09/24/2014 02:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Get Down Harmony: Exclusive Interview With Luke Rathborne


Photo by Aaron Stern

There's something about Luke Rathborne reminiscent of the artists of yesteryear. Before hurried attention spans switched on and off at lightning speed, before the internet existed, before music was available on the Internet -- before all of that, there was a certain rumination involved in listening to records. Rathborne moved to New York from Maine at the age of 18 and since then has released three EPs, his most recent being SOFT. The track "Last Forgiven" was recently played on Zane Lowe's BBC Radio 1 show and Rathborne has performed for crowds of up to 30,000 people -- and none of this has caused him to stray from the uniqueness of his oeuvre. SOFT was produced by Emery Dobyns (Antony & the Johnsons), Gus Oberg, and Albert Hammond Jr. (The Strokes) and is saturated in a combination of musical ingredients, each element feeding smoothly into the next. Rathborne is dictated by the direction of his artful curiosity, intrigued by stories of others and the worlds they inhabit. With influence from Bowie, Eno, R.E.M. and artists of various milieu, Rathborne is able to connect contrasting elements of sound and synthesize them with the addition of his own perspective and uninhibited sense of creative freedom. SOFT is an album with effortless shifts from rock to pop to a fusion of genres -- but then again, what is pop and what is rock? In Rathborne's world there are no restrictions -- sound is sound, music is music, and sincerity inhabits each track, cutting straight through.

We recently caught up with Rathborne in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to talk about the album and influences.

J.L. SIRISUK: What did you do today?

LUKE RATHBORNE: I was actually in Maine where I grew up, for like the first time in a year the past week. So I got back today. Or I got back last night, so I was settling back in. There's nothing in my room right now, so...

SIRISUK: Back in Maine?

RATHBORNE [laughs]: No, here. In Maine it's kind of like I just visited my mom, and like there isn't really a kid's room there anymore.

SIRISUK: So they didn't keep your old room the way it was?

RATHBORNE: I had my old room at my dad's house and then they moved, so the house where I had a room is non-existent. They moved to California. I'm trying to think what I would consider my childhood room. It's probably some random room in someone's house.

SIRISUK: I thought there might have been a childhood room full of records.

RATHBORNE: I would always paint my rooms like bright blue and put all sorts of colorful things on the wall, and kind of make it look like a punk room or whatever I thought that would be. I remember when I was 14 or 15, I got in trouble because I wrote "fuck you" above my window in paint and then they came in and they were like, "What? You can't do that." But I had it there for a little while. I always collected a lot of CDs, more than records because I don't think records were popular when I was young. That came out more when I was out of high school.

SIRISUK: It was all about the CDs.

RATHBORNE: Yeah, and you would spend money on CDs too. I still wanna buy CDs when I see them sometimes, it's like you know that you can just download it but it's kind of cool to have and also to look at the art and stuff and listen to a whole record. It's not as compelling to listen to a record when there's no object involved with it. If you were in a car, you were stuck with certain records, you know, so you'd listen to it even if you didn't want to listen to it. So you'd get to know records really well because it's like "this is what I have."

SIRISUK: What made you start playing the guitar?

RATHBORNE: I had a friend who rented out a room in my house when I was younger and he had a big record collection. He was ten years older than me so I went through a lot of his records and he gave me a Sex Pistols record - the Nevermind the Bollocks record - and I feel like I listened to that a lot and I just liked how punk music was very different. It felt like you could intuitively gather a lot of information about these people's lives with how forcefully they put their own personalities into what they were doing, so if you could intuitively listen to music it would actually be like being in a different world listening to those because they were really trying to get you into a different world. They were pushing for extremes, so I listened to that and Buzzcocks and just a lot of stuff. Then later on I got into a lot of stuff like Neil Young, but really just so much different music. Even on a record I'll try to do a bunch of different kinds of songs.

SIRISUK: Your most recent record SOFT feels like it captures different stories reflected in different styles of music. Do you want to tell me about the story of SOFT?

RATHBORNE: I'm trying to think of when those songs came about. Some of them were pretty quick like "Last Forgiven" was before going to a rehearsal. I knew that I wanted to do something new and so I had a record Fables of Reconstruction, it's an earlier R.E.M. record, and I just remember listening to it and thinking, "Oh, I wanna do a song. That kind of song," then putting together chords really fast and kind of making up words. It was just really quick, it was almost the time it took to play it. Some of them are just meeting up with people. I went to this restaurant Basilica because I was working with the manager of the time of The Strokes and I went with the guy from that band, Julian, and we just sat down and I remember after leaving the restaurant, thinking about when I first listened to those records and what I thought was really unique about them...

SIRISUK: The Strokes records?

RATHBORNE: Yeah, and I did a song that I felt was in the spirit of those, the "I'm So Tired" song. Some of it was even in the names like "Low!" and" Eno." It's like the period of records of David Bowie and Brian Eno. I was really into those records as a teenager so it's almost like taking a snapshot of the kind of music I grew up on, but making something new out of it. As far as the stories, I remember thinking that the words to the record were almost dumb in a way because they were tapping into a different part of your brain, where you're going on impulse and just speaking. The song "Why" has the lyrics "I suck /you suck/we suck together, girl" [laughs] and I just thought that kind of encapsulates the lyrics on the record.

SIRISUK: Do you listen to pop music?

RATHBORNE: I started listening to more pop music. I can't tell if it's because everyone I'm around listens to pop music and I know that I'm pretty prone to influence.

SIRISUK: SOFT has some pop influence. There's bursts that are poppy, but rooted in something fuller.

RATHBORNE: I sometimes want to go into something where it's just pure pop and that's kind of what I've been thinking about for the next round of things. I've been listening to a lot more pop music lately and there is something I connect to about it. I feel like a lot of those songs aren't pop songs. Sometimes I think I know that it's rock music on the surface but it's not really how I think about it so it's hard sometimes to deal with putting out records where people are like "it's a rock record" or something, and it just gets filed into that.

SIRISUK: I do hear the pop influence.

RATHBORNE: I think the most complicated thing, too, about playing music is just that it's really hard to understand how it's going out there. It's so weird when you come across people in weird areas who have heard the music. You're like '"how did you come across that?" It's not even like people are trading tapes or something in dark corners. I know the answers probably the internet or something, but there's so much shit on the internet. How did they find that one thing, you know? I did this weird internet thing where you're supposed to give advice. It was kind of a disaster.

SIRISUK: What kind of advice?

RATHBORNE: It was supposed to be some kind of love line. It was for pop music or whatever. I don't know why I ended up doing it. I'll try anything, I guess [laughs] and some girl called up and said she lived in Oklahoma and she was having all these personal problems saying she can't get along with her family, everybody is really mean to her, her friends are mean to her, she's depressed and stuff. She was like 23, living at home, so I was like, "You should get out of home, maybe if you can. Try to make more money or something." Then at the end of it she was saying, "Oh, I just wanted to say I love this song and that song," and then she got off the phone and I was like "that was so weird." I just think about how I listened to music when I was a teenager. It was a very important thing to have, it was very important to be able to have those connections to things because that was your outlet to deal with anything.

SIRISUK: I saw recently that you contributed music to a movie. What happened there?

RATHBORNE: There's this movie Wild Home about a Vietnam vet who couldn't communicate with people anymore because he had had a stroke and he had gotten shot three or four times in Vietnam, and he came back and didn't like people anymore. He didn't want to be around them, he couldn't speak and he started coming into being able to communicate with people again by rehabilitating the animals. He has lions and tigers and bears and stuff and it's in the woods in Maine so you can see a tiger running through the snow there. It's crazy. So the way I did the music for it was I had never seen the movie [laughs] and I just got an electric guitar.

SIRISUK: So you hadn't seen it? Parts of it at least?

RATHBORNE: I'd seen maybe like a moment. I'd seen moments of it. I had never seen the movie. I purposely never watched the movie. They played it and I just had an electric guitar and just played to the movie of how someone feels when they are reacting to the movie watching it, and so that was the score of the movie and I feel like it came out really cool. I mean I'll have to watch it again.

SIRISUK: Is it out yet?

RATHBORNE: It's premiering at a festival later this month in Maine. The Camden Film Festival.

SIRISUK: You collaborated with great people on this record in terms of production. The album deserves a longer life.

RATHBORNE: It's like this secret thing now which is also a cool thing, where it's like the people who do come across it kind of come across it on their own terms and decide how they feel about it. I feel like that with a lot of my music. I never had any expectations for any of my music. When I made my first record, I didn't even really show it to anyone. If anything, part of the reason why I was making music was to avoid institutions of any kind. I don't feel a connection to those kinds of people and part of making music was in resistance of that. If anything ever good happens with something I'm always surprised because I really just want to do things in my own way.

SIRISUK: Authentically.

RATHBORNE: Yeah, which also can mean that it's a way harder road and it's a longer road and it's also really precarious [laughs].

SIRISUK: It's worth it though.

RATHBORNE: When they were playing that shit on the radio in England where people pay all this money to do it, like tens of thousands of dollars or something, it honestly feels like '"fuck you" you know what I mean. Not in an abrasive or confrontational way, but in this way where it's like you're so glad that things can exist just on the standard that "this guy liked it" -- no money had to change hands or anything. It was just like somebody found it and liked it, and that's what I like the most. I'm so much more into DIY kind of stuff and sometimes I recognize that less people find out about that kind of stuff. But there's something so satisfying. I make everything, I make the videos, I make the art and so when someone goes "oh, I have this'" you go "I made that" you know what I mean.

SIRISUK: All the components are a part of you instead of someone else coming in. It's more personal.

RATHBORNE: That's the whole point for me. I remember there were periods of time, like when we played at SXSW and it was when The Strokes were playing and 30,000 people were there. It was an insane amount of people and I just remember having this feeling like "oh shit things are getting out of my control" and I could see how things happen where all of a sudden it's like you're working for someone doing what you used to want to do or something like that.

SIRISUK: Someone kind of dictating.

RATHBORNE: Someone co-opted your life or something like that. It would probably be better to have a shitty life than some life that's not yours. Not that I'm trying to have a shitty life [laughs].

Luke Rathborne will be playing a free show at the Brooklyn Night Bazaar this Friday September 26th. SOFT is out on Dilettante/True Believer Records. For more information on the artist, visit his facebook page.