LIANE HANSEN, host:
In Poughkeepsie, New York, in the late 1980s, Ben Trokan and Steven Mercado were middle-school classmates, aspiring musicians and huge fans of The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Ben played the piano, Steve played guitar and together, they tried to emulate Led Zeppelin, but they found they sounded less like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and more like the Fab Four. Ben Trokan and Steve Mercado remain close friends and they're still playing music together as two of the four members of the indie pop band Robbers on High Street. The group's new CD is "Tree City." Ben sings and plays guitar and Steve plays guitar, and both of them are in the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco.
First, welcome to you, Ben...
Mr. BEN TROKAN (Robbers on High Street): Hi.
HANSEN: ...and to you, Steve.
Mr. STEVE MERCADO (Robbers on High Street): Hi. How are you?
HANSEN: I'm well, thank you. All right. You two are the primary songwriters for this band. You have a drummer, Tomer Danan, and a bassist, Morgan King, rounding out the lineup. I have to ask, though: Where did the name come from, Robbers on High Street?
Mr. TROKAN: It came from some lyrics to an early song we had that we sort of stopped playing. I guess the song was OK, but I thought it would make a good song title, but the other guys said, `Let's name the band that.' And I didn't like it, but in the end, it was 3-to-1 and, you know, you need a band name. And in the end, they're all pretty silly. So...
Mr. MERCADO: It took us, like, six months to come up with a band name.
Mr. TROKAN: Yeah, there's lists and lists.
HANSEN: Yeah. I read a story, an interview, that your mom had given, Steve, about the days when you two were, you know, thrashing it out in the house, and she just got to the point where she couldn't stand it anymore and she said, `I could still hear it two doors down.'
Mr. MERCADO: Yeah, we were pretty bad, you know, just kind of, like, figuring everything out.
HANSEN: I mean, you were into The Beatles; you were into Led Zeppelin. I mean, that's not really very unusual. And, I mean, you're, you know, a New York band but you know, is there some kind of deep desire in yourself to be British?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TROKAN: I think we just listened to a lot of British music. The Stones and The Beatles were the first records I listened to straight from my mom's album collection.
HANSEN: It doesn't sound like Mom has the right to complain if you cop stuff from her records.
Mr. TROKAN: No, I would be--Lord knows what I would be like now if my mom didn't have a good record collection.
HANSEN: I'm fascinated that the CD has a number of songs that have references to the subway--I mean, or the trains, first of all, that run between New York and New Jersey. But the very first track is one that's called "Spanish Teeth."
(Soundbite of "Spanish Teeth")
ROBBERS ON HIGH STREET: (Singing) Do you remember when it all began with all the fit ever hit the sand? No, I've got some plans for you to try to learn what you can do, but you know that when we fight. But baby when you get back at me...
HANSEN: Now it's really not easy to determine what this is about. I mean, this could be a song about a really bad breakup. Is it?
Mr. TROKAN: It's sort of. I mean, I guess it's about being in the throes of an argument that could be with a friend or a girlfriend or whoever. I guess it was sparked by an incident from the subway. I was getting on a rush-hour A-train and it was very crowded and I had to elbow my way in, and there was a Hispanic woman already on the train in the middle of a fight with her boyfriend. And when I bumped into her, she just started chewing me out in front of all these people on this train. Yeah, she was pretty attractive and the accent was kind of a turn-on, so it was this weird public humiliation that--it was very hot, and it just sparked a bunch of lyrics.
HANSEN: Why do you think the subway makes such a good topic for songwriting?
Mr. MERCADO: There's so much to see, so many people.
Mr. TROKAN: You just spend a lot of time on there.
HANSEN: So you carry, like, a notebook and stuff and start making observations about the people that are getting on?
Mr. TROKAN: Yeah, I keep a little notebook with me. I'm too paranoid to whip it out on the subway and start writing about it people because Lord knows what would happen. Other people are equally paranoid about that.
HANSEN: The horns surprised me. It really reminded me of, like, those big horn sections that you would hear in--I'm thinking late '60s, early '70s, kind of a Chicago, you know...
Mr. TROKAN: Yeah, like The Grass Roots or something like that.
HANSEN: Yeah. Why did you decide to add this big horn section in there?
Mr. TROKAN: I love horns and it was sort of a swinging song and it seemed appropriate. The guy who did it actually is just an incredible...
Mr. MERCADO: Incredible.
Mr. TROKAN: ...Tom "Bones" Malone. I think he was even part of, like, The Blues Brothers and he's played on so many records. And we had the line already recorded and he just came in and built this whole thing around the line.
(Soundbite of "Spanish Teeth")
ROBBERS ON HIGH STREET: How long could this go on? How long could this go on? How long could this go on? How long could this go on? How long could this go on?
HANSEN: Do you think as you continue to create, do you see yourself getting more spare or adding more layers?
Mr. TROKAN: No, I want to throw in everything. Yeah.
Mr. MERCADO: Yeah, nice--yeah, big stuff.
Mr. TROKAN: And Morgan, who's been playing with us since the beginning of the year, can play almost any horn instrument. He's just...
HANSEN: This is your bass player that can play horns.
Mr. TROKAN: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. MERCADO: Yeah.
Mr. TROKAN: He's a classically trained French horn player...
Mr. MERCADO: Yeah.
Mr. TROKAN: ...and he switched to bass, but he can play a lot of horns. And, yeah, I think we're going to really make his lips turn purple on this next record.
Mr. MERCADO: Oh, we're going to. Poor guy.
HANSEN: You released an extended play...
Mr. TROKAN: Right.
HANSEN: ...and then this new CD is not at all like the EP. And tell us the story about what the record label wanted you to do 'cause there are two songs--I think it's "Amanda Green" and "Japanese Girls"--that you hadn't intended to put on this CD.
Mr. MERCADO: Well, I think they kind of wanted us to rock out like we did on the EP. But I mean, we had a lot of the songs from the album already written when we did the EP. We were just...
Mr. TROKAN: Yeah, "Amanda Green" was probably the first song...
Mr. MERCADO: Yeah, "Amanda Green" was the first song...
Mr. TROKAN: ...we ever did as a band.
(Soundbite of "Amanda Green")
ROBBERS ON HIGH STREET: Smoking ...(unintelligible) on the telephone, trying to make your brown eyes green. If you cut your dreams, ...(unintelligible) seems that no one knows or cares. It's like the ...(unintelligible) hard to pass up the protocol, equilibrium. Up to the brim or not at all, fingering (unintelligible) and done. Amanda Green, you can do ...(unintelligible) to me. I won't make a scene when you walk away. Or you can go get (unintelligible)...
Mr. MERCADO: But we just had an idea. We were, like, `These songs would be really good on an EP and these ones will be good as an album.'
Mr. TROKAN: We were making this EP knowing later on we would be recording an album and just said, `Well, let's make this EP really cohesive and then we'll save all these other songs that seem to work together for the album.'
HANSEN: You've gotten some exposure now in this media-saturated world. It's a place where actually independent bands can get good exposure--music blogs and magazines and prime-time TV. "The O.C." picked up one of your songs?
Mr. TROKAN: They did. They played a piece of "Love Underground" during some sort of...
Mr. MERCADO: Wet T-shirt contest.
Mr. TROKAN: ...spring break, whipped cream scene or something like that.
HANSEN: So what did it do for you?
Mr. TROKAN: Hopefully, it's going to pay our rent.
(Soundbite of "Love Underground")
ROBBERS ON HIGH STREET: Now ...(unintelligible) waits it out when she's only young enough for something ...(unintelligible) silken dawn and low on the radar, the smoking gun. We're moving fast enough to function, fast enough to function. Baby, it's me, girl. I seem to ...(unintelligible) too simply. Guys who open doors can prove ...(unintelligible) inside battles and keep that love underground.
HANSEN: Does your audience change, you think, I mean, when one of your songs is played on a TV show like "The O.C."? Do you end up getting different kinds of audiences once you have that kind of exposure?
Mr. MERCADO: Our audiences vary a lot I think mainly because we've done some tours and played some shows with Fountains of Wayne and Cake and, you know, they attract younger audiences. In New York, I think a lot of the places we play are 21 and over. So I think it varies a lot from just touring and certain bands that you play with.
HANSEN: Is it difficult, though? I mean, if you start making music to please an audience, you're really not making music that pleases yourself. You know, success can be a spoiler, too.
Mr. TROKAN: I never actually think of the audience when writing a song. I think of...
Mr. MERCADO: Is it good?
Mr. TROKAN: Whether the rest of the band likes it or the general public likes it is to be determined.
HANSEN: Since this CD came out, I mean, you've had, you know, write-ups in a lot of major papers and you've had a lot of reviews. What's it like for you to read what people are saying about your child here that you've given to the world?
Mr. MERCADO: Oh, when it's good, it's cool.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HANSEN: But when it's bad?
Mr. MERCADO: Yeah.
HANSEN: Well, you haven't gotten any bad ones, but you...
Mr. TROKAN: Well, that's not true.
HANSEN: Oh, really?
Mr. TROKAN: We get slapped around on the Internet more than we do in paper, which maybe says something about Internet rock journalism. It's easier to write as bad a review as you feel like, and then you look like a better writer.
HANSEN: Ben Trokan and Steve Mercado are two of the four members of Robbers on High Street. The band's new CD is called "Tree City" out on Scratchie/New Line Records. They joined us from member KQED in San Francisco.
You can hear full versions of three songs from "Tree City" at our Web site, npr.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.