The venue at Schubas Tavern is tucked into a narrow room behind the bar, where most of the light comes from the big Bud Light and Schubas logos projected onto one of the longer walls. The overall effect is cramped, which may actually be preferable for the less well known bands that come through town. It was a Sunday night, so business outside was moderate, but almost 40 people showed up to hear Robbers On High Street and their touring companions, Great Northern.
Great Northern set the floorboards humming from the beginning of their act, an hour of mid-tempo rock with operatic aspirations. While attempting music as varied as their execution of it—the singer accompanied herself on the keyboard, and the guitarist also played a drum and tambourine—they sounded strongest on their sparser, moodier songs, though the music suffered from predictable lyrics and excessive use of crash cymbals.
The five members of Robbers On High Street showed up when Great Northern were done, sporting bowl cuts and sweaters all around. They brought their own energy, offering a nice counterbalance to the older, laid-back crowd. It was their last night on the road, and there were feelings of good energy and declarations of love floating amid strains of trumpet and harmonium.
On tour to promote their newest album, Grand Animals, described by lead singer and songwriter Ben Trokan as “melancholy, but [with a] sunny sound,” Robbers played a distinctive mix of swinging ’50s and ’60s pop and modern rock. Their songs touch on the uncertainties of modern living, and do so with a backbeat and a consistent sound. Though listening to them will certainly evoke the sound of a favorite classic pop artist, Robbers On High Street have an essentially happy, deliberately retro sound that is all their own.
A couple of days after the concert, I had the chance to ask Trokan about the tour, their new album, and the music-making process.
Jingru Yang: What did you think of the show at Schubas?
Ben Trokan: It was fun. It was a little bit of a solemn night for everyone, because we had a wild night in Minneapolis, and it was the last night on tour. Also, I think we expected double the amount of people.
JY: Do you usually get more of a crowd at your shows?
BT: It goes up and down. We played at Schubas in July, before the newest album had even come out, and there was probably triple the amount of people.
JY: So what is it like to be an indie band making music these days?
BT: There are a lot of bands. As great as something like the Internet is for bands, for getting music out to people, it also makes it easy for every band to get their music out to people. We’re still...every time we leave New York, we’re still praying for people to show up. You have to play at these smaller places.... Norman, OK, there were 10 people there. But it’s fun. We like playing. But I feel like there’s a big gap between our level and the next level. Maybe two or three levels.
JY: Your first album, Tree City, was titled in honor of your hometown, Poughkeepsie, NY. Does the name Grand Animals come from anything?
BT: It was the name of a veterinarian’s office near my old home in Brooklyn. I liked the name. I like immigrant shop names. I mean, with weird shop names, they’re already titles.
JY: Do you have a favorite song from the album?
BT: I like “Kick ’Em in the Shins” a lot. It came from...really bizarre fatherly advice...on sort of a slacker-like existence. I like the rhythm. I get to play some weird guitar.
JY: Where did the five of you get the inspiration for this sound of yours?
BT: It was from stuff we always listened to—the Beatles, The Stones, The Supremes. My mom’s record collection. That’s our bread and butter. Between the last record and this one, we figured out that we like these melodies, these chord changes.
JY: What was it like to work with producer Daniele Luppi [who has previously worked with artists such as Gnarls Barkley and John Legend] for this second album?
BT: It was tough, at first. But he helped us simplify songs, make them kind of tidy. I think we made it sound kind of unique, not totally his way, not totally our way.
JY: Finally, why should people give Robbers On High Street a listen?
BT: I really don’t know. That’s for other people, to say what they like about us.