San Diego’s The Burning Of Rome has released one of my favourite records – Year Of the Ox – so far this year, which is a big call considering how much music passes my ears doing what I do. Listening to the record is an odyssey in itself as it crosses the genre barrier and creates a cosmic calling card of super catchy excellence. Below frontman and TBOR founder Adam Traub gives us an insight into writing the record, recording it with Butthole Surfers’ Paul Leary, the guest appearances from drumming giants Josh Freese, Dale Crover and Matt Chamberlain, plus more. You need this record—listen to it, learn it, know it, live it, love it!
BIANCA: In the beginning what was your vision for your new record, Year Of The Ox?
ADAM TRAUB: I wanted to stitch together a series of songs that had no business being paired on the same album en masse—to create a tapestry of sound that would take the listener from the depths of Death Valley to the heights of Earth’s atmosphere. Todd Rundgren did this with his album A Wizard, A True Star. It’s genre-less and stands out as a piece of art all on it’s own without using style as a crutch. That was the point of Year of the Ox, to use an artist’s soul as the common thread between songs rather than relying on conventional genres.
B: What kinds of things inspired you for this record?
AT: Other artists, meditation, observation and experience. I previously mentioned Todd Rundgren who had a huge influence on me. I also pull from Brian Eno, Wendy Carlos, John Cale, Trent Reznor, Stephin Merritt, Einstuerzende Neubauten and countless others (even if not musically, then in the execution of their craft). My music is the energy I gain from these influences translated through my own life experience.
B: The first track “Year Of the Ox” (to me) is a really positive song. I kind of got a sense of rebirth and not giving up (as the lyrics suggest). Where did this song come from? What inspired it? An experience in your own life?
AT: It’s a tale for the Willy Loman’s of the world (myself included). There’s a hell of a lot of strife – that we have to endure to get through life’s day-to-day trenches. The Ox (my Chinese Zodiac sign) is an animal that bears the cart and perseveres despite life’s slings and arrows. The song was meant to be an anthem for those carrying their own carts and conquering the machine they were born into.
B: Is there ever a time in your own life that you felt like giving up?
AT: Of course, I think we all have. Doubt is a damned fickle thing and can eat at your soul if you let it. This harkens back to the moral of “Year of the Ox”, salvation awaits those that are willing to fight for it. Never give up, never lay down for anyone’s anything. You are your own master, your own God, and you alone determine your own fate.
B: Is making music and art a meditative process for you? How so?
AT: Philip Glass has an interesting analogy for song writing, he compares it to a river next to a cabin in the woods. One day while walking through his cabin in Nova Scotia, Glass accidentally kicked a floorboard loose and came to discover a river flowing beneath his feet. He had been in the cabin for decades and never knew it was there. In his analogy he refers to the river as art and the cabin as his mind. Art always passing by you, constantly flowing beneath your feet. It’s just a matter of kicking a floorboard loose so you can reach down and dip your hand in the water to catch what’s passing by. That’s meditation. It’s how I write songs, it’s how Hemingway wrote books and it’s how Philip Glass composes scores.
B: Paul Leary (the guitarist for Butthole Surfers) co-produced the album with you; what’s one of your fondest memories of recording with him? Why did you decide to get Paul involved?
AT: Paul Leary is the Albert Einstein of eclecticism. He’s a savant in the studio and remarkably personable with the artists he works with. We met amid work on the band’s previous album, With Us, which Paul had done a few mixes for. Our conversations would often stray from the record and center on which Residents album was our favorite or what our favorite Krautrock bands were. When it came time to create Year of the Ox it only made sense to have him on board. My favorite moments in collaborating with him were mostly outside of the studio, swapping stories from the road and diving into the philosophical condition of our work. He’s a guru and a madman, and this album would have been lost without him.
B: The album was first tracked at Sonic Ranch in El Paso and completed in Austin; do you think your environment influences your music or that different places have different feels/energies? Did either location add a little something/influence the record in any way?
AT: Undeniably so. The desert is a sacred place–arid landscapes and societal deprivation lend themselves to spawning amazing art. We recorded the first half of the album at Sonic Ranch which is a musical oasis about 60 kilometers outside of El Paso, Texas. The setting was serene–a ranch flanked by a sea of Pecan trees and a hacienda that housed thousands of instruments with sacred history: Stienways from the 1910’s, Moog synths from the early 70’s, guitars deemed illegal due to their Brazilian Rosewood bodies. It was surreal, to say the least. We came back down to Earth in Austin, Texas where most of the “grunt work” was hammered out and the final touches touched.
B: Excitingly some of my favourite drummers – Josh Freese, Dale Crover and Matt Chamberlain – dropped by your recording sessions to play! What do you feel they each bought to it?
AT: Drums (like the voice) have style, tone and personality. If someone plays too close to the grid it can sound robotic, if they shuffle or sway too much it can become disjointed and throw the song out of balance. Having a drummer that knows when and where to push and pull the tempo is a rare find. Luckily we found it in Josh, Dale and Matt. Each has their own distinct personality behind the kit that complement different tracks on the album. Dale is an animal in the Melvins, so it only seemed appropriate to have him throw down on the bonus track, “Animal”. Matt brings the weight on one of his John Bonham original acrylic Ludwig kits, so we had to have him perform it on “Patria O Muerte”. Josh Freese is a chameleon, he took the lion-share of the album. Having the versatility to perform with everyone from A Perfect Circle to Devo, his style malleability is unmatched. I’ve yet to see a musician be so adaptable and maintain so much perfection on the fly.
B: I’ve notice in reviews and whatnot that a lot of people describe TBOR’s music as dark, to me it has a lot of light and positivity; what are your thoughts on this?
AT: The subject matter of the songs can be quite macabre, but it’s intentionally executed in a tongue-and-cheek manner to lighten the load and poke fun at the world. The best way to combat plight is through humor–it deflates the opposition of what you’re writing about. Though prominently dark humor, there’s a light-hearted satire to our songs that defines us as a band. Some consider it funny, and to others it’s terrifying. Hopefully to all it’s inspiring, or at least interesting. All of these songs are ultimately about the human condition and what makes us the electric animals that we are.
B: Did you scrap a lot of songs during the writing process at all?
AT: Scrap, no–but alot of them do get shelved. We recorded over 20 songs for Year of the Ox, of which only a dozen made the final cut of the record. That’s not to say the other tracks will be discarded, they may just emerge later as b-sides or in live performances. I liken all of my songs to children–like any parent I’ll fight to see them come into their own and conquer the masses. Whether they manifest through an album, a video, a remix, or a singalong in a bar, only fate can determine when, where and how they’ll be showcased to the world.
B: What are your favourite kinds of song to write?
AT: Discovery is the whole point of songwriting–you’re documenting the search of your own soul. There’s no preferred method in taking that journey, therefore I have no favorite kind of song to write. It’s just what falls out of the ether on any given day and hopefully I’m listening closely enough to document it.
B: TBOR have such an eclectic mix of styles; is there a particular style of song you’d like to try your hand at writing that you haven’t explored yet?
AT: Composer John Cage emphasized silence in his music. He theorized that the absence of sound could be more impactful than the actual audio we hear in music. I’d like to explore the use of negative space in upcoming projects the way John Cage did in the 1950’s. I’m an impatient person by nature which lends my music to being quite frantic. Minimalism would be a challenge for me not only musically, but spiritually.
B: I know that you’ve played music and various instruments since you were a kid and love to learn new instruments; is there any instrument you’ve tried your hand at lately?
AT: I recently inherited an Appalacian Dulcimer that I’ve been enjoying. Most of my studies lately have been geared toward synthesis though. One of the spoils of working at Sonic Ranch was the abundance of analog synthesizers I had access to. It’s had me on a kick of learning more about voltage controlled instruments and manipulating sound via modular synthesis. I’ve especially been into suitcase synths lately. Analogue Systems in particular makes a killer one that emulates the old EMS’s of the 1970’s. There’s also a boutique company called Dewanatron that is making some freaky frequency machines that’ll blow your brainwaves and burn your breadboard–very cool modern takes on very old modular machines.
B: The art work for YOTO is amazing! You’ve made such an emotive piece. What’s the story behind it?
AT: The cover is a collage of buildings found across the Los Angeles skyline. Every era’s superpower dictates its architectural monuments. The Egyptians built pyramids, the Romans built the Coliseum, the Catholics built cathedrals, the banks built skyscrapers–they are the modern pyramids for the modern Pharaohs.
B: How long have you been making visual art for? Is there anywhere else we can see your work?
AT: Not long–it was an act of necessity. At the band’s conception, I didn’t know any visual artists whose styles fit the motif of the Burning of Rome’s music so I took it upon myself to curate a visual aesthetic for the band. I’ve since befriended some talented hands like Copio and Teddy Pancake (who in recent years helped shape the sight of TBOR’s sound). However, in an act of nostalgia, I started longing for the nights of desperate doodling to whip up a poster, a shirt or an album cover. So for our latest art endeavor, I was drawn (no pun intended) back into the visual realm of the band under the pen name “Space Wizard”. Look for that name on any of the band’s art–that’s my calling card.
B: What are some of your favourite things to draw/paint/make?
AT: I enjoy collage work. It’s like the hip-hop of visual art, extrapolating an isolated moment and juxtaposing it with another medium. It’s always surprising what the outcome will be. I also like woodworking. Since I’m usually tethered to a computer while composing music, it’s nice to take a break and get my hands on something organic.
B: I’m yet to see you guys play live (I hope you get to Australia soon!); can you describe for us your favourite show you’ve played so far?
AT: Each environment has it’s charm. We’ve had the liberty of performing on some big stages as of late, opening for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Nine Inch Nails, Devo, etc. but I still feel my favorite gigs have come out of dive bars. There is an intimacy you can’t capture on a festival stage that you can in a pub with a couple hundred people. By default of close proximity, you’re all connected. It’s osmosis, there’s nowhere to hide from the sound and the spectacle–everyone’s absorbed and the show completely takes over the room. There’s nothing quite like it.
B: Also, congratulations on your recent album launch being sold out! What did that mean to you?
AT: Thanks, we’re blessed with a great deal of loyalty in our hometown of San Diego. Harkening back to the last question, the audience wound up becoming the show more than the band that night. Nirvana is sharing a room with hundreds of people who are completely enveloped by a sound you’re creating. It’s intense to be the human catalyst for a sea of souls losing themselves is an emotional experience, and it’s something you can’t feel anywhere else but on a stage. I certainly felt it in San Diego during our release show and I can’t even begin to describe how grateful I am for all of those who came out.
B: I know that you love to travel, is there anywhere that you’ve visited that’s really left an impression (good or bad) on you? Why does it stick in your memory so?
AT: Unfortunately we rarely get to explore the towns we perform at on tour. After driving a few hours to that city, loading in, sound-checking, performing and tearing down, there’s seldom an opportunity to see the sights before heading to the next town. That’s not to say there haven’t been towns that left an impression on us though. The most impactful ones are those with engaging attendees. These crowds aren’t specific to any areas or cities themselves, there just happened to be something in the air of the venue that night that clicked and resonated with the audience. I’ve seen it happen anywhere from Mexico City to Providence, Rhode Island.
B: Something I always like to ask people that I interview is, is there anything you’d like to raise awareness of, or something that’s super important to you, that you’d like to share with us?
AT: Voltaire philosophized that the duration of Earth’s superpowers are logarithmically decreasing. At civilizations dawning, the pharaohs reigned for 3,000 years. The Romans for 1,500 years and the European monarchs for less than a thousand thereafter. The post-revolution ‘first world’ countries have only been in power for a few hundred years. According to Voltaire’s clock, their time is almost up. This can be seen by the collapsing economies around the world as well as gross overpopulation and governments’ inability to account for it. We are in a tailspin. So what do we do? Fight? Vote? Ignore it? Recycle it? There is no right answer, but I believe that as long humans avoid apathy and fight injustice by whatever means they have (art, revolution, donation of time, money, etc.) the world will be better off. Complacency is the enemy. Fight apathy everyday and the world will return the favor in spades by everyone having happy and healthier lives.
B: What’s next for TBOR?
AT: The stratosphere’s the limit. We’re currently reuniting with our west coast fans after a lengthy tour we did through the eastern United States with a slew of shows around California, Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico. We also just shot a music video for “God of Small Things” with director Tim Qualtrough (Muse’s director) that was featured on Last Call with Carson Daly. The video is now streaming on our site for those that missed it on NBC (theburningofrome.com). Other than that, more shows, more tours, more mayhem. We are ambassadors from Mars on a mission to spread audible space goo into the eardrums of every inhabitant of Earth. Join us in our conquest or be vaporized at once.
For more THE BURNING OF ROME.
Wish I could be in L.A. for TBOR’s show July 2nd at the Bootleg Theater…if you’re in the neighbourhood please do go, for me!