In the 1982 cheese-epic Conan the Barbarian, James Earl Jones’s Thulsa Doom explains the “riddle of steel” with a question: “What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?” On a Monday evening in the considerably less smoky—and closed—Rocket Bar, Riddle of Steel’s singer and guitarist Andrew Elstner is attempting to explain where their band’s moniker comes from. After a mirthful delving into the name’s deeper meaning, singer and bassist (and Rocket Bar co-owner) Jimmy Vavak gets serious a moment, shrugging, “It’s just a name.” Not quite finished, Elstner wants to make clear that the band has no affiliation with an RPG-come-lately of the same name, deadpanning, “Although Jimmy is a wizard, an eighteenth-level, and I’m a fifth-level halfling wizard.”
Explaining their music isn’t as easy. Although rooted in math rock—don’t be frightened—often thunderously percussive, strategically placed Andy Summers–ish jazz chords, and melodic, balls-of-fire vocals in the league of XTC’s Andy Partridge create a dichotomy that makes for powerful, addictively listenable music.
After releasing two critically acclaimed records (2001’s EP Burn and 2003’s full-length Python) on local music mogul Hieu Nguyen’s Ascetic Records imprint and touring nationally—now with Traindodge’s Rob Smith filling in on drums—the band recently released a seven-inch split with Lawrence, Kansas’s Dakota/Dakota on Forge Again Records. The new track, “Our Guitars Are Haunted,” a combustive mix of stuttering snares and tornadic vocals that sounds like Devo rocking incredibly hard, adds a new poppier element—whoa-whoas included.
After the critical praise for Python, is it difficult to risk experimenting with your sound?
AE: Absolutely not. What I liked best about Python was our intention to try to keep things fresh. The idea of any sort of “formula” is pretty awful to us. Regardless, people may still hear similar ideas/patterns in what we do, but that’s because it’s us. I don’t expect the next batch of songs we write to be totally divergent from what we’ve been doing, but we definitely like new ideas rolling in. Ultimately that’s what we want, what we like.
JV: The risk for any band lies in not experimenting with your sound.
What’s your songwriting process?
AE: It usually comes together in rehearsal; Jimmy will come in with a bass part or I’ll be noodling a guitar part. It’s very collaborative. We’ll work up the music and then start on the lyrics.
Do you hide your lyrics on purpose? I couldn’t find them anywhere.
AE: Sort of. I’m not Bob Dylan or anything. At this point, with most of the music I like, the lyrics are mostly there to serve the melody line. I mean, the words aren’t nonsense; they’re about something. We just never gave [printing them out] that much thought.
JV: Listening to records growing up, I always thought it was cool when I had my own ideas about what lyrics were. When I found out what they were sometimes, I’m like, aww…
Like Van Halen’s 1984, it all sounds awesome until you try to read along.
JV: Yeah, and you’re thinking, “This doesn’t really relate me as much as I thought it did.” Except for “Top Jimmy.” That’s all true.
Is there a song you’ve written that you’re particularly proud of?
AE: My personal favorite is “Fire Is a Special Occasion.” Hard to say why exactly, but I know I’ve always loved the guitar part I happened upon in that song. I’m such a sucker for melody and those chords just gave me goose bumps when I first played it.
JV: I’m proud of “Ass Kicker #1.” It’s such a fun song to play. There are sections where I ain’t playin’ bass, so I gets to do some of my “lead singer moves.” Shit is totally silly and I love it.
You play regularly in Chicago, most recently at the Empty Bottle and Fireside Bowl.
AE: Fireside’s awesome. There’s so much history in that place. It’s always different if you live in the town, I’m sure, where there’s a handful that think it’s awesome and a handful that say, “Bars here used to be cool when so-and-so played there, now it’s all these suck bands.” And maybe they think we’re one of those bands. But they’re wrong. The Empty Bottle’s awesome, too.
JV: It took us about a half dozen shows to get decent venues in Chicago. The first three were at the Prodigal Son, which unfortunately—but fortunately for us, ’cause we hated it—burned down.
Not that you had anything to do with it.
JV: There’s no proof, anyway. It was nice place in front, but the club was way in back and nobody’d go back there. It was in Lincoln Park, which is totally gentrified, and there’s nowhere to park. We had a trailer and drove around for an hour looking for somewhere to park. Eventually, we paid some guy at a gas station 30 bucks to let us park on their lot, and we only made 22 dollars at the show, so we’d lose money strictly on parking. That’s a great thing about the Fireside; plenty of parking.
Any good road stories? Something nasty, please.
JV: There’s nothing too crazy, really. Most of the time it’s like, “I bet we can’t find anywhere to sleep.” [Laughs]
AE: There’s a friend of mine I always call and she pretends to be interested in my dumb touring stories. I don’t know why I thought this was a good story, but I was telling her about when we were driving through Colorado and I bought one of those Rockstar energy drinks, drank the whole thing and felt shitty afterwards, all jittery and shaky. After three hours, I tried to go to bed and was so tense I couldn’t sleep, so I was in a fog the whole next day. So I’m telling my friend this, “Man, I feel like shit, that’s so weird, I’ll never do that again,” and she says, “Dude. That is so fucking lame. You’re in a fucking rock band and this is the story you come home with? Dude, I took an energy drink and totally felt tired the next day! You went to L.A. and this is all you got? Call me back when you have a good story.”
JV: There was the rock star party in New York.
AE: People in New York’ll read this going, “How quaint.” [Laughs] After playing a show at The Lit in New York we were invited to this after-party for the (International) Noise Conspiracy and Icarus Line at this tiny upstairs bar. It was the guys from those bands, and some others, like Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Everyone was dancing, cool music was being played.
JV: I think it was the drummer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs deejaying.
AE: Everything was cool, we’re talking to people and dancing, when the singer from the (International) Noise Conspiracy comes in and says he wants to play some records. They’re like sure, yeah, and he starts playing stuff from some mix CDs he brought. Totally kills it. Everyone stops dancing and sits down. And after sitting down we realize there’s a drunk couple having sex in a booth next to us. Our road stories about sex don’t directly involve us.
You recently performed at MACRoCk, a college rock festival in Virginia.
JV: MACRoCk was amazing.
AE: We had a fucking blast.
JV: This was the only conference we’d made an attempt to be involved in. My old band [Five Deadly Venoms] played at South by Southwest and it’s such a roll of the dice. Unless you luck into a showcase or event as opposed to just a slot, it’s nearly impossible to get people in front of you. MACRoCk’s a smaller event, like five venues over three days, with four venues on campus and one off.
AE: We lucked out, because the venue we played was the only venue serving alcohol, in a bar off campus.
JV: The on-campus venues were gymnasiums or large, theater-like empty classrooms, and the sound in there was just horrible. But we played in a club, with booze and a great sound system.
AE: Everyone was super-nice; it was a sort of communal vibe—not to make it sound like some Schwagfest or something. We met some really cool people, some who we met a couple nights later at our show in Boston. They’d seen us at MACRoCk, in Tennessee, and had driven up to Boston to see us, which is totally cool.
JV: Working [at the Rocket Bar], I’ve met so many bands from all over the country, and they were all there. That was awesome.
And it’s easy for bands to get lost in the shuffle in a smaller festival.
JV: When [Five Deadly Venoms] played South by Southwest, we played at 1 a.m. at the Electric Lounge, up Sixth Street—you can’t walk there from the main stretch. [Then–Riverfront Times music editor] Randy Roberts came to our set before we started, and was like, “I’m not gonna kid you. I’m going somewhere else. I wanted to come by and say I hope you have a good show, but…see ya later.” And the employees started sweeping and closing the bar while we played. It’s a nightmare to get people to your show down there. But at MACRoCk, there were people everywhere. Smaller shows, better bands.
After regularly playing out of town, how do STL audiences and venues compare to other cities?
AE: A lot of things are actually the same. Of course, there are cities we do better in than some, i.e., Chicago, Kansas City, Oklahoma City. I think it’s a mistake a lot of St. Louisans make to think that somehow the music scene here “sucks,” because in reality it’s not much different anywhere else. That whole notion of one particular city being the magic city to be in or to play in is nonsense to me. We can play big cities with huge venues and get an average response, and we can play a tiny town like Monroe, Louisiana, and get an amazing response.
JV: I feel that people aren’t as adventurous in St. Louis as they are in some other places. Talking to people at shows we’ve had in other cities, I often find that they had no idea who any of the bands on the bill were, they simply made it a habit to check out whatever bands played at a particular club. I find there’s a shortage of that here. No other town is ever truly going to measure up to St. Louis for me, though. This is our home. The people that come to our shows are our close friends and family. For serious, ROS STL gang be the shit, period.
AE: Also, it sounds ridiculous, but the cost of living is so cheap here. And it’s ideal for touring, ’cause it’s in the middle of everywhere. If you’re based on the west coast, getting to Chicago or New York is insanely expensive. And there’s so many great cities within eight hours of St. Louis. You can tour for two weeks and never spend more than 40 dollars’ gas money getting to your next stop.
Did it take you a while to find a local audience? How did you go about expanding that?
AE: Not really. Jimmy and I had been playing in bands around town for years, and have been involved in the “scene” for quite a while, so it wasn’t at all like we were the new guys in town who no one knew or ever heard of. As far as expanding our audience locally, there’s really only so much you can do. Flyer like hell, talk up your band, play with a handful of different bands. If people like what they hear, then hopefully they’ll stick around. We’ll keep playing regardless.
JV: I think we’re still trying to find a local audience. It’s completely out of our control. We’ve been fortunate to play with a wide variety of bands. This month, we’ll be playing with some radical metal bands at Pop’s and then three days later we’re opening for Sebadoh in Lawrence, Kansas. It’s so amazing to be considered appropriate for both shows. We’ve been lucky to not get genre-tagged too heavily.
Which STL bands interest you?
AE: There’s a lot, actually: Shame Club; In Media Res; So Many Dynamos; Ring, Cicada; LoFreq…God, I know I’m forgetting some.
JV: I’d like to add that Camp Climax for Girls rock it real good. Wake Up Report are fantastical. The Phonocaptors were born to do it and Robb Steele put out the funnest show in town. Other notably awesome bands are Railers of Kiev, Lost to Metric, Bibowats, and 12 Summers Old.
Japanese distributor Stiff Slack recently picked up Python. Any plans for a Japan trip?
Rob:[Stiff Slack’s] looking into bringing us over there. We want to go whether we deserve it or not. I don’t care if there’s five people at every show. You can always tell your friends and family, like, “Ah, dude, every show was amazing, like 7,000 people!” They don’t know any better.
JV: We’re putting together a CD with some Stiff Slack bands, some from here and one from Sweden, that should be out by December.
AE: The Japanese bands are amazing. You wouldn’t think that Midwestern guitar rock would’ve had an impact over there, but it sounds so much like, not like a rip-off, but you can tell they’re huge Shiner fans.
JV: When I tell people these bands are from Japan, they’re like, “Oh, so it’s Kabuki music.” [Laughs]
AE: But it’s totally not. They’re singing in English, there’s loud guitar…
Rob: And you can tell they put a lot of thought into everything [on the recordings], ’cause it sounds huge.
You didn’t record Python locally.
AE: We recorded Python with [Traindodge’s] Carl Amburn in Norman, Oklahoma [Mousetrap Studio].
JV: Because [of the distance], we went down to track two separate times. And then when we were back in St. Louis, he would upload MP3s of mixes and we’d download ’em. We actually did the mixing by e-mail. Carl’s so easy to work with because he understands what we want without us necessarily having the technical-speak to properly ask for it. I tell him, “More of this, less of that,” and he dials it in. He easily understands, you know, ding-dong bass players.
AE: We can’t say, “Ah, dude, can you dial in a 23K?” We might say we want it crispy or punchy or roundy or smooth.
JV: And it was the most friendly, laid-back studio experience I’ve had. It’s like a shed out on a country road, so there’s nothing to do but shoot baskets—
AE: And shoot beer cans with a BB gun. That’s all we did; it was so fun. And then we’d all watch the sun set.
JV: There was nothing phony or pretentious about it. It was like hanging out at your uncle’s ranch and recording.
AE: Uncle Carl. [Laughing]
JV: I don’t see us recording with anybody else.
AE: He gives us back massages.
Does he ask you to take your shirt off?
AE: [Deadpan] Is that weird?
A little. It’s been a year since Python came out. Still dig it?
AE: I’m still proud of it. Of course, there are things you hear that perhaps you wish you’d have done differently, but that’s nothing new. Mostly I just love the sound of it. Carl is such a largely untapped resource—it just boggles my mind how many bands in this town are getting hosed in their recording projects. Paying way too much money, and getting such a minimal return.
JV: Any record is basically a snapshot of the time when you made it. Whenever I listen to [Python], I feel so satisfied. The time we spent recording was easy and so much fun. Every recording I had been a part of was always so rushed, always watching the clock and adding up the costs. I wouldn’t want to change anything about the entire Python experience.
Sharing lead vocal duties, do you consider Riddle of Steel a band with two front men? Is there an inevitable ego clash that comes with that?
AE: Usually before a gig, Jimmy and I do rock-paper-scissors over who gets to be the front man for the night. Seriously, though, I’m not sure that you’d consider either Jimmy or I to be the front man. As far as ego clashes, pshh… There’s only room for one ego in this band, and his name starts with “A” and ends with “ndrew J. Badass.” I mean, there’s always healthy debate in the mix, but at least to my knowledge, there haven’t been any ego clashes in our band. I think we both realize how utterly lame it is to work in a band with someone who is doing what they do in the band, not because they’re the best for the job, but because their ego is demanding it. I think if Jimmy or I were involved in that kind of scenario, we’d quit. That whole “lead singer, front man, over-the-top rocker” shtick is so tired, and is not Jimmy or me. We’re friends, you know? I mean, we even go out sometimes, and get an ice cream or a malted and use two straws in the same big glass! I have been working out, though, just in case “someone” tries to pull any “nonsense.” Remember why the Police broke up? Exactly.
JV: To my knowledge there have been no ego clashes…until our interview for Playback. Band meeting!
There are many bands who, because of online reviews and Web-based retailers, sell more albums online than at hometown shows or record stores. How essential is a strong online presence for a band’s survival?
AE: I wouldn’t say it’s utterly essential, but it’s without a doubt in the top-five list of things bands should be doing. There are so many things you can do and communicate through a band Web page that it would be ridiculous for me to list them all. Plus, there are tons of Web sites now where you can set up free mini-pages, like MySpace, Friendster, StlPunk, StlScene, etc. It’s like free advertising, and the people who like you can know what you’re doing all the time.
JV: I would have to say it is crucial if you’re touring or putting out records today with little or no budget. It’s been a noticeable factor in getting turnouts for our shows on the road. There are a few message boards that I frequent where I’ve met dozens of people who’ve turned up at shows, who in turn bring a handful of friends. Sometimes 5 people is 50 percent of the crowd on a Monday night in Nashville. At this point, I feel it’s a fundamental thing if you’re in a band. You have access to millions of people and can find the folks who might dig what you’re doing as opposed to hoping they come across your CD at the record store.
With such close ties to the Rocket Bar, has there been any negative criticism attributing your successes to those ties?
JV: Only a couple times to my face. [Laughs]
AE: I think some people complained that we were like the house band here for a while.
JV: I’ve been through this a few times, and basically, if any of those people opened their own venue, set up shows for their favorite bands, putting their own money and neck on the line, do you think they wouldn’t put their band on the show? I’d be an idiot if I didn’t occasionally take advantage of that.
AE: There’s no moral obligation for bar owners to book every band that sends them a CD. It’s your place; you can book whoever the hell you want.
JV: I wouldn’t put us on a show if we didn’t fit the bill, either. We didn’t open for Interpol, TV on the Radio—there are so many huge shows I would have loved to play, just to put us in front of people, but I didn’t, because it wasn’t best for the show. It goes both ways. If the show’s that busy, I have to work the bar, too. We have a small staff and it’s tough for me to play and work at the same time. A good example would be Shiner; I’ve known them for 8 years and we’ve never played with them here, and they always get 150 people. I’ve never taken advantage of that, because it wasn’t in the show’s best interest. I’ve actually had someone say—to my face—that it must be nice to book this place so I can get my band on all the big shows. I was like, are you out of your fucking mind? First of all, why wouldn’t I? I clean the toilets. I clean up puke. I throw out the 300-pound drunk assholes. If anybody should be playing shows here, it’s my band. And it’s a guarantee that on the worst possible Monday or Tuesday night, we can always get at least 30 or 40 people to come out, and there’s only a handful of St. Louis bands that can say that. So many bands don’t get out and promote shows, expecting people to find them. I’ve been sacrificing for this. I’m not a hobbyist. I’m gonna make this happen.
AE: We wanna play the show where the talent scout walks in. [Laughs] Where the limo with personalized plates rolls up and he’s got this golden cane, saying, [in a gangster-ish talent-scout voice] “You guys are pretty good,” pulling the record contract out of his jacket. “I’m flying you out to the coast tonight.”
Riddle of Steel performs at Chicago’s Double Door with Haymarket Riot and Bearclaw on September 16.