meaning, did you figure out how to crack that creative nut, or did it become harder to come up with unique takes on states?
COACH: The challenge of writing lyrics for state songs remains consistent, and only a little different than the other educational tunes we've written. Writing lyrics that contain facts but don't feel like work to read is my goal as a lyricist, and that goal is uniform throughout my writing process for Rocknoceros. Whether writing about a color or hygiene or a state, I try and make the words fun, funny, and informative. And sometimes deep.
BOOGIE: I LOVE writing songs. I think I could probably write an album’s worth of songs about light bulbs.
WILLIEBOB: It gets harder for me personally, but that is a good thing. We all try to avoid repetition with our lyrical and musical choices as the project moves along. What started as sort of "encyclopedic" songwriting that crams a state-load of facts into a short lyric has become a lot more fluid. "I've Got Friends In New Jersey" isn't about the state in a factual way, but still represents (to me anyway) an attempt to capture something very Jersey-like about the young person in the lyric.
Sufjan Stevens said he wanted to make albums for all fifty states and famously never got past two albums. What makes you think you can succeed where he failed? ;-)
COACH: Sufjan actually admitted after he made Illinois and Greetings from Michigan that he had no intention of writing an album for each state. Rather, it was a gimmick to generate press. I was kinda stunned at that admission because his persona seems contrary to such a ploy, but we all gotta make a living, right? While making an entire album for each state is a monumental task, writing a SONG for each state seems pretty reasonable.
(Here's Sufjan's rejection, though he's a little dodgy (per usual) about his true initial intent. But I read somewhere, a few years after Greetings from Michigan was released, that his 'project' was a ruse. I was dying to hear a follow-up to the first two installments, only to have my fanboy dreams crushed.)
BOOGIE: See the previous question. Plus, I have two other guys to pick up the slack.
WILLIEBOB: Hehe :) Well, I would think that 50 songs is more manageable than 50 albums, but that's still a lot of songs! My answer is: We are just crazy or simple enough to believe we can do it. Eventually...
After ten years of you doing this together, at least half of this full-time, what’s the secret to a happy (band) marriage?
BOOGIE: Sappy but true: friendship. I’ve known Coach since I was 5 years old(!) and Wiliebob since I was 15.
WILLIEBOB: Master Boogerton knows of what he speaks. Friendship.
What one thing (song, concert, whatever) are you most proud of with Rocknoceros?
COACH: I'm proud of many of our songs, most... if not all. I'm proud that we've lasted 10 years, and that we've played close to 2,000 shows. And I'm proud that we've inspired children to love music, and grow up to play music themselves.
BOOGIE: I’m proud to be introducing kids to music. As I said in the first question, it is kind of nice to think that kids “playing” Rocknoceros in their living rooms might be inspired to spend their lives making music.
WILLIEBOB: It might not count as one specific thing, but a constant source of pride for me is the endurance of this band's appeal to audiences around where we live. We're not a nationally famous band, but we are clearly some kind of D.C. area institution by now, and it was all built on our songwriting efforts.
What’s next for the band?
COACH: We're going to write an album for every state in the union. KIDDING!
BOOGIE: 10 more years.
WILLIEBOB: Maybe that "nationally famous" thing, but it'll only come to pass by doing it our way, like Frank sang it.
Photo credits: Nicole Wolf Photography