Tucker Rountree, the wiry-looking singer and guitarist for Total Slacker, is the first image that pops into my brain when I think of modern-day Brooklyn. On paper, the 32-year-old Salt Lake City transplant epitomizes the archetypal bohemian, warehouse-dwelling pipsqueak down to a T, with large, bespectacled eyeballs hidden behind a fringe of blond, moppy hair and clothes that look as if they went extinct in 1993. He’s a target that cynics lock in their crosshairs and scoff at simply because they don’t understand or relate to his lifestyle.
When I recently phoned Rountree, who’s currently traveling around the country with his band to promote their second album, Slip Away (Black Bell), I discerned a sense of earnestness in his voice and an ingenuity in his articulation that suggested I was speaking with someone who was both humble and easily aroused about the direction Total Slacker is heading in. At the moment, the four-piece is one of New York City’s hottest bands on the independent circuit, but Rountree seems to be taking it one show at a time.
Rattled by the unfortunate passing of their former drummer, Terence Connor, in 2012, the group has bounced back since then in a big way with their latest record. Although 20-odd years removed from the year when punk finally broke into mainstream ears, Total Slacker reanimates the corpse of the crowd-surfing Gen-X’er with a sludge-festooned grunginess that channels Swervedriver as much as it does Superchunk. Compared to the fuzz-addled slop pop of their 2011 debut, Thrashin’, Slip Away oozes in a vibrant haze of guitar fumes that smoke from booming amps while the combo of bass and drums pummels in a thick wall of skull-shattering ridiculousness.
During our discussion, Rountree expressed his thoughts regarding his band’s new album, living in New York City, and Macaulay Culkin.
How’s your touring going?
Tucker Rountree: It’s going great. The people have been really energetic and have been wanting a show.
When’s the last time you guys went on tour?
TR: The last time was a summer ago.
Have you noticed any differences in the way the audiences have been reacting compared to last time?
TR: Yeah, it seems more energetic. People are a little more enthusiastic. Maybe it’s because of the new songs.
How was your recent record release show for Slip Away?
TR: It was great. It sold out and about 300 people came. Shortly thereafter, we played the Music Hall (of Williamsburg) and that was really nice.
You guys are playing an upcoming show with Macaulay Culkin’s band. What are your thoughts on that?
TR: That’s going to be really fun. His band (The Pizza Underground) is like an installation piece. People think it’s kind of a joke and satirical, but I think it’s more like conceptual art.
Have you heard their album yet?
TR: Bits and pieces. I’ve heard their whole set live because I was at their first show where we met Macaulay.
What was you first impression of him as a person?
TR: My first impressions were shaped by what everyone says about him in the media and what you come to expect from someone who was a child star. All that went out the window when I first met him because he was really personable and down to earth and talkative. He seemed really happy to be there and to be doing what he was doing.
The intensity and sheer volume of Slip Away sounds as if it could fill an arena, whereas Thrashin’ felt trebly, poppy, and more suited for a club. How do you see this record in comparison to your previous record and was there a conscious effort to get louder?
TR: I see it as the next level of the first one. It’s like if you’re playing a video game that you really like, and you’re trying to get to the next level and then you have to fight the boss at the end of that level. We got past the first level and now we’re on the next one and it’s like a new theme, but with the same characters in it and similar concepts. The first record, to be fair, was kind of rushed and we were just trying to get it documented and get it done. We did that without any real money or studio. The first record is really just a collection of the earliest incarnation and ideas of what the band is, and the second album is more of a next-level version of that. Each song has like 12 guitars on it.
TR: Yeah. We recorded live as a trio for the rhythm section in one large room, but then we put a lot of overdubs in there as tastefully as possible. There are lots of layers of the same notes.
When your former drummer passed away, was there ever a time when you felt that it was the end of the band or did you feel that you owed it to him to keep it going?
TR: I think it was both feelings at the same time. Our logical brains were telling us that it was the worst surprise that could ever happen to someone that you loved, but the other emotion was that Terence would have wanted us to keep going. That’s the way he was. He was a lifer and completely into it 100%. He was a very selfless person in that way. He loved everyone having a good time. It was hard to make that decision.
How long afterwards did you start rehearsing material for Slip Away, and how would you describe the sessions?
TR: Up until he died, we were already playing half the songs on the second album, so it was already in its infantile stages and being conceptualized. When he passed away and we regrouped in the studio, it was more or less picking up the pieces from what we were working on and then adding to that.
Your band tends to get lumped in with the whole ’90s revival thing by the media. Is that something you embrace or do you see it as something that overshadows the music you are making?
TR: People need to box you into certain categories. That’s what people have to do so they can feel happy about their own lives. I think whatever people need to do to help them understand it is great. I like it when people voice their thoughts, but I don’t really know about any of the genres or classifications that have been mentioned in reference to us. Some people call it shoegaze, but it’s not shoegaze at all. There are a lot of elements of different things you can hear in there. Emily (Oppenheimer) studied classical guitar for a lot of years, so I think you can hear some of that in there, and (David) Tassy has studied metal guitar.
So from what you’re telling me, it sounds like you don’t care regardless?
TR: I wouldn’t say so much that I don’t care, it’s just that I don’t pay attention because I can’t let it affect the thing that’s happening inside of me to want to write in the first place. I didn’t read the Pitchfork review, and people told me they said some things in there that were kind of funny. I just read the first sentence and thought, “Oh, that’s great that we got a Pitchfork review. I’m grateful for that.” It’s fun to ride the wave and see what people are going to say and do because they are always going to react.
Being a Utah native, what do you like and not like about living in New York?
TR: New York to me is kind of like the armpit of the world, but it doesn’t smell as bad as everyone else says it smells. And you’re life is like the bar of deodorant so you just have to deal with it. At the same time, there are all these great opportunities and wonderful people and things that can happen in that city. I’m grateful for New York and the people and the infrastructure that want to invest in our band and music.
What sort of themes or ideas appeal to you when you sit down to write a song?
TR: It seems like it changes all the time. I don’t really have a system, but every time I try to come up with a formula for writing music, it stops working in the magic department. But in that philosophy of trying not to have a system, somehow, inadvertently, you come up with a temporary system. So you use that and it works for a while, but then you get bored of it and you have to get away because you don’t want to get jaded. I would say for every 10 songs written, only one of them is good.
Do you feel comfortable expressing yourself as a songwriter?
TR: I really enjoy that. If there’s a way to actually say something that is powerful and interesting and unique and makes you want to listen to it over and over again and gives people comfort, then I think that’s a really fun thing to do. The only way you can do it is in a song. It’s a medium just like anything else. We’re really just dealing with mediums here. That’s the thing I’ve been learning this past year. The band’s format is just one of many mediums. Total Slacker can be anything, but I just think it’s going to keep evolving in the sound and delivery.
What can you tell me about the album artwork?
TR: I had this idea with a burning couch and someone who was dressed in really cool clothes that was looking back at it with the American flag. It’s kind of a statement on youth culture. The lady’s like 85 and she used to be really beautiful, but she’s 85 now and her spirit is still really beautiful. We didn’t want to put a beautiful person from the beautiful people’s club on the cover. The burning couch and American flag are in there with some imagery about our country and things that are dying and things that are being reborn.
What is coming up in the next couple months for your band?
TR: The plan is that we’re going through the whole album cycle right now, so we’re just going to tour as much as we can. We’re getting invitations to play overseas in Europe so the next trajectory is finding the conduits of finance to make that happen. We’re going to get over there and make it happen in 2014.