Ryan Rabin: Laborer Of Love

ryan rabin

Pottering around his apartment, surrounded by monitors and sundry keyboards, Ryan Rabin looks as if he entered this world with the glow of LED against his skin. Nestled as he is in the heart of Silver Lake, California, where the Los Angeles neighborhood’s hipster-fueled renaissance has rubbed off on many creative types, the locale seems especially suited for the 25-year-old musician. Rabin has a bit of an advantage, of course, with a home studio stuffed with vintage gear where he can tinker to his heart’s content. Just don’t ask him play triplet ruffs.

Not that Rabin doesn’t know his stuff. You only need to hear the compact groove on “Borderlines And Aliens,” a sublime combo of Krameresque funk and studio-sculpted tone from the band’s new album, Spreading Rumours, to know that beats are the prime mover of Grouplove. If Never Trust A Happy Song, the band’s hit-spawning debut from 2011, was anchored by mouth-watering pocket, Spreading Rumours celebrates the drums as dominant voice.

What has Rabin juiced at the moment is bass drums. Not only are the new songs’ kick sonics crisp and meaty, its the bionic execution of the right-foot strokes – as heard on the last 30 seconds of “News To Me,” for example – that lend the tunes arena-sized heft with enough propulsion for the club. “I used to play with a double kick pedal when I was a little younger,” he says. “I don’t know why I stopped. But on the album it’s all single kick drum. I feel like in alternative music, that has become a faux pas of drummers, like, it’s not cool anymore except for metal,” he continues. “I enjoy my set, I cherish them, actually …”

Allowing himself to savor this moment of nostalgia, you can feel him mentally nixing the idea of a twin-kick experiment. “I don’t know. Maybe my right foot would get slow again.”

ryan rabin

High On DIY

Ryan Rabin knows his way around an SSL board. As the producer of both of Grouplove’s full-length records and an EP, he produces all the band’s music at home and at a separate studio in North Hollywood. His preferred setup is Logic, but he’s a quick enough study to handle any DAW you throw at him. For Spreading Rumours, Rabin did all the mixing and engineering at Planet Sound in the Hollywood Hills, where a vintage Neve board was at his disposal (except for one song that had Jack Donahy assisting). “I can work on Pro Tools,” he says. “I’m just not as quick.”

And really, what good is a comfort zone unless you step outside of it? “It’s generally pretty easy to slide into a different setup,” he continues. “If it’s a major studio and we’re going to be using a comprehensive amount of gear, usually there’s an in-house engineer that can at least give me a rundown of the patch bay and where everything’s set up. And it’s kind of nice to brush up on stuff you don’t do as often.”

Recording live was another major difference from the tracking for the debut. The majority of the new songs were honed during performances over the last year and thus the band members had the confidence to play together and let tape roll. “I think that was sort of essential to do that this time,” Rabin says. “Particularly because we’ve been playing together for so long at this point and I think just as a group our cohesiveness [was there]. There’s definitely enough experimentation and enough variety of songs that we didn’t do everything live but I’d say a good 80 percent of it was played together as a band. It’s nice to record a little bit old school if you have that ability.”

Back in 2009, on his maiden run as the band’s engineer, Rabin had to do all the heavy lifting out of necessity. Nowadays it’s out of a desire to become a better producer. “My manager told me, ’There’s a little more of a budget this time around. Do you want an assistant in there, an engineer to run stuff?’

“I was like, ’No, I need to be in front of the computer doing it myself, because that’s the fun part. I wouldn’t want to miss out on that stuff.”

If you like wide-open, earthy-sounding drums with lots of overtone and stray resonance, then Rabin may not be the drummer for you. If you like punchy, super-consistent drums, then this guy is manna from heaven. For Grouplove’s two-and-a-half-album discography, the drummer has achieved the golden mean between acoustic and electric sounds. That is, except for Spreading Rumours tracks like “Didn’t Have To Go” and “Bitin’ The Bullet,” in which he is deliberately going for a programmed feel. “The first album I ever bought was Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, so electronic drums have always been a big part of my musical influences. If the song calls for that kind of vibe, it’s nice to mix sampled drums with the acoustic kit or even, you know, cut up my role as a player all together if it’s better for the song.”

Then there’s stuff like the marching band—style outro of “Sit Still,” which is maybe the first all-band drum solo in pop history. The song got its percussive flavor by everyone in the band playing a different drum – bassist Sean Gadd has an African shaker; guitarist Andrew Wessen was on the floor tom and floor tom hoop; Rabin played an old jazz bass drum loosely tuned so it sounded like a timpani. “We sort of rehearsed the beat and then did several takes of it and blended the sounds afterwards.”

With a mind as creatively fertile as Rabin’s – not to mention tech savvy – you would think the temptation to change up the parts from the album when playing live would be overwhelming. “It depends on the song,” he says. “A song like ’Borderlines And Aliens,’ that’s a pretty balls-out rock song already, so we kind of stick pretty close to that live. And also, some of these songs we actually sort of wrote on the road and worked out live first. We liked the way that they sounded when we played them live so we wanted to sort of preserve that in the studio, sort of reverse-engineer them. But then there’s songs like ’Shark Attack,’ which is a lot of programmed drums – well, the middle section is all live drums – but for the live show I’m playing kit the whole time so it’s almost the opposite. Instead of the electronic drums on the album being the main body of the percussion and live drums sprinkled on top of it, it’s the other way around: The live drums do what the electronic drums do on the album and the electronic [gear is] just ear candy for playing live.”

On first single “Ways To Go” the main snare and bass drum beat are supplied by a pair of ’80s hexagonal Simmons pads. They bring them out on a cymbal stand so they’re chest height and Wessen, the guitar player, plays the kick and snare effects on the pads. Like the images of shagging in yurts that the band’s name evokes, swapping roles and sharing everything – right down to each other’s instruments – is the whole point of Grouplove. “We like to switch it up. I mean on that song, too, when Andrew’s doing that, I’m not on the drums at all; I’m just on keyboard.”

The synthesizer, which is next to Rabin’s kit, is used to trigger samples and assorted “ear candy” between songs. When the mix starts to get dense with instrumentation, timing can suffer. Sometimes the electronic drum sequences work as a metronome, other times he’ll use a proper click track. “I can trigger a click track for when there are electronic drums on top of my main drum kit. And so that’s all controlled through Main Stage, which is a Logic program.”

Using the exact same setup on stage as he does for recording, the overtone-free consistency of the kit’s acrylic shells ironically suit the uptempo pop of for many of Spreading Rumours’ songs. (Ironic because it’s usually hard-rock drummers that use acrylics.) That and some well placed Moongel contribute to the quick-decaying phthunk that Rabin – and soundmen – so love. “I remember the first day that I used it on the road, we were at a gig in Vegas and our front of house guy has all these saved settings for each drum channel and he came on the loudspeaker after the sound check and he goes, ’Dude, it’s the weirdest thing, I literally haven’t had to make one adjustment on the boards.’

“I like a pretty dead, ’70s sort of quick sound on everything,” he adds. “It’s just a pretty simple miking technique: some compression on overhead, some EQ’ing from the Neve board, and things like that, but there’s no real trick to it. My preference live is the generally the same as in the studio: The skins are all the same, tuning is the same … it’s pretty seamless from live into the studio and vice versa.”

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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.”