Pop Will Please Itself
On the second floor of Soho's gleamingly sterile Apple Store, there's a small auditorium generally used for tech workshops, cheerful Apple employees chirping about their product's advantages to tiny crowds. On a recent Tuesday night, though, the scene is a bit different. All the auditorium's chairs are full, as is the rest of the space on the floor. And Matt Safer, singer-bassist for the New York disco-punk quartet the Rapture, is trying and failing to get everyone to clap in time.
Earlier today, the band's new album Pieces of the People We Love hit stores, and the band is doing its best to sell it to a crowd that hasn't heard from the group in a long time. Four years ago, the Rapture released a 12-inch single called "House of Jealous Lovers," a song that married frontman Luke Jenner's desperate yelp to a monstrous cowbell-driven stomp, and in the process kicked off a dance-punk wave that conquered the city in the year between electroclash and freak-folk, as hundreds of bands laid rudimentary disco hi-hats over flinty, uptight guitars. It was about a year before the Rapture got around to releasing 2003's Echoes, their first proper album, and a gurgling masterpiece of paranoid wails and acid-house thumps that pretty much ended dance-punk, because nobody would ever do it as well again.
The band toured on the album for a year and then disappeared for another two. Now they're back with a record that practically removes punk from the equation entirely. Pieces is full of bright colors and sharp edgesfirst single "Get Myself Into It," is a brittle, pastel riot of glittering saxophones and perfectly placed handclaps, and "Whoo! Alright-Yeah . . . Uh Huh" is a frisky chant-along that earns its ridiculous title. They play a few older songs at the Apple Store, and it becomes immediately apparent how much less they're now relying on apocalyptic darkness and how content they are to ride tricky little grooves instead.
"I feel a little bit like I should be giving a PowerPoint or teaching a college class or something," says Jenner from the stage as trippy CGI images twirl on a screen behind him. The new songs sound like fluorescent melted plastic: bright and damaged. The band fucks up and restarts a couple of songs, somehow managing to further endear themselves in the process. And late in the show, they launch into "House of Jealous Lovers" and people finally get up and start to dance, albeit awkwardly. A song later, the band leaves the stage secure in the knowledge that they've managed to do the impossible: play an exciting rock show in a computer store.
"It's better publicity to do an in-store like Apple than it does to, like, play Bowery Ballroom," says Jenner two days later, as he and Safer squeeze into a booth at an East Village café. "I always enjoy shows like that more personally because basically we were set up on like a classroom stage, and you have to figure out a way to make that work. I'll remember that way longer than I will playing just some rock club. I think when Echoes came out, I would've been miserable doing the Apple in-store and hated it. But we've already done everything else, so why the fuck not do Apple?"
It's been eight years since Jenner formed the band with drummer Vito Roccoforte in Seattle. The band relocated to New York in 2000 and added Safer and multi-instrumentalist Gabe Andruzzi shortly afterward. But location and personnel aren't the only things that've changed for the band. "I spent from when I was 17 to when I was 27 being hungover every day even more than music, my m.o. in life was to get fucked up," Jenner says. "I wouldn't trade those times for anything. But at the same time, I felt like after ten years of nonstop partying and touring and having a great time, I wanted to experience something else as well."
Another related difference: The Rapture aren't at each other's throats quite as often anymore, largely avoiding the inter-band fights that marred the making of Echoes. "It was all about, like, different single visions of where the song should be, and it bummed me out in the past," Safer says. "So this time, we put a moratorium on that, focusing on what Vito's doing on the drums or focusing on the bass or vocals. We just got out of each other's way and, through doing that, we discovered what was good about us in the first place. We had room to stretch out a little bit more."
They've also had room to get to know each other a bit more; Pieces is the first record on which Andruzzi, the band's newest member, played an equal role. "I really wasn't involved in making that record ( Echoes) at all, but I was completely involved in the band when the record reached the public," Andruzzi says on the phone from his Williamsburg apartment as he packs for a European tour. "For me, it was kind of a weird experience because I was figuring out what I was doing in this band. I felt a part of it, and I also felt outside of it because I was watching it happen. But that feeling doesn't exist anymore."
For Echoes, the Rapture worked with the scuzzily storied New York dance duo the DFA. "Their great accomplishment with us was not like they introduced the Rapture to the cowbell," says Safer. "Their great accomplishment was getting a band that at various points wanted to kill each other to finish an album."
This time around, the band had a new roster of producers: indie-dance remixers Paul Epworth and Ewan Pearson, and Gnarls Barkley beatmaker Danger Mouse. "We felt like we had done everything we needed to do going in, so we just followed those maps and got everything laid out," Safer says. "What both Paul and Ewan and Danger Mouse did for them was help accentuate some of the things we wanted to do for them and what works, bring them out more and retool the arrangements."
The band also met with the avant-pop club-rap genius Timbaland. "He liked our band and wanted to do something," Safer says. "If you look at what he's been coming out with recently, it makes sense." Unfortunately, they couldn't quite afford him"Even if he cuts us a great deal, it's still more than we're able to afford," Safer admits. "Which is a shame."
Still, it's weird that Pieces hit stores on September 12, the same day Justin Timberlake released his Timbaland-driven coke-disco opus FutureSex/LoveSounds. Both ride expansive waves of glittering beats to create a sweeping sense of awe at the transformative possibilities of pop music. The Rapture aren't a dance-punk band because they aren't a punk band anymore. They might not have a pop pedigree or a pop audience, but pop is what they are.
The Rapture play Webster Hall October 30, bowerypresents.com.
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