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Rainer Maria | A Better Version of Me | interview | indie | alternative | rock | Lollipop
A Better Version of Me (Polyvinyl)
An interview with bassist/vocalist Caithlin De Marris, guitarist/vocalist Kyle Fischer, and drummer William Kuehn
by Tim Den
Rainer Maria have really rolled up their sleeves and gotten down to retooling themselves after Look Now Look Again. Whereas bassist/vocalist Caithlin De Marrais used to strain to hit them high notes, she soars through A Better Version of Me (how appropriate). The overall "sound" of the band has improved dramatically as well. Transitions are smoother, the instruments are communicating with each other better, and the breathing room in every song has expanded. And with all the critical praise being flung at them, their status as emo royalty is all but assured. Some of the kindest, warmest, and most intellectually-aware people in indie music today, all three members of Rainer Maria endured this interview in an unheated, dirty, damp "backstage area" of The Middle East Downstairs with me. My heart goes out to them.
From Wisconsin to New York: Why did you guys move?
Caithlin: Three reasons: Katie, Jenny, and family. (laughs)
Kyle: We all had individual reasons that were enticing. Bill's fiancee lives there, my sister's there for school, and Caithlin's family lives there (actually in Connecticut). We'd been in Wisconsin long enough and decided to keep the band going, so we moved together.
If, let's say, two of you had the reasons but not the third, what would've happened?
All: Don't know, don't know... (sounding caught off guard and surprised)
Bill: Veeeeeeery good question.
You all met at and graduated from Madison-Wisconsin, right? What did you major in?
Bill: Political science.
Kyle, do you have any German background?
Kyle: My family, very very far back. But no one in my family speaks it now. I didn't make the decision until I got to college. I'd already gone to Germany for a year at that point, so I think it was just a natural decision. I received a year's worth of credits for studying there.
What was growing up in Texas like? I spoke to At The Drive-In a while ago, and they had great Texas stories...
Kyle: They're from El Paso - it doesn't get more Western in Texas. You go further and you're in New Mexico. Texas is great. I lived an hour north of Austin, and it's an awesome scene. South by Southwest is there... and it's the one place you can live in Texas and have all the bands you want to see come through. Naked Raygun, Alice Donut...
You saw Naked Raygun?!
Kyle: Yeah, they were totally intense. Both Bill and I saw them for the Understand? tour.
And you (Kyle and Caithlin) met at a poetry class, the bio states.
Caithlin: People seem pissed off by that.
Kyle: People are like "it's almost pretentious that they met at a poetry class." But it's true.
"Yeah, we met at poetry class... then we got drunk! Yeah! Now we're punk rock..."
Caithlin: Anyway, it was a slam poetry class and we hated it.
Kyle: It would be pretentious if we really met at a bar and we just said that we met at a poetry class.
Caithlin: (with posh English accent) "In English class... Longfellow, I believe."
Bill, how did you hook up with them?
Bill: Kyle and I were in another band before.
Kyle: Bill and I have actually known each other longer (than Caithlin and I). We met by just going to shows.
What band was this?
Bill: Ezra Pound.
Kyle: A band of no consequence.
For a second there I was like "hey I've heard of you!" Then I realized "Oh wait... I recognize that name not because of music reviews but because of English classes."
Kyle: "Yeah, I remember that book you guys put out..."
Bill: "Yeah, weren't you guys friends with Mussolini?" (laughs all around)
Had you ever played bass before?
Caithlin: No. I had just started learning a month before. Everything was open; no one went in with any expectations.
Why did you chose Madison?
Kyle: I was there to start the band that Bill and I were in.
Bill: I'm from Wisconsin, originally.
Kyle: Bill actually joined the band a little later; I was there to play with this guitarist.
A lot of the press focus on poetry as the common theme in your band, but few seem to ask you about your musical influences. What did you listen to growing up?
Kyle: We all have overlapping interests, but everyone sort of has their own niche. Bill and I met going to shows like Avail. Sort of the punk rock bridging into indie rock and pop.
Caithlin: I listen to a lot of different stuff. I was more of a New Waver - dressed all in black, listened to The Cure. I went to a ton of punk shows, but I was more into dancing. But since there was no dancing at those shows, I'd go to clubs in New York City instead. I didn't like being slammed.
Then you met these guys who were all "c'mon, let's play punk rock!"
Caithlin: I didn't think of it as punk rock, though. Kyle gave me this new definition of "punk" when we were out there (in Madison). It was doing shows for many different kinds of bands; bands that sounded very dissimilar from each other, but doing them either in our basement or community center or whatever, charging small amounts of money, then feeding the bands and having them sleep over. I knew punk in terms of The Sex Pistols, but this was a totally new definition. I mean, everyone has their own scenes and niches, but that was the Madison thing going on.
Where is Rainer Maria's niche? Who do you see as your peers?
Kyle: I don't know... we can kind of assimilate ourselves into a lot of places. We can play on a hardcore bill and people are like (tough guy, meathead imitation) "Yeah... uh... I'll bring my girlfriend over and we'll listen to this stuff." We can play an indie rock bill; we played with Superchunk and it was no problem. More straight-up emo bills... or even just rock bills. We played a couple shows on the West Coast with Luna. They're all "psyche-rock."
Caithlin: Psycho rock!
Kyle: Wanna rock? Sike!
Do you guys identify with the term "emo?" It's pretty much dead...
Bill: It's pretty much dead, but the people on the west coast are just discovering it, unfortunately.
Caithlin: Probably somewhere in Europe this kid's like "what is this emo?" (laughs)
Kyle: The last "big" wave of those bands are all broken up. All the people who were our peers when we were starting out, like Braid.
Caithlin: The funny thing about that term is that it backlashed on itself as soon as it was known. Not only were people from the outside saying "What is this emo? It doesn't mean anything," people on the inside were saying "It doesn't exist."
Bill: Because of the environment that it was born in, it had a very DIY ethic. But when people got a hold of it and started to use it as a marketing term, the (originators) denied its existence. Like, "What are you talking about? There's no such thing." So it lived a very short life.
Caithlin: The same thing happened with all the girl-power, riot grrl stuff out West. They were like "Screw you, this doesn't even exist... especially for you (mainstream slogan holders)."
It's strange that the genre covers an entire spectrum. You have your kiddie emo on one end (The Get Up Kids), the college emo on the other (Braid), and everything in between... but it all falls under this one gigantic category.
Bill: We were just talking about this the other day. If you were an outside person interested in this type of music and someone tried describing "emo" to you... you'd be totally lost.
Kyle: Well, you can say it's this type music that came after punk rock; after the '88 type of style. Or like West Coast style, Chicago style... almost like a regional descriptor.
What's fueling the creativity these days? Musically and lyrically...
Kyle: As you become a musician on a more full-time level, you get more voracious with your musical appetite. Because you hear so much more, and you absorb music much more quickly, you wander apart further and further. I mean, there are definitely still bands who we all listen to, like Cave In, but instead of listening to what's next door to you, we're almost listening backwards and forwards (in time).
Caithlin: Music from different countries, different time periods... back to the beginning of recorded music itself. Bill listens to a lot of old jazz.
Bill: Oscar Peterson...
Kyle: I'm not so much the jazz guy. I'll do that, but I'm more of a passive jazz listener; I'll let someone else spin those records. I like more of the Delta blues.
Do you hold down jobs outside of the band?
Bill: We've just been so busy. We recorded in September, then we toured for five weeks and had a month off to visit our families. And now we're just finishing up a six-week tour, so basically we've just been doing the band since August.
Why a song about the assassination of Lincoln?
Kyle: A lot of people are really curious about that one. It's the only one that I sing on. Caithlin had written most of the material for the album in terms of the vocals at that point, so she was like "you take this one."
Caithlin: We'd both taken cracks at it...
Kyle: We didn't want really sappy lyrics for it. Finally, we were down to the last two weeks before we went in to record, so I said I'm just gonna write about the weightiest, craziest, densest topic I can come up with. We had just gone to the Library of Congress and seen the exhibit with the contents of Lincoln's pockets. I was totally blown away by it, and I wrote down a couple pages about it in my journal. So I got the laundry list of items, "two pairs of spectacles, a lens polisher..." and just rambled it.
Is the whole obsession with the fact that you (Caithlin and Kyle) are a couple getting tiring?
Caithlin: It's such old news to us. We just celebrated our six year anniversary. It doesn't phase us to talk about it. It's just like having anything else that's a little bit different about your band. The poetry thing, the girl thing...
Kyle: The 6'2" drummer thing...
Caithlin: We feel like we have the luxury of being all these different things without having to worry about people saying "what's your problem? You're weird!" We don't have to talk about (those things) anymore cuz we're at this point of total... luxury, essentially. In the past, "couple bands" were treated like "the woman's only there cuz she's dating the guy." Fortunately, other people have paved the way for us. We can just enjoy being human beings and playing music.
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