“What is this all about? Why are we an eight seed? Are we winning?”
Grouplove has received a very respectable eight seed in MTV’s March Musical Madness tournament, but the band’s drummer, Ryan Rabin, appears to know very little about this historically important popularity contest. He mostly has questions of his own. Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be many readily apparent answers: The seeding implies that Korn are a bigger band than Coldplay, and the regional placements have been in open rebellion to logic. (The L.A.-based band is in the Midwest division, for example.) But, still, by MTV’s estimation, Grouplove is among the 32 most popular bands in the world, right alongside Daft Punk, and that can’t be considered a bad thing.
“Ok, good,” Rabin exhales. “As long as we’re not getting jipped, you know?”
Since forming in 2009, Grouplove has not spent a lot of time getting jipped. In fact, its experience as a band has been quite the opposite of that. The group played its first show in May 2010, and before the year was over, had already gone on tours with Florence and the Machine and The Joy Formidable. Not long after, it landed a deal on Atlantic Records. And thanks in part to an iPod commercial – the holy grail of infectious pop ad placement – it soon had a platinum single and popular full-length on its hands. This September, the band continued its onward march with the release of its sophomore effort, Spreading Rumours, a more adventurous record that finds them bridging the big tent, group-sing sunshine of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (“I’d rather be a hippie than a hipster” goes one chorus) with the dark-edged, neon synth pop of Passion Pit.
But even if things are perpetually on the up and up, you can’t win them all: Grouplove would eventually go down in a first round upset to Bleachers, a side project of fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff.
When I reached Rabin a few weeks ago, he was in California, preparing for the band’s North American tour. “We’re just packing, tying up all the loose ends, and trying not to forget any of the important tour provisions,” he said at the time. “But we always forget something, of course.”
The band’s members hail from opposite coasts – singers Hannah Hooper and Christian Zucconi met in New York City – but it has called L.A. home since it started making music together. This is due in large part to Rabin, who grew up in the city and has been collecting instruments and recording equipment there since his early teens. Rabin – who serves as Grouplove’s producer too – amassed such an arsenal as a birthright of sorts: His father is Trevor Rabin, a prolific solo artist and session guitarist, in addition to vital component of progressive rock torchbearers Yes. (He’s also spent the past few decades scoring movies, most notably Jerry Bruckheimer’s big budget flicks.)
As for the younger Rabin, he sounds content in his dual role as Grouplove’s drummer and producer, for now.
Growing up with a father who was an accomplished guitarist and composer, what was your relationship with music like?
My dad has always been inspiring to me –his whole progression through music and life, in particular. He’s operated within so many different parts of the music business, whether it was in rock and roll or through film composing and being classically trained, which he didn’t fully showcase until later in life. He ran a record label in London for a few years. Before Yes, he had success in a kind of teenybopper boy band in South Africa. He went through a lot of different phases, and that was always really inspiring.
But he never pressured me in any way to get into music. Any time that I had questions or wanted to try something, he was obviously very supportive. There was never a noticeable pressure to follow in his footsteps. I obviously chose a pretty bad instrument if I wanted to get any lessons from him. [Laughs] I could have gotten some great free guitar lessons. I kind of screwed that one up.
It was great, though – it was a very supportive musical household. His dad and mom were musicians. It just runs in the family a bit. Even his brother is an amazing drummer and violin player. He’s also a lawyer – but everyone plays music in some way.
When did you realize that you wanted to make music?
It was kind of an accident. A friend wanted to start a band – he didn’t really know how to play anything, but he wanted to start a band. We were ten or eleven years old. And I said, “Well, I can try playing the drums.” We practiced for a couple of weeks, trying to figure out how to play our instruments, and then it kind of stemmed out from there. My dad came to practice one day and said, “You actually have something there with the drums.” I had a shitty little learner drum kit that he leant me.
From there it grew – I would keep playing in a bunch of different bands, and then I would get all of this hand-me-down recording equipment that my dad didn’t use anymore. And so at the same time that I was learning to play music and learning how to be in bands and navigate those relationships, I was also simultaneously recording those bands and learning what engineering was and what production is – at least in this day and age, because producing can definitely be a different job than its traditionally was known as.
Are there any producers – active or otherwise – that you look to as models?
I don’t think there’s anyone that I would model a specific sound after, but I definitely love to borrow ideas here and there. I like people that are pretty versatile. Sir George Martin is obviously a ridiculous benchmark, because he’s just so incredible and spans such a huge catalogue with the Beatles. He did so many different things with them. They went through so many different engineering progressions with him as well, in terms of how to actually record a band and what that meant back then.
At the same time, I really respect someone like Max Martin, who can consistently write and produce insanely huge pop songs. George Martin had similar success, but he definitely was there in the more traditional role of enhancing the ideas of the Beatles, whereas Max Martin is really there to be an auteur who does everything.
I like the combination of those styles. I like the idea of jumping in and out of those kinds of production hats.
There are a much wider mix of sounds on Spreading Rumours than its predecessor. As the producer, are you driving the aesthetic direction of the band?
It’s a different process with Grouplove – because I’m in the band – than when I’m working with outside artists. In Grouplove, everything that’s done in production is informed by what the band as a whole wants. At the same time, we’re all bringing ideas as writers, so there are times when I have an idea for a melody written and we’ll have to find the right sounds and put things together. And there are other times when it’s everyone else’s ideas that I’m trying to help realize. It’s my job to listen to what kind of sound they want and try to realize them in the studio.
Beyond that, the actual technical aspect of recording – the engineering and stuff – I’m always doing that and trying to play around with different ways of doing things. We’re trying to keep the sound different from song to song.
You mentioned being in bands prior to Grouplove. What did you take away from those experiences?
We all came to Grouplove – other than Anna, who hadn’t been in a band before – with the experience of many bands beforehand. As a result, we were taking it very seriously and trying to make a career out of it. There are aspects of all those experiences that have helped to keep everybody open-minded in this band. There’s an honesty and openness that happens in Grouplove because we were all burnt out on our music careers before we met each other. This is the first time that we allowed ourselves to be without ego and expectation. We just recorded to see what would come out of it – to let the chemistry between the five of us drive what music was going to be, whether it was going to be one genre or another. It was that open-mindedness that allowed us to do things outside of all of our comfort zones, because none of us really have the same taste in music. That combination of different preferences and styles really helps.
You also just learn about navigating band relationships. It’s a really difficult working relationship to be a part of, you know? Our having those experiences helps keep each other in check.
What tastes do you bring to the table?
I definitely bring a lot of pop sensibility. The Beatles and Michael Jackson are what I grew up on. And I listened to a lot of classic and progressive rock. I definitely have a focus on the combination of musical technicality and proficiency and pop sensibility. Those are my tendencies. Another band member might have a tendency towards the grunge side of things. And the singers in the band were kind of born to play that role, so they’re very passionate, extroverted, outgoing people, particularly on stage, and they bring a lot of emotion to the music that balances out my more technical sensibilities.
The band achieved a lot of success relatively quickly. Has there been a particularly surreal moment for you along the way?
This might seem like a clichéd answer, but, honestly, we take everything day by day, and every week or so there’s always been a little bit of a progression. I agree that early on, it did happen kind of fast. We started making music together and then all of a sudden we were a touring act with a label and everything. But the progression of the music as far as our fans go, I think, has been a steady incline since we started touring.
Every day is really great. Every time that you go to a new country or that you play somewhere that you’ve never been and you realize that there are people in this country that know all the words to your songs – that’s always incredibly surreal.
We played a festival in Lisbon that was one of the earliest surreal moments. We looked around at each other and were like, “We’re in Portugal right now, where we’ve never been before, on the main stage at a festival, and Blondie is about to play right after us, and then Coldplay. This place is absolutely packed and these people actually know our music. We’re not just here as an opening act. The people are singing the songs and enjoying them.”
It’s surreal to be reminded that world is pretty small place sometimes. We’re just very lucky to have the opportunity to do that.
What do you hope the band accomplishes from here?
We always want to continue to prove that as long as we stay open-minded and honest with each other, we can kind of take that band in any creative direction that we want to go. We pride ourselves on that openness, even though it’s not always easy, because everyone has apprehension and, rightly so, questions everyone creative tendencies at all times, but we would pride ourselves on being able to slot into many different genres and continue to experiment, in terms of production and writing.
I think that on [Spreading Rumours], we took certain tendencies and tangents from the first album and stretched them a little further. We took a rock song and we really stripped it down and made it fully a rock song. We took an electronic song and removed every single rock element and made a full electronic song. Things like that – within our own music bubble – are really important to us. It’s our own creative challenges that we give each other that are important. Hopefully we’ll gain more fans and share our music with more people while we do so.
Is there a song on the record that you’re most proud of?
I was really proud to have “Ways to Go” as our first single. That’s a song that we wrote completely from scratch, all together, in the studio. All of us coming from a ’90s rock and roll background, the fact that we were able to challenge each other musically and say, “You know what? Just because we’re in his band and playing guitars doesn’t mean that we can’t craft a totally synth-heavy, Daft Punk inspired song.”
We don’t let how we play things live restrict what we do on the album. When we’re playing live, we’re playing as a band all together and we’re making the songs translate, but when we’re in the studio, we don’t like to give each other any restrictions based on what fans might expect after the first album. And we’re not going to say, “Wait a second, why is Andrew [Wessen] playing synth and not guitar on this song?” and “Why is Christian [Zucconi] just singing and not playing a guitar?” From the outside, those might seem like really silly, musician-centric concerns, but I’m pretty proud that as a group that we can take risks like that. And, at the same time, we can do a song like “Save the Party” which is fully acoustic and striped down and vocal-heavy. We got to play with a lot of Beach Boys type harmonies on that song.
More than any one song, I’m proud of the variety. I’m proud of the dynamics and the chances that we take from genre to genre.