christian uhl interviews the infectious electronic duo …
New York City male/female duo The Ropes inhabit a world of measured cool, residing somewhere between the sleek Soho sophistication of Blonde Redhead, and the icy, self-conscious brooding of The Raveonettes. It’s mysterious, dark and sensual — and entirely captivating. Considered and measured, but emotionally alluring, not studied, The Ropes seduce you into a unique new world with every danceably serrated and propulsive three minute vignette they’ve put to tape. Seriously, if they’ve written a bad song, they thankfully left it on the cutting room floor.
Obsessive about this recorded Quality Control as they are about their song subjects (human nature, seedy side), The Ropes are an opaquely self-contained unit, releasing a near constant stream of EPs, mysteriously arriving and moving along like a puff of smoke in a dark club.
I delved into bandmembers’ Sharon Sly and Toppy’s world to try and uncover some of the mysteries therein.
Pop-Break: Given the Bio section of The Ropes’ website consists entirely of the proclamation “We are The Ropes. We want to fight you,” let me dig deep into some investigative journalism so as to shed some light on the formation of The Ropes. How’d you get together?
Sharon Sly: We actually met interning at a record label. We liked the same things musically — our ideas are very similar — in fact, ideal musically. Not necessarily things that exist either. And from then on we formed a band, started playing around the last few years, writing non-stop, and here we are!
PB: Were you already musicians in various incarnations and bands prior, or did you essentially start from scratch with The Ropes?
SS: We started from scratch in a way. We had been thinking about what we wanted to do, but never really had the opportunity to do what we wanted to put out there, and having the same ideals we thought that would be a good time to put it together and make it happen.
PB: Like many historically great bands, from The Doors to The Cure to Massive Attack, The Ropes have a very vivid, specifically identifiable aesthetic. Even if songs vary sonically in tempo and even genre, it’s unmistakable that you’re hearing The Ropes. That’s very hard to do — was that a conscious thing you aimed for with The Ropes, or did it just kind of happen that way?
SS: We wanted it to be cohesive and we have a very specific idea of how we wanted to convey ourselves. But I think that just comes organically, it’s not specific to music. It’s pretty much with everything — ‘we want it to be like this;’ ‘we want to make people feel this way;’ ‘we want to feel this way ourselves …’ And I think that just happens naturally. It’s not an agenda we write out and follow.
PB: In this age of social networking, people are overly compelled to share every tedious detail of their existence. I love the fact that The Ropes retain a certain mystery about themselves. I think of how old Joy Division albums where — never mind finding a band photo, good luck with lyrics or liner notes ….
Toppy: The mystery is not intentional. It’s what we do. When a band is constantly out there, making jokes on Twitter, then their music is going to sound like a joke. I wouldn’t know what to write on Twitter … ‘sad, suicidal, writing music …’ If your goal is just to be in people’s faces than you’re going to have the music that you have today.
PB: The new EP is titled Lack Of Technology Made Me A Killer. Did that just get blurted out in passing and then stuck, or was there a thought and meaning behind it, however oblique it may be?
Toppy: Everything starts with a concept, and then it builds from there. We don’t jam or come up with riffs. Everything we’ve done has been around a concept. Since we’ve formed the band, it always has been ‘Is there a reason or point to this?’ with every idea. If I thought there was nothing to say or nothing original about what we are doing, we wouldn’t do it. So with the title, we started with that and it grows and that lyric grew out of the original concept we had for the song.
PB: You mentioned you don’t ‘jam,’ so let’s talk compositionally with the writing process. It’s clear you’re not sitting around a campfire with an acoustic guitar strumming melodies — do you start backwards in a sense, where you get an idea and fill in the music to accommodate that specific idea or mood or emotion you want to convey?
SS: We always start with a title …
Toppy: And everything is rooted in an idea and concept — there’s no music at all. It could be a poem, and we can end it there. When I first met Sharon, that was one of the things that I thought was interesting about her — she had these ways of expressing her ideas and opinions and it just lent itself to music later. We don’t just add lyrics on top of music. I think that tends to be what a lot of people do. It’s the complete opposite. If there’s nothing to say, there wouldn’t be music. If the concept is so strong that we feel it needs music, then it goes from there. But we don’t bother unless that criteria has been filled.
PB: Was there a point recording-wise, where you had to involve an outside party in the creative process? And if so, was it hard to let someone else into your world, given you have such a uniquely specific vision?
Toppy: When we first started, and since, it’s always been the two of us writing and recording and producing everything. The only person who has been involved outside the two of us was Nic Hard and that is like the final stage [mixing]. We’ve been working with him for awhile. It is hard to find someebody to work with in that way — especially with the kind of ideas with what we were doing. I was looking for someone that could help defeat some of my limitations on the production and mixing side. After working with Nic — he understands how crazy we are, and how we want things to sound and how seriously we take it. It’s tough to explain. I eventually got comfortable to the point where he’s the only person. I even hate sending a mix to someone before it’s done, so … once something has evolved to the point where it’s ready to exist, then we’ll show it to Nic for the final stage. As far as that, he’s the only outside entity that has been involved.
PB: What led to the lyric “they’ll be playing this in clubs in Europe forever” from “Clubs In Europe Forever”? Was that a tongue-in-cheek thing, or does it go deeper than that?
SS: Just an overall kind of idea about what is going on in the playing of music. People are going to be happy somewhere no matter what is going on in the world. It’s just music’s impact; something about timelessness. Not specifically about us but music overall as a whole. The Europe part comes in that people associate clubs and music with Europe. I thought it painted a picture. It could’ve been, ‘They’ll be playing this at The Stone Pony forever,’ but it’s just not as picturesque!
PB: Some bands are all about playing live and dread recording, others the complete opposite. What category do The Ropes fall into?
Toppy: I think playing live is a fairly painful experience. Sharon always mentions — and she’s so right — how rough it is when you see someone performing and you feel like they’re enjoying the performance more than the audience. When we play live, it’s in some ways masochistic. We’re doing it for the one person out there who may relate to what we’re doing. It’s very hard, it’s not like we’re able to walk around when we’re playing a show and see everyone hanging off the rafters.
I love when you see a band whose image is brooding and cerebral and you see them backstage and it’s a party. And we’re sitting on the sidelines watching and they’re like, ‘What’s wrong guys?!? Party!” And then they go out onstage, and they’re supposed to be us. It’s just been difficult to reconcile that.
SS: I think we like just getting our music out there, writing all the time — thats the final product for us.
PB: The Ropes have a very unique and I think very cool way of going about recording and releasing music with a constant stream of EPs as opposed to disappearing and resurfacing with a new full-length every couple of years. Not only is it a brilliant marketing angle in this day of shortened, EP-length attention spans, but also maintaining a presence with ever fickle audiences. On a deeper level, and this hearkens back to The Smiths’ constantly releasing singles between LPs. It’s a great way for fans to chart the evolution and musical growth of a band virtually in real-time.
Was this approach born of necessity, i.e. recording and production costs for full-lengths?
SS: It’s more wanting to get the idea out there when we have it. Why wait? We thought of it, we made it, get it out there, it’s present, it’s current … we’re not going by anyone else’s schedule. We just want it out there and we do it. That’s all there is to it!
Toppy: Exactly — we’ve always been told it makes no sense to do things the way we do it — recording and releasing so frequently. But if the idea is there, it’s new, you want to get it out at that time. The whole concept of waiting or how it’s going to be marketed and promoted, we’re not beholden to that. If we wrote a song and it was ready today, why not put it out tonight?
PB: That’s such a progressively independent, self-sustaining model and approach. Now, say some mondo-conglomerate uber-label offers you a mega deal, is this an ethical crossroads you’ve discussed and how would you respond?
SS: We’re open to anything. We would just like everyone to have the opprtunity to know about us should they choose to. That’s all there is to say.
Toppy: Yeah, the only ethical stance we would take is if we’re doing something other than what I’m doing tonight — that would be a problem. But I don’t think in the world we live in anyone has to worry about hearing us on Z-100 tomorrow. I wouldn’t be concerned with that. And if we want to broach the ridiculous argument of what’s independent and what’s not, every band I know who says they’re independent, they would kill for so many people to know who they are. And I couldn’t care less. The Ropes are going to be what they are today. How many people know about us, it doesn’t matter to me if that changes or not. It just depends on the only thing that is important — that The Ropes still have the same force behind them that they have today.