Ryan Rabin: Laborer Of Love

ryan rabin

Keys To Killing It

Industry terms like “lead single” don’t apply in the context of Grouplove. It’s no an exaggeration to say that every tune on Spreading Rumours could have been billed as such. Seriously, they’re that catchy. And the best part is they sound like nobody but themselves. There is one tune, “Raspberry,” that wears its influences a little too heavily, but that’s the worst thing you could say about it. (“That’s definitely a Pixies throwback,” Rabin says. “But it’s so much fun to play.”)

The draggy, beat-less closer “Save The Party For Me” makes the case that drums are the driver of this band. In all honesty, it’s Spreading Rumours’ only … not dud, exactly, but certainly not possessing the stickiness of the other songs. “We did try playing drums on it,” Rabin says, emphasizing that there were multiple takes with several different patterns. “But after listening all the way through with and without, it just kind of felt like it didn’t need it, and it was a more beautiful song just kind of stripped down acoustic like that. We tend to try drums on everything before we decide to take them out, if we do take them out.”

The instrument Rabin first took up with anything like seriousness was the piano. (Yeah, we know: Keys are technically a percussion instrument). “I’m so glad I took lessons now,” he says. “I couldn’t actually call myself a producer or do any of that kind of stuff without the piano.”

A formal music education on non-drumming instruments gave Rabin the tools he needed to write songs, and at the very least, helps him quickly glom onto the ideas of bandmates during the writing process. “I have enough of an understanding that I can learn things, and, more importantly, write with the guitarist, and that’s a major thing. And then production-wise, [that ability] is important because I need to understand where the other musicians are coming from to the extent where I can sit down and play something, ’Well, what about going to this chord here?’ I think having a keyboard and being able to play [a melody] right away without having to dictate to the other musicians is very helpful. And, actually, Hannah and Christian and Andrew have a similar amount of training on the piano as well, so we all kind of connect on that basic level.”

How To Succeed (Without Really Trying)

Back in 2006, the future members of Grouplove met on the island of Crete, where singers Hannah Hooper and Christian Zuccoli were participating in some sort of university-sponsored music workshop. At this point the band was pretty much what its hippie-dippy name connoted: a random experiment of fellow travelers who had jammed during a Mediterranean idyll. When that summer of love ended, though, they went back to their separate lives in Los Angeles, London, and New York.

Grouploves’s EP was almost an afterthought, tossed off as it was by Rabin between music projects that he was producing for friends after he returned to California. Having already gone through the industry meat grinder with The Outline, a pop-punk band he joined after graduating high school, Rabin got over the pop star trip early in his career. Hooper, Zucconi, and the rest of the band were similarly distracted and jaded from their previous forays in the industry. “I was fully convinced I was going to go be an assistant at some studio in L.A. or something,” he explains. “I had sort of moved on from this thought of playing live and touring and all that.”

Rabin would probably be clocking a steady paycheck today as a sound engineer as you read this had he not played a demo for Ryan and Ben, two guys he shared his studio with in North Hollywood, in the spring of 2008. There was also a guy named Nicky, who heard the demo after Rabin’s brother, an avid indie music fan, played it for him. “[These people] came to us and said, ’We’re going to send this to a bunch of different people, maybe to some lawyers. You’ve got to be a real band.’

“Even at that point there was still resistance from everyone because we didn’t imagine that something we did that was so nonchalant and spur-of-the-moment could actually be something,” Rabin continues. “I already knew what it’s like to send stuff to labels and get a lawyer and a booking agent and this and that and have it end with so much disappointment. I was just pretty hesitant from the get-go. I think it took the other members moving to L.A. and really confirming this was something we were going to try to do again until I said, ’Alright, f__k it! Let’s do it.’”

To his credit, Ryan never availed himself of his famous musician father to kick-start Grouplove. The connections wouldn’t have helped in any case. The elder Rabin, former guitarist for British progressive and classic rock band Yes, and now a Hollywood film composer, comes from a completely different music universe than what exists today. “He was really lucky when he joined the guys in Yes,” Rabin says. “Instantly he was already in a really big band before he had actually put anything out with them, so he didn’t have any sort of direct experience to draw on.”

That Ryan chose the drums over guitar makes it tempting to assume the son was rebelling against the father, but playing armchair-psychologist is a dead end. “I have no idea [why I never took it up],” he says. “I feel like I’d be such a good guitar player if I’d actually taken it up, and I could have had a pretty decent person to get lessons from, [laughs] but for whatever reason it just never occurred to me.”

Balling In Reverse

During the early stages of writing for Spreading Rumours, you could totally imagine Rabin bolting awake sweat-drenched in the middle of the night as the words “sophomore slump” echoed in his head (accompanied by a cliché dream sequence of a label executive tearing up their contract).

You’d be wrong, of course. Regardless of expectations, Rabin never psyched himself out on album #2 the way most bands do. “I don’t think we ever felt pressure like that,” he says. “Everybody always told me you have your whole life to make your first album and then two weeks to make your second album, but it didn’t really happen that way for us.”

Starting this fall, Grouplove will commence the appropriately named See-Saw Tour. They’ll do a pair of shows in every city with the first night billed as an “underplay,” in which the band will book itself into smaller venues that, as Rabin says, are “purposefully hard to get into.” They will take place in unconventional venues including churches and graveyards. The second show will be the full rock show but on the acoustic nights the drummer plans to use a cocktail kit and do some backup vocals, which he normally does not do in the fully electric Grouplove. “I’m not good at singing and playing at the same time.”

If touring is more important than ever for bands to maintain exposure (and solvency), artists have to find ways to keep it interesting. “The point is to sort of make it a little intimate, a little more exclusive for fans,” he says. Manufacturing scarcity to spike demand – it’s the oldest trick in the show-biz playbook. But Rabin sees it as an opportunity to enhance his grasp of dynamics. “I’m trying to get better with the more delicate side of my playing. Grouplove tends to be more straight-forward power drumming, but for the acoustic show I definitely have to brush up on my softer technique.”

There’s something to be said for superstition, a bit of luck, and not trying to control every aspect of your career. Success, or a lack thereof, is already in the cards. You may as well play the music you like. “It’s definitely surreal every day to be doing what we’re doing,” he says. “So I think we all try not to take any of it for granted, particularly because we know what it is like to go through this and have it not work out.”

Maybe the old saying about keeping your eyes on the prize is overrated. At least sometimes: “The one time we didn’t really actively – I don’t want to say try …” he adds, trailing off. “But the one time we didn’t actively pursue a specific thing with any kind of specific success in mind, it ends up working.”

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