Here’s a cover story on Chris which originally appeared in the June issue of Arc Magazine.
Chris Robley ran into the living room and announced to his parents that he wanted a guitar. He had just listened to a Paul Simon concert on the radio, and he simply had to learn to play. Remembering how quickly he had quit piano lessons, his parents were reluctant to fork out the money for an instrument he’d probably leave neglected under his bed. They decided to compromise and rent him a guitar so that when he lost interest they could just return it to the store.
“I’m left handed at everything I do except guitar, because when we went to rent one no one rented leftie guitars. I was so anxious to start I just took a rightie one and learned that way. But I still air guitar this way,” Robley says, pantomiming a left-handed riff.
Fortunately for all of us, Robley never lost interest. Instead, he played jazz guitar in his high school and college jazz bands, and then continued to accumulate musical skills, learning more keyboards and bass and dabbling in other instruments like the banjo, mandolin, and accordion.
Robley and his college friend, drummer John Stewart, got their start playing together in a rock band called the Sort Ofs. It began as a duo but then they recorded an album that somewhat accidentally caused them form a band. Robley says, “We made an album where I went a little crazy and put all kinds of stuff down in the recording. And then we realized that we had to pull all this off live somehow.” They enlisted some friends who were also musicians to help fill out the band for live shows.
When Robley decided to start The Fear of Heights, he and Stewart brought in bandmate Rachel Taylor Brown from the Sort Ofs and then built the rest of the band slowly. The band is comprised of other versatile musicians, who play the standard keyboard, percussion, and bass, and also add a rich complexity of sounds using more unexpected instruments like the clarinet, glockenspiel, flugelhorn, and even the kazoo. “There’s also a little accordion thrown in for good measure. Next maybe I’ll do a polka album,” he jokes.
Chris Robley and the Fear of Heights has toured with up to 13 people in the band. With all of his bandmates being multi-instrumentalists, stage shows can sometimes be a logistical challenge. “The problem is bringing enough gear so they can switch instruments”, Robley explains. “We don’t want to roll into some small venue and have four keyboards and eight guitars. The sound guys do not like that.”
The usual cliches often used to describe music “accessible, complex, diverse” are pretty wimpy given the genius ways the layers of melodies and countermelodies come together. I was hoping Robley could help me out with an “elevator speech” description of his music. “I’m terrible at that stuff,” he admits. “If it’s a total stranger I say it’ss orchestral indie pop. If they ask for more I’ll usually put “folk” in there because a lot of it is acoustic guitar and people equate that with folk. Let’s just say Beatle-esque.”
The lyrics in the new Chris Robley and the Fear of Heights album, Movie Theater Haiku, move more like poetry or a short story, attesting to the years Robley has spent doing creative writing. With his ambition behind both the music and the lyrics, it can be tricky to put them together without sacrificing the quality of either component. Robley says that when he writes a song he prefers to start with the lyrics. “I find I get into trouble when I write the music first, because I don’t want to change the melody. It takes way longer to fit words that I’m comfortable with to this preexisting melody, whereas I can make up countless melodies to a lyrical phrase.”
After touring this spring, Robley is taking a break to finish up a new album, due out this fall. He hasn’t settled on a name for it yet. “It intentionally has no theme. The songs are pretty short and I tried to keep them a little sparser than the previous record. I want to say it’s less ambitious, but to do that, I think, for me it’s more ambitious because my natural tendency is to make things very dense. It’s been an interesting exercise. I wanted to see if I could get away with having the same impact with less.”
When Robley and Stewart decided to start getting serious about promoting their music, it wasn’t necessarily because they felt ready. It was Stewart’s cousin who helped them round out their focus to include more of a business-oriented mindset”basically, pressing them to do all of the things they dreaded. “When we first moved into town we were totally anti-schmoozing, anti-marketing, anti- anything that wasn’t about being in the basement making music or on the stage making music. John’s cousin was pretty integral in kicking us out the door and saying, “You can be as talented as you want, but you have to meet people and make connections and make stuff happen.” Eventually Robley began to feel more natural doing promotions and connecting with other bands, and now he actually enjoys that part of being a musician.
As important as it is to build personal relationships the industry, Robley notes the temptation to use music to power your entrepreneurial spirit. “You should do it because you love making music, rather than because you want attention and just happen to be proficient in this area,” he says. When he began to look at different musicians, he found that some approached their music first as a musician and second as an entrepreneur, but others came at it first and foremost as a business. “Those people need to quit and get out of the way. They’re cluttering up the streams,” he says, and then adds with a grin, “Okay, that’s the bitter curmudgeon in me coming out.”
As both someone who creates and avidly listens to music, Robley advises musicians to experiment with a wide variety of instruments, and to not limit themselves musically just because a certain instrument isn’t popular. “The trend is to make music where the creative process is constricted by the parameters of what people think is cool. So you can’t have this particular instrument on it, you can’t say something lyrically, you can’t be too melodic. There are all these rules because there’s a trend or a sound that’s en vogue. There’s very little that’s truly unique going on. That bums me out.”
On the other hand, Robley acknowledges that musicians are taking a risk when they stray from the tried and true sounds and instruments. “If you look at it from a business perspective you might be shooting yourself in the foot and turning people off, but at least let that decision come after you’ve got the initial creative idea developed in some way. I think editing at the end is better than editing up front, or saying “we can only do these kind of things” or “we should try to make a song that sounds like that.”" He stresses that taking a unique and interesting approach may be just what listeners need to really latch on to your music. And there’s only one way to find out.
A nice review for Movie Theatre Haiku from Julia Cooper at Performer.
Chris Robley and the Fear of Heights -Â MovieÂ Theater Haiku (a masque of backwards ballads, a picturesque burlesque)
by Gary Schwind
Chris Robley is a multi-instrumentalist. By which I don’t mean he plays guitars and keyboards. Don’t get me wrong. He does play guitar, keyboards (organs, synths, pianos, etc.) But he also plays bass, vibraphones, marimbas, banjo, mandolin, and so on. That is pretty impressive, especially to me. I have a hard time mastering one instrument.One thing I can say for Chris Robley (aside from the fact that he has created the longest album title I can recall sinceÂ FionaÂ Apple‘s When the yada yada yada) is that you won’t hear too many albums like his. Movie Theater Haiku begins with a track that is reminiscent of Murder By Death. It features a healthy dose of strings and a rich, sort of literary feel to it.
In fact, the entire album has a literary feel to it. Just look at the song titles such as “The Late, Great Age of paper (haiku #2)” and “Baltimore Fugitives Buried in Brownsville, TX.” They kind of sound like story titles, don’t they. Robley is not interested in making 3-minute verse-chorus-verse songs. Each one of his songs feels more like a short story put to a fairly complex arrangement. That being said, Robley is not above using a kazoo (“Solipsist in Love”), which is probably the least literary-sounding instrument available. … Continue Reading
Syncing Poetry and Motion
Chris Robley & The Fear of Heights – Movie Theatre Haiku
Movie Theatre HaikuÂ marks Chris Robley & The Fear of Heightsâ€™ third album, another book in their series of heartbreak and mystery.Â These new chapters follow characters through journeys into darkness with the optimism shrinking and the anxiety level rising, as their lense on the world becomes narrower as time progresses.Â
Like a mime slowly making itâ€™s way onto the stage, hands up and feeling around the edges of some sort of imaginary room to get their bearings, â€œA Memory Lost at Seaâ€ starts up with seemingly random sounds of percussion that begin to fall into a rhythm just as a saxaphone starts belting out notes.Â Almost immediately the rest of the band follows and it sounds like the fumbling mime was joined by a line of burlesque dancers and theyâ€™ve got him surrounded.Â Interestingly enough, theÂ subtitle to the album is aptly named â€œA Masque of Backwards Ballads, a Picturesque Burlesqueâ€. Â Â
Just as one might not imagine a mime put on the same stage with burlesque dancers, but would imagine it interesting,Â Movie Theater HaikuÂ mixes styles and interesting instruments in ways to keep the listener engaged all the way to the final track.Â Key and tempo changes also keep the listener on their toes, wondering what will happen next. Yet, given all range from epic choruses to an expressive singular voice and moments of minimal layers versus orchestral grandeur and instrumental diversity, the album maintains a cohesiveness throughout that keep them all laced up in the same story. Each song follows a similar theme within the lyrics like in â€œSollipsist in Loveâ€ were Robleyâ€™s voice proclaims that â€œitâ€™s hard to believe things outside of my headâ€, a continuing trend heard throughout.
Chris Robley describes the characters moving through the album as being â€œlost in this kind of confined space.Â They fumble in the darkness to feel the four walls closing in on them.Â They must measure distances in a shrinking world to find their way out.â€Â Â In â€œGlass Reichâ€, an instrumental track nearing the end, the angular sounds make me think of what it be like to be lost in a room full of cracked mirrors with no indication of a doorway and just feeling washed over with sheer panic as the stress level rises.Â This is a stark constrast from the instrumental track earlier on which packs a more determined attitude.
Despite the intense emotions provoked by the artist, Robley manages to keep everything centered around quality music and intelligently written lyrics that are enjoyable and worth listening to.Â In tracks like â€œBaltimore Fugitives Buried in Brownsville, TXâ€ guitar finger picking and an intense tone are instantly catchy as the tale unfolds with Robleyâ€™s vocals taking on a more breathy style.Â In â€œSollipsist in Loveâ€ an intense electronic beat fused with piano always sticks with me long after Iâ€™ve finished listening to the album.Â The somewhat strange and interesting instruments and tones fused in this song work really well and go perfectly with the harmonized vocals.
The penultimate track, â€œPermanent Fixtures of Regretâ€ features dreamlike washes of flutes over acoustic guitar which could be viewed as either the listener giving up and accepting their fate or having found the way out.Â But then the album closer â€œWaltz for Angelika Dittrichâ€ closes the curtain with a huried waltz beat with jittery piano and instead of feeling like a goal has been reached, the listener is left more with a high level of anxiety after completing the journey but not at all accomplished.Â
Robley and the Fear of Heights doesnâ€™t want to wrap it up all nice and pretty. Instead they create that emotional response that makes you crave the resolve, like a great movie that ends dramatically but still leaves you with questions floating around in your head.Â Â