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 City deal with Verellen and his bandmates' relocation last year to Seattle -- a move that proved to be as enlightening as it was disillusioning.
With Rocky Votolato, Dudes on Ludes and Autonomous Collective, 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 30, Rock Island, 1614 15th Street, $8, 303-572-7625
"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 City is 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 City bursts 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."
By the same token, Roy doesn't fall easily into any cookie-cutter classification. "We don't sit down and think about how our records are supposed to sound," says Verellen. "It's just whatever nerdy jam thing turns into a song. We actually talk about this a lot in the band. We have no idea what the Roy sound is, really. Some people are trying to attach some 'country' tag to it, which I can take a little bit. But I don't know if that's really right on the mark. I can kind of sympathize with reviewers. I feel the same way. I don't really know what name to attach to us."
Calling Roy's music country, even alt-country, would be akin to calling the Clash a reggae band. Still, the twang abides. Flourishes of rustic charm are embroidered across the outfit's patchwork strumming and plainclothes lyricism. Yet someone in Roy is keeping tabs on Nashville: On Big City, Cook sings a tune called "Has Darryl Worley Forgotten?" -- a play on Darryl Worley's 2003 country hit "Have You Forgotten," a jingoistic, exploitatively pro-war anthem that advocates showing footage of the World Trade Center attack on TV every day so that the American public will stay pissed, vengeful and, of course, supportive of George Bush. Another Roy track, "Never Getting Married," is a heartsick ballad wherein a gay lover laments, "We're never getting married/Until half the population come around/We'll do it on front porches/Shamelessly for everyone to see/Because I don't need their papers/And you only want a diamond ring and the blessing of our families."
"Brian is a gay guy, and he's also a political science major, so he sings songs about those kinds of things," Verellen says. "But people are quoting me as saying that stuff and getting the wrong idea, which is funny. It's kind of strange, because there are three of us writing songs for Roy, and we all kind of mimic each other and inspire each other. And even though we're all pretty closely minded when it comes to issues, I wouldn't go so far as to say this is a political band.
"Each of us has his own thing going on," he continues. "Since I was the most recent guy in the band to move up to Seattle, my songs are based a little more around that. The first song on the album, 'Something That's Real,' is about all these bands that seem so insincere while trying to sound so passionate. It's an anti-drama song, like, 'Kill the dramatics. Just play the song.' That's what I was experiencing up in Seattle more than I was in Tacoma."
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Roy lies on the periphery of a circle of incredibly talked-up Seattle groups such as Pretty Girls Make Graves, Minus the Bear and Cook's These Arms Are Snakes, with whom Harkonen will be releasing a split EP later this year. Granted, these acts deserve most of the accolades they've been garnering -- but Verellen and his posse of small-town boys seem dead-set on shunning the big-city spotlight.
"I've lived in Seattle for about a year now," he says. "It's where everything is happening. There are constantly shows to go to and people to hang out with. But I'm always finding myself back in Tacoma with familiar faces and people with a little less, I don't know...hype."
Of course, one person's small town is another's bustling metropolis. Fittingly enough, Verellen's brother Dave named the band after a speck on the Washington state map that makes Tacoma look like Calcutta. "Dave is a firefighter," Verellen relates, "and he always has to go through this town on the cusp of the mountains, called Roy, which is kind of a bizarre name for a town. If Tacoma is depressing, this place is the worst. It takes about twenty seconds to drive through; there are maybe five houses and a church in town. Dave would always have these stories of all the crazy stuff that he'd see in Roy. There are a lot of meth labs and weird hippies and Vietnam vets out there just hunting in their back yards, total Rambo shit.
"So Dave came home one day a few years ago and said, 'I've got this idea for a band. We're gonna call it Roy, just like the town,'" Verellen concludes with a laugh. "We figured that would fit a band like ours. It just seemed to make sense."