The Rumpus Interview with Luke Rathborne

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Maine-born, Brookyln-based musician Luke Rathborne is still in his early 20s, but he is already off to a promising start.  Rathborne has opened for the Strokes and played with Devendra Banhart, among other accolades.  Now, he has two EPs, Dog Years and I Can Be One, available for purchase on iTunes. The EPs differ from each other and serve as the modern day version of a record and its flip-side, each showcasing a different side of Rathborne and his writing. Exclusively from The Rumpus, you can download his I Can Be One EP free here.  After Feb. 3, Rathborne’s homepage will have it as well.

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The Rumpus: You include songs written during your teenage years on your EP. How long have you been writing music? How did it start for you?

Luke Rathborne:  I started writing music when I was 11 or 12. We always had people passing through our house in Maine. Someone needed a place to stay when they were in the middle of some sort of trouble or something like that, they could stay there. A guy named Kevin stayed for a few months. Sometimes he’d bring out his guitar to play and I’d go into his room to watch.

One day Kevin was gone and there was an electric guitar sitting there in the room. I saw him the day before he left and he didn’t even let on a hint that he was leaving. I knew it was important to him, so the gesture was one that was important, meant something. Kevin passed away a few years back, so I always appreciated him leaving that behind.

After I got this guitar I was playing all the time. A friend gave me a Sex Pistols CD and a Buzzcocks record. By the age of 12 I started a band and was already recording music and organizing shows around the area. There was a DIY scene in Maine and we’d rent out Veterans’ Halls or churches and have these enormous punk rock shows. It was great and
it’s where I honed down what I wanted to do in life. There was a sense of community for sure.

A lot of those people went insane. I remember a guy named Cal, who just ended up living in a tent in the woods taking LSD. I don’t really know what happened to him.

Rumpus:   You write poetry as well as songs.  Does your process for each differ intuitively, or do things occasionally cross from one genre to the  other?

Rathborne:  I wrote a book of poems called L.A. that got published by a place in Los Angeles last year. The book was kind of a loose narrative where everything connected together, about drifting through New York and Los Angeles and the things that happened in that period of time. Those were different than songs the way they came out. Lyrics don’t have to act like poems. It’s good if they do. It’s great if they do. But they don’t have to. That’s why you have a band in the 1980s saying, “Don’t You Forget About Me / Don’t Don’t Don’t Don’t.”

I could never quite wrap my head around what married those two forms. I’d had moments, but they all seemed unconscious.. Looking down at a piece of paper almost like drunk or stoned and seeing a whole piece there ready to sing. I felt that way with the song, “Cold Breeze”.

Lately, though, something has been coming forward to me. Listening to some writers, some singers. Something has really hit me. I understand where they are pinning something, a motion, a way of something being said.

There is such thing as a spiritual aspect to people and their lives. Whenever I get the chance to be near a television, which is very rare these days, I’m struck by how I see every day American people overcoming problems, addictions, transcending conflicts.

To some extent I think we’ll never be able to fully relate that which is packaged, processed and presented to us. You walk down the street and you see all kinds of funny things that say how you’re supposed to be, feel, what you should believe. But these are almost always motivated by money, and what you’re being sold. There is a degree of deception being propagated by the people who present these things to you.

There is a great importance to seeing how real people feel and what they’re telling you face to face. Whenever I travel the country I never see the people that they show on these magazines or advertisements. What I come across is people of an entirely different, unique nature. It is something real and special, that is never shown, that has value and meaning, that can’t be pinned down by someone in that kind of way, it has a poetic truth to it, which is something stronger than what they could show, something absolute. The truth usually has more than one side to it. That is what is lost when we try to sell people, or sum them up for something they’re not.

Rumpus: In the press I’ve read about your music, the word “vulnerable” comes up a lot. How do you feel about that?

Rathborne:  That doesn’t bother me. I haven’t seen a whole lot of the press. A few times, someone will send something to me and I look away. The thing is, it might be a good thing even, it’s just you’re never gonna feel satisfied being put on a piece of paper.  I try not to come across it too much.

In the end, People are going to portray you a certain way, in a positive or negative light, in anything you do in your life. It can’t be your job to look at it. You have to live truthfully. You must make amends with yourself, and who you are, constantly. When you wake up, you look at yourself in the mirror. You get yourself to the point where you are strong, where you have understanding.

I like to work. I do it obsessively often. When I find something within myself that I think could be beautiful or important to express, I use every part of my being to get to it. Never once has it ever crossed my mind what anyone in the outside world might think about it, at that moment.

Rumpus:  What was your musical upbringing like?

Rathborne:  I grew up moving between two towns in Maine for the summer and the winter. Everywhere was the radio, things like, Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” brings me back to being young. I spent most half of every year in Northern Maine living in the woods where they took people down rivers for money. There was a definite, ‘commune-feel’ to
the way people came and went, and a lot of my formative experiences with music were by travelling late at night on buses with these people. There was these bearded, grizzled woodsmen fellows to young hippie-types, I absorbed a lot of their ideas on music and life. Music is what we all had in common, what we shared.

Rumpus: Do you make music every day?

Rathborne:  I play and make music every day. There are periods of time when I give myself a break, but I am usually only lying to myself. Music is my means of expression really. More than physically talking with people.

Rumpus:  What is your creative process like?

Rathborne:  The process in which I make things is to a certain degree, pretty secretive, and as a result, I feel like I even conceal some of it to myself. I go through long periods of time focusing on certain ideas, trying to come up with a way to get them down, get at the heart of them. A lot of times, that’s a theme, or a feeling or conflict. Getting them down helps me to understand them on some kind of deeper level.

Rumpus:  Your voice and vocal delivery are quite unique.  What do you think formed them?

Rathborne:  I grew up listening to so many different singers and kinds of music. I really spent my whole life collecting things, songs, and ideas to the point that there must be a root to everything somewhere along the line. If somebody sang in an odd kind of way, it always jumped out at me as unique. Somebody like Mel Torme with his beautiful warm voice or Shane McGowan with this gravelly sincerity, it all meant something, and it all connected. There are probably just as many links in my head to the Clash and Neil Young as there is to some obscure band from the sixties or the Manic Street Preachers.

Rumpus: What informed your choice to release both Dog Years and I Can Be One  simultaneously, rather than releasing one and then the other?

Rathborne: The decision was made so you have this Vinyl record that acts like this piece of art. That is, when you flip it over, you have two different kinds of music on each side. I took that from a few different people. The Beach Boys’ album Today has a flip side to it that supposedly Brian Wilson wrote when he was stoned. It’s really downbeat and pretty songs. On David Bowie’s Low when you flip the record over, it’s all synthesizers on one side, no vocals. Then the other side is all rock songs, like “Be My Wife” and “Sound and Vision.”

Rumpus:  What was the recording process like for these releases?  How did it differ from making your first album?

Rathborne: My first record, After Dark, I made crawling around this place I wasn’t supposed to be, it was this college radio station that was in my hometown. I used to sneak in there and record as much as I could, then stay all night and skip school the next morning. I learned how to use all the equipment and would sneak my friends in to play
instruments sometimes. This went on for probably the last two years of high school. I think I called it After Dark because it was all recorded late at night.

When I recorded I Can Be One and Dog Years I went to a real studio. Sometimes I engineered some of the stuff. I produced all of it, except for the track, “Dog Years.” That was done with the guy Joey Levine, from the 60s band “Ohio Express.” He was a big Tin Pan alley type songwriter in New York back in the day. I read that Joey Ramone
named himself Joey after him. He wrote and sang the song, “Yummy Yummy Yummy” when he was 16. He’s the inventor of Bubble-gum [music]. You can still find him in New York City.

Rumpus:  I’m really intrigued by “Pantomime Fear.” off the Dog Years EP. Can you tell me more about that?

Rathborne:   I wrote that song around the time of After Dark, which means I was probably about 16 or 17 when I wrote it. The title just came up to me. I wanted a song about the passing of time and relationships that fall apart. I actually wrote that with a friend of mine originally. We were in the middle of the woods playing across this huge lake, and he was playing piano, the line came in my head, “Meet me on the avenue..” and then, “Time, time, time..” which I thought was good. Then there was the title, ‘Pantomime Fear’, kinda like a pantomime horse I guess. Something hidden and incomplete that sneaks up on you.

Rumpus:  Are you planning any videos for the songs?

Rathborne: At the moment, I’m working on a video for, “I Can Be One” based on the artwork of Bas Jan Ader, a Dutch artist from the 70s. He’s a very cool artist, his final artwork was sailing a tiny one-man sailboat across the world and ending up back in Sweden. He never made it and his boat washed up off the shore of Ireland, without him in it.

Rumpus:   What are your live shows like?

Rathborne: Lately they’ve been very high energy, in a good way. For this upcoming tour of Europe with SoKo I will be playing solo, which is different in its own way. I hope to come back with my band as well in the later Spring. We’re doing something like 40 dates all over Europe and Scandinavia in March.

Rumpus:  You’re obviously already a man of many talents, but what would you like to get better at, musically?

Rathborne: I would love to get tighter on the drums. I always liked how Prince and Stevie Wonder played their drums on their records.

Rumpus:   Who are your favorite authors/poets?

Rathborne: My favorite authors and poets are people like J.D. Salinger, Russell Banks. Huysmans wrote a book called A Rebours which I liked. As far as poets go, Rumi, Walt Whitman. I am really mesmerized by some of W.H. Auden’s poems, like, “Funeral Blues.” Some other writers I had a huge fondness for are Yukio Mishima, [and]  J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun I’m reading right now.

A writer that had a great deal of influence on me is the playwright Sam Shepard. He writes plays, but what I am more specifically referencing is a few books he produced over the past 10 years. One of them is called “Cruising Paradise” that a close friend gave to me. It is a beautiful collection of stories about kind of, wandering through America.


Erin Lyndal Martin is a creative writer, music journalist, and artist. Her work has recently appeared in Salon, No Depression, Gigantic Sequins, and Yalobusha Review. More from this author →