I was at Cornerstone Festival, talking with Rob Withem, lead singer and guitarist of Fine China, whose voice was nearly drowned out by the noise from a nearby tent during Tooth and Nail day. I couldn't help but notice how this music coming from the other tent contrasted starkly with the dreamy, synthesized pop at which Fine China excels. Ignoring this one distraction, Rob gladly talked about Fine China's upcoming album, their relationships with record labels, and his love of beautiful melodies.
Andrea: I want to talk about "When the World Sings" first. Were you pleased with the outcome of that? Did you like the way that album turned out? Because that was your first full-length, right?
Rob: Yeah. We definitely were pleased with the record. With every album, there's stuff you could do differently, but for where we were at as a band and so forth, I think it turned out pretty good. We're happy with it.
Andrea: I'm not too familiar with your first EPs, but from what I can tell, there was more of a synth sound in "When the World Sings" than in your earlier stuff.
Rob: Definitely. It's just kind of a progression. The first EP was more guitar-oriented, and we got more into electronics with "Rialto Bridge," which was on Velvet Blue. A lot of the songs on "When the World Sings," we were working on when we did "Rialto Bridge" and we were into that stuff at the time, and we wanted it to be kind of an electro, old school, '80's record.
Andrea: Is that what you guys were brought up on?
Rob: Yeah. Our favorite bands are bands The Smiths, New Order, and the Pet Shop Boys. A lot of the old-school electro bands of the '80's. And guitar bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and stuff like that, so we kind of wanted to do a record that had a lot of those influences in it.
Andrea: You also worked with Ronnie Martin on that album. Did he affect the sound? Did he bring any influence into that?
Rob: He did a lot, because he has a lot of expertise as far as actually programming the electronics and stuff, because he's been doing this for 12 years or whatever. So yeah, he helped a lot in that aspect. The songs were already there, we just had to figure out how we wanted to structure them electronically, whether or not we wanted to use drum machines, and all that stupid stuff. So you can definitely tell that he had a hand in it, because a lot of the sounds are stuff that he is used to getting, so he helped get us where we wanted to go, and has some of his fingerprints on it.
Andrea: So he didn't really help with the songwriting?
Rob: No, he produced it, so there were times when we'd bounce ideas off each other, like "Maybe we should put this bridge here," but as a whole, the songs were already done before we started. I had them written, ready to go, and there'd be little tweaks he'd make. He's really good as far as song structure and making sure everything links up together, so he did some of that, but most of the songs were done when we started.
Andrea: Did you guys like working with him?
Rob: Yeah, we loved doing that album. He's done all our production. He's become a really great friend.
Andrea: The new album you have coming up is titled "You Make Me Hate Music." Could you explain the concept behind that?
Rob: It's just kind of abrasive- and we don't have a whole lot of underlying meanings; we don't try to get too deep- but it's just some songs talking about stuff that kind of ticks us off. So it's titled "You Make Me Hate Music," because we're kind of bummed out about music. I have been, lately. A lot of different things about it, like how there's no music out right now that I like. And we're bummed about it, and we wanted to have a title that was making an over-statement.
Andrea: So there's not really anything new coming out, either mainstream or indie or whatever, that you like?
Rob: There's cool stuff coming out. The title is an overstatement; I don't hate music, obviously, but I've found, as I'm going back to old stuff, as a whole, most groups in music aren't really striving to write classic songs, like I like. Everything just seems kind of in a slump right now. There's some people with cool stuff, but as a whole, I'm just kind of bummed with the whole thing.
Andrea: Where are you in the process of making that album?
Rob: The writing is almost done. We've got ten songs together, and we're probably going to go into the studio in September, October.
Andrea: And is that going to be on Tooth & Nail?
Andrea: As far as the songwriting is going now, how would you compare that album to "When the World Sings"?
Rob: It's going to be a lot more refined. As far as the sound, it's not going to be really an electronically driven record. It's going to be kind of a progression where we'll still have a lot of big synth strings and stuff, but it's going to be more guitar-oriented. We're trying to make it so you remember every song perfectly the first time you hear it. The choruses are really great, really sad melodies. We're going all-out with the songs this time. As far as production, we're going to have kind of an old-school feel, like an old Buzzcocks record. We're listening to a lot of old punk records right now, so we kind of want some of that to come through. We want to have that '70's, dirty feel to it.
Andrea: Sounds good. I was talking to someone about you guys, and the one thing she suggested was to talk to you about the fact that you make beautiful music. How, compared to a lot of the bands here at Cornerstone that are punk or hardcore or whatever, there just seems to be a strong focus on melody and pretty songs with your music, if I can say that.
Rob: Oh yeah, that's totally our thing. That's what we've always been into. I don't like music that doesn't sound beautiful. That's what I've always liked about music. If it's sad or melancholy-sounding music that's pretty to listen to I like it. That's the kind of stuff we listened to growing up, and that's what we want to do as a band. Just, all-out, pretty music. We don't care about screaming or loudness. We just want to make great songs that are pretty, kind of like The Smiths did. Yeah, that's totally what we're after.
Andrea: How long have you guys been together?
Rob: Four and a half years.
Andrea: How did you originally get hooked up with Velvet Blue?
Rob: Greg Markov, our bass player, was booking shows for Velvet Blue in Phoenix, and we booked ourselves on a Starflyer and Joy Electric show. Ronnie liked the songs a lot so he came up to us after the show and said, "Hey, cool stuff. Do you want to do a record?" And Cloud liked it too so, it just kind of happened.
Andrea: I like that. Do you guys have a pretty close relationship with Velvet Blue Music now?
Rob: We're not currently on Velvet Blue, but we still keep in contact with Jeff Cloud (owner of Velvet Blue Music). He did our tour this last year, and we talk to them. Yeah, we still are definitely in contact with them.
Andrea: When I went over to their web site, I saw that you were still on it, and there was even something about "When the World Sings," which is obviously not on Velvet Blue.
Rob: Yeah, he just tries to help out, and let people know what's going on with bands that he's worked with, which is cool.
Andrea: It seems like they're really supportive of you.
Rob: Yeah. Jeff's great.
Andrea: How did the switch to Tooth & Nail happen?
Rob: We were doing the recording of "When the World Sings" with Ronnie, and it was going to be on Velvet Blue. At the time, he was doing the Plastiq Musiq thing, which was going to be the electronic sub-label of Tooth & Nail, and through the recording, we kind of decided, and Ronnie approached us, about putting out the record on Plastiq Musiq so it would get the Tooth & Nail distribution. We were like, "Okay, that sounds cool," and then Tooth & Nail wanted us to put it on Tooth & Nail. So, it happened through Ronnie, basically.
Andrea: And obviously with that you're going to get a lot more distribution.
Rob: It helps us immensely that the record does get put in stores.
Andrea: So that's been helpful? You've seen a change?
Rob: Oh, yeah. There's stuff like this, and it just helps to have a little more muscle behind it.
Andrea: Do you write all the songs, and lyrics?
Rob: Yeah. I usually write them at home, and we'll kind of hash them out as a band, maybe change the arrangement a little, but I always have the songs all the way done before we work on them, to keep the focus.
Andrea: What kind of stuff do you write about? Or what inspires your lyrics, I guess you could say?
Rob: Really regular stuff. It's pretty basic subject matter on the album. Family. My family and my wife's really important to me, so there's a lot of stuff about that. My faith's really important to me. I just try to come up with stuff that I like or whatever. I really don't focus that much on lyrics, to tell you the truth. They're almost an afterthought, really. I'll come up with some stupid words, you know. That's kind of just the way it happens.
Andrea: That kind of goes with the pop part of your music.
Rob: Yeah, definitely. We try not to get really political, or into a lot of deep stuff. We try to keep it on a more light-hearted note.
Andrea: But you take it really seriously, as far as…
Rob: Yeah, yeah. As far as the music, we're totally serious about that. Overly serious, at times, about perfecting it and stuff. But we're not all cryptic, lyrically, or try to come up with big, epic subject matter. We write regular pop songs.
Andrea: What do you like to listen to, other than, like, The Smiths and older pop stuff?
Rob: I like a lot of stuff. I try to find music where the songs are really quality, versus just, "Oh, that sounds cool." I like the great songwriters. I love The Beatles, and I love John Denver. I think The Smiths, obviously, were a great songwriting band. Pet Shop Boys. I'm not just like, "Oh, I like that because it's electronic." I like bands that wrote great songs. I guess that's what I look for all the time. Even Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra. I love some of those guys' stuff. Great melodies with beautiful music. I'm not really stuck in one thing. I'm always looking for new stuff that's great songwriting. I always try to learn how people write songs.
Andrea: Gene Eugene recorded "When the World Sings." Were you guys close with him at all?
Rob: We had never met him or worked with him before that. I mean, yeah, you get to know somebody if you do a record with him. We were really sad and kind of shocked when he passed away, so it was a bummer. I wouldn't say we were great friends with him or anything, but we got to know him really well, and he was a super-nice, Christian man and we're really sad that he's gone.
Andrea: Was he good to work with?
Rob: Oh yeah. Totally skilled, and kind of a quiet-spirited guy, but really knowledgeable and we were really appreciative to be able to work with him. He was so solid, you know, he had so much experience. He brought a lot to the table.
Andrea: I was reading an interview you guys did, and I'm not even sure where it was, but I guess you were talking about being from Phoenix, and someone was asking about the music scene there, and you said, "We're not into the local secular scene." I was wondering about your opinion on that, because I thought that was a little unusual. I think that most bands in the "Christian market," or whatever, are really into wanting to cross over and be a part of the secular market. How do you feel about that?
Rob: Well, that's not really what I meant. I think the question might have been, "Is there a band in the local scene you like" or something.
Andrea: That's what I was wondering about, if that was just a comment on the local scene.
Rob: Yeah. There's not a lot of bands in Phoenix that we like in the indie scene. We don't really play Christian shows in Phoenix at all. There's not much going on. We just want to be a regular band. We don't make a distinction between "Christian" and "secular." I don't think it's a valid distinction you can make. We play Christian shows, that's great. There's some Christian shows we won't do if it's a show where they're assuming that we're going to be evangelical. That's not what we feel we're called to do from stage, so we won't lie to somebody and take the money and tell them we'll do that. But we play Christian shows when it's appropriate, and we like to play at regular clubs, too. We like to play.
Andrea: I saw you guys had an MP3 on Abercrombie and Fitch. How'd that happen?
Rob: We had nothing to do with that. It just showed up. I think Starflyer's been on there before. Tooth & Nail has all these weird places they send the records to, and I guess they liked it, so they put it up there. I don't know. I didn't have anything to do with it.
Andrea: So there's not much of a music scene in Phoenix, where you guys are from?
Rob: There's a few cool bands. There's a band called Audra that we play with every once in a while that's pretty cool. We really like them. They're kind of an old-school, kind of a Love and Rockets thing. Pretty fresh stuff. But other than that, there's really not that much going on locally, that's good, in our opinion. I mean, it's good, but it's not the stuff we're into. Our keyboard player, Joshua, is in a band called The Slowdowns that's really cool. It's kind of slow and melodic.
Andrea: Are you planning on touring more?
Rob: We do as much as we can. We all work day jobs, two of us are married, so we have to balance being gone with paying the bills, and it's difficult. We do a few weeks a year, and that's all we can do. If we can increase that in the future, we will.
Andrea: Do you guys have any goals for trying to increase the amount of time you can tour, or maybe getting bigger, being more successful, or are you laid back about that?
Rob: Definitely. Our main thrust is really with the records, and not so much with touring. We want to have records, that people are gonna be like, "That's a good record." We want to do that, and spend a lot of time on the songs, and we don't spend a lot of time on the road, just because we can't right now. But our goal is just to do as much as we can, and do a good job at it, and be good stewards of what God has given us.
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