Bobby Tamkin, the mastermind behind psych-rock band Xu Xu Fang, talks about their red-hot private concert, along with other sizzling insights about music.
Racket Gail: I was at your show [and] it was really interesting. I’ve never seen a private show like that before. The fact that you had people wearing masks…
Bobby Tamkin: [Laughs].
RG: It lead to be more theatrical then I expected.
Bobby: Well the masks, I didn’t expect either. [Pauses] Our following just seems to keep growing with like really dispersant groups of people. It’s not just like one thing, which is kind of neat. You know, the fact that all of a sudden there’s kids wearing masks is something that I never quite expected.
RG: So it wasn’t planned or anything like that?
Bobby: Oh, no.
RG: Oh, well then I don’t know…
Bobby: If it was planned, then I’d probably wear one.
RG: Oh, okay [laughs].
Bobby: It’s kind of funny because actually in some promotional photos years ago, we wore masks.
Bobby: They weren’t those cool, colorful animal masks like they were last night.
RG: Oh okay cuz’ then I thought they were gonna just be a part of the show some how.
Bobby: I was hoping they would. Usually we would do this ‘good times jam’ where [we] have people bang on tambourines and stuff like that.
Bobby: Usually they get dispersed a little further and people kind of come up on stage with us [pauses] and just like mix in with the band. But I think last night because I think maybe people were a little more tentative because it was a different setting. It wasn’t like club setting and maybe they hadn’t consumed enough alcohol yet to have the guts to go up on stage and jump in.
RG: So overall, how did you feel the show went last night?
Bobby: I thought it was great. It was really important to transform what is a normal like rehearsal room, I shouldn’t say rehearsal room, but like a showcase stage. It was important to make it our own and really turn it into something that is like uniquely Xu Xu Fang as opposed to like, “Okay, we’re renting out this room for a few hours and we’re gonna, you know, blare through a bunch of songs and be done with it.” It’s important to create an environment that was definitely the Xu Xu Fang environment.
RG: Was it your first time playing at the Swinghouse?
RG: What did you think of the place?
Bobby: I loved it. First, the people there are really helpful and really knowledgeable and on top of what they were doing. It’s very accommodating. There was that angle and then the sound was great too-both on stage and from what people told me in the audience. I’m sure you have an opinion about being in the audience too.
RG: Oh yeah.
Bobby: People said, “It sounded really good.” I felt the stage was big enough to fit all of us. It was funny because our last show was at Three Clubs, I don’t know if you’ve ever been there before but [it’s] tiny. So we went from like a really, really small stage to a nice-sized stage with monitors. From a sound perspective it was definitely one of the better ones.
RG: Yeah, it was really good, especially with your drums. I’ve never really heard it that loud and jarring before. I don’t know, it just felt a lot more personal than just somebody playing with the band.
Bobby: Yeah, well I write our songs. So for me, I don’t have the option to get all melodic and stuff like that. The guitar players and bass player in the band are all really good, so I just leave it up to them to translate the songs really well live. The only thing that I can really do is dynamically move things rhythmically with the drums. I’m really into just bring things up and down- not in like a Pixies or Nirvana, “loud soft, loud soft” way of it. Building songs from a quiet, more mellow to something that is just really over-the-top and heavy. I think in these songs, there’s room to do all of that.
RG: Oh yeah.
Bobby: Without having it contrived like, “Here’s our soft verse and here’s our loud chorus.” Which is cool, but not for this band, I don’t think. Who knows, maybe down the road.
RG: Since you were talking about your band mates, how do you collaborate with so many people on stage as far as who does what and how is the rehearsal like before you guys perform?
Bobby: Well there was some collaboration, but I pretty much write all the parts and give it to the musicians to play. But the more we play, the more people start contributing their own ideas and sounds and stuff like that. So I’ll kind of get the ball rolling with parts that I have in mind. I’m not really like a traditional songwriter in the sense of like sitting down and like, “Okay, I’m going to write the song this way.”
Bobby: For me it’s more, like if I have a mood or something that I kind of want to [pauses] if I’m in a certain mood, I just translate it through instruments. So I might [pauses] part of the reason why I kind of get involved with a lot of the parts just because I take a lot of really simple parts and combine them into something bigger. I think sometimes like if I write one guitar part and one keyboard part, it kind of gets me half-way there and then I have to write another guitar part to finish the idea and then maybe not until the vocals laid on top or the drum part or keyboard thing does the full expression or idea, you know, come together.
RG: So the music comes first before you actually think about lyrics?
Bobby: Oh yeah. I try to make the music as good as possible and then put the lyrics on top. I love words and writing lyrics and stuff, but it’s the music [that] translates more so to me emotionally than words do. But I try to look at them as two separate things and like I said, try to get the music, hopefully moving you with the music and adding a lyric on top or a melody that complements it or takes it even further. If I can really come up with something lyrically that complements then it kind of follows along some line that I already created with another instrument, so it’s just kind of enhancing what’s already there.
RG: A lot of your songs are very experimental, so how do you keep an audience or just any listeners focused in? People have short attention spans. How do you draw them in and have them really pay attention to what you are doing with the songs?
Bobby: Live or recorded?
RG: It could be [pauses] yeah, live.
Bobby: I just pay em’ at the door.
Bobby: I give pieces of gum to everybody who walks in and they get to choose, grape or strawberry.
Bobby: I think that it gets back to the dynamic thing of being able to pull the listener in with something that isn’t spoon-fed to you. [It’s] not an obvious like ‘verse-chorus,’ here’s this part, here’s that. I don’t know, this might sound pretentious but it’s more of a journey sort of, in each song. Not the band, Journey…
Bobby: You’re kind of following a trail that has an end to it. So when you start the trail, it’s kind of sparse and doesn’t hit you over the head but by the end of it, you’ve kind of experienced this whole thing you wouldn’t get otherwise if you just listen to a pop song, or something like that, where it’s very obvious as to what the band is trying to get you to take from it.
RG: Yeah. I think that’s really good to expand mainstream audiences to unconventional things that you guys are doing.
Bobby: Yeah, definitely. I think bands have done that in the past, like even going back to the Doors. They were able to take you on these little six minute adventures but there’s still a hook and some memorable parts of the song that you just can’t forget. Even like going back to their first album, something like, “Break on Through,” that’s like an exploratory, odd thing but it probably gets played on classic rock radio every day and in every city in America [probably] five times. It’s taking you from this trip to beginning to end. It doesn’t make it obvious as to where the song is gonna turn. I don’t really listen to Radiohead but I think from what I’ve heard of them, I think they have the same idea.
RG: Do you remember the longest time you’ve played together without stopping?
Bobby: Like in one song?
RG: It doesn’t have to be song; it could just be like anytime that you guys played together.
Bobby: When in rehearsal, I’m really kind of adamant about making our songs tight. We do jam but not like we used to. We are definitely going to do more so [in the future]. But for now it’s pretty much focusing on getting the songs as tight and as good as they can be. But probably, I don’t know, fifteen minutes maybe? It’s funny that you bring that up because our guitar player, Devin often times jokes about doing the song, “Good Times,” with the ‘good times jam’ for an entire set, for forty minutes.
RG: Oh wow [laughs].
Bobby: I would love that! But I have a feeling that our singers and audience would kind of…
RG: Pass out [laughs].
Bobby: Yeah, get real bored and think like, “Alright, when is this [lame] fest gonna be done?” But I’m very much into bringing like, I don’t know if you could sense it in the show last night, but I’m very much into, when doing a jam, bringing it way down to a very, very soft pitter patter and creating lots of sound and mood and then bring it up to a very aggressive and harder, faster thing that hopefully the listener can kind of move with it. So jamming-wise, we would definitely do that more, we just haven’t gotten there yet but we definitely will.
RG: After going to the Swinghouse, would you guys do future rehearsals there?
Bobby: I actually have a recording studio in Culver City which is a nice-sized space. We can do whatever we need there. We can’t really have much of an audience there. If I didn’t have a room, I would definitely rehearse there. It’s a great space. We’re based out of Culver City, so it’s a little far but I would definitely…the facility is awesome. I would say all band should jump at the chance to go there because it’s clean, air-conditioning, nice rooms, the people are cool and it’s very comfortable. But for us, as far as rehearsal, not necessarily. It was such a fun night last night, I’d rather do that once a month than play anywhere else [chuckles].
RG: What artist would you like to see do a private concert in that kind of setting?
Bobby: Current artist?
RG: It could be current or just like anybody that you grew up listening to.
Bobby: Jane’s Addiction, definitely. I would love to see that. The Doors. Maybe Buddy Rich doing a big band thing, My Bloody Valentine.
Bobby: Don’t you think that stuff would be cool? You know, big sounding stuff.
RG: Yeah, exactly.
Bobby: That would be great.