Last year, in the dead of summer -- you know, the time of year when the sidewalks are still too hot to touch at midnight, and the heat sucks the sweat right out of your pores -- Robbers on High Street played the very first show of their West Coast tour right here in Phoenix. After finishing the basic tracks for their full-length album in Connecticut, the four New Yorkers hopped in a van with no A/C and drove three days cross-country to start their West Coast tour. Front man Ben Trokan recalls it all too well.
"It was so freaking hot, and I think we had to have the heat on, too, because the van was starting to overheat," he says. "And we just started drinking whiskey, and I swear to God, I saw the light -- like I thought I was going to pass out or something."
Luckily, that was rock bottom. Since then, Robbers on High Street have gotten used to touring, lately riding high on the critical acclaim of the finished full-length, Tree City, released in late February. The band struts through 13 enticing takes on pop rock that smartly balance climactic layers of piano and guitar with simpler melodic hooks ("Spanish Teeth," "Japanese Girls"). Compact rockers such as the staccato, guitar-fueled "Amanda Green," the aggressive, Strokes-y "Love Underground," and the ironically happy, piano-charged "Bring On the Terror" sound classic without veering into retro territory, while moodier pieces like "Descender" and the slinky ballad "Price and Style" show off Trokan's seductive tenor, which evokes Elvis Costello's attitude and Joe Pernice's breathy croon.
Robbers on High Street, The Blue Van, and Hot Hot Heat
Marquee Theatre in Tempe
Scheduled to perform on Friday, June 17
Things are better than ever for the rock 'n' roll quartet. "Well, our van still doesn't have A/C, but we have a pretty sweet trailer now," says Trokan, with a laugh. "And we're actually bringing a tour manager, so we're pretty pro, you know?"
The punch line is that they're currently finishing up a monthlong stint as the support act for (get this) Hot Hot Heat. But they have yet to land a tour that doesn't make them play hopscotch across time zones. When Trokan chatted with New Times the day after the band's Minneapolis show, he said they'd have "several days of purgatory" before Robbers could play more consecutive dates.
"It's sort of gotten screwy as we've been on tour with Hot Hot Heat -- they'll get added to these big radio things. So the show with them got canceled in Seattle, but we still are driving there, only to fly back to Boston to play a big radio [festival], and then we're flying back to San Francisco."
Trokan says it's happened to them so many times that they finally got smart and discovered long-term parking. "This one tour ended in San Jose, and then the next tour started in Sacramento, so we were like, 'Fuck it, let's leave the van.'"
Along with lessons learned from months on the road, Trokan says he's had time to reflect on Robbers on High Street's early leap to a label deal in 2002 (with Scratchie Records, a partner of New Line Records, started by Smashing Pumpkins' James Iha and Fountain of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger).
"In retrospect, I think we let it happen way too fast -- all these bands were getting signed then. We went in to record our EP [Fine Lines] around the same time the ink was drying. It was a little strange, but it was a new experience, and we were sort of like, 'Well, we're all broke, and we want to record, and they're going to give us money to record.'"
The label deal may have been what got Robbers on High Street quickly noticed, but it was just another chapter in the long-running musical partnership between Trokan (who sings and plays guitar and keyboards in the band, and has been a drummer since age 7) and guitarist/vocalist Steve Mercado, both 26. Their families moved from New York City to Poughkeepsie when they were seventh-graders.
"I think we met on the playground," Trokan says, "because I can remember Steve bragging about how his sister had the Led Zeppelin box set, and I thought that was pretty cool. Then we both started learning to play guitar around the same time together, around 14." Their high school years were spent playing in a lot of garage bands, learning Ramones and Buzzcocks songs and "doing a lot of awful grunge covers," he says.
By 2001, Trokan and Mercado were both living in New York, writing songs and making recordings. When Tomer Danan joined on drums and fellow Poughkeepsie native Jeremy Phillips moved to the city to play bass with them in 2002, it was only a matter of months before they started playing shows and getting attention. (Phillips left the band several months ago, and was replaced by bassist Morgan King.)
For their EP, Fine Lines, Trokan says he already knew he wanted to work with producer Peter Katis, whom he had met while recording drum tracks for a friend's band. Katis, well-known for producing Interpol, Mercury Rev, and the Get Up Kids, runs his studio from the third floor of his Connecticut home. "You get your own room, so you get up in the morning and go make some cereal, then you go record," he recalls fondly.
Robbers eagerly returned to Katis for Tree City. "The EP was six songs in seven days, sort of done live," Trokan says. But the album was done in spurts throughout 2004. "We had touring commitments and Peter had Interpol commitments, so we had to leave, and it was recorded over a bigger span of time, sort of in pieces in different places. We also recorded with Britt Myers at different places in the city."
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You can hear the difference that the luxury of time makes. Fine Lines kept one foot in the garage, offering up fierce, angular guitars; Tree City is a more mature, well-rounded work. Trokan, who says he does the bulk of the songwriting, admits it's hard to not write all the parts for the band, because he plays so many instruments. He actually demoed a lot of the songs beforehand to get his point across to his bandmates.
"I have poor communication skills. You know, I would rather be like, 'Well, here's this song I made,' and play the CD. I don't want to come off like I'm forcing someone to do something," he says. "But at the same time, I sort of am."
Realizing his admission, Trokan starts cracking up.
You learn something new every day.