The Rock*A*Teens: An Oral History 

After a 12-year hiatus, the influential Cabbagetown rockers return

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STEADY GROOVE: Lesemann joined the band as drummer in 1998. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • STEADY GROOVE: Lesemann joined the band as drummer in 1998.

Laura Ballance, Merge Records co-founder and Superchunk bassist: We definitely saw some ups and downs. I remember there were times when Chris [Lopez] had a hard time with touring. He'd have panic attacks sometimes. Touring didn't always agree with him. He always came through. The whole band did.

Ballard Lesemann: When we got back from tours, we were desperate to scrape together enough money to pay the rent. We did more [tours] to write songs. If we can survive another tour, maybe we'll make another record.

While the Rock*A*Teens' music strongly resonated with a small, devoted following, they never managed to sell enough records or tickets to make a living from music. Lopez renovated houses as a carpenter. Hughes worked at Eats. Joiner was finishing up with law school, and Lesemann kept editing at the newspaper. Although some people thought the band members would eventually turn their music into full-time careers, Lopez says he never strived to earn a steady paycheck from selling records, tickets, or merchandise. Toward the end of the millennium, Lopez began to write songs for the band's fifth and final record, Sweet Bird of Youth.

Will Joiner: [Lopez] gave me a cassette tape of 35 songs that was definitely going in a new direction. It was a lot more otherworldly.

Chris Lopez: We never demoed until we did Sweet Bird of Youth. After four records, I was like, "What can I add to it that has absolutely nothing to do with a guitar?" Playing the drums with my fingers, running the keyboard through all kinds of pedals.

Ballard Lesemann: We were winging it with no budget. ... It's almost over-the-top with extra keys, layered guitars. But it's an A for effort! We were trying to sound like we had a full orchestra at times when we only had five dudes in a cheap studio.

Will Joiner: It was an incredibly exhausting experience. It had to have been six days a week [of recording] for three full months. ... We were in our laboratory making musical potions.

Ballard Lesemann: Sweet Bird is like 17 songs, way too long, really. We debated if we want to put out a 20-song record or split this in half. I remember Chris [Lopez] saying, "Come on, this is our London Calling!"

Chris Lopez: Maybe we put too many songs on it. Me, personally, lyrically and melodically, they're some of the closest things to my heart and my soul that I've ever done.

Despite the grand ambitions behind Sweet Bird of Youth, Lopez and other band members started questioning the group's future.

Chris Lopez: We never really fit in culturally to the zeitgeist, as it were, ever. Ever. [We did] the fucking death marches across the country that any indie rock band does to find some sort of foothold.

Will Joiner: The shows definitely got better and well attended. There were highlights. The lowlights weren't bad. Being in an independent band, you get used to playing to empty rooms.

Chris Lopez: We played in Brooklyn to nobody and had the show of our lives. The guys who owned the club knew we played the show of our lives. That was probably right before we broke up, right before the end. I'm not lying, we had, at least of the tour anyway, we had the show of our lives. There was hardly anyone there.

A.C. Newman, the New Pornographers frontman: Dan [Bejar] thought they just arrived a little bit too early. If they showed up in 2001, it would've been a different game.

Chris Lopez: I remember playing to nobody in Montreal and Dan Bejar was there. Nobody cared.

Dan Bejar: There were probably nine people in the audience. I'm pretty sure four of them I dragged out myself personally. I don't know what the norm is for a rainy Tuesday night in Montreal in 2001. They seemed kind of used to [it]. There was always a cool, lurching drunken quality to the music. It was kind of a rough time for rock 'n' roll in America in the late '90s.

Will Sheff: What was so endearing about the Rock*A*Teens is that they were these weird Atlanta boys. They didn't have the right jacket. They didn't have the right boots. It felt real. The Walkmen took [the same sound] and had their sort of New York sophistication; a lot more brushed up and fashionably rumpled.

Dan Bejar: They looked like older dudes, not young men in leather jackets. ... In a 2001 staff write-up, Aquarius Records described Strokes' This Is It as something like, "No big deal, pretty good record, kind of a cross between Billy Idol and the Rock*A*Teens." I was like, "Shit, that's kind of a pretty good description of the Strokes!"

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