Ryan Rabin is hanging in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood at a photo shoot for hipster bible Nylon. The setting is a castle-like domicile that once belonged to a 1920s producer, and it’s got that glamour factor that Rabin, not your typical striving musician in an industry town, courts wherever he goes.
The story of Grouplove – whose new release, Never Trust A Happy Song, Rabin produced in its entirety – begins on a commune in Greece where the 25-year-old drummer spent the summer during the alternately blissful and anxious years following college. And in case you’re wondering, no, he didn’t have a full kit with him. “I had a bongo,” jokes Rabin about that improbable time when he was shanghaied by the commune’s rag-tag group of American ex-pat troubadors. “I just sort of hung out and accompanied Christian a little bit on piano,” he says, referring to future Grouplove singer Christian Zucconi. “I’ve played a little bit of guitar, but other than the drums, I play a lot more piano than anything else, which really helps with recording and producing and writing.”
Anyhow, the five or six tunes they informally jammed in their Mediterranean idyll formed the kernel of Never Trust A Happy Song, which Rabin produced upon his return to Los Angeles, all of it at his studio downtown. The album is 12 fresh but instantly familiar earworms so insidious you may resent it when they take up residence in your head for days on end, especially lead single “Itching On A Photograph.”
When Rabin informed us that none of the tunes had placement in a summer blockbuster, or even an episode of Gossip Girl, we straight up called him a liar. “’Gold Coast” was in a movie called Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” he says. “Nothing has ever really been featured up front. Just kind of background music.”
Listen to “Colours” and the thing that strikes you after Rabin’s right foot blows your mind in the verses is why the band green lighted a lick that so completely eclipses everyone else. “Bombshell Betty” has similar stabs of bass drum single-strokes; “Spin” does fast-sixteenths-on-the-hats thing until the last 30 seconds, when it fades into a frantic march; “Chloe” kicks off with a train beat that soon gets transferred to the toms and kick; “Tongue Tied” and “Lovely Cup,” have a dance-y four-on-the-floor feel. Whatever feel he goes for, the reluctant drummer is a natural.
Ryan Rabin is the son of film composer Trevor Rabin, who once played guitar for seminal prog-rockers Yes. The elder Rabin is best known for polarizing fans by overhauling the band’s sound in the mid-’80s. “I think he was famous for that one year when ’Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ came out and then it was just that band Yes again,” cracks Rabin. “I like to give him crap about that.”
Not surprisingly, then, the younger Rabin has always been surrounded by music. After a friend with a kit showed him how to play quarter-notes with the bass drum on 1 and 3 and the snare on 2 and 4, he basically played that beat nonstop on a cheap-o kit his Dad bought him. “I tried to not speed up and that was the first thing I wanted: just to stay in the pocket. Once I started playing in bands and kind of had that one beat down, then I’d try and get fancier from there.”
Assembling a collection of gear handed down from Dad and the know-how to use it, Rabin began doing freelance production on the side, usually on spec (i.e., free), for aspiring rockers lured to L.A. hoping to score a record deal. “I would get a few songs demoed, then if something got picked up and went well for someone, maybe I would have the option to produce it for a fee next time.”
The aforementioned opener “Itching On A Photograph,” sports big and chunky beats, and, like all the album’s drums seem to do, sets the tone for the old-school miking technique Rabin used to make the tubs sound ginormous. “It’s actually a pretty small room, just like the one we used for the EP was,” he says. “But yeah, I mix in a lot of overheads.”
Sometimes Rabin rerecorded his drums after all the guys had laid their parts down “just so they weren’t chopped up.” Other times he wouldn’t touch them. It just depends on the vibe Grouplove is going for, which on Never Trust A Happy Song varies from track to track.