Jukebox Jury: Frankie Rose

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 02.22.12 in Jukebox Juries

In our experiment, Frankie Rose went undercover to talk to real-life space travelers about their experiences beyond the stars, and to ask them about the similarities between her album and the cosmos that inspired it. But outer space wasn’t the only influence on Frankie Rose. In this Jukebox Jury, we talk to her about the many different songs that shaped the sound of Interstellar.

Frankie Rose’s apartment looks out on to the bridge that connects Lower Manhattan to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, providing passage from apartment complexes and playgrounds to slightly more boho and urbane environs. Rose’s new record, Interstellar, is a transition, too, moving from the echo-drenched, Girls in the Garage swagger of her debut into cool, synth-laden songs that recall Pornography-era Cure. It’s no surprise that Rose would get restless – a former painter who is through with a piece of work the instant she finishes making it, Rose lives in constant pursuit of the Next Big Idea.

Rose is working on an essay when I arrive, writing about the independent filmmaker George Kuchar for a British magazine. “Nobody knows him, but he really inspired John Waters. He made these crazy, weird, lo-fi movies – over 200 of them – and he taught at San Francisco Art Institute, where I was for one semester. He was a total freak-o, a weirdo. He just had this kind of dirty, anything goes, aesthetic – like, there are no rules.”

For this Jukebox Jury, I decided to use a hand-selected playlist as a springboard to talk to Rose about her own disregard of the rule book, her days as aSan Franciscopunk and her fondness for Dungeons & Dragons.

No Use for a Name, “Until It’s Gone”

I’m not sure I know this one!

Yeah, this was a bit of a stretch. This is by No Use for a Name, who were pretty instrumental in the San Francisco punk scene. I know you moved to San Francisco after you left high school – what brought that on?

I think I really wanted to go to New York, but I was 17. I had just gotten my diploma – I didn’t graduate, but I did get my diploma – and I just wanted to be somewhere else. I went on a vacation with my friend to San Francisco; it was the first time I had been to a proper city, and I just fell in love with it. And then I found out that such a thing as “art school” existed, and that blew my mind. Before that I’d painted, but just for fun. I didn’t really think it was something people could study. But I made a portfolio, and I got in immediately.

Were you playing music at this time, too?

No. I didn’t start playing music right away. I was really into bicycles. I was a bike messenger for about six years. I had friends that played in bands, but I must have been 23 – I’m guesstimating here – when I met Hannah Lew, who is now in Grass Widow. We were having a kind of rough time, and we were like, “Why don’t we start a band?” Neither one of us had ever really tried before, unless you count my band in middle school, which I don’t. We were called the Offspring. I like to think that I thought of that name, by the way. Anyway, the idea of actually making music was not something I realized was possible until I met Hannah. And then there was that great DIY idea that you could suck, and it was OK. Hearing the Raincoats – that was big. Those ladies, I don’t think anyone ever taught them how to play their instruments. So I started playing with Hannah, and that’s just how I landed behind the drums. I’d never played the drums before that, we all just learned together. And we just played generator shows at the BART [San Francisco Public Transportation System] station.

Generator shows?

Yeah, basically. There’s all these power outlets in the BART station, so you’d just plug in amps and a PA and have a show at the station and people come. You don’t need a venue which made for playing shows all the time. If you tried to do that here, you’d probably get arrested.

Phil Collins, “Sussudio”

Oh, I grew up with this! My mother loves Phil Collins. I like him – I mean, he’s a drummer-turned-songwriter.

That’s kind of why I chose him, actually. Can you tell me a little about how you first started writing songs?

I always kind of wrote songs here and there, but I was too shy to share them. It seems like it’s very personal to write a song and then show someone, to put it out there. The Vivian Girls is the first album that was a big step for me in terms of writing songs. That was really hard – it was scary. Drumming is very impersonal. You’re just banging on stuff. There wasn’t really a whole process. But I wanted to write some songs, and I had ideas coming to me, and everyone in the band was down for whatever, so I gave it a shot and it worked out. Sort of. And now, it’s like – if I could not touch one instrument at all, not even sing anything, then I would. If I could just have the idea, and write the songs for someone else and just be the idea person, that would be the ideal situation for me.

Primal Scream, “Loaded”

I chose this because Primal Scream are a great example of a band that started out essentially as a twee, c86-style band, but then changed radically once they teamed up with Andrew Weatherall for Screamadelica. Kind of a similar thing happened to you on Interstellar – what brought about this transformation?

Well, for one, I never ever want to do the same thing twice. You can’t learn anything from that, and I want to learn from record to record. I’m going to have to put out a metal record someday. I want to push myself into new arenas of music-making. So it was obvious that I had to do something that was more ambitious, but I didn’t know how that would manifest itself, except that I knew I wanted to use synths, and I knew I wanted to mess around with sampled drums. So that’s what I started with. In the end, I can’t take full responsibility for the final product. I had an amazing producer for this record. When I started the record, I was initially working with this one person, but I was getting the same album [as the first one]. And I thought, “This is not what I want. I need a synth wizard.” And that’s when I met [producer] Le Chev. And he just had a million synths. He just had access to them. He’s really just a dance music guy – I mean, he never even listened to the Cure before. So we kind of taught each other.

How so?

Well, I really learned so much about synths and drums from him, and he got to sit down with me, never having heard a Cure song or a Smiths song. We had a lot of fun. He’d just show me something weird, like a Salt-N-Pepa video – my ideas about pop have really changed since working with him. I mean, I grew up listening to the Smiths and the Cure and Bauhaus. On the radio, of course, there was Boyz II Men and Salt-N-Pepa, but I was never grabbed by it. When it came time to make the record, the decision to have the drums be as loud as they are, the vocals be as loud as they are – that’s all from pop music. And I don’t mean, like, ‘indie pop.’ I mean like Christina Aguilera pop. This idea that you are affected by big drums and big melodies – that was something I had never thought about before.

Blade Runner Soundtrack, “End Credits”

I feel like I’ve seen this movie so many times. Sci-fi movies, big fantasy movies really affected me. Brazil – all the Terry Gilliam movies, really – blew my mind. They still do. They’re so weird, sort of on the verge of riding the edge of reality and mysticism. And there’s darkness, too. That did come into play largely on this record, because I wanted to make this feel like a soundtrack. I wanted to make a record that was filmic. It was so funny, there was one comment on the Soundcloud [for "Interstellar"] which I think was supposed to be a dis: “This is the best song on the Avatar soundtrack.” And I was like, “Exactly! Right!” That’s exactly what I wanted to do – something that could be used in a movie, that large sounding.

You’re also a bit of a D&D fan.

Oh, yeah, totally. My favorite. I don’t play as much anymore, because it’s really hard to find a good Dungeon Master. I think the last person to be a Dungeon Master was Joe from Pterodactyl. Amazing Dungeon Master.

Did you play the same character every time?

Half Elf, Chaotic Neutral, Woman. There’s a nerd haven down the street called 20 Sided Die. It’s just right down the street. They have D&D night every week. Actually now, their space is too small because it’s so popular.

Julee Cruise, “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart”

I picked this because both this song and pretty much all of Interstellar puts a pretty heavy weight on the vocals to to convey the mood. How easy was it for you to get to that place as a singer?

I really had to work on that – it took a lot of takes. On my first record, I thought you could just cover anything up with a bunch of reverb. I thought that was OK. So I didn’t spend as much time getting really good vocal tracks. This time around, I was like, “The most important thing is the vocal. We will do this all night until I get the right one, and the best one, and it’s great.” It should sound good without the angry reverb on it. It should be acceptable to be dry. It took me awhile to do that, but I’m glad I did. It made for a much better record.

Arvo Pärt, “Tabula Rasa”

Arvo Pärt. I mean, talk about filmic. I feel like his music can bring me to tears immediately, which is why it’s in so many movies. The use of space, of something not happening – it’s so beautiful. Making something powerful and huge doesn’t mean something has to be happening all the time. I feel like he, as a composer, is the perfect example of that. So often, almost nothing is happening at all and it’s gorgeous. It’s beautiful, it’s perfect and I feel he has been an influence on me in that I don’t have to have something going on all the time. Sometimes the beauty is in the empty space of the track.

And that brings us to the end of the Jukebox Jury.

I think I won?

I mean, I think we all won.