Indie four-piece Rodan formed in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1992 and played their last note together in 1994. In that time the band’s core, guitarists Jason Noble and Jeff Mueller and bassist Tara Jane O’Neil, plus a carousel of drummers—Jon Cook, Jon Weiss, and Kevin Coultas—recorded a lot of music but released only one well-received full-length. And though Rodan’s seemingly premature close allowed its former members to continue their careers in such notable collectives as Retsin, Rachel’s, June of 44, Shipping News, and The Sonora Pine, as well as solo efforts by both Mueller and O’Neil, not every story has a happy ending. Jason Noble died of cancer in 2012 at age 40, and original drummer Cook died earlier this year.
On June 11, some 19 years after Rodan played its last live note, Touch and Go/ Quarterstick Records will release Fifteen Quiet Years, a collection of rarities and live recordings. We talked about band music and memories via conference call with O’Neil in Los Angeles and Mueller in New Haven, Connecticut.
Rodan formed just over 20 years ago and split just less than 20 years ago, so where does the title Fifteen Quiet Years come from?
Jeff Mueller: Well, Rodan was on a tour in Britain in 1994, and we recorded a Peel Session, and Jason and I and Tara, we’d just been talking for years and years and years about trying to figure out a way to license those recordings and be able to release them in some capacity. Five years ago we started talking about it more seriously, and three years ago now we actually got licensing rights from the BBC to release the Peel Sessions. But I guess the short answer is just 15 years of basic silence between our last notes as a band and when we started rumbling about trying to release something else.
So, in a sense, you had a title for this from the first discussion of wanting to do it.
JM: That’s exactly right. In all honesty, it would be more accurate to call it Eighteen Quiet Years, or Nineteen Quiet Years. But we just kept the Fifteen Quiet Years because it sounded better, I think.
Louisville, Kentucky, 1992. How do you all get together, and was there any goal other than “Let’s get in a room and play and see what it sounds like”?
Tara Jane O’Neil: Well, Jeff and Jason and Greg King had this thing called King G and the J Crew. They became a rock band, they recruited me, and then Jeff, Jason and myself started playing with Jon Cook all day long, every day. And from where I was coming from it was just exciting to make stuff. We really clicked at that moment, musically. I always contend that a lot of great music came out of Louisville because there really wasn’t anything else to do with all of our energy but sit in windowless rooms and make up songs together.
JM: King G and the J Crew was a rap band that Jason and I started in high school with Greg King, and Rodan almost was an extension of that, in a sense, because we were trying to migrate the sort of more studio-recording songs that really were never thought of as live music. We were trying to migrate those to being live songs, and what we found was that we kind of could take what we were doing on our own and turn it into something that would make sense if we had an actual drummer and an actual bass player. It was not being afraid to take a lot of chances, and be supportive of each other, and having music be what our entire community centered around at that point.
You’ve both had long careers since Rodan. What of that band carries over into your music today?
TJO: There’s been a lot of music between then and now. I don’t know. I think all along our kind of awesome quest, that sometimes was really intentional and other times just happened, but the quest to make these kind of elaborate architectures of music, songs, you know. I think some of that really carried over to my songwriting and arrangements. It’s pretty hard for me to just, like, go simple, unless I’m doing sort of drone things. It’s hard to say because it’s all so rooted and it just feels almost like DNA or something.
JM: Tara and I have been talking a lot about things that we did playing with Rodan. It’s a long way away from us at this point. We’ve changed a lot. Our direction musically has gone all over the place, but the core, the take-home thing for me from back then that I still have with me, is, as far as music is concerned, the artistry of making music. I don’t think that there’s really a code that we have to stand by as far as, like, structuring songs. I think what Rodan did were just explorations, allowing ourselves not to feel confined to any particular genre. I think the overarching theme to our history as musicians, certainly mine, is that I’ve never really felt confined to one particular musical style. I think Rodan afforded me that freedom to explore and feel confident that it was OK to play, like, a very quiet song next to a very loud song, or a ballad next to a totally crazy, 15-minute, strangely arranged, jankety rock song.
All bands have stories. When you think back to the band and that time in your life, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
TJO: It’s not like a great musical or significant legacy kind of bit, but I always so fondly remember the formative story of us taking our first trip westward. Our record had just come out. We were excited. We were doing a month-long tour of the western U.S., and we got our own van, this van with no backseat, no windows. I don’t think there was even a tape player in the van—you get the vibe, right? And then I think, like, four days into it our van exploded in the desert. We were leaving a rest area that had just been built, so it didn’t have any phones or anything like that, so we were stranded in Arizona, right over the border from New Mexico. I guess I was 21 at the time. So we were all out there, the four of us, and there was some hitchhiking. We went to find the man who, I guess, was the keeper of the rest area. It was one of those first times in life where you’re actually in the middle of nowhere. And Jason, I remember, hitchhiked—I think Jeff went, too—and got some lavender burritos for us to eat. So that’s a fond memory for me. That’s like a real kind of coming of age moment. We weren’t actually in any real danger, except for maybe birds of prey, but it’s just a fairly free moment in our young lives. Like, figuring out how to do this.
JM: It gets even more dirty because I think Jason was vomiting. He was actually kind of sick. We ended up getting to San Simon, Arizona, or something. We got towed the next day from where we slept, because there was no towing service until 7:30 in the morning. We got towed 150 miles to the west of Tucson, where a friend was getting married, and we had been literally sleeping in the desert and throwing up next to dead owls. And we pull into this very formal event. We had spent the night in Tucson with Joey Burns from Calexico, who hooked us up with a mechanic. Our van went to the mechanic and was being repaired, and the next day we rented a van, drove on to Los Angeles to play a show at Jabberjaw, and after the show Joey shows up in our repaired van and I was seriously sad to see him. I was like, “Oh man, no A/C. Nine miles to the gallon. No seats. No music.” We had just rented this really nice minivan. And he shows up at like 1 in the morning, we take all the gear out of the rental car, put it back into the crappy Rodan van, and Joey turns around and drives the rental back to Tucson that night. That was very exceptional.
When you started working on this record it had been 15 years since Rodan had played together. And Jason was there when that process started. Was there any talk of a reunion tour?
JM: I don’t think we had any intentions of touring to support the record. I don’t think we even had that conversation. It was more about the victory of having access to the Peel Sessions and having gone through the mastering of the old live things and then some of the previously released recordings. But it was 2009, and it was such a crazy year. Like, the shining light in 2009 for me was our friends Kyle and Lisa getting married. Pretty much everything else was just kind of oblique and scary. Touch and Go went through a huge transformation and it was very, very strange. We showed up in Chicago to talk about this and the only things that were on the production calendar were a Jesus Lizard 7-inch reissue and the Rodan record. And all of this talk about the downsizing of the label and all these sorts of things, that was just really crazy. But we certainly never discussed doing anything about a reunion, a physical reunion where we’d be onstage playing music with each other. I think the success is just seeing the record come to fruition and having it happen.
Jason’s absence has to color the entire process.
JM: Yeah. He definitely has presence in the recording and the release. I don’t necessarily think it would’ve happened had he not had the motivation and the drive to see it come to fruition. Tara and I talked about how we wanted to approach any type of conversation about this record. Like, do we really want to talk a lot about Jason and his sickness and his passing away and those sorts of things? Of course, it’s a very touchy thing for us, but the reality of the matter is, again, to draw back to 2009, once we knew the project was going to happen, there was a certain project conversation that we would have. Jason would talk to me and talk to Tara regularly about production notes, like how something’s supposed to be positioned on the LP jacket or what the matrix message is going to be on the sides of the LPs, and those sorts of things. Once he knew the record was going to happen, I think the project conversation almost became more important than actually himself holding it, hopefully. That’s the way I would like to think about it because otherwise it’s just too heartbreaking, to be perfectly honest. Because we would talk about the minutia for hours. We would talk about, like, “Does that sentence end with an exclamation mark or end with a period?” That conversation could take us three hours, and we’d be happy talking about that, those details. That’s pretty much it.
‘Fifteen Quiet Years’ is out June 11 on Touch and Go/Quarterstick Records