Trouble Lights are "Ready"
If the masses saw Adrien Daller and Phil Rabalais' group Trouble Lights' live show, they would grok that there is something freaky awesome happening with both this feisty dancepop group and the overall music scene in Iowa. Trouble Lights smashes your father's disco balls and trashes your mother's synthpop paradigm with an indie attitude that more accurately defines the mid-fi musical tastes of their generation, especially the smarty kids of Iowa.
Trouble Lights' new Maximum Ames Records album, The Endless Prom, actually ends too quickly for this writer, because it's addictive fun and I want more right now. Their pop songwriting gestates easily, and they deconstruct the obvious as quickly as they Mac their lyrics, making their hooks that much more potent.
And A&R guys, this band doesn't want your major label to sign them. Their mission is more pure -- rock the world about Iowa, you know, that swing State where President Obama and Bruce Springsteen wrapped things up with gratitude Monday night. Groups like this, Mumford's, Surgery, Little Ruckus, and Animal just might be the next wave of the Midwest's finest, so keep your peepers peeled. And while their open, take a gander at Trouble Lights' latest video, the exclusive "Ready," directed by lensboy Geoff Boothby, another young Iowan mastermind whose future is wide open.
So? "Ready"? Let's do this...
A Conversation With Trouble Lights
Mike Ragogna: Trouble Lights, how are you?
Adrien Daller: Good.
Phil Rabalais: Mm hmm.
MR: What are you up to?
PR: Our album just came out, and we had an album release show in Ames, and then an album release show in Des Moines.
AD: I've been kind of just making sure people are hearing the album.
MR: The Endless Prom is Trouble Lights' first album. Needless to say, you're excited.
AD: Yeah, yeah.
MR: I've seen Trouble Lights live and Adrien, when it comes to your stage performance, you've got your moves.
AD: Yes I do.
MR: [laughs] Where did they come from?
AD: I did musical theater, so I had a bunch of ballet classes and everything. But I wouldn't call what I do ballet, I think it's just from watching a lot of pop videos my entire life.
MR: What's Trouble Lights' origin?
PR: Well, Adrien moved back from London, and my really close friend, Jeff, developed a crush on her. So, they started hanging out, and that's how Adrien and I started hanging out. We got talking more and more, and decided we should do some music together. This band was kind of awesome. We talked about it and discussed it for like six months before we even started writing songs.
MR: Who gets the most credit for the dance grooves you revel in?
PR: I think both of us. The main influence for a while was Robyn. We went to see Robyn in Minneapolis, and we were both really moved by the show. It was dance music, but we were just kind of watching it and feeling really -- just feeling.
AD: Robyn got us listening to more mainstream pop music, and hearing it with different ears. We realized that there is some really beautiful dance music out there. When we saw the Robyn concert it was a big turning point where we saw that that was how we wanted the music to come across. It felt like you were in a dance club in a lot of ways, but everyone was focused on the show at the same time. It was a beautiful show, and it was very emotional, while still maintaining a dance beat the entire time.
PR: It was like a hundred percent in both directions, which was unique, I thought.
MR: How does the writing work with the two of you?
AD: It's kind of insular in a lot of ways.
PR: I often will start with a beat. I make sketches of beats just all the time. I got into a groove where I was thinking about Trouble Lights and how we wanted to sound, so I got in this groove where I was making tracks that I would then send Adrien. I would be alone in my room, send it to Adrien, and then she would write something to the track.
MR: Adrien, your father, Doug Daller, is one of the great Midwestern keyboardists. To what extent did your musical training come into play with these songs?
AD: I'm sure everything I've done in my life has affected me, I'm just not sure I understand how each part has effected this particular process. I think more than anything that it has made it more natural for me to be in touch with my own musical instincts -- doing music with my dad, musical theater, and doing every musical thing that I've done is helping me to access that, and be able to tell when something is right. So it's kind of like what everybody says, where it just kind of feels right, and then you know. I'll get that feeling, then I'll know that it was the right way to go. Also, anytime I did get that feeling about something, I would send it to Phil and he would like it, so we'd build the track from that.
MR: So you guys were just naturally on the same wavelength.
AD: If one of us had chills, the other one would get chills on pretty much everything. There were some songs we didn't have chills with right away and then it would grow.
PR: I think it took us a while to kind of fall into it. We had a number of songs we wrote before the songs on this album that we don't really perform anymore. I liked them, but none of it was really on that level because we were just figuring out how to do it, and that took a little while, which was fun, but also a little scary.
AD: Yeah, because pop songs seem really simple, so it would be like we had all the elements there, but it wasn't quite right.
PR: I remember that after I had given Adrien the beat to "Safe With Me," she came back with the vocal hook, and I knew we had it.
AD: That song was one of those times where we wrote the entire song and didn't change much of anything about the track or the song. Obviously Phil did all kinds of stuff to the track, but the basic format stayed the same.
PR: Except for one thing. It originally was called "Savior," and we recorded it and I had like a full panic attack. Because it was our first single, we were doing it big and it had the word "savior" in there. I didn't want people to think we were a Christian pop band.
AD: What I meant was, you are your own savior -- that was kind of the message of it -- but then we changed it to, "...because you're safe with me." We don't have anything against Christian pop music, it just wasn't what we were doing.
MR: You have a different philosophy on your career and it has a lot to do with carrying the flag for Iowa and Iowa bands. Can you go into that?
AD: Definitely. There is such a fine line between doing what you love, as a friend group, and doing it for acclaim and everything. It can change everything about how it's approached. It wouldn't be hard to slip into, "We could get famous from this and get a lot of money from this if we play our cards right." Then, all of a sudden, you're thinking of everything in a completely different way; what do other people want to hear from us. That's the dangerous thing. It has to be for us, and we have to go off our own intuition as to what should happen next with each step of the project. It has to be so much more carefully done than I would have thought going into it because it's so easy to just slide back into thinking about what other people want from you, and that's not a safe place as an artist. If we were interested in hits, we would be doing all those hooks you're sick of on the radio. We don't want to fall into that because it wouldn't be interesting.
PR: For me, it was a really interesting fine line because we were making pop music. My goal in this project was to make pop music -- something that has that classic pop feel to it. When you do that, it's so easy to do like the majority of what you hear because it's so easy to think that you can get things by doing that.
MR: The bad thing is that by the time you figure out what that thing is, it's over.
AD: That's why you have to stay true to what you actually want to make, and then none of that even matters.
MR: Phil, you and your brother Dominic have become fixtures on the Iowa scene, and I think it has to do with your leadership qualities and the fact that you're both running around creating at all times. I feel like I'm watching something that could be a national "scene" happening locally, which is kind of odd and exciting.
PR: I absolutely agree, and it feels amazing to watch my little brother grow as an artist, and Adrien grow, and all of us together. I feel like I'm growing an enormous amount with everything I do and every show I play. I feel like we all inspire each other really heavily. I have a friend in LA, who is doing very well out there, and we were talking about how in LA, it's a very competitive thing. I was saying that I have a little bit of envy of that, but I actually do feel like I'm competitive with Dom and Adrien and all these amazing people, but it's in an incredible healthy way.
AD: Yeah, we push each other to do better.
PR: Competitive isn't the right word for it. It's just so inspiring to see all of it.
AD: Yeah, Phil has his band with Darla Murphy, Animal, and I'll watch that and get really excited about how different it is from this project. Then I'll be inspired by ways that Darla performs as well. I love that about the scene here. I love collaboration -- I don't actually want to do music by myself -- and this is the ultimate collaborative scene in Fairfield, and the Iowa music scene on the whole is actually like that as well. Des Moines and Ames have the same type of really positive, collaborative, supportive theme in the community. It's just everybody realizing that there aren't enough of us to compete with each other because it would just fall apart. We have to work together to build something, so that's what everybody is doing. We get to work with our friends, who also happen to be amazing geniuses.
PR: Yeah, it's pretty crazy. We feel really lucky that we work really hard, and then our friends also work really hard. We'll give a song to Geoff to make a video, and I am 100 percent sure that it is going to make me feel better about a song. I know that I'm just going to be in awe. [Note: The video "Ready" is featured here.]
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
AD: Be yourself to the bajillionth, gajillionth degree. Completely be yourself. Do it for you. Do what makes you happy, and work insanely hard at that -- not spending a lot of energy on other stuff. Do whatever makes you happy and do it in a very hard working capacity.
PR: What has happened to me in that regard is that I have to fight against this feeling I have where I say, "I could just do something that I know will work." You have to be yourself.
AD: You have to get in touch with that and not be swayed. I've definitely done that. I was in England for all of these years, performing for other people, doing what I always wanted to do, and wondering why I was so unhappy doing it. I feel like that's a neverending process. You don't just get there and then say, "Now I am myself." For some people, it's natural, there is no other choice. But for me, I'm easily swayed by the people that are around, and I can easily adapt to the scene and be pretty content in it, but it's not real.
MR: So you know how to pull back from it.
AD: Yeah, but it's a constant thing.
PR: We kind of wrote into the fabric of how we work -- we had this long conversation about just how paramount it was to make sure that every decision was coming from us, and to make sure that every decision was accurate to how we wanted to present ourselves.
AD: We like to say, "Follow The Project." If it feels right to do this, and then this, and then this, that's what we do.
MR: Where do you see Trouble Lights five years from now?
AD: Hopefully, just more people hearing our music, and making the music we want to be making, it still coming from our hearts, and us still interested in what we're doing.
PR: I think Trouble Lights in five years is just honing in more and more on that feeling I get from like the perfect Talking Heads song.
MR: Nice. What has your observation been on how you've been utilizing social networking, and what have you been doing?
AD: It's a great way to find people that are like-minded or who would be interested in it. Also, it's a great way to get people who are already fans involved. Our album release show in Des Moines was a prom and we had a photo booth, and it was really exciting to post all the pictures of people in their fancy dresses on our Facebook page. Twitter is an amazing place to find people who are interested in this type of music. There are millions and millions of pop fans out there, so it's a great way to start conversations.
MR: What is the thing you really want to do? Do you want to base yourselves out of Iowa but constantly be performing in New York and California? What is the next level of this?
PR: This is going to turn into a whole story. I remember years ago when Dom and I first started making music, I think I got a little carried away in my head with what we were going to do and how big we were going to blow up. We opened for some awesome acts. I think there is a place for having ambition, but I think there is a line between ambition and just getting so overly excited that you just start to fall on your head a little bit. Someone asked us what our hopes for this album were, and to me, my hopes for this album are that it reaches a lot of people. I hope it reaches a lot of people because I basically just hope that we are allowed to move people -- the more the better -- I don't necessarily even care how that happens.
MR: All the best for the future, and we'll catch up again soon.
PR: Thank you so much, Mike.
AD: Thanks for all your support.
1. Truu Love
2. Call You Up
4. Fire Night
5. Safe With Me
7. Ride This Horse
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney