Robbers on High Street Biography
As with Ray Davies’ classic 1968 homage to English hamlet life, Grand Animals, the ambitious new album from New York City trio Robbers on High Street, is a wry, literate pop affair filled with oddball characters (a livery cab driver in “Keys to the Century,” a small-time crook in “Crown Victoria,” and a young boy who crashes his bike in “The Ramp”) whose stories are told through bright, music hall melodies that recall the best of ’60s British guitar pop and ’70s AM radio rock. Laced with piano, strings, and horns (when’s the last time you heard a tuba on a rock record?), the songs, which also flirt with unconventional rhythms (the bossa nova-esque “Your Phantom Walks The Hall” and the waltzing “Guard At Your Heel”), are playful, yet sophisticated, and often darkly funny, with tales of dead relatives (“Across Your Knee”), questionable fatherly advice (“Kick ’Em In the Shins”), and teenage newlyweds living in exit towns off the highway (“Married Young”). “I guess I find it easier to write about other people, rather than myself,” Trokan says.
To get the musically textured sound they were seeking, the band turned to Daniele Luppi, a young Italian composer who arranged the strings on Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere and John Legend’s Once Again. He was an unusual choice, because Luppi, who grew up enamored of ’60s and ’70s Roman film soundtracks, had never produced a rock band before. “We were excited to work with him because I thought, ‘Now we can get really orchestral because we have this guy with so much experience,’” Trokan says. “And Daniele was thinking, ‘I’m working with a rock band, I can get this done in two takes.’ So it was kind of a battle at first, but in the end I’m glad things didn’t totally go my way because he helped us clear out a lot of space so you can really hear the melodies and catch the chord changes.”
The album’s’70s AM radio vibe is a different approach than the one Robbers took on their previous album, 2005’s critically lauded Tree City, which Alternative Press praised for its “heart-on-sleeve pop that straddles the line between John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and the Rolling Stones ‘Sympathy For the Devil’.” Filter called it “a sonically charged rollercoaster ride of infectious tunes over swaggering rhythms, boasting bold songwriting and myriad melodic gems.
The success of Tree City, with its nuanced observations about urban paranoia, led to high-profile tours with Hot Hot Heat, Brendan Benson, Gomez, The Dears, and Fountains of Wayne, whose co-founder, Adam Schlesinger, along with former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, signed the band to their label, Scratchie/New Line Records, in 2003. Robbers first release for the label was an EP, Fine Lines, but the band’s roots stretch back to Trokan and guitarist Steve Mercado’s preteen years growing up in suburban Poughkeepsie, New York, where the two bonded over a love of Led Zeppelin and Cream. “But we couldn’t write stuff like that because we’d listened to too much Beatles as kids,” says Trokan, a multi-instrumentalist who also plays drums on Grand Animals. “My first step with song-writing is to impress Steve, which is harder than you’d think. If he likes it, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be good.” Bassist Morgan King joined Robbers before the release of Tree City and toured with them over the subsequent months, making his first appearance in the studio on the new album. “Having Morgan around has really changed the band,” Trokan says. “He’s such a good musician. He can play horns and get around on piano and guitar; I feel like we can do anything now.”
That musical freedom is clearly evident on Grand Animals, which displays a stylistic versatility and inventiveness that is rare in young pop bands these days. “I like to challenge myself,” Trokan says. “It was never our intention to keep making the same record. I think this album is a step forward in terms of the songwriting — it’s more refined. It’s definitely not something I could have done if we hadn’t made Tree City.” He pauses for a moment and laughs. “I can’t wait to do the next one!”