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The Launch Pad For Rocket 3
Rocket Fuel To Burn: Portland’s Premier Band
“I am not my art
And this is not my song”
~ Ramune Nagisetty
(Performed by Rocket 3 on their new album BURN)
Bubblegum. There is the kind that is easily acquired through various corporate machines strewn throughout the retail wastelands. This bubblegum, while colorful and cheap, loses its flavor rather quickly and, in most cases, will rot part of you skull away. Another type of bubblegum is akin to the kind found tucked inside a package of trading cards. This gum is more palatable with a sweetness that lasts a long, long time. Along with the bubblegum, however, comes something of substance with hard edges and a colorful image that tells a story and can be kept with other collections and compilations for years to come, gaining in value with the passage of time. I was going to come up with something cool to say about the shiny tinfoil wrapper reflecting the depth of something or another, but my analogy well ran dry.
The above written paragraph is meant to be a metaphorical introduction to the band who calls themselves Rocket 3 and is intended to illustrate their original approach to pure pop pleasure ensconced by a their own grittier, more edgy sound. With original melodies that stray from the normal popular song structures with a heavier hitting sound more reminiscent of the early CBGB stage strollers rather than the overproduced pabulum manufactured by the studios over the last several decades. This can be best exemplified by Rocket 3’s cover of the Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties and their own original song, Ride. The power riffs juxtaposed against the singer’s glossy voice is the perfection of pop culture.
The trio is comprised of the vocalist/guitarist Ramune Nagisetty, who has lived in such far flung territories as the former USSR and Ohio before settling in Portland, Oregon. Ramune’s voice ranges from a silky whisper to a proto-punk sultry scream and her newly acquired guitar skills (she has only recently picked up the guitar, starting in 2010) would give many more seasoned guitarists a run for their money in creating the same jinglingly addictive hooks. The second stage of the Rocket is Tony Guzman, who brings with him the uniquely staid bass riffs that, at times, linger in the background as a subtle thrum to accent the lighter side of their music. At other times, it is an insistent crush that brings the harder tracks a feeling of substance and solidity. Creating the foundation for the band is drummer Drew Anymouse, whose selections of percussive techniques for each song seem to be inspired. They are insistent without being overwhelming, drawing each song along at their proper pace, complementing and moving with the other instruments in perfect unison.
I was recently able to interview the trio and the first question I had was admittedly sophomoric and meant only as an icebreaker and was one which I did not think would be answered at such length. It exemplified how the band knows how to make light of themselves while taking their music seriously. The question?
What happened to Rocket 1 and 2? Was there a mishap on the launch pad?
“This is the first I've heard of these other Rockets!” Bassit Tony Guzman averred, “They must be imposters!”
“Ha ha! Actually this is the only band I’ve ever been in, unlike Drew and Tony who are both play in multiple bands. So it’s not as if there was a beta version. This is the only one.” Ramune Nagisetty went on to explain that, “The name Rocket 3 came around when Drew joined the band. Drew’s drumming is powerful and sometimes explosive, like a Rocket. Ride is probably the song that most exemplifies his style.”
Drew Anymouse went on to confuse the issue even more by stating, “Rocket 1 was the initial experiment. A series of tests were performed to explore the simple systems. Structural integrity of lyrical constructions, system operations with the addition of song and instrument and the measurement of sea level thrust. Rocket 2 then refined those systems to add liquid fuel and a deluge system for sound pressure reduction. Rocket 3 added the missing solid rocket fuel containing a secret ingredient. The combination of the three stages created a rocket for space travel.”
“Sometimes I have no idea what Drew is talking about,” Ramuned said, “…but I’ve gotten used to it.”
I really do hate to compare new musicians to other existing performers, but sometimes it is necessary to give examples to those who have not heard them before. In their bio, Rocket 3 had been compared to Veruca Salt and Garbage, which are both excellent comparisons. While listening to Rocket 3’s music, I also heard a lot of allusions to Letter To Cleo and even Blondie and it made me wonder what the band’s influences were.
“My biggest influences are the Sex Pistols, the Velvet Underground, and Blondie. We could be a cover band of just those three bands. I grew up listening to a lot of arena rock on the radio (on) Toledo’s K104.7 WIOT.” Ramune went on to enumerate her other inspirations. “More recent influences include The Shins, early Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, Jack White, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. I guess there is a difference between our influences and what we sound like.”
“My musical influences go back to when we started working together to hunt large animals with shields and pointy sticks.” Guzman stated, tongue firmly in cheek. “For modern music, everything I've ever heard has influenced me in some way, whether I liked it or not. My mom, dad, and siblings all played music. Growing up, I liked heavy metal, classical, electronic, show tunes, prog rock, Zappa, The Grateful Dead and whatever was in my uncle’s stash of albums.”
“The first music I remember as a child was the horn of Herb Alpert. When I heard him playing at the start of every Dating Game, I was hooked. From there, influences grew and I soon found myself spinning Bob and Doug McKenzie backwards on my parents turntable in search of Satan. To finally break away from Satan, I turned to cover tunes in the symphony orchestra. This gave a new meaning to what it takes for a song to last hundreds of years and still be covered. I spent a long time in this peaceful place and then I discovered house parties and punk music, A life change yet again.” Anymous said. He went on to bring it around full circle by saying, “I found myself absorbed by women artists; from PJ Harvey, to Bjork and Chrissie Hynde, Kim Deal, Siouxsie, Liz Phair, and Exene. There's nothing like women in rock which fueled my search to find the launch pad that Ramune had built. I am here now, and I this is where I fly.”
All of the members of Rocket 3 hail from the Midwest, with Guzman having lived in Indiana, Anymouse initially resided in Michigan and Ramune was from Ohio (via Russia and India frist). I wondered if, even though areas of the Midwest had burgeoning music scenes in various cities there, if the band felt that the Pacific Northwest was more conducive to getting their sound out there?
“Rocket 3 could not have happened anywhere else.” Guzman stated simply. “We all had our reasons for moving here. Little did we know it was our destiny to form such a great band.”
“I think one reason we get along so well is because we are Midwesterners. There is something about being from Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan that connects us. I feel like these are guys are I grew up with. Down to earth, unpretentious, good people. Midwesterners do really well in the Pacific Northwest because the rainy winters seem so easy compared to the Midwestern cold.” Ramune went on to relate how this might apply to their music by saying, “As far as music scenes, Portland is very accepting of original music bands. There are tons of venues, but there are also tons of bands. When you consider that there are multiple venues that have three or more bands every single night of the year, it is mind boggling how many bands there are. That can be good for the music scene, (because) there is lots of inspiring music to hear, but it’s hard to develop an audience. Besides there being so many bands to go out and hear, there are things like hiking, skiing, biking, and all of the outdoors stuff that people move here for. Going out for live music isn’t necessarily on the top of most Portlander’s list of things to do for fun.”
While the groups sound is rather broad and difficult to categorize or pigeonhole, they do have a distinct feel throughout their material: an identifiable tinge that marks it as their own. You can also hear an expansion in their music, whether it be taking on a cover that is quite unexpected or by stretching their form to heighten their original compositions. I asked them if they feel that they would always maintain the roots of their sound or did they think that it would develop and be complimented by other instruments and textures?
“We have added and subtracted a few little things to the songs since the recordings. There was an acoustic version of Rocket 3 called Crop Duster over the summer. It was kind of like Rocket Lite.” Guzman related. “I can imagine these songs getting sampled and remixed into EDM. Re-arranging these songs and adding a few others could make a nice rock opera.”
“In terms of additional instruments and textures, I am a sucker for the Hammond B3 organ. There are some new songs that have been written since BURN was recorded. A couple of them were written when I was trekking up to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal last winter, with an acoustic travel guitar.” Ramune went on, saying, “In some ways the newer songs seem like they are getting simpler and more spacious. Mountain Song might be an extreme example. On the other hand, I’ve been listening to the Strokes and 311 lately, and Dido as well. Each song calls for a certain style to support it, that’s what I’ve found. All of our songs are written lyrics first, so style ends up being figured out later in the process.”
“Rockets don't have roots. Rockets need to fly…to explore singing stars, red dwarfs and anti-gravitational places where space is pushed apart. Three is the right amount for what we do.” Anymouse opined. He then went on to spill a secret as to one of the elements of the groups sound. “There is a secret fourth member: our Billy Preston. Matt Jefferson has been instrumental with providing many facets of artistic input through his engineering and production.”
“Our recording engineer and producer, Matt Jefferson, might indeed be a reincarnation of Billy Preston,” Ramune added, “…except Matt was born before Preston died, so it doesn’t add up.”
Burn contains two incredibly solid covers of what some might find to be quite surprising choices. The first is an impeccable version of the Sex Pistols’ Submission and the second being the Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, which was a pleasant surprise for me, as this was one of my favorite VU songs when I was a teen. Both songs are Rocket sealed with their own distinctive stamp, paying homage to the original while, at the same time, making it their own. I wondered what their wish list of other songs that they would like to cover in the future?
“Cover songs are a lot of fun to play. Right now we are doing songs written by Suzanne Vega, Blondie, Jefferson Airplane, and Pink Floyd. What others I would like to do?” Guzman answered by saying, “I think we could do great versions of stuff by Nirvana, Yes, The Who, Rush, Ozzy, Heart, Kermit the Frog, anything that's got room for crunchy guitar, sweet voice, and hyper sonic drumming!”
“ I really want to do Rainbow Connection…’The lovers the dreamers and me…’ Right now we cover Floyd’s Time, Blondie’s Rapture, the Billy Holiday version of Summertime, White Rabbit, and Tom’s Diner. I don’t get around to very many cover songs because there are so many original song ideas happening.” Ramune said before going more in depth about the Velvet Underground cover. “As for Parties, that song is special because it’s the only recording of me and my brother playing together. My brother is a pro bass player with a pedigree in jazz and classical playing. I’d only played music for about a year before I decided to start a band. He helped me get started by auditioning other musicians, and by playing bass with us for the first year. I was such a rookie, and worried about all sorts of things. He gave me solid advice to ‘focus on being good, don’t worry about the rest’ He placed a lot of value on discipline and, as a result, I was focused and worked hard. We played Parties live together at 30 or more gigs before we recorded it. The instruments were recorded ‘all at once’, not as individual tracks, and I think that gives it so much feel. The last thing we did when he left the band was record that song together. It’s super special. Thanks for mentioning it!”
“One song I'd love to cover is My Humps by Black Eyed Peas. Now that's a song that needs more bands covering it! Add to this list is Corey Hart's Sunglasses at Night and the Macarena winds up my best choice awards for tunes to put my mark on.” Taking a moment to be stolid, Anymouse added, “Seriously, I'd really like to cover the Police Landlord and anything from The Clash's London Calling.”
Through The Universe
“Between the conception. And the creation. Between the emotion. And the response. Falls the Shadow” So wrote T.S. Eliot. I have always felt this to be my own explanation to others as to how things change between the mind, the eye and through pencil and onto the paper. Many things clamor in ones head, forming and sharpening only to change during the creative process. I always like to ask artists what it feels like when they are in the studio and know that they have captured the essence of a song exactly the way that they had envisioned it?
“Honestly, exhaustion. Some songs take everything I have to give. Recording engineer and producer Matt Jefferson is a slave driver. Songs with harmonies sometimes have a dozen vocal tracks. It’s a lot of tracking and Matt is demanding. The song Good Enough was probably the easiest song. The main vocals and the guitar are still the original takes…we never re-recorded them. We felt literally that the first takes we recorded were ‘Good Enough.’” Ramune declared before sharing another account. “Another funny story: I started recording my solo EP before I had ever played in front of people. In that first recording session Matt asked me to play for him, and I responded, ‘In front of you?’(laughs) He put me in a different room and ran a cable. By now Matt and I have recorded over 20 songs together, so there is no fear or anxiety. Trust and vulnerability are necessary for allowing creative ideas to flourish, and not get stomped down. Matt and I work well together, we get things done, and we have a good time. It’s a unique relationship.”
Guzman added, “I remember feeling really proud that my bass parts sounded so solid and punchy and how well we sounded together!”
“It's a feeling near disbelief that something so satisfying, so internal, and freely released sourced from my emotions.” Anymouse said. “It can make me cry with joy and feelings of exhilaration.”
“Recording can be pretty stressful, and a bunch of bands we know have broken up during the recording process.” Ramune stated. “Drew actually quit for a short period of time right after we finished all the tracking for BURN. But thankfully he regained his senses and came back to the launching pad.”
Ramune ended the interview almost where it began: with comparison of their musical works:
“Our style reminds some people of bands that they liked when they were young, and on the flipside a lot of kids dig it too. The ideas behind the songs are not just the standard themes of falling in love or getting dumped. There are songs about tragedy in the wilderness (Mountain Song), death (Never Again), and reincarnation (Begin Again). There are songs about unresolved emotions (Jealous Girl, I See, We Believe), self-confidence (Good Enough), and songs about accepting what life brings (Fate).” Ramune ended our interview by simply stating, “In a culture where a lot of music is manufactured for mass consumption, I think our music stands out as honest and genuinely inspired. It’s super fun when people are interested in the music and how it came to be.”