Mike Robinson of Annuals

<img src="https://www.qromag.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/annualsmikeinterview.jpg" alt=" " />Right before launching on their tour and releasing their record, Annuals bassist Mike Robinson sat down to talk with QRO....

  In it, he discussed their new record, Such Fun (QRO review), how it compared to making their last record, the breakthrough Be He Me, the ‘sophomore jinx’, their new label, Canvasback, their alter-ego, Sunfold, their upcoming tour with Minus the Bear, opening vs. headlining, outdoors vs. indoors, Halloween, Canada, Conan, Raleigh, and more…

QRO: How did making Such Fun compare with making Be He Me?

Mike Robinson: Well, there’s definitely a lot of pretty notable differences.  I like to say, this time around, the main difference being the access to nicer gear, just actually having money behind it.

And also, this is the first time where we made a record where, we went into it, ‘Okay, this is going to get released.  We need this to be done so it’ll be a record.’  Because Be He Me was not that all – that was just songs that got worked on and got made over more than two or three years.  And then [original label] Ace Fu came along, and it sort of became a record, after the fact.  This is more of a focused process; it all happened over a more constrained period of time.

We got to do tracking in a place called Echo Mountain (Band of Horses, VHS or Beta) in Asheville, North Carolina.  Especially for some of the piano-heavy songs, that was a really big difference.

QRO: Things have really ‘blown up’ for you all since making Be He Me – how much did that affect making Such Fun, and how much did you try to ‘get back to keepin’ it real’?

MR: Be He Me was a really great experience for us, just as far as, we’d been a band for a really long time now, we’ve playing together for countless years – having Be He Me sort of happen how it did, getting to this level of an ‘acclaimed band’ or whatever, for the first time, I think all it really did was just motivate for the second record.

There’s definitely more pressure, but at the same time, I think it did us a lot of good, more than anything else.  We’re definitely in a different world now, than we were, as far as our bands ‘bubble’, which is definitely different than a couple years ago.

But we still got a lot of ground to cover, too, just as far as trying to forge actual careers and all that kind of stuff.  Like I said, we’re at this point now where there’s all this good press out there, great acclaim – couldn’t ask for better – but me, Adam, and Zach, we still live in our moms’ basement.  We’re all still spread around Raleigh, in different situations.  We’re going to tour our asses off, see what happens.

QRO: Do you feel there’s any extra pressure to avoid any ‘sophomore jinx’?

MR: You know, I don’t know.

We all knew, going into it, that second CD, that’s the make-or-break– you’re really done if you don’t get it right on the second one.  I think we all were aware of that.  Now that the music’s done, and it’s come together in a little package, we just got to roll with it.  All that we can really do at this point is do the touring that we gotta do, be good live – stuff that we all feel confident about at this point.

We thought about it – it crossed our minds, for sure.  But we all generally share the feeling that we’re going to be all right.

QRO: You’ve done a lot of touring since releasing Be He Me.  Do you think that you’ve brought more of a ‘live’ sound to Such Fun?

MR: I would say it’s probably still– a lot of the songs, and it always happens towards the end, where Adam sort of makes a general build for a song, and then everyone gets their hands on it a little bit, and gets their parts, that’s sort of where the band comes in.  Usually, after the band comes in, and we’ve really solidified the parts, of what people play live, then, there’s a lot of cinematic feel to some of the songs, with string orchestration and that kind of thing – on the new record, more than ever before, there’s a whole cast of… just going for that ‘epic’ feel, basically because cinematic music is a pretty heavy influence on Adam, and all of us, as far our taste goes.

It’s really hard to say.  We definitely, live, don’t have string players and that kind of thing, but we still make it work, just through rearticulating parts on guitar.  We’re fortunate enough to have Kenny on guitar, who’s a guitar mastermind.  Some of the songs that we play live, there’s like fiddle solos on the CD; live, they just turn into exactly what the part is, just on guitar, shred it out.

We make it work, live.  I guess I’ve totally run away from the question without realizing it, in a way.  We work it out, one way or another.

QRO: What drew you to your new label, Canvasback [a part of Sony/BMG]?

MR: Well, they offered to sign us…

Our band, we have no reservations about where we’re trying to go with our career.  We’re trying to be as big a band as we can be.  We want to be successful; we want this to be our career.

  When opportunities came about for major label signing, honestly, we were way more skeptical than anything else, just what the music industry is now, total chaos.

We had more than one offer, options; there was also a very viable option to stay on Ace Fu, but we just felt like it was the right choice, to go to Canvasback, because it’s certainly a major label, but at least it’s contained.  So I feel good about it.

We also run a very small indie label ourselves in North Carolina, called Terpsikhore.  And part of the perks of being with Canvasback is how supportive they’ve been in that realm.  They’ve been very cool to us, and they’ve given us a lot of space.  It’s been very great; I’m definitely very grateful.

QRO: In addition to a ton of touring, you all have done a lot of other things in between Be He Me and Such Fun, including the digital Frelan Mas EP, the Wet Zoo split 7” (QRO review) with your alter-ego, Sunfold, and Sunfold’s Toy Tugboats (QRO review)…

MR: We did some touring with Sunfold, over the summer.  And on the touring end, it was me, Kenny – he’s the frontman – Adam plays drums, and Zach plays guitar in that band as well.  And then we actually have another friend who’s in another one of our bands back home, collective-thing.

So that ended up being a five-piece touring band, this time around.  But whenever the next opportunity comes up to tour for Sunfold, it could very well be a different line-up going out there.  Us four, me, Adam, Kenny, and Zach, we have been a band for a very long time.  It predates the Annuals’ success, and we were in that band for a while…

QRO: Sedona…

MR: Which is Sunfold.  We changed the name last-minute; it was a bummer.

QRO: Why did you have to change the name?

MR: It was a trademark issue.  Some lady, she said we could pay a licensing fee if we wanted to continue using it, and we were, ‘Ehh…  We don’t really have money…’

It was kind of a clean break in a lot of way, too.  Annuals is the real focus; but at the same time, all of our extracurriculars are music-related.  We all write music, play music together, help each other with our songs.  We have a studio at home that we all work in.  It’s really cool; we’re really fortunate.

But, like I said, we’re trying to focus on Annuals.  We’re trying to really have some steadiness underneath us; make a career out of it.  Monetarily sustaining…

QRO: Where did you find the time to make Such Fun?

MR: [“Hot Night Hounds”] on Such Fun is one of our oldest songs, actually.  Some of the songs are deceivingly older than they are, but a lot of them, also, are brand-new, and nobody in the band besides Adam knew about them until we were recording the tracks.

I guess the way it kind of worked, we were doing that Manchester [Orchestra] tour last fall, came home, had Christmas with the family and stuff, and basically, last January, was when we started recording.  And the way it would work, basically, there was three places where the record happened.  There was two extensive sessions at Echo Mountain, where it was a couple weeks, good drums, and piano, really good tracking.  There’s another studio in Raleigh called ‘Osceola’, where we have a really close friend who’s like the head engineer there.  Granted, it’s a real studio, though, so it’s not like we get ‘hooked up’; it’s the studio where, we when got some money, we’ll go there for tracking.

We did a bunch of tracking in those two studios, because our home studio that we all share, it’s a communal studio, it’s in a refurnished garage.  Which is fine – that’s great for mixing; that’s how this happened: we got all these great sounds from these nice studios, and then brought it home and spent all the time in the world that we wanted with it, as opposed to being on the clock at another studio, mixing.  That was definitely to our benefit.

January, February, March…  We ended up having the record in May that started in January.  It was pretty together, but that’s not to say that there weren’t some crazy moments.  [Canvasback], I think we put them through some nervous spots, not knowing what was going to happen.  A lot of them were really scared that we were making a country record.  Some of the first songs they heard, from the record, were these two really subdued piano songs, because we went to Echo Mountain first, so it was piano time, because they have this huge grand piano.  We freaked them out a little bit, but we ended up with a CD, so I think everybody’s happy.

QRO: What’s it like, morphing from Sedona to Annuals to Sunfold and now back to Annuals?

MR:

Me, Kenny, and Adam have been playing music together since 2000 – me & Adam since 1999.  I guess we really take that for granted, but our band chemistry is very well worked out at this point.

  We can probably play anything together, if we spend enough time on it.  We’ve just been playing together way too long; it’s almost like there’s no transition, ‘Alright, now we’re going to play these songs…’

QRO: Live as Annuals, do you just do Annuals songs?

MR: Yeah, we keep it pretty separated.  But we do play a song called “Ease My Mind”, that Kenny sings, that has been dubbed ‘an Annuals song’.  It started as a Sedona song – it was an old recording of a song.  We all liked the song, so we just threw it on the Frelan Mas b-sides thing.  So we play that, and that’s a little bit of a crossover, because we played that song on the Sunfold tour we did, as well as Annuals.

But we pretty much keep it in two places.

QRO: Do you have any post-Such Fun material, or stuff that wasn’t included?

MR: There’s a lot of songs – there’s just a lot of songs, all the time.  Like I said, a lot of these are brand-new songs, but there’s even still song very old songs that weren’t on Be He Me but are still from that first batch of a couple years of aimless recording. 

So we’ve got a vault, pretty much, of ideas, which is great – takes the pressure down a little bit.  When it’s time for a new record, ‘It’s time to start thinking about new songs’ – it’s never like that for us.  It’s just, ‘What songs do we want to use?’

  There’s always new ones coming in for Adam, Kenny…

QRO: Do you play any of those unreleased songs live?

MR: Not as of yet.

QRO: Do you think you will for the upcoming tour?

MR: The upcoming tour is gonna be pretty straightforward; we’re trying to do it right, pretty heavily promote Such Fun, keep everybody happy.  But I’m sure we’ll get bored after a while, and it’ll be inevitable that we’ll start playing other stuff.

QRO: Next month, you’re going to start touring with Minus the Bear.  How did that come about?

MR: They contacted us before about doing a tour.  In the past, we weren’t able to do it, because of scheduling conflicts, but this time it was just perfect, because the tour starts right when our CD is coming out.  We’re really excited about it, because they’re a really hard-working band, and we all like their music and really respect them.

I think this might be the best fitting tour for us that we’ve had so far.  We sort of all in our band agree that they’re a little bit… it’s kind of hard to throw them in a similar genre, in a weird way, because I think they got their own ‘niche’ audience that goes to their show.  They’ve just been touring their asses off.  We couldn’t be happier to be doing it; we’re all really ready to do this tour.

QRO: Which do you prefer: your own headlining dates, or opening at larger places?

MR: I would have to say, right now, the general feeling in our band is that we like to do opening tours.  There’s just less pressure.  And also, we’ve done some headlining tours – the last headlining tour we did, it was pretty tough, because there was nothing to promote.  We found ourselves in some small spots, and we have so much fuckin’ gear, so whenever we find ourselves in a situation where we’re playing a bar or a tavern, it’s always really hard on us.

But if we can get to the point where we can do a headlining tour and play good places, we’ll be all about it, I’m sure.  Especially if we can sell tickets – it’s all predicated on that.

I think we’ll change our minds about it, if things go really well, but right now, I think we all prefer doing the opening stints.  It’s just less pressure.

QRO: You all played Siren Music Festival on Coney Island in July (QRO photos), and will be doing the Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin in November (QRO preview).  Do you do anything differently, when you play outdoors?

MR: Not really, no.  I guess at Siren, we had a bunch of beach balls, which was fun.  But no, we never really plan it; we just go a play it.  For [Fun Fun Fun], we’ll just play the set that we’re going to have on that tour.  But we’re really looking forward for that…

QRO: Which do you prefer playing: outdoors or indoors?

MR: Probably indoors, just with a more controlled… It really depends on a lot of things, I guess, but if it’s indoors and a really awesome place, with a lot of lights, that’s probably preferable.

But we’ve had some really great shows outside, too.  It really just depends.  We just played a show back home in Raleigh, and they have this thing called ‘Raleigh Wide Open’.  Which is weird, because Raleigh’s not really known as a music… anything, but they had a festival.

It was really crazy, we played outside and Hurricane Hannah was there, rolling over us.

  It was a really crazy day.  That whole week, we’d been practicing.  We were headlining this thing, we had an hour-and-a-half set, all this preparation, and the whole time, ‘Is this even going to happen?’  It could totally get rained out…

It ended up being awesome.  To start, 200 people there to see Annuals, which is amazing, and they al had umbrellas.  It was fuckin’ raining like you didn’t even know.  They had just squeegeed the stage, and we were all just standing there, ‘Oh my god…’  But then, right before we started playing, it stopped playing.  And it didn’t rain the whole time we played.  We ended up having a huge crowd that went down a couple of blocks.

That was a really unique outdoor experience, I guess.  So we’ve had some good shows outside.  But we’re not really at a level where we can do any really cool ‘Flaming Lips’-style, ‘We bring the festival with us’ kind of thing.

QRO: On Halloween this year, you’ll be at Bijou Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Will you be wearing costumes, like your Deadwood ensemble from last Halloween at Bowery Ballroom in New York (QRO photos)?

MR: We won’t do Deadwood again, but we gotta do something.  If you’re a band and you’re playing Halloween, in my opinion, you’re just fuckin’ lame if you don’t dress up.  We’ll do something, but how coordinated it is, is another question.  We’ll have to do something.

Annuals as 'Deadwood'

Mike RobinsonQRO: Have you Adam & Mike ever seen photos of the faces you two make while performing live?

MR: I have, actually.  We’ve got some animated people in our band anyway.  That just happened – I’m really, honestly, not trying to make any faces.  We just love to perform.  We’ve been playing for so long, since we were fourteen.  I think it’s just something that ends up happening.

QRO: I noticed there are no Canadian dates on this tour – do you all have visa issues, like a lot of other bands?

MR: We are kind of glad we’re not doing Canada, because every time you go there, you’ve got to sneak in merch, basically.  Furthermore, we have had visa issues, just with Adam – it’s nothing big, just stupid shit, but will still make it so you can’t go to Canada.

We’ve had those issues, but we’ve got good management who have helped us work it out.  There’s nothing on our end that’s making it not happen; if [Minus the Bear] had dates in Canada, we’d be there.  They just didn’t have the dates.

And it’ll probably be cold as fuck, anyway.  It’s no skin on off our backs, really.  It’s just less that we got to deal with – border crossing is always just extra shit to think about.

QRO: Do you have plans for any foreign touring after this American tour?

MR: No plans, but we’re definitely really hopeful for it.  We don’t currently have a record label over there.  We did a good amount of pretty extensive, fruitful touring last summer over in England, but we were on Virgin, and they dropped like all their American bands, basically.  It’s not a big deal; we’ve just got to find something else.

So, currently, there’s no funding for it, so there’s no plans.

QRO: How do you prevent touring ‘burnout’?

MR: You can’t prevent touring burnout; that shit just happens.

I think that we’ve all just been really good about, when we get burned out, how to handle it.  Not to have it turn into a ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ situation, basically.  But that’s inevitable; if you’re on the road, traveling around for month, there’s no way…

We do the van and the little five-by-eight trailer.  We’re at the point now where it’s a van full of people.  We’re about to outgrow our trailer.  This might be our last tour with this set up that we’ve had for all of our touring.  We just gotta get a bigger trailer.

We got a lot of fuckin’ gear.  On top of that, luggage for seven people, merch…  We have significantly stepped up the electronic part of our live show.  Our drummer plays to a metronome for all the songs now.

QRO: Do you guys have a light show?

MR: No, nothing that cool yet.  We just can’t afford it.  When we can…

We’re trying to get some triggered lights in our drums.  We’re trying to work that out, and hopefully that will happen.  We’ve got our head in that place.  We definitely want our show to be as ripping as it can be; it just involves money…


QRO: Where did the idea for that strange video for “Sore” come from?

MR: That was kind of bouncing around, different people’s ideas.

But it was really this company called Teqtonic that made the video.  Sort of took it over and did it, and we all thought it was awesome.  Like this little ‘mini-epic’ to go with the song.  It kind of looks like [World of] Warcraft, which is interesting.

QRO: Are you going to make/have you made any videos for any of the tracks on Such Fun?

MR: Yeah, we have video for “Professor”, which is getting ready to come out.

QRO: Back in 2006, you appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.  What was that like?

MR: That was really cool, and I think we’re getting ready to do it again [in late October], if all goes according to plan.  That was really cool; I think we’re all really super into doing it again.

QRO: What is the music scene like in your hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina?  Do you all have much contact with Merge artists like The Rosebuds or Superchunk?

MR: Yeah, actually – Ivan, from The Rosebuds, awesome guy.

It’s a pretty good community.  We’re of a younger generation, but now that we’re sort of coming into our own, we’re much more interconnected into it. 

We’ve got our label; we’ve got our bands that are playing all over the place.  It’s kind of a Raleigh-Durham, Chapel Hill, Greenville, Asheville…  There’s a lot of fluidity that goes across the state.

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