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Rumspringer: Earnest Trio Builds Up to Nothing on Punk's Ever-Shifting Sands

Although no one in the music industry with a whiff of official about them is on record as saying so, it's been widely reported throughout the blogosphere that the remaining three major record labels will cease manufacturing CDs before the end of 2012. For those who came of age during the first stirrings of the digital era and to the boomers who kept the machine going by purchasing digital remasters and deluxe editions of everything they originally owned on vinyl and cassette, the end of the CD would, indeed, seem like the end of times.

At chez Rumspringer, that's news barely acknowledged with a brow furrow. A quick scan of the living room reveals a turntable and a modest selection of vinyl (including the group's own self-titled 10-inch) stacked together. In order to procure a compact disc just to use as a visual aid during our discussion, Mikey, Matt, and Wes (last names withheld) had to drag out the big, dark green Rubbermaid storage bin that is their merch inventory.

With point of purchase at its highest after a show, will the loss of one format affect Rumspringer's bottom line?

"Nah," says drummer Mikey, "if someone comes up to us after a show and wants something, we go and dig it out. Otherwise, we don't even mention we have stuff. We forget it's even there."

In fairness, Rumspringer has more than the one or two people coming up to them after a show, and any band that likes to tour as much as this one lives and dies by its ratio of merch sold to gas burned and Top Ramen consumed. But when the band is at its home base, in Tempe, they aren't going to inflict any hard-sell tactics on friends and neighbors. That would be . . . careerism.

"It's not that jockeying to play bigger shows or open for a national is, in itself, a bad thing," says Matt. "It's just not the thing that drives this band. We want to be able to do tours and continue making records. Anything else just seems like . . . extra work."

"We never went 'label shopping' or anything like that, and everyone who has done a record with us has approached us about it," Matt continues. "We have definitely rejected some 'pay-to-play' situations that promoters have approached us with. We won't sell fucking tickets to get on a bigger show. That is just gross and wack, and fuck that."

It would be hard to find something more punk rock than Rumspringer, a band not unlike The Replacements in its ability to not to give a shit and to care too much at the same time. More likely, the band maintains a wait-and-see-what-comes-to-us approach to shield itself from big-headed expectations that fell lesser bands.

About the caring: On their new full-length, Empty Towers, the trio sounds as passionate as the best of punks, deeply committed to documenting every cheat and personal slight inflicted on them in songs like "Online Pokerface" (which contains the winning couplet "Remember when we used to sing / We made the nausea go away") and doing Joy Division one better in the lovelorn sweepstakes with the drawn-and-quartered imagery of "It's Literally Tearing Me Apart."

In this day and age, it's rare to find an indie band willing to include a complete set of lyrics in hard-to-read two-point type, but Rumspringer's decision to include lyrics on every release save for its split singles is proof they care about what they sing, want you to know they're wondering why (to quote "The Same Wavelength") "it sounds so appealing to sell off everything I have / 'Cause I'm afraid of buying in."

And yet with an equal measure of carelessness (or couldn't-care-less-ness), they signed off on sepia album cover art for Empty Towers, eerily reminiscent of Yankee Foxtrot Hotel by Wilco, a band Rumspringer professes not to care for or know much about.

"We had no idea the covers looked similar until we'd pressed the record and people pointed it out to us," fesses Matt.

"It's probably going to be an ongoing thing with us," says Mikey, "since our 10-inch is a blatant rip-off of the cover art for Teaser and the Firecat by Cat Stevens. It's not hard to miss. I just took the top hat off the little guy, for no good reason, really. I think the next record should be a near-exact replica of [Green Day's] Dookie."

Judging by their skimpy footprint, one has little to go on to learn about the men of Rumspringer, their likes and loves beyond beer and the Amish. The band's often repeated bio is straight from the band's neglected MySpace page — which is rarely updated since everyone claims to have forgotten the administrative password for it. That profile seems reluctant to list any kind of personal history or any last names that might ruin Matt, Mikey, and Wes' Pep Boys appeal:

So . . . Matt moved back and wanted something to do, while Ryan and Wes were sad because there was nothing to do. So they all called up Mikey, who had too much to do, but they all did it anyway. Now, Ryan decided that he would rather do nothing, so the rest of us continue onward doing something, even if it equates to nothing at all . . .

As for the mysterious departed Ryan, whose guitar duties Wes assumed in full last year, Wes says, "It just became obvious that the three of us were on the same page about what we were doing and Ryan wasn't that into it. So much of what it is to be in a band is hanging out for beers after a rehearsal, and he was like, 'Are we done?' And he'd just take off. He was a good songwriter, but his guitar not being there just forces the rest of us to play more, essentially."

"People expect less of a trio," laughs Matt. "There's a certain lowered expectation of what you can do musically with three sets of hands. Unless you're ELP or something."

Two bands that fit the bill of the three instrumentalists are Green Day and R.E.M., two bands that Mikey and Matt respectively confess are the bands they secretly never stopped buying or caring about but found harder to defend with every new release.

"I'd like to think that if we're around as long as Green Day, we'll be writing about things relevant to people our age. Like, why does AARP keep sending me this shit in the mail," says Mikey, who owns the last Green Day album and periodically goes back to it to see if he still doesn't like it.

As for Matt's dutiful support of R.E.M. during the Bill Berry-less years, let's just say their recent decision to pull the plug on operations brings with it more relief than remorse.

"It means not having to buy a record you're more than likely going to throw across the room," he says. "I think that's the one thing people are all going to miss when all their music is just MP3 files in a cloud, the hands-on disapproval factor."

How true! I relate how a childhood friend hated "Revolution Number 9" so much he scratched the grooves with a razor until the vinyl was completely white.

Mikey talks about a band Matt was in back in the '90s called Small Appliances.

"We put out a splint record with Spaceman Spiff, and years later someone approached me and said he hated the Small Appliances side so much that he ironed it so that it was unplayable. He hated it so much he felt the need to destroy it."

"If you really, really hate something, just pressing a button and hitting 'delete' seems pretty ineffectual," agrees Matt.

"At the same time, we know a guy whose all-time favorite band is The Jam. He bought one of their albums based on something he read, decided he didn't like it and filed it away. Because he still had the album sitting around, he gave it another listen. He would've missed out on his favorite band if he had just wiped it from his hard drive."

Speaking of hate, Mikey is pretty blunt in his assessment of Rumspringa, the Los Angeles trio that also named itself after a teen Amish drinking binge where continued beer-drinking or remaining in the church hang in the balance.

"Those guys asked us to play a show with them," he says. "But we refused."

I'm not sure our legal department would want us to print what he said after that.

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic