They say that a name can say more about a band than their music. In the case of Ringo Deathstarr, it offers little in the way of identifying their sound, style or ethos other than to suggest they play pretty loud. Which is part of their make-up, but still a long way from formally classifying them into any specific genre. Often described as shoegaze, occasionally saddled with the noise tag, and even seen by some as twee indie poppers of the C86 variety, the Austin-based three-piece have come a long way since 2007's eponymous EP launched them to an unsuspecting US audience.
Initially formed back in 2005 by singer, songwriter and guitarist Elliott Frazer, it wasn't until later on that with the addition of fellow vocalist, co-writer and bass player Alex Gehring and drummer Daniel Coborn that they started to fully realise the potential shown by those early releases. A show at London's ICA as part of the Reverence Festival in 2009 undoubtedly kickstarted their relationship with current label Club AC30, culminating in the release earlier this year of debut album Colour Trip.
Last month also saw the first European release of Sparkler, a compilation that was put together a couple of years ago documenting all their early releases such as the aforementioned Ringo Deathstarr EP. Having played the Fuji Rock festival over the final weekend of July before heading to the UK for a mini-tour, we caught up with a slightly jet-lagged Alex Gehring prior to soundcheck before their recent show at Manchester's Ruby Lounge. Here's what she had to say...
DiS: How was Fuji Rock and did it live up to your expectations?
Alex: Oh my gosh! It was amazing! It kind of blew us away in that it's way bigger than we ever expected. The show was amazing too. I think we're all kind of shaken up from it. We got to see a lot of other cool bands there too so yeah, it was really fun.
DiS: Initially you were booked to play Indietracks that weekend but then the Fuji Rock offer came along which I guess was too good to turn down. Does it seem quite surreal the way things have progressed for the band over the past twelve months?
Alex: The whole thing is quite surreal. When we first got up on stage we were concerned that no one was going to be there because our stage time was 11:30am, and then we got there and it was packed all the way to the back. Being in Japan itself is always quite surreal...
DiS: Have you got quite a big fanbase over there?
Alex: Japan is definitely where we do the best. I wish it was like that in other places. We all actually get recognised there on the streets. I was sitting in my hotel lobby one morning talking on my phone and this guy came up and recognised me by my name which has never happened. It was so weird, I don't think they realise that back home we're seen as being just total losers.
DiS: With Sparkler just having received its first ever general release across Europe, does it seem quite weird that you've got to focus your live set on some of your oldest material, bearing in mind a lot of people may not have heard many of those songs before?
Alex: Yes! We had to relearn some songs, and I was thinking about it when I first saw the tracklist. Some of the songs on there we haven't played in like, four years. I only joined the band in 2007 and many of those haven't featured in our live show since then, so I guess it feels kind of funny having to bust them out again.
DiS: Listening to songs like 'Swirly' and 'Starrsha' off that first EP compared to those on Colour Trip demonstrates how far you've developed as a band. Do you feel the Sparkler material is that representative of where Ringo Deathstarr sit as a band at this present moment in time?
Alex: I feel those songs are quite a bit different from what we're doing now, but it's still Ringo Deathstarr, if that makes sense? We're still the same band even if we are moving along in a slightly different direction, especially with our newer material that hasn't even been released yet. I feel like we're getting further away from that exact sound but it still has elements of short songs with pop hooks, even if it's not strictly the same. We don't want to recreate the same album as Colour Trip with the next record. A lot of bands do try and recreate their first record over and over again, which sometimes can be a good thing but for Ringo Deathstarr we're all about evolving and trying to do something a little different each time.
DiS: I think that's the easiest way to maintain longevity in the current climate rather than keep rehashing the past, and ultimately increase your fanbase.
Alex: I hope so!
DiS: I hear you've just finished recording your forthcoming single, 'Shadow', which features a guest vocal from And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's Jason Reece. How did that collaboration come about?
Alex: It was kind of by accident I guess! 'Shadow' is possibly my favourite song out of everything we've done. We recorded it as a basic track where Elliott (Frazer) was just shouting, yelling and singing at various parts with scratch guitaring over the top, and he asked me what I thought of his vocal melodies which he'd labelled "Jason Reece vocals" and we kind of agreed that it did have a similar vibe. Then, almost a week later we were actually on tour with ...Trail Of Dead and Elliott was like, "Shall I ask Jason if he'll sing on the track?" and so he did and Jason was only too pleased to sing on it. Since both bands are based in Austin, it meant we could set up a studio and lay the vocal parts down pretty easily. I'd love to collaborate with them again. It was really fun, and kind of adds spice to our music.
DiS: I think it will also make a few people's ears prick up and take note that previously had you labelled as nothing more than a shoegaze band, which while there are influences in your earlier material, is probably not the most accurate description especially where a lot of Colour Trip is concerned.
Alex: Oh, thank you. It's funny you should say that because people always ask us "What kind of music do you play?" and we tend to look at each other baffled. I guess it kinda changes depending on what year it was they asked us but this year our usual answer has been, "Like punk, I guess..?" I suppose we could make up a new genre with elements of punk and shoegaze and simply call it punkgaze?!?
DiS: The first time I saw you play live was during 2009's Reverence Festival at the ICA in London, which obviously brought you to the attention of your current label Club AC30. Was it an easy decision to sign with them, and were there other offers on the table at the time?
Alex: You know, that's probably more Elliott's expertise as he deals with all the business side of everything. Not many people seemed to care about us at all back then. It felt as if we were just wandering around blindly, trying to book shows ourselves. AC30 were one of the first groups of people to genuinely show interest. They approached us and said they really liked our music and wanted to work with us, and we immediately hit off with them as people as well as a label. They've been great for us in every way. I don't really know how it happened but I'm so glad it did.
DiS: This line-up of the band has been together for a good few years now but there have been times where you've brought extra members in either for live shows or as with Jason Reece, to collaborate on odd tracks. Do you ever see Ringo Deathstarr extending its line-up to becoming a four or even five-piece in the foreseeable future?
Alex: We've been talking about this recently - we do every once in a while actually - and we did have a fourth member for a while who played guitar but he's left the band now, which means I tend to switch a lot between bass and guitar so we sometimes use a backing track for the bass parts. It does get a little frustrating and we've toyed with the idea of bringing in a touring member but honestly, as far as the band goes, I think we're all pretty comfortable just staying as we are. We work really well together and I'm not sure if that dynamic would change by bringing someone else in. We're not necessarily totally opposed to it. If the right person came along we'd gladly ask them to join. As far as future collaborations go, there are so many people I'd really like to work with I'd probably fill up your pages listing them!
DiS: How does the songwriting process work? I know all three of you are involved in writing for example, but who has the final, overall say?
Alex: Well with a lot of the stuff that was released in the early days like Sparkler and the first EP, the majority was written by Elliott on his own. After I joined in 2007 the EP had just been released, so it wasn't until we started writing for Colour Trip that I had more of an influence, and then Daniel (Coborn) joined soon after and he had more of an influence. I do feel that our next batch of recordings will be the most integrated yet, because it will be the first time all three of us have sat down together and written something from scratch. It's like, the process so far has been all Elliott, then half between Elliott and me with a little input from Daniel, which is why we're all really excited about the second album.
DiS: One of the most distinctive aspects about Ringo Deathstarr's music are the different qualities both you and Elliott bring to the songs vocally, almost like an opposite yin and yang.
Alex: Yeah, I kind of like that. Some of the songs I sing were completely written by Elliott and there's another I sing on that was written by Daniel - we just decided it would sound better with a girl on vocals. It's like I wrote 'Chloe' and then we decided the melody would work better if Elliott sang. I guess it just depends on the song.
DiS: That's quite interesting, as when I listen to Colour Trip I can sort of picture a song like 'You Don't Listen' coming from Elliott's point of view and then something like 'Tambourine Girl' maybe less so.
Alex: You'd be surprised who wrote what parts on some of that record! On 'Other Things' I'm singing something about "Loving her..." which probably sounds kinda funny coming from me when it's obviously Elliott's lyrics, and I think there are quite a few other occasions where the vocals make the lyrics seem quite ambiguous.
DiS: Looking back at Colour Trip, it picked up quite a few favourable reviews. Are you satisfied with how the recorrd turned out, and if you were given the opportunity to change anything about it, would you?
Alex: I'm really pleased with it. It's the first release that I've been properly involved with as the first EP was pretty much down to Elliott. I was totally nervous when we started recording it and had no idea what to expect. It's the same with the reviews. I was prepared for the worst and kept looking in the papers expecting negative comments but on the whole they've been really positive. I don't dislike the album or anything, but I guess I was quite nervous about what other people would think. I love every song on there and I know the other guys are just as proud of it too.
DiS: Do you prefer playing live or recording in the studio? I ask you this because there seems to be a certain degree of intensity that comes across through your live performances, whereas the recordings, particularly those on Colour Trip are a lot more subtle.
Alex: With Colour Trip, I'd say most of it was written in the studio. A lot of the songs came together in the studio but for the next one we definitely want it to have more of a live feel. When we recorded the first batch of new songs we did it by playing them together as we would for a show rather than in individual parts. It made more sense to try recording that way. I think we're gonna switch it up with this record and see how everything fits.
DiS: Are any of the newer songs in your current live set?
Alex: Not really apart from 'Shadow'. We have a few sketches, but nothing really pressed out. There's maybe three or four songs that if we practiced could be ready to go, and once we get back home we've decided we're going to sit in our practice space and start jamming these ideas into properly constructed songs.
DiS: You mention going back home, although earlier spoke of it less favourably, yet also spoke about your love of Japan and England plus the label being based here as well. Would you ever consider relocating?
Alex: Actually, Elliott was saying to the label when we were in Japan "How about after this tour I just move out here?!?" I would totally live in Japan, even though I don't know any Japanese!
DiS: Finally, I have to ask you about the band's name, Ringo Deathstarr, and who came up with it?
Alex: The story of the band's name comes from way before I even joined them. They were just starting to play their first shows and didn't have a name, and actually thought it would be a good idea to have no name at all! They quickly found out that it would not work, and one of the former members of the band came up with Ringo Deathstarr one day and it kind of stuck. People seem to either really love it or totally loathe it. I guess from our point of view it's really easy to look up online which is fine!
For more information on Ringo Deathstarr, visit their page on the Club AC30 website.