At first listen, Royal Baths – comprising singer/guitarists Jeremy Cox and former Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall member Jigmae Baer – seem a potentially dangerous gang of two. Destroying any semblance of verse/chorus/verse structure, they deliver bleak monologues riddled with guile and speak of dissolving morals, murder and nightmare voodoo. Their guitars are angry – they shriek and they squelch – and their delivery is broody, monotone and disinterested. Upon actually speaking with Cox however, there is an abrupt disconnect from any sort of bad boy image; he sounds unassuming and accommodating… perhaps even eager. In discussing musical influences, homemade guitars and the band’s affection for their new home of Brooklyn, it becomes apparent that these San Francisco ex-pats aren’t maladjusted meanies interested only in gloom; they’re just two simple guys who traded in an ocean view in order to have a little fun with the dark.
It’s easy as a writer to play up your bad-ass image (Jeremy laughs), thought it’s pretty apparent that there’s some tongue-in-cheek going on here too. I guess I should make sure though: are you rebelling against something?
I think rebellion exists in everybody, and I’m sure that comes out in our music, but I certainly wouldn’t label ourselves as rebellious. I understand why people want to label us at dark but I think that can sometimes be a shallow assumption. There’s a lot more going on than just that…I’m glad you caught the humor.
Well, I’m a former Goth, so if anyone understands varying degrees of darkness and can extract humor from it, it’s me. You’ve had your share of excellent reviews but there are some slightly angry ones as well. Do you feel like reviewers get you?
I notice that reviewers can be pretty polar: some are almost accusatory that we’re directly ripping off other musicians and some are just incredibly intrigued and think we’re very unique. Anyone who plays music obviously starts with some sort of inspiration and of course we have some pretty obvious influences, but that’s not a problem for me – and it’s not something we hope people won’t find out, you know? I wouldn’t say that we’ve at all pigeon-holed ourselves and that’s what makes it so exciting for us.
You’re frequently compared to Velvet Underground – and I hear it – but lots of bands seem to arbitrarily cite acts that we all know they sound nothing like and probably never could even if they tried. Do bands and publicists and reviewers just drop names for the sake of SEO and link-bait?
(laughs) I think there’s a lot of namedropping that goes on. Obviously a lot of people love the Velvet Underground because they’re a wonderful band and I understand that reference in regard to our first record. It’s pretty undeniable. But for this record, I don’t see the similarities, and think it’s actually pretty far from sounding like them.
So why did New York seem like a fitting home for Royal Baths?
We’d been through New York a few times and the first time we played Brooklyn I knew I wanted to live there. It’s such an exciting atmosphere and the crowd always seemed very receptive of our sound; that was very welcoming. We still feel that way, even after having been here for months.
Do physical surroundings – your city – impact the music that you make?
Some reviews suggest Brooklyn has influenced our sound but the music that’s on Better Luck Next Life was recorded nearly a year ago and it was written in California.
I wonder if you were a native New Yorker, would you feel the itch to move to some place like San Francisco?
(laughs) Yeah, you know, I love San Francisco; it’s an absolutely beautiful city and I can see myself moving back there at some point. We didn’t leave because we didn’t like the people or we didn’t like the city; it was simply that we needed a change of scenery and a change of ‘scene.’ I feel like there’s more opportunity in New York and more of a pulse when it comes to music.
What is there between you and Jigmae that makes you connect musically?
I think that we both allow ourselves the creative space to experiment with the sounds we find interesting. We don’t always see eye to on everything but we’re open-minded with each other’s writing style. He and I usually write together, so I’m figuring out a piece of guitar I like while he messes with his guitar and the lyrics, and at some point those things all just connect with each other. It’s always so interesting for me.
I read a quote from Jigmae where he said: “Jeremy is the meanest guitar player around and you can only really understand that from our live shows. He’s the best I’ve ever seen and it’s an honor to play with him.”
That’s very nice! (laughs)
What do you think he means by “the meanest?”
He’s probably referring to how loud we are and the tone of my guitar…that shrieking noise I make when I play (laughs).
Is it true that you make your guitars?
That’s half-true. I would go to visit my uncle, who lives a little bit north of San Francisco, and he would help me put together guitar. I’d usually take a really cheap body and buy some pickups and put one or two of them on there…
And how did you learn to play?
I took lesson for a few months when I was 14 and then stopped. I learned on my own after that. When I started playing guitar I was just playing electric so I had a lot of opportunity to experiment with the sounds I wanted to have come out.
In the documentary, It Might Get Loud, there’s a terrific scene where Jimmy Page is gleefully listening to Link Wray’s Rumble and delighting in the ‘attitude’ behind his licks. When I listen to Royal Baths, I hear a deliberate, exaggerated ‘cool’ in how you play off the lyrics; in other words, it’s clear you were having fun with it.
Well, first of all, thank you. I like the kinds of guitar noises that are a little bit strange and that might even be confused for other instruments and I think I tried to explore that as much as possible. I do try to play off Jigmae’s lyrics – that’s always very important to me – so I’m certainly conscious of the attitude I’m projecting.
How much of your sound was or is born out of necessity and your dependence on access to equip or you’re your own ability?
I certainly found mine out of playing cheap guitars that I didn’t mind damaging in order to get that sound out of. I think if I had a bunch of really nice guitars I wouldn’t have found that same sound because I would have been more cautious – and caution just holds you back. A lot of our references that people use to describe us come from the first record which was recorded almost purely out of necessity. We used a TASCAM 388, which is an 8-Track ¼-inch machine. Jigmae and I stayed up all night in our rehearsal space – because we had to go when no one else was there – and we’d write and record until all the other bands would start showing up in the morning. I mixed it all myself and really didn’t know what I was doing so it definitely has that ‘lo-if’ sound that a lot of people like to label us as having. I think a lot of people get confused and assume that we were purposefully trying to create that sound but really, it was out of necessity. I think Better Luck Next Life sounds a lot different from that one though, and I hope that people take notice of that.
Last question for you: If you could interview any musician, alive or dead, who would it be?
Hmmm…Do I want to name drop here? (laughs) I’m going to have to say John Fahey – he’s done a lot of finger-picking that’s inspired some of the tunings that we use so I’d definitely want to talk to him. And Sam Cook. He kind of circumvented the middle man of the music industry.
Royal Baths released their lo-fi debut Litanies in 2010 (drawing rampant snap comparisons to 60’s psychedelia and Velvet Underground). Their sophomoric 2011 release, Better Luck Next Life, is rife with lurid, almost sinister bluesy-garage rock. Their newest video, Harder, Faster, featuring too-cool-for-school lovers roaming the streets in search of trouble, can be viewed here.