When I started this series, I had initially intended for the footage that became “Episode 0” to be just a practice run. After all, I wasn’t yet in the frame of mind to pry open the mind of Chris Robley and his band mates in proper interview fashion. But I always did intend for Chris to have a “proper” episode, so finally, here it is – and filmed in Chris’ home in Portland, Oregon, the way it should be.
I arrived in Portland early in the afternoon on the third of April, and after replacing the audio extension cable I had lost during my ill-timed move to North Beach, I made my way to Strumptown Coffee Roasters on 3rd Avenue between Oak and Pine. There, I hung out drinking some so-so chai while taking in the odor of some amazing coffee beans and waiting patiently for Chris Robley to arrive from his work day at CD Baby.
On this particular weekend, Chris was set to take the stage with Norfolk & Western, a band led by frequent M. Ward collaborator Adam Selzer. Though Chris is not a core member of the group, he often joins Norfolk on tour as a second guitarist and keyboard player.
The focus of our interview, however, was squarely on Chris’ own music (including a demonstration of how he “borrowed” some musical ideas from Julian Lennon). He had recently released Movie Theatre Haiku, his third full-length album and first to credit his road band The Fear of Heights (Rachel Taylor Brown on keyboards and vocals; Ben Landsverk on viola and vocals; Daniel Adlaf on trumpet; Arthur Parker on bass; and John Stewart on drums; occasionally Peter Swenson subs for John). It’s his most sonically adventurous disc to date, and a personal favorite of mine.
Also on the agenda for discussion were the new album in progress, tentatively titled Glass Menagerie, which features The Fear of Heights band even more prominently. One of the songs likely to feature on the album, “Andalucian Pines,” makes its debut here as a solo acoustic performance by Chris, where he also introduces the song with a little background on what’s going on between the tune’s characters.
If Chris is to stick to the pattern he has set since releasing his debut solo album, 2005′s This Is The, the next record will have its own distinct sound, and even improve upon its predecessors. By the sounds of the works in progress he shared with me (which, alas, shall not be made available for public consumption), Glass Menagerie (assuming that title sticks – Chris also has a history of changing titles at the last minute) is already worlds apart from all of Chris’ previous work. “Hold Me In Your Hopeless Arms” introduces Indian sounds to the Fear of Heights palette and slowly adds more to the mix – crunchy electric guitar, harmonized backing vocals, strummed rhythm guitar – while “Raymond Carver Couple” could easily masquerade as a Radiohead outtake of recent vintage were it not for Chris’ distinct, nearly-whispered lead vocals and his uncanny ability to fit an actual chorus into the structure of an unconventional song without it sounding like a blatant attempt to make it more “accessible.”
One would hope this new record will help to raise Chris’ profile, but this brings up another more distressing trend. As Chris explained to me in a car ride across Portland, each album he releases sells fewer copies than the one before it. It’s a harsh irony given the increase in quality in each successive record. Thankfully, it hasn’t beaten him down.
Chris Robley – “Andalucian Pines”