Daniel L. Mitchell
Koufax has always had a very unique sound in the world of indie rock: piano driven, late ’70s pop music, updated slightly with grainy guitars and post-punk style song craft. Their 2000 release, It Had to Do With Love, helped to set into motion the current trend of indie bands wanting to sound like Joe Jackson; it may not have been the biggest selling record in Vagrant’s history, but it was one of the best written, thoughtful, and properly performed pop albums ever to be released by the label. What has followed since the release of It Had to Do With Love has been the release of several albums longing for late 1970s kitsch by notable bands, including The Get Up Kids and The Anniversary.
Koufax’s most recent Vagrant release, Social Life, shows that the band is capable of rockin’ out, while still staying true to the all important melodic hook and catchy chorus. Social Life is much more guitar driven than It Had to Do With Love, recalling memories of their first release, Koufax, a melodic, piano-driven power pop EP released by Doghouse Records. In a way, Social Life is the perfect marriage of their first two releases, combining progressive, powerful guitars with infectious keyboard melodies.
I recently had a chance to speak with Koufax singer/ guitarist Rob Suchan about touring, songwriting, and gorgeous roommates from years past.
How do you describe Koufax’s sound to scenesters; is your description different when describing the sound to the novice music fan?
Uhh… to be perfectly honest… yes it is a bit different. Over time, I’ve come to understand what people either can grasp or simply want to hear (in the case of scenesters). So, I suppose we name drop Joe Jackson, Hall and Oates, and Supertramp as reference points that hipsters probably enjoy in an ironically detached sort of way, or perhaps sincerely. Otherwise, I usually just say college radio type rock with an electric piano as one of the main sounds.
Koufax always seems to be touring; to what countries have you traveled, and what is your favorite city outside of the U.S.?
After this upcoming Europe tour, Koufax will have played over 225 shows in this past year, with over 13 countries included. Some cities that I find brilliant aren’t so hot for gigs (Praha, Barcelona, etc…), so it is tricky to decipher if a city was brilliant because the memory of the gig was so hot, or the town had a certain charm. Mostly, German gigs have been the best for us in regards to turnouts, hospitality, and friends, so I have much love for cities like Munich, Berlin, Munster, and Koln. My favorite city for myself is Praha.
What the most dangerous position you’ve ever found yourself in while touring?
Our equipment being stolen wasn’t per se dangerous, as it was just the biggest nightmare we’ve ever encountered. Overnight drives (especially on west coast tours, where they seem to be every night) are always dangerous. Smaller dangers like getting merch. confiscated by the Swiss Border Patrol, or getting busted for booze or drugs always linger for “team kfx.”
You’ll be heading to Germany in August; what tips can you give to young bands going to Europe for the first time?
I always say make it a vacation first and foremost, and you’ll never be let down. We just started having successful tours in Europe (in regards to financial stuff), and the gigs just recently got more professional, so it can be easy to get caught up in that game, but first and foremost you are in Europe and absorbing as much as each culture you come across should be goal #1. Also, if this question was more directed more towards DIY booking or touring, I always advise befriending as many people as possible, doing to them what you’d like done to yourself (booking a show, putting someone up, etc…), and keeping in touch always!
Will you be playing any new material (newer than Social Life) on this tour?
No, unfortunately, we haven’t had time to really practice new songs lately. We plan on working on the next record in the fall, and we’re the type of band that really doesn’t exist (mainly due to geography with members not living in the same area) until a few days before a recording process or tour, so practice is often a very random thing.
Switching topics, Koufax’s sound is fairly unique in today’s “indie” rock world; however, it seems that a couple of bands on Vagrant seem be stealing your shtick… Any thoughts?
I haven’t heard it that much, but yeah, in my mind it is the best compliment to receive – “I think you guys are unique.” It is rather difficult to have any sound to your own in these inundated times of music.
Who writes the piano parts of the song, you or Jared [pianist]?
I conceive the ideas for all the songs mostly, and then Jared either elaborates on the parts, or simply makes them his own. Usually, I’m the spark for the songs, and I allow the band (whomever it may be at the time of rehearsing for a record) a lot of freedom for composing their own parts.
Also, was Social Life conceived mainly through piano or guitar (in other words, when you were writing the songs, were you using guitar or piano)?
I try so hard to write songs on guitar, and they seem so uninspired. Lately, I’ve only been happy with songs I’ve written on piano. However, there were a few songs where the main idea was conceived via guitar (“Bright Side,” “So Put On,” and “Younger Body”).
Were you surprised at the reaction to “Let Us Know;” it seemed that everyone in the world loved that song?
Yeah, it was the first song written for the new record, and that is why I put it first in the sequence. I think people relate to the energy of the song, as lyrically, it isn’t that memorable compared to a few other songs on the record.
Social Life overall rocks harder than It Had to Do With Love; was this a conscious decision, or did it just kind of happen when the songs came together?
Yeah, I think my vision of making an adult contemporary, “un-rocking” record didn’t receive the best execution. People seemed to like a few of the songs, but were always much happier to see that we brought energy to those songs live. So, I did consciously write songs that I thought were more upbeat and energetic, as I think those are traits that are appealing to listeners (especially when the musicianship isn’t as top notch as say Steely Dan or something).
Any idea on when you’ll be recording the follow up to Social Life?
The plan is January or February. Praha, Kansas City, Detroit, and Los Angeles are all possible locations, so it should be a good experience. I think the band really has just started, so I’m excited to see us write a batch of better songs.
Let’s talk tennis; at one time in your life, you were a sponsored tennis player with world ranking; what was that like?
Actually, it was only a national ranking (#32 in the boys 12 and under division). Tennis is a brilliant sport. I wish I wasn’t so neurotic, and didn’t obsess about the unfun things about the sport (nonsensical pressure… I was only 12, after all). I just played with my father yesterday, and it was fun enough to recognize it as something I’d like to do here and there throughout my life.
How about Dirk Hemsath (Doghouse Records owner); can you clear up the waters about your split with Doghouse, and whether or not there was any animosity?
Initially there was some animosity. We were really good friends and he helped me out in everything I’d ever done musically in so many ways. I still say it (albeit not enough) that I wouldn’t be where I am right now had it not been for Dirk. Koufax signing to Vagrant was solely based on our friends The Get Up Kids setting us up with a fantastic deal and fantastic distribution. I must note also that when we signed in 2000, Vagrant was much smaller than it is today.
What kinds of things are you listening these days?
I’ve been trying to pay more attention to new music these days, so I recently bought the new Jayhawks record and the new Supergrass record. I must say they’re both really great records. Otherwise, I’ve been listening to Depeche Mode, Steely Dan, Morrissey, and the new Cardigans record a lot lately.
You’ve been playing in bands since you were 15/16 years old; what was it that made you want to start a band?
Initially, it was the boredom that an old friend of mine shared. We never opted for traditional high school drunken tom-clownery (although I have become a complete opposite nowadays). Writing silly songs and playing them with someone in a basement all night was the best Friday and Saturday nights of my adolescence. There is still something to be said about a musical chemistry between people during songwriting that will never cease to impress me.
Of all the people you’ve ever lived with, who was the hottest?
I lived alone the last three years of my college life, so i would have to say it was my flat-mate Dan [Mitchell, noted Ink 19 interviewer] in college. Fantastic abs (clean shaven…or was it Nair?), and a “bon cutter (nice ass for the absurdist French impaired)” rounded out the package!
What do you see yourself doing when you’re 40?
I hope to be either working on records (production more so than engineering), writing songs for other people, or teaching somewhere. I’m actually living in Praha for a few months after our upcoming Europe tour to take a teaching English to foreign language students class.
Finally, let’s play a word game: I’ll say a word or phrase, you respond with the first thing that comes to your mind:
Being home from tour:
Indian = delicious
Available in a pub near you.
Playing bass in Koufax
The Get Up Kids On a Wire album:
Not for the kids
The kids (scene-wise):
Getting better each tour
Being in your mid-20’s:
Nervous breakdowns are a comin’…