Nice But Naughty? An Interview With Rob Keith of The Baskervilles
by nadav carmel
The Baskervilles really are the best band you’ve never heard of. They only have one album and an EP to their names, and rarely play outside of New York City. But that self-titled, Mitch Easter-produced album is one of the most enjoyable records of the last few years, indiepop or otherwise. Best of all, the band seems to have a genuine sense of humor, rather than just a sense of cheap irony. They’re the kind of friendly, approachable people you can sit down and have a conversation with, so that’s just what singer/guitarist Rob Keith and I did.
Hey, Rob, would you be interested in doing an interview?
Sure, you may ask anything you like... even DANGEROUS questions.
OK, first question: how'd you spend your Valentine's Day?
It sounds bad, but it has a happy ending. I wrote a lousy song, retreated home and watched Battlestar Galactica commentary until Nicole got home from class. Nerdy, right? She surprised me with the girl groups box set as a present. You?
I was on my way to see Annie Hall when I got sick on the bus and spent the rest of the night throwing up. In fact, I’m still sick as a dog. Anyway, the second first question: who are the Baskervilles? And if each Baskerville had a label (a la the Seven Dwarves or the Smittens), who would each of you be?
Given Name: Rob Keith.
Given Name: Christoph Gerozissis.
Given Name: Stephanie Finucane. Job: Keys, Violin, Vox. Dwarf Name: Virtuous Succubus Dwarf. Attributes: Honest, Kind, Creative, Talented, Curious, Witty, Melodic.
Given Name: Craig Van Orsdale. Job: Drums. Dwarf Name: Clap Clap the Genius Dwarf. Attributes: Brilliant, Intuitive, Apathetic, Difficult, Warm, Funny, Wise.
For those who don't know you, how would you describe the Baskervilles' sound? What influences can people expect hear as well?
I would describe the Baskervilles sound as catchy swinging pop with disco/glam bass guitar, new wave speed and chamber rock arrangements. Lately, I am listening to the Chills, the Jockey Slut Disco Pogo For Punks In Pumps comps and Lio.
I guess you're a Punk in Pumps?
The Baskervilles are still a punk band. We really are a combination of nice and nasty.
How do you mean? Maybe I just haven't encountered your nasty side yet.
I think of us like the New York punk guard of 1976. We are four weirdoes with similar ideas who started playing in the East Village and found each other like a needle in a haystack. Nasty may not be the perfect word. How about naughty?
Who are you guys? Where did you come from? I was totally blown away by your self-titled album, in part because it seemed to come out of nowhere.
Thanks. The sound of the first album came from our desire to stop being a punk and garage band and see how far we could go into the world of pop music. We wanted to be a contemporary Kinks. Left Banke and Herman's Hermits. The volume dropped on stage and we only played our instruments when we needed to.
So the Baskervilles used to be a garage band?
When Christoph, Craig and I lived in Florida we played very nasty confrontational trash rock. Our singer used to spit beer at the audience and bare her breasts to the crowd. Imagine that at a Popfest! Christoph was in a lot of German bands before the Baskervilles. His first band when he was thirteen was called Rat Poison. The singer wanted to be brought out on stage in a coffin.
That would be some Popfest! Where in Florida did you live? I grew up outside of Fort Lauderdale.
I grew up in Brandon, Craig in Bartow (central Florida, between Tampa and Orlando), and we met Christoph in Tampa. I'm sorry to hear that you are from Florida too, Nadav! You probably understand how frustrating it was to live there.
Yeah, the biggest homegrown scenes when I left South Florida were emo and rap-metal. I don't miss it. I miss ska though. Florida had a good thing going with that.
The ska scene was huge in Florida! Rap metal is a hilarious genre.
How did Stephanie enter the picture?
We put out an ad for a violinist in the Village Voice and got the multi-instrumentalist Stephanie Finucane, our Irish good luck charm.
Why a violinist?
We thought maybe violin would help reduce our sound like the Velvet Underground or the Vaselines. Steph's a great violinist, but she's an amazing keyboardist. The day she joined was they day we became the Baskervilles.
What's your milieu now? Who do you see as your contemporaries?
I'm not sure. The first band that I've liked in a long time is the Ballet. Who do you think we are most closely connected to?
I have no idea. The Baskervilles really did seem to me to pop out of nowhere. Who do you play shows with in New York?
We have never joined forces with anyone in New York. This is not on purpose. Booking works a little differently in New York City. Promoters feel that they can get more people in a club if they book four totally different types of bands in one night. If all of the bands fit into one scene, then they only get fans who like that one type of music. I'd like to play with the Ballet soon, if we can.
Most of your songwriting so far centers on New York, being out and about the City. I hear you're getting married, though (congratulations!). Do you think this will change the content of the songs?
Will my marriage change the context of the songs? Probably. Nicole and I have been together for five years and I feel that I am a better person for it. I have written a lot more songs. I prefer to be happy and stable when I am writing music. The new Baskervilles songs are sharper and have more humor. Some of them have us looking inward.
Ah, I was only asking if we could expect any songs about domestic pleasures rather than carousing, a la "I Cooked with Kate Moss" rather than "I Danced with Kate Moss". Although I guess getting married needn't change that.
I think something in rock n roll mythos says that marriage and aging hurts songwriting. Look at the Stones and McCartney! But, Ray Davies was married when he wrote most of his best 60s material.
What are some non-musical influences on you and the Baskervilles? You mention Gary Hume in "This Was the Weekend"…
Non-musical influences? My favorite non-musical influence is “Oblique Strategies”. It's a deck of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt with useful abstract ideas to help an artist by suggesting alternate routes to solving creative issues.
I am still trying to come up with some dangerous questions.
Ha ha! Dangerous questions are not necessary. Indiepop people are so nice. It's such a weird scene for us to be plopped in, because we were around nasty garage and punk people our musical lives! It was about challenging the audience. Indies tend to be about enjoyment, so I think that our sort of pop music suits the scene.
Given that background, how did you guys end up in the indiepop scene?
Secret Crush Records! Gregg discovered us, and he is from the indiepop scene, so that is who he promoted us to. Before Secret Crush, we felt like we were on a very small raft in a very large ocean.
At this point, do you feel like a part of the indiepop community?
I like being around indiepop people. I feel like, as a community, they have the right attitude about music, especially when they don't bring a lot of punk politics into it. I think that my musical tastes will always make me feel like an outsider. I'm too pop for garage and punk, too weird for power pop or indie and too disco for everyone!
This may be a good opportunity to mention Autoparty as well. What's that?
The Baskervilles took a break in 2002 so I learned Reason and Pro Tools with the bass player. We made a little nacht electro album, as Autoparty.
And what’s up next for the Baskervilles?
We are just closing a deal to release a four-song EP in Sweden with Kitty Litter Records. That is very exciting.
How did you get hooked up with them? And will it be more in the vein of your self-recorded EP, or the album?
I met Darijo, the boss of Kitty Litter Records, on the Baskervilles LastFM page. He put out an EP by a Swedish band called Swoon last year that was excellent. Darijo is a big fan who wants to help us out. The EP will have a summer hit pop single like “Midnight” and the same big studio sound as our first album. It will be more natural and less processed than the “Midnight” EP. The Baskervilles are also working on an LP, but we don't know who we are going to release it with yet.
What will second LP sound like?
Great arrangements and a similar sound to the first album. “Midnight” contained much better pop songs, in my opinion, but was too processed without as much variety. The new EP and LP will have a more natural sound like the first LP. Mitch Easter will mix them.
It wouldn't be on Secret Crush? (Do you guys run that label?)
Secret Crush is Gregg Weiss's label. “Midnight” will be our last release on it. We did amazingly well on the label, largely thanks to his tireless promotional efforts. Secret Crush is on hold or finished, mainly because Gregg has too many grown up responsibilities and not the same time to devote to grass roots campaigning for his bands. He's a great human being.
And how did you get hooked up with Mitch Easter?
My first big musical love was R.E.M. I wanted to work with Mitch Easter since I was a teenager. In 1998 I called information and he was listed.
Never accept musical mayonnaise.
photo by Nicolas Wagner, April 2005