A Sunday Conversation with Nakatomi Plaza

Well, in typical Ripple fashion, it seems that our passionate piece about the demise of the punk band Nakatomi Plaza touched off a mini-firestorm of controversy.  Picked up by AbsolutePunk.com, we were literally inundated with people sending in their thoughts, most agreeing, some arguing with our comments on the band's breakup and the general state of the music industry.  With that much controversy created, you better believe we couldn't wait to get lead Nakatomi Plaza man, Oscar Albis Rodriguez, into our Ripple office and on to our red leather interview couch, and give him an opportunity to set the record state.

When I was a kid, growing up in a house with Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, and Simon and Garfunkle, the first time I ever heard Kiss's "Detroit Rock City," it was a moment of musical epiphany. It was just so vicious, aggressive and mean. It changed the way I listened to music. I've had a few minor epiphany's since then, when you come across a band that just brings something new and revolutionary to your ears.

What have been your musical epiphany moments?

There was never a time when I didn't love music but I think my first epiphany like yours was when I got The Beatles Rock N Roll Music Vol. 1 when I was 9.  I was familiar with the Beatles already in a general sense but there was something about that record that was so exciting.  You can really hear the four of them rocking out and having fun.  I wanted a guitar immediately after listening to those songs. 

And then seeing Robert Plant and Jimmy Page perform Led Zeppelin songs together on TV at Knebworth (Silver Clef Awards Concert).  Again, you could tell they were having fun.  I thought Jimmy Page was the most amazing guitarist I had seen and that got me into Led Zeppelin.

And hearing Nirvana's Nevermind.  That voice and those songs blew me away.  I started writing songs after that, and then got deep into punk rock and hardcore.

Talk to us about the song-writing process for you. What comes first, the idea? A riff? The lyrics? How does it all fall into place?

It changes from song to song.  Sometimes I'll find a guitar riff by accident.  Or I'll hear a melody in my head.  Sometimes it just starts with a drum feel, and other times it's a bass line.  Lately it's been starting with lyrics, which is new for me.  Once I have one or two of those ideas happening I'll sketch out a general song form and then it's kind of like filling in the blanks.  Though sometimes the writing happens more linearly and it doesn't fit into a traditional song form at all.  But that's what I love about song-writing;  you can do whatever you want.

Where do you look for continuing inspiration? New ideas, new motivation?

I'm usually pretty excited after seeing a band play live, so I try to do that when I can.  I don't read as many books as I used to but when I do those certainly influence me lyrically, sometimes musically.  I'm also an avid record (mp3?) collector and I'm constantly trying to learn from other people's music. 

In songwriting, how do you bring the song together? What do you look for in terms of complexity? Simplicity? Time changes?

I have a pretty awesome home recording set up and also one at my rehearsal studio so I tend to demo songs and ideas fairly often.  There's no real science to it;  I just keep at it until it sounds right to me.  In Nakatomi Plaza we would try out new ideas at rehearsal and we'd just loop song ideas and try to slightly vary each repetition to see what we'd get. 

In terms of complexity, I used to try to make everything as complex and as clever as possible.  But right now I'm on a simplicity kick.  I'm trying to figure out how to boil it all down to its most pure form - so the messages and the melodies really come through.  There's a way to bring the complexity and the simplicity together and I'll figure out what that is at some point. 

Re:  time changes, I think they're awesome and I have some of that in my music.  At the moment I'm trying to do those only when necessary, and hopefully, tastefully.  If you can dance through it then I did it right. 

Let's talk about Nakatomi Plaza for a bit. What was your musical intention with Nakatomi Plaza? What were you trying to express or get your audience to feel?

That certainly changed a lot over the years.  I think when we started the band I was doing it more for me than the audience;  I had stuff I needed to get off my chest and those songs were the way to do it.  By the time we got to Private Property my outlook had changed a little given what was happening around that time and everything became more focused on 'community.'  I think the songwriters in NP had a bad habit of feeling alone at times but we also recognized that others might feel that way too, so I think we tried to tell those people in particular that we could relate.  With Unsettled everything got a little cerebral plus we started flexing our musical muscles a little more.  We were just really inspired by complexities in music, everyday life, etc.  On this last record, we're definitely expressing some frustration and dissatisfaction.  I might have turned more inward on this record, and yet, a few people have told me that they get it, which is awesome. 

Considering that I'd never heard of Nakatomi Plaza before you excellent last CD, Ghosts, I was surprised by the amount of anger I had when I read in the liner notes about the band's breaking up.  It inspired my review so much that I cranked it out that same night.  In that review, I railed against the music industry and the punk underground that felt it was fine to steal your music, but not support the band.  In truth, the demise of Nakatomi Plaza was a more complex issue than I wrote about.  Can you tell us more?

I could, but I won't say it any better than Al just did here:  http://gendertrouble.livejournal.com/174349.html

Seriously, check it out.

The only thing I'd like to add (or reiterate) is that the reason I wrote about our experiences with the music industry is because it's hard not to talk about it when talking about NP since it was so important to the band at one time.  It was difficult, and it certainly changed how I feel about the industry in general, but it didn't break us up. (as Al said, we stopped trying to make a living as a band 5 years ago).  I'm 30 years old, and I started writing NP songs when I was 19.  That's more than a third of my life.  It was just time to move on. 

Talk to us about your experiences with the music industry, and the whole dance you guys went through.  I bet it's not a story for the timid.

We self-released our first record and did some regional touring (all while we were still in college) and we had certain cities where we had a decent following.  We then made the Private Property EP and released that on Gunboat Records (Nip, the owner, saw us in Gloucester, MA which was one of the towns where we did well) and went on a full US / Canada tour.  We sent copies of Private Property to about 20 or so labels and Immigrant Sun got back to us and said they wanted to re-release it as a full-length.  All the while we kept playing shows and touring - and while we were having a blast, there was also a real sense of upward momentum.  There was never any talk of becoming rock stars, but we started wondering if we could do this for a living.  And then there were a couple tours where we actually came home with more money than we left with.  While we were writing Unsettled, we subconsciously made the decision to make a go for it.  We saved up money and self-financed the production of Unsettled.  Looking back I can say that things definitely got more stressful around then.  Once the record was finished, we sent the record out to about 80 labels and hit the ground running and toured as much as we could.  There was one week where the phone calls and emailings were just coming in one right after the other from labels big and small;  the whole thing was super overwhelming but the attention was great and the record was well-received.  And that's when things started slowly falling apart.  Everyone (I guess including us) seemed to be non-commital;  both sides seemed to be "waiting it out" to see what would happen.  More meetings, more phone calls, more showcases, tons of emails, more touring.  And it just dragged on and on.  All of a sudden we had a 2 year old record and we had to reevaluate our situation.  Red Leader Records was the only label that seemed to be interested helping us develop as a band without tying our hands behind our back so to speak, and so Unsettled was officially released through them.  But by that point, tensions within the group were high and we slimmed down to a trio.  We kept on touring, but by then some of us were totally broke (and the rest of us were just barely getting by) since we had invested so much of our own money into that record and into the touring.  Our merch sales also took a nosedive at this point (everyone who came to see us seemed to already have a copy of our record) so every night we only had (a little) door money coming in.  We started to tour less and then realized it made sense in the long run to stick close to home and fly to special events we might normally take 2 or 3 weeks off work to tour to, like The Fest in Gainesville or SXSW.  It's not that we'd make money on those plane trips, but we wouldn't lose money from not working. 

All the while we were working on the songs that would appear on GHOSTS.  Red Leader approached us about making another record and of course we started talking about all the tour plans that would follow.  Even though I'd say that the three of us are - really - good at DIY touring I started getting nervous about doing another round and what that might do to us financially and mentally.  We were never really able to get booking agents to help us and when I booked our previous tours it was like having a 2nd full-time job.  Booking was fun at first years ago, but I was dreading it this time.  And then I realized it was truly time for us to at least begin thinking about calling it. 

I told Al and Lou in August of 2008 that we should break up.  It was horrible but I knew it was the right thing to do.  We took the next couple of months to let it all sink in and to figure out our plans and we decided that we would record those last songs for Red Leader and then do some number of final shows.  Then the industry reared its ugly head again...

In early 2009, when we were beginning the production of GHOSTS, Lumberjack Distribution went under.  All their labels, including Red Leader, suddenly had their money tied up. We finished the record in the Spring but had to wait a few months to see what was going to happen.  We found out Red Leader wouldn't be able to release our record until 2010 or so.  No one wanted to wait that long to do the final tour and the final shows, so we decided to self-release the record.  In a way it was fitting, since our first record was self-released and we had been a DIY band from the start.  (And folks, you're still DIY even if you get help from others.  It's about attitude and ethics.)

The end was sad, but also very satisfying.  Our last tour felt like a victory lap.  The shows were all amazing, we got to play with many of our friends' bands one last time, and so many people came out to the shows.  We left our record up online for free/donation for a week before we left for the tour and so many people donated generously.  We organized a 2 day, 14 band festival called Buddy Fest at Shea Stadium in Brooklyn for our last 2 shows and it was possibly the best weekend of my life.  I'm bitter about the music industry but I'm not - and never will be - bitter about Nakatomi Plaza

My article on Nakatomi Plaza's breakup spurred a massive debate over at AbsolutePunk.com, with 50% supporting my ascertation that fans need to support the bands they love, the other 50% arguing that music should be free and "real" musicians don't care whether they ever make a living at music or not.  Your thoughts?

There's no punk rock fairy that comes around and just blesses us with thousands of dollars at a time to make a record or go on tour.  All of this costs a ton of money.  All I was saying in the liner notes was that you should support artists you like.  Go see them play.  Buy their records.  Buy their merch.  They need money to do what they do, and if what they do makes you happy, then please give them a little support.  They'll appreciate it, believe me.  

Yes, I write my own songs.  I play music in DIY bands.  But I'm also professional musician.  I play in wedding bands.  I back singer-songwriters.  I'm a session musician.  I have a jazz degree from NYU.  I teach guitar and piano.  This is how I make my living.  Are you going to tell me I'm not a real musician?  I'm the very definition!

What are your thoughts on illegal downloading?  Does it help a band, spread their name, or hurt them?

I'm not blind to the music industry and what's happened over the last 13 years.  There's an entire generation of music fans that have never bought a physical record.  And that's fine.  Yes, illegal downloading doesn't put money into musician's pockets directly, but hopefully through the exposure that money will find them in another form (concert tickets, merch, etc). 

Personally, I will continue to buy records because I want to support bands.  I know what it's like and I want to do what I can to help out. 

By the same token, I think musicians need to "band" together and figure out how to continue doing what we do if people aren't going to pay for our records anymore.  Some of my artist friends are now taking subscriptions, others are trying TV licensing, etc.  It's time to be creative in a business-sense and hopefully we can share that info with each other. 

Nakatomi Plaza may be gone, but each of the band members is still creating.  What other projects are the band working on?
Lou is playing drums in a band called Sherpas.  Al and I are in a hardcore band called Panther Modern with Rachel from Bridge and Tunnel and Will from Straylight Run.  I've been playing bass with Ludlow Lions, and I have a solo project called Ghost Robot Ninja Bear.  The first GRNB single should be out next month.   I'm also working on my friend Paul Schneider's new record (our 3rd together).  I co-engineered and played guitar and some bass on my friend Jody Shelton's record that should be out soon.  Last year also saw the release of the Fires Of Rome record "You Kingdom You" on which I played guitar and keyboards and which also features drummer Gunnar Olsen from The Exit / De La Hoya.  And speaking of my old punk/hardcore band De La Hoya, it looks like our discography is finally going to see the light of day towards the end of this year.  It features our official releases (the demo tape, 2 EPs, 1 full-length), 4 brand new songs recorded with Al from NP and Gunnar, some unreleased acoustic demos and live tracks, and a huge digital zine of photos and essays.  The whole thing is pretty rad.  There may be a reunion show or two as well. 

I gotta ask.  After 10 years I know the goodbyes must have been heartbreaking.  Any chance of reuniting for one-off shows or another album or such?

I'm sure we'll reunite for a one-off at some point.  And I'm sure I'll write music again with with most of the members of Nakatomi Plaza in some form or another.  Al and I are engaged, and I love giving her my wordless songs to see what she can come up with.  And Liam (our first drummer) and I are best friends and we play music together every chance we get.  And Lou and I have such similar tastes in music that it would be a shame if we didn't play together again at some point. 

Nakatomi Plaza had to end.  10 years is a long time.  I don't mean this flippantly, but for some of us there needed to be a change of scenery.  And there's so much baggage that comes along with NP (how can there not be after 10 years?) and it's nice to be free of that now.  But we're all still good friends and we all still support each other. 

Did you feel that Ghosts was your best albmum?  What piece of your music are particularly proud of?

I do.  Others may (and do) disagree, but I really think we hit it right on the head this time.  I feel like all the fat's been stripped away and what's left is truly meaningful.

It's hard to pick one piece of music on the record that I'm proud of.  I'm really proud of the lyrics.  I think the vocal performances on Words are really good.  I'm really proud of what Al did with Pigs Will Pay;  I went through so many versions of the lyrics/melody for that song and finally just gave up and she absolutely nailed it.  I think the solo on 4017 is pretty rad.  And I love all of Lou's drum parts.  He really worked those through over the course of a year and achieved the balance between complexity and simplicity.

Vinyl, CD, or digital? What's your format of choice?

Haha, digital.  Less clutter in the apartment!  Sonically, vinyl.  CDs make great coasters. 

We, at the Ripple Effect, are constantly looking for new music. When we come to your town, what's the best record store to lose ourselves in?

Academy Records on North 6th St. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Huge vinyl selection, decent used CD section.  If you want to check out new stuff then go to Sound Fix.  I think ultimately though my favorite record store in NYC is still Other Music.

Any final comments or thoughts you'd like to share with our readers, the waveriders?

1.  Support artists. 
2.  Respect yourselves and each other. 
3.  Thanks for taking an interest in Nakatomi Plaza.  We'll see you all soon!



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An open letter to "Josh"

"Josh", sorry, but your comment was inadvertently deleted when we attempted to post it. For our waveriders, we'll summarize your thoughts. In short, you questioned why we championed so many bands you had deemed to be "mediocre." You felt 1 or 2 posts each week were spam which you felt were "catering" to PR firms, and wondered why we didn't start a PR firm ourselves if we were going to pump up the bands who you had judged to be "mediocre." Please let us know, "Josh" if that is a fair and accurate summary.

Now our reply:

First of all, thanks for the nice compliment. I think any news or music site would be thrilled to learn that a reader only dislikes a few of their posts a week and that 72-84% of our posts met your satisfaction. That's a pretty damn high number. Also, thanks for reading us daily to make that determination. We appreciate your patronage.

Second, a PR company sounds like a great idea if it means we can help the bands we love, but we'll stick with the Ripple. From the beginning we made it very clear that our intention was to spread the word on the bands WE loved and music that moved US.

It is the ultimate act of a massively inflated ego and self-grandiosity for you to determine for the rest of the world what is mediocre, and what we should like and not like. You don't like it, fine. Never once, do we recall asking or wanting your permission for us to like what we like or write about what we choose to write about. Again, it must be the work of a very tiny-feeling man to determine that he has that authority over others to control what they do and what they should like.

As opposed to some familiar sites, we don't place our egos and ourselves above the bands, reigning down our judgments from above. We love music and will write about anything we enjoy. We'd never expect our readers to like everything we like. All we do is bring it to their attention, say why we like it, and let them pass their own judgment.

So if you don't like the 12-24% of our posts you've declared to be mediocre, by all means, don't read us. WE won't miss you. We can refer you to some snarky websites where the unhappy people feel that the only way they can bolster their withered self-esteem is to rag endlessly on bands they've deemed "mediocre."

As for us, we're just going to go on doing what we do, writing about the music we love and want to get out to the world.

Oh, and thanks for pointing out the correct spelling of Garfunkel.