Below is the text of an interview piece written by Zaph Mann for OPB Music, which originally appeared on their site HERE. Thanks, Zaph!
Chris Robley is back, in fact he’s stormed back: Appearing last week at the Someday Lounge with a new pared-down 5-piece he played familiar songs with a new searing rock edge, “We went away for nine months and came back as a jam-band,” he joked.
Robley writes lyrical songs in both senses; expressing ideas in an imaginative, attractive manner while writing very readable and insightful words. Throw in some consummate musicians and his excellent voice and the wonder is why isn’t he much better known. It’s a quandry that I asked Robley and his drummer John Stewart about before the show:
Why aren’t you ‘big’, you seem to have all the ingredients, definitely the talent and great songs, although I will say when I first heard you it seemed a shade pop for my taste but one proper listen and I was swayed – what do you think?
“I think that’s a big part of it – the music’s not dumb enough for the pop side and not avant-garde enough for the independent side.”
[and no stunts] “don’t take your clothes off” quipped one of them.
“And you’re right about the words, there’s something, a word, or a twist in every song, that might offend some people .”
Robley also pointed out that theirs is not an easily pigeon-holed sound but Stewart (who was also with Robley in his former band The Sort Ofs) said he felt it [the recognition] was just a matter of time.
Robley’s songs are so well written that you can read the lyrics over and over again like miniature stories, with twists on life. I asked him particularly about “Athiest’s Prayer” from the marvellous (and marvellously named) Movie Theatre Haiku (a Masque of Backwards Ballads, a Picturesque Burlesque) suggesting that it could be misinterpreted in the way that “Born In the USA” was.
“Oh yeah… I sing ‘Amen’ and they think I’m a Christian. Although I really regret not calling that ‘Agnostic’s Prayer’ because that would have made it more ambiguous.”
I asked Robley about his lyrics, is there any big picture he’s painting?
“Is there an overall ascetic? I’ve no idea. I like to cut through, to avoid cliches… unless of course they can be used to emphasize something.
I like to challenge, to be brutal even, I feel pop can do more, be more, than it typically is, I want to have an impact, and not only through the lyrics, in the arrangements and chord changes also, I have the same attitude – let’s have a little discomfort.”
Are you upset about the state of things?
“Only on the usual way – just the normal things. I’m not sore about anything, it’s not teen-angst . But artistically I’ve always been drawn to observation.”
Do you have any other art outlet?
“Yes, I write a lot of poetry, just recently I wrote about thirty poems and they’ve had an effect on my songwriting (Robley has a new album in the works). I can cannibalise them, taking a key line from here or there. I used to be painstaking about the lyrics but now they are coming easier and I can let the music take prescience.”
During our chat I’d slipped in one of my tangental questions – How many swans do you recommend, per bathtub?
“Is there a limit?” (no)
“Is there a right answer?” (not really – there’s a reference)
“Are they attractive swans?” (it’s up to you)
“Well then, as many as can fit , I suppose”
Stewart was more straightforward “Two – one under each arm.”
Chris Robley didn’t try to be clever, instead he took the question at face value, assuming there was an answer, or a reason for it (which there is). He’s a genuinely pleasant person to be around and an abundantly talented artist, but he’s not the snarling, controversy his insights suggest (and his melodies allay). Perhaps lack of celebrity and elusive categorization will keep him from greater recognition. I hope not, he may be no rebel, but he is, to borrow a cliche, “The genuine article.”
Copyright writing and photography: Zaph Mann 2010-. Reproduction with attribution is fine. Original publisher: opbmusic.org 2010