The problem in coming to grips with success often involves the backlash to critical reaction, and Keepaway - exploding onto the Brooklyn scene this year after a 9/10 review from recurrent tastemaker Pitchfork – are no strangers to listener skepticism. But with songs comprising a central guitar, a hard-synth edge, and whirligig percussion, something lies beneath the surface of Keepaway that sets them apart: maybe it’s the narrative quality to their songs, or the darker aspect of their tunes that only gets hinted at, or it could have to do with the sheer exuberance the three possess. Whatever it is, the attention is deserved.
Talking to the trio in their East Williamsburg practice space, they tend to be much more thoughtful than derivative. With plans in the works for a full length, a summer single, their EP release party at Mercury Lounge on May 18, and a line of Keepaway Clothes, they’ve got plenty to keep them busy. But at the moment, they’re enjoying their newfound success – not to mention listeners just being able to find them.
It seems like you came out of nowhere.
Frank Lyon: We did. We used to be called In. And we thought having an un-google-able name would end up being a strength. And it was, because being able to lay low and not have people find us allowed us to really focus on the project only musically.
Nick Nauman: We thought it was an interesting experiment to subvert the Internet’s strengths with its strengths, using a one-syllable language unit to actually obscure ourselves rather than be searchable. But it didn’t really pan out.
FL: There was something appealing about how hard it was to find us in the beginning. We weren’t actually strategically thinking, “No one will know who we are and then we’ll suddenly change our name and people will.” But within three weeks of us changing our name to something you could find on the Internet, that drove a significant paradigm shift in the band. Not just in name, but also what being in the band includes, like press, playing bigger shows.
As a result, there’s very little research I could do about you guys. What’s your story?
Mike Burakoff: Nick and I grew up together, Frank and Nick went to college together and spent some time in San Francisco playing music. We started playing together in this formation last fall. I’ve been making music most of my life, electronic music for half of it. I started playing turntables and keyboard. Now it’s more digital stuff.
Yeah you seem like you have a DJ vibe in the way you make your samples.
MB: It’s going to get more like that too. I’m going to switch back to having an A/B crossfade where I can cue up what’s coming next, the next part of the song – samples, keyboard – but like a DJ would. I’m going to completely rebuild [my setup] and strip it down, make it more robust and powerful.
NN: Frank and I were at a dinner party the other night and some guy had been to our show. He came up and asked, “are you the weird reggae band with the DJ?” Which we loved.
MB: How I see the sample elements coming together, as far as Frank playing a sampler and me playing a sampler… I think eventually Frank will be playing a lot of the electronic drum sounds. And hopefully with that, that’ll take some of the stress off me and I can be the sounds and textures guy, as far as electronics goes. We have it staged and pretty much ready to go. It’s just a matter of finding the right breath to get the triggers hooked up and ready to go. We have a certain way we compose songs and how we play, so introducing something like that is a major shift.
FL: And we’ve written probably half of what we want to go on a full-length. The second half of writing that will come from big technical shifts on Mike and my parts.
MB: In the end it’s about doing less rather than more because it’s going to be that much more ergonomic. It’s not going to be as fractured as it is now.
So how did you come together to make the tunes?
NN: We all moved here about the same time. We really just wanted to make some jams.
But how do you write the songs? They seem incredibly intricate, like puzzles.
MB: A lot of the elements are pretty portable. A lot of time is spent playing music by ourselves, which I think is important for the puzzle pieces to come together, really giving our individual parts a chance to gestate and make things that can stand on their own and then mixing and matching. It’s not always about composing a specific part for a specific song. It’s very easy then for it to become modular. You know: “Oh that works with this tempo,” or, “Oh that works with this melody.” And then, bam. Practicing at that point becomes about smoothing and polishing it to go together. Because a lot of times we have a problem bridging different parts of songs that come from very different places and we didn’t have the same intention in creating those parts.
Nick: It’s really just a way also of exporting our increasing knowledge of each other as people and friends into a creative space, so that as we become better and better communicators with each other and learn how to be with each other and spend all this time together our music becomes more cohesive.
Which is true of a lot of projects.
NN: Yeah I think that’s true of any relationship that has flowed through time, really.
So do you guys all feel like you’re creatively satisfied in the band if it’s all personal pieces coming together?
FL: Yeah. This band is going very well. Not all bands do. I mean, we enjoy practice. We practice just past the point of pleasure. That’s important. It’s also important to not completely kill it. We have a diversity of ways we contribute to the band as Mike was talking about. Some of it comes from us jamming in here. Others of it comes from doing something quietly on your computer before you go to bed. It just seems like the recipe is dynamic enough right now that we all seem to be getting a lot from it. Plus the world is starting to ask us to do this, you know. When that happens, it’s pretty big. Because most musicians spend time making music because they want to not because anyone’s asking them to.
NN: And we all know what that’s like, for sure.
FL: We’ve all spent a good amount of time doing that. So suddenly actually having people want to support us and ask us to play shows and do things like this… it just makes the adventure that much more complete.
Is there a big difference in what you’re trying to make for yourself versus what you’re trying to make for the world?
FL: They’re the same thing.
MB: I’ve always thought that I’d like to make music just for other people.
NN: I don’t want to get too much into my New Age vibe, but I think it’s a much stronger practice to make things that have an element of gifting. And if we’re able to produce any kind of art that is satisfying or valuable to others, then we’re doing ourselves a huge favor. If that means shittin’ hits, that’s what we’re going to do.
I’ve got to ask about the critical reaction. Because Pitchfork was the first place to put you out there, and the Animal Collective comparison shows up all over the place now.
MB: It’s fine. We definitely share a lot of things with Animal Collective. I wouldn’t say they’re our only influence or that’s what we strive to be. But if it helps people localize us without lumping us into the same category, that’s ok with me. But yeah, it gets a little lazy to just keep making that comparison. Because I think there will come a point when we don’t resemble them at all. And I think we’re well on that road.
NN: People need really reliable signifiers and people like that band. I think Mike’s always been a little more comfortable with the comparison just because of the contours of my pride. But it’s interesting the way one influential media outlet can say a few things that might be kind of accurate but aren’t the most imaginatively descriptive things and then everyone else just apes it. It’s really wild.
FL: You want someone to accredit some degree of creativity. So if they’re going to say you sound like a band, that’s cool, as long as they acknowledge it’s a creative response. Significant members of the press have called Animal Collective “the band of the decade.” So on some level to even form traction with the broader genres we’re trying to figure out, like psych, it’s like, how can you be trying to make psych music in 2010 without forming some traction with the psych band of the last decade.
MB: The answer isn’t always to be popping non sequiturs that don’t sound like anything else and are completely out of left field because when people try and do that it becomes even more of the same. I’d like to be in conversation with whatever’s being said.
NN: Yeah, we’re trying to make this band part of a wider history. We’re not trying to make something that just relates to nothing. Neither are we attempting facsimile.
MB: Of all the people talking right now, I think people like Animal Collective and Gang Gang Dance and Flying Lotus and others, we want to be able to touch on those things without people saying, “Oh, you’re copying them.” It’s no more copying than if someone is talking about birds and you chime in the conversation and say, “Oh, this is my favorite bird while you’re on the subject.”
FL: I would say my broadest response if someone says that is fine, but I’m also not going to be impressed with them writing it.
MB: And it’s also not really even about writing a certain point. People have laid a lot of the foundation for the synthesis of folk rock and electronic music. There’s a lot of it coming out now, but they’ve offered a lot of really good solutions. Things you can’t ignore. You can’t not try those things. If there’s a cheat code they know, we want to know it too.
FL: We’re trying to make our own Game Genie.
MB: Because a lot of that shit sucks and bands don’t get the codes right.
NN: Or you just do the same fatality over and over again.
You guys love video games?
FL: What’s funny is I don’t play video games now, but it was an important part of my youth. My first, most meaningful interactions with media were with video games. I know that I play drums like someone who was reared on 8-bit.
MB: All my melodies are lifted straight out of like, Castlevania.
What is the song “Five Rings” about? For some reason, I envision Donkey Kong.
MB: Sonic the Hedgehog. I know five rings isn’t a lot of rings in Sonic the Hedgehog, but having rings just in general means having power.