When a genuinely talented up-and-coming garage-rock troupe arrives from your own home state, it's difficult to quantify their success. Do I know about Royal Bangs because they're from Knoxville and play in Nashville from time to time? Or is it because We Breed Champions, their sophomore record, was re-issued by Audio Eagle—Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney's label—and has garnered some modest but positive press? Would I have a copy of their album were I from, say, New Jersey? Based on the evidence at hand, the best answer I can muster is, "I sure as hell hope so."
Despite an earnest and youthful energy that permeates each of We Breed Champions' 10 tracks, Royal Bangs' knack for blending conventional instrumentation with new-fangled techniques and inventive song structures connotes a maturity that most young bands just don't have. The cacophonous, mangled pop arrangements of "New Scissors" and the electro-ballad "Japanese Cars" recall Broken Social Scene; the pulsing rhythms and hypnotic riffs of tracks like "Handcuff Killa" betray an affinity for TV on the Radio.
But despite all their contemporary leanings, the boys from Knoxville have a respectably eclectic reverence for proto-punk and pop. "I can't think of the last time we went on the road and didn't listen to Television at some point, but our tastes are pretty all over the place," says singer, multi-instrumentalist and principal songwriter Ryan Schaefer. "We finally got a van with a working stereo, so we can jam as much Michael Jackson and Fleetwood Mac as we want now, all the time.... Also, 'Rich Girl' by Hall and Oates."
The five-piece crew of early-twentysomethings certainly had the odds stacked against them as far as college scenes go. Knoxville isn't exactly known for being a hotbed of indie music activity. Even if you stand out from the legions of bar and jam bands, who's around to notice? "Nobody's handing out 360 deals or record contracts [in Knoxville], so it's maybe a little more laid-back than Nashville," admits Schaefer. "There are a lot less career musicians than there are people who just don't give a fuck and like drinking beer and shredding."
And true, the Bangs might drink as much beer and give as few fucks as the next Knoxville band, but they warp and skew their own beats and vocals with an uncommonly deft mixture of experimentation and melodic sensibility. Schaefer's lyrics are both sincere and occasionally disenchanted, and the keyboard hook to "Broke Calculator" is absurdly contagious. With a musical arsenal like the one Royal Bangs have at their disposal, someone eventually had to pay attention. "[Drummer Chris Rusk] had a boring class at college and was dicking around on the Internet instead of paying attention to a lecture, and somehow that resulted in a record deal," recalls Schaefer.
If nothing else, Royal Bangs have gained some momentum merely by virtue of the company they keep. They've toured with The Black Keys, and We Breed Champions was put out across the pond by City Slang, the European distributor for American and Canadian acts like Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Lambchop and Cortney Tidwell.
As a general statement, Royal Bangs truly might not give a fuck about much. But with as much potential as their official label debut has, they're certainly a band to keep an eye on.
"If there are any kids reading this," says Schaefer, "we have two lessons to teach you: Fuck around in school, drop out, then drink as much as you can as soon as you detect anyone who can give you money is watching you."
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