Monolith Q&A: Red Wire Black Wire

Often compared to New Wave bands of the early '80s -- especially the Human League --Brooklyn, New York's Red Wire Black Wire, uses synthesizers as a primary compositional instrument. Described by the New Music Express as having an icy sound, the immediacy and sincerity of Doug Walters's vocals helps the music avoid any ironic distancing common to a good deal of synth pop. If anything, Red Wire Black Wire is an indie rock band built on a hip-hop foundation that is heard more in the structuring of the songs and the rhythms rather than any obvious sonic character. The act's latest full-length, Robots and Roses, is at first blush a retro electro pop affair but a deeper listen into the album reveals the group's talent for making dense and deeply rhythmic rock music with a penchant for darkly confessional lyrics. We had a chance to speak with vocalist Doug Walters on the eve of his band's national tour kicking off in Washington, DC. en route to a 4:15 p.m. Sunday appearance at the Monolith Festival

Westword (Tom Murphy): What are the origins of your band's name?

Doug Walters: We're a pretty synthesizer-based band so the electricity connotations of that. I've also been into bands with colors in their name, especially "red." Also the bomb disarmament thing--which cord you're going to pull--the nervousness that's part of what I'm doing.

WW: Why did you name your debut full-length Robots & Roses?

DW: Partly because of the title track and that song was inspired by a dream I had right after my girlfriend broke up with me--right when I started to record the album. I thought it was a pretty cool representation of the synthetic and organic thing we're going for.

WW: That might actually be my favorite song on the album.

DW: That's cool to hear. My dad was like, "You've committed a fatal error."

WW: It's very different from the rest of the album.

DW: I think it works as a transition, it's sort of a linchpin. My dad thought we made a mistake by naming the album after the one song that would never be popular.

WW: The NME compared you to the Human League probably because of the analog synth sounds and your vocal phrasing--even though I don't think you really sound like Phil Oakey. Was that band at all an influence on your music and what would you say inspired you to make this sort of music?

DW: Actually, I saw that reference and I thought, "Who is the Human League?" and I went and listened to them--"Don't You Want Me?" - that song rules. We get compared to '80s stuff a lot--new wave and such. I actually played in a new wave band in college but I never really listened to new wave. A lot of the inspiration for this stuff is coming from hip-hop. Dirty South kind of beats. I grew up listening to all kinds of rock and everything. But everyone in the band has been trained in different kinds of music. Jon [Sirlin], our bass player, he's a classical violinist. Zac [Meyer], our guitarist, he's a country/folk kind of guy. So he's good at guitar picking/arpeggiation stuff so a lot of stuff gets incorporated that I wouldn't come up with. The core of it is the lead synths and a hip-hop groove with indie rock vocals--or whatever my vocal style could be called.

WW: The video for "Compass" reminds me of the feel and mood of the video for Human League's "Don't You Want Me?" and a lot of those other early MTV videos that were part conceptual and part band performance. Who designed and directed the video and was there a particular feel or mood you had in mind?

DW: That was our friend Diane Frame. The whole thing was her endeavor. She wrote it and took care of everything. The only thing we did was contribute our practice space where it was shot and danced around while the music played.

WW: What is it about scratch game tickets that you find so appealing?

DW: [laughs] I guess it's kind of a metaphor for how I'm trying to live. You can't win if you don't play. Also, I'm just abnormally lucky. I'm good at scratch off for some reason. I bought one on the way down here to Maryland from New York in New Jersey and won five bucks in Jersey. The fucked up thing is that I scratched it in Maryland. I actually bought that one with a two dollar bill too so I thought it would be extra lucky. So that's five dollars I gotta redeem in New Jersey when I'm back through there.

WW: Do you play one dollar games or multiple dollar games?

DW: I generally play one dollar. Actually I started it because I was hanging out with this girl and I went to the liquor store and came back to her place. The guy ahead of me in line was like, "Let me get two scratch-off lotto tickets." And I thought it would be endearing if I came back with two scratch-off tickets and I did it and we both won so I kind of got hooked on it.

WW: In that July 9, 2009 Playground Boston interview Jon said that your songwriting process somewhere between "a collaborative process" and what you come up with. In what ways has the band's sound or songwriting changed, if at all, since you've brought together a full group?

DW: I think it's changed a lot. Initially it was my project and I was sort of particular and made sure everyone followed in line with my vision. Once everybody else figured out what Red Wire Black Wire was doing, it became more collaborative. It was a process of recycling a lot of times where I'll write something on the computer, make a demo, and the band will practice it, work it out, come up with different parts and then we'll go back and record it again and the I'll use what we've been doing live as a template again for a final recording. There's also additional stuff you can do in the studio with strings and multiple synths.

WW: A number of critics have called your music melancholy but to me your music doesn't sound particularly melancholy even though the subject matter of many of your songs may be. How would you characterize the tone and feel of your music?

DW: It varies from track to track, obviously, but the vocals do tend to be very dark even though the music a lot of times is not. I think on the record, "Career Woman," "Robots and Roses" and "Black Veil" are straight up dark. A lot of the earlier tracks are pretty upbeat, musically. They groove and they're almost dance tunes but they're dark, lyrically. The Cure - I go to them for comparisons to what we're doing. I think that sometimes their music will be almost cute and then Robert Smith will be bleeding his heart out.

WW: You have a song called "William Blake." What's that song about and how is it connected to the poet? It has that interesting lyric - "And just like William Blake, I want to overflow/And just like William Blake, I've got love for the hounds below."

DW: I came across this series of poems by Blake called "The Proverbs of Hell," which I recommend to everyone. Most of the lyrics from that song are taken from "Proverbs of Hell." A lot of the phrasing is changed because I fit it into the rhythm scheme. I think the chorus described my fondness for the sentiments he was getting at.

WW: "Reverse Tinman" sounds like a pretty direct and poetic denunciation of a former lover. How did you come up with that title for the song?

DW: I think I was in bed. A lot of times I'm half asleep and coming up with something and then have to decide if I'm going to get up and write it down. I think it was about one of those circumstances where you're always for someone when they're no longer want to be intimate and the idea that maybe that ain't worth it.

WW: The Tinman is the guy looking for a heart.

DW: All heart and no body is the opposite of that.

WW: You've stated your aim to be unironic and sincere in your songwriting. What influenced your taking that stance with your art and why is that important to begin with?

DW: This music thing is kind of where I've derived meaning in life and I guess while I'm plenty sarcastic and ironic but at my core I'm a pretty serious guy. I would just not want to make it a joke or make my own life a joke. I would like to convey something sincere and meaningful in this music rather than sarcastic. I think there's a danger in taking yourself too seriously but I think it's important in my music to say what I believe.

WW: Is there anything about the environment at Wesleyan that fostered such a creative group of people coming out of there of late?

DW: I only went to Wesleyan so I don't know what other schools are like but it was definitely an impressively creative place. Especially coming from high school to Wesleyan--everyone around me was an artist. I think also, as I've said before, that MGMT started doing well so it seemed attainable to be in a rock band and be moderately successful. After that people started taking it seriously seeing their friends do it. I think it's important to learn about where to play, where to go, who to talk to and how to pursue this pop music on a more serious level. Knowing people doing it, you learn about it.

WW: Is there anything in the world of music and art that you find especially inspirational at the moment?

DW: I've been pretty obsessed with the band the National. Which is weird because texturally they don't sound much like us but I think Matt Berninger is one of the best lyricists around and their music is just so dense and beautiful.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.