By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Tacoma is weird. It's like Seattle's dirty little brother," declares Ben Verellen, singer/guitarist of Roy. "Back about a hundred years ago, there was this Tacoma versus Seattle thing, but when Seattle got the railroad terminal, it kind of took over and became this big city while Tacoma took a plunge.
"I guess there was some study that was just done, and basically it says that Tacoma statistically is the most depressing place to live in the entire country," he continues. "It has do with suicide rates and divorce rates and all these weird factors. But it's home, you know? It's the kind of place where, after five o'clock, you can ride your skateboard down the main avenue in the city, and you won't see a car for an hour. It's kind of a ghost town."
Verellen pays attention to things like empty streets and hearts trapped in the tangle of suburban sprawl. His band's debut is called Big City Sin and Small Town Redemption, and it's a musical photo album packed with brittle snapshots of road trips and train yards, hospital stays and dying grandpas. But it isn't all sepia-tinted sentimentality; many of the songs on Big Citydeal with Verellen and his bandmates' relocation last year to Seattle -- a move that proved to be as enlightening as it was disillusioning.
"We're all from Tacoma, but only our bass player still lives down there now," notes Verellen. "There's a difference between growing up in a smaller city and then moving up to this place where everybody's got this outrageous personality and this outrageous style. It's a totally different deal. People are just people in Tacoma. It has much less to do with what your status is."
The members of Roy, however, aren't strangers to status. Verellen also heads up Harkonen, a megalithic outfit that over the past nine years has built a small yet faithful following among the post-hardcore underground. Verellen's brother Dave is Roy's drummer -- but he's much better known as the lead singer of the defunct Botch, one of the most brutal and influential acts out of the Northwest in the last decade. Verellen's fellow guitarist in Roy is Brian Cook, who also served time in Botch and now plays bass for the up-and-coming powerhouse These Arms Are Snakes. Rounding out Roy's lineup is bassist Michael Cooper, who pitches in songs and lead vocals along with Cook and Verellen.
All the band-hopping and instrument-switching is enough to warrant a scorecard. And the kids keep track: There's been a lot of pressure and expectations foisted on Roy because of its metal-core pedigree, expectations that Verellen hopes won't be totally dashed by Roy's rootsy, straight-shooting pop.
"A lot of people are coming out to our shows to see what the next Botch band is, and they seem excited. I'm sure they end up getting disappointed," he says. "But although Botch was a heavy band, it was such a unique heavy band. Die-hard Botch fans were basically just music fans. A lot of those people have the same mindset we do: Music is music."
"Music is music" could be Roy's credo. The band plays indie pop like John Cougar Mellencamp played rock and roll: subtly political, unabashedly populist and straight from the gut. Gruff, tender, ragged and real, Big Cityis an organic outgrowth of life in a small town, a call of "bullshit" on pretentiousness, a staring contest against all the fucked-up isms and prejudices clinging to the underbelly of blue-collar America. Still, it's a stingingly personal work. Big ideas and deep longings are squeezed into intimate little songs that range from the upbeat and pulse-quickening to the whispery and acoustic -- quite a leap from the morbid overtones and cryptic convolution of Roy's predecessors.
"The Botch guys and all of us in Harkonen would totally immerse ourselves in not only the heavy stuff, but the mellower stuff," Verellen explains. "We'd be on the road with a heavy band, playing heavy shows with other heavy bands, and the last thing we wanted to do was go home and listen to more distorted guitars and screaming.
"So we all got together and started jamming in the garage," he adds. "It just seemed so effortless and fun. There was no pressure to write the most intricate riff that was going to freak people out. It was like, 'Oh, this sounds pleasant, and it's easy to do.' It was refreshing to go into a practice with two riffs and walk out an hour later with a finished song and just have it be done with, instead of pining over it and over-thinking every little detail."
Part of Roy's raw, instinctive sound is no doubt a result of the fact that Verellen and crew play different instruments in this group than they do in their other projects. "Yeah, sure, we can't really play drum fills or guitar solos," he confesses, "but we know how to take these three chords and make them sound like a song."
Amen. Big Citybursts with vibrant, fully fleshed songs housed in a simple, catchy architecture. Roy's sound tills the same soil as folk-flavored punk acts like the Weakerthans and Against Me!, at the same time harnessing Neutral Milk Hotel's ranting poetics and the wry cleverness of the Good Life. And although Verellen himself is reluctant to name-drop a shopping list of influences, he readily admits to being an admirer of Portland's pop underdog, the Thermals. "They're really unique," he comments. "I can't quite figure out what their deal is. They kind of have that indie thing going on, but at the same time they're just a pop-punk band."