Indie bands du jour: You do not want to follow Rooftop Vigilantes.
Should your overhyped Brooklyn ass ever arrive in Lawrence and see the pale, young, weathered Vigilantes dragging their equipment through the doors of the Replay Lounge ahead of you, you might as well head for your van.
It would be easy to mistake the band's male members for Replay employees — which is not really a mistake at all because two of them work there. But once Rooftop Vigilantes kicks into its Farfisa-driven, dirty little punky-pop tunes, most headliners don't stand a chance.
Frontmen Oscar Allen and Zach Campbell trade bass, guitar and singing duties, moving with the frenetic pace of windup dolls gone awry. Allen frequently loses his glasses but never his ability to harmonize with Campbell in a snap. Drummer Seth Wiese bashes along like a bearded metronome, while keyboardist Hannah Hyde anchors it all, gently swaying side to side in the middle of the Kansas tornado that is this band.
Released earlier this year to some Internet buzz (plus a nod in this publication's Best Of issue), Rooftop Vigilantes' debut album, Carrot Atlas, is the sort of record that fuses reckless enthusiasm, drunken verve and relentlessly catchy riffs with ramshackle pop sentiment. It's the kind of boutique blend that made the Replacements and Elvis Costello great when those acts started out.
And that's why it's strange that for its second album, the band is working with prolific, Washington, D.C.-scene-rooted alt-rock producer J. Robbins, a man who has been onstage with the likes of Jawbox and Burning Airlines and behind the boards for the Promise Ring and Murder By Death, to name a few.
It was an unlikely pairing that occurred when Rooftop Vigilantes got the opportunity to record at Robbins' Magpie Cage studio in Baltimore earlier this month. But it's a collaboration for which the band is thankful.
"The whole going-to-record-with-one-of-my-heroes deal got dropped in our laps about a month ago," Campbell says. "We thought we'd just go record somewhere in Lawrence and put out our next record like we put out our first record, but all this stuff just kind of fell out of the sky. We're kind of happy about it."
Not too happy, it turns out, to ditch their roots just yet — the title of the album, Real Pony Glue, is an anagram of a popular Lawrence venue.
Determining how the band came to record with a musical icon such as Robbins is difficult because the Vigilantes aren't exactly forthcoming with the details. Allen says: "A mysterious Texan business gnome decided to underwrite our existences temporarily." He further describes the individual as sort of a "rock-and-roll Howard Hughes."
However it came about, this was a chance that the Vigilantes couldn't pass up, even if it meant canceling a tour. The band went into the studio after a month of practicing that allowed the foursome to whittle down a wealth of material — seven albums' worth, by the band's estimate — to their favorite 17 songs.
Recording with Robbins was not something that the lo-fi Vigilantes as a whole had been building toward musically, but Campbell, for his part, had been dreaming of it since he was a teenager.
"Hopefully, it's not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he says. "Hopefully, we get to do this more. As of now, this is the first time any of us has gotten to do something like this."
"A first-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Wiese notes.
The recording process also brought a change of pace for the scrappy pop savants.
"I've never been so focused on one thing all the time," Allen says. "I'm pretty sure I'm going to be unable to carry on any conversations when I get home without talking about guitar tone."
Allen likens working with Robbins to natural childbirth.
"We'd work out a guitar part, and then we'd put a mic on it, and we'd be like, 'Whoa, that sounds great,'" Allen explains. "Then he'd go try four different microphones, go back to the other one, move it back a little bit, turn off the lights in the room, and by the time J. was finally done, we were pretty amazed.
"He was full-on involved and active," Allen continues. "Trying to make the best record he can, which is really cool. We thought we'd come here with our pop songs and try and make J. not be embarrassed to work on them, but apparently he has a sweet tooth."
Campbell refers to the experience — 12-hour days for over a week — as a bit more demanding than the band's usual work ethic, but certainly more productive.
"We were able to spend a little longer doing things we'd never thought to do," he says. "I'm really happy with this."
The Vigilantes expect Real Pony Glue to be out in March but decline to go into further detail. They offer only that it won't be on Wooden Man Records, the label that released Carrot Atlas.
"Our new label is a surprise," Campbell says. "We don't want to give too much away."
One thing is for sure: When it's here, you'll know it.