Total Slacker on Aliens, Smashed Guitars, and Thrashin'

Tucker Rountree, frontman of Bed Stuy's psychedelic pop trio Total Slacker, is much wiser than you'd expect from the man who penned the songs "Koolz Mccrulez" and "No Mo 4Loko," but that's kind of the point.

On Total Slacker's new album Thrashin, Rountree and bandmates Emily Jane and Ross Condon explore the aesthetic virtues of early '90s living with a serious tone and only a hint of irony.

Rountree talked with Nonstop Sound about that disposition, smashing guitars, Thrashin, extra terrestrials, gang rumbles, and more.

Check out the band's new video for "Secret VHS Collection."  Total Slacker plays Glasslands tonight, with Dive, Lilac, Royal Baths, and Quilt, in support of Quilt's LP release. On Thursday, they'll be playing 285 Kent.

Nonstop Sound: I saw you guys down at Occupy Wall Street. What did you think of the protest? Did it inspire you at all?
Tucker Rountree: "Absolutely. I really wanted to do more than just carry a sign and walk around a few hours. But I didn't want to come across as pretentious or opportunist, as in writing a song about it."

NS: I know you don't do it at every show, but every show I've seen you play, you smash a guitar. How do you afford so many axes?
TR: "What I've been doing for the past year or so is I'll buy a cheap one off of Craigslist. I originally bought two for pretty cheap, about a hundred bucks. I always buy the same kind of style, so they are usually pretty compatible. So after I smash one, I try and scrape up the pieces. But sometimes people take off with the pieces. But since they're all just universal parts I piece them back into Frankenstein guitars. I just love the ease of that Strat-style guitar. They're so easy to just throw back together. I try not to do smash guitars too much anymore. Now people come and they sort of expect it."

NS: The first time I saw you do it was like a part of the song.
TR: "That's it, it's supposed to be a part of the song and the deconstruction of our sound at the end. I don't know how it initially started. We played 30 or more shows before I ever smashed a guitar. But it wasn't something we ever talked about or planned on. As we got more comfortable playing as a band, our set started to devolve at the end. But we didn't want to do a totally noisy thing like Sonic Youth. You know how Sonic Youth does those beautiful bursts of noise at the end of their sets, or maybe they'll just leave their guitars on stage? I wanted it to be more visceral where the guitars were a physical component. You really have to synchronize the band and the crowd and the energy and it doesn't always line up. At our record release at 285 Kent, we almost sold out that night. And I think Emily was actually going to try and smash her bass too for the first time. For some reason, neither of us smashed our instruments up. But it's really fun to do, it's a total release."

NS: You have a song subtitled "UCouldDieInBedStuy." You were recently robbed at gunpoint near your place in Bed Stuy. What's going on over there?
TR: "I don't know man. It's a pretty complicated thing. I think Bed Stuy is a little different than all the other neighborhoods in north Brooklyn. In Williamsburg, people are expecting gentrification to happen so there's little fightback. But in Bushwhick, I've certainly heard of violent crime, but nothing to the extent of what happens in Bed Stuy. The people living here have been here ever since white flight happened, 40 or 50 years. Everyone's chill and nice and there's this neighborhood feeling. But there's also this pulling away, this resistance. It's happening all the time. There's this cupcake shop that just opened where we live in the middle of Bed Stuy that sells boutique breads and stuff. You walk by and there's this real feeling that people hate it, a tension. It's a pretty hard place to live. Strange things happen. Four months or so ago we were on our roof on a Wednesday night, just having some beers. All of a sudden there was two huge groups of people in the street marching towards one another, like something straight out of The Warriors. We live on the corner of Bedford and Greene; one group was coming down Bedford, the other Greene. When they met up, they just started brawling so intensely. I caught the whole thing on film. I had my laptop up there, listening to music, so I got it on iMovie. You can see eventually just cop car after cop car coming in. You don't see that sort of thing in Williamsburg. When the robbery happened it was just like, come on, I'm just trying to live my life."

NS: Everyone talks about your obsession with the '90s. Is that an accurate take, or is there something more to it than that?
TR: "I think it's pretty accurate. I hate to think of myself as being obsessed with anything really. But I think part of it was when Ross joined the band, after Emily and I had been writing for five months or so. When Ross became our drummer, we really became a band and I think something happened. He and I share this strange sense of humor of nostalgia. But not nostalgia like Urban Outfitters crummy t-shirts that say something like, 'Vote for Bush 1992.' It's a different nostalgia. We both love New York but it's this strange, detached place where everyone's obsessed with their career and getting ahead. This aesthetic is more about looking back to when you were a child, looking to things that were important then. I try not to sound too immature, but it's a place to pull from and embrace. There's a famous saying, write what you know. I've always just been really into pop culture, not for culture's sake, but for the whole social dynamic behind what people identify with that. If you can somehow write songs about that, it's like getting to the root of the matter. It's like turning the mirror in on itself."

NS: It's only recently come to my attention that drummer Ross is the brother of Beirut frontman, Zach Condon. Any plans to tour with Beirut ever?
TR: "I don't know. We never really talked about it. Zach will come to our shows and bring his wife, Kristi. She's actually a photographer and a really sweet person. She took a lot of our promo pictures. But with Beirut, I think it's more of a style thing. If we ever got the opportunity, of course we'd be thrilled. But I'm not sure his fans would be into what we're doing and vice-versa. He's a really great guy and has been really supportive. The last time he came to our show he was getting noticed by too many people and I could tell he was feeling a little uncomfortable and he just stuck it out. That was at Shea Stadium with Yu Lyf. And he just kept hanging because he wanted to see his little bro's band. It was pretty cool."

NS: There are a bunch of cool dudes on the cover of your new album, Thrashin'. I recognize photographer Chris Person, that band Friends, and a couple others. Who else is in that photo?
TR: "Brad Oberhofer, this great artist Natalie Martinez. She's incredible. She does illustrations for children's books. There's Lydia Gammill, she plays in the band Day Dress, with [Total Slacker bassist] Emily. It was supposed to be twice as large a crowd but I think it rained that morning. Also it was a Sunday, so I think everyone was kind of hungover. It's an interesting photo. I didn't really expect it to be such a summer camp kind of feeling. It definitely has that feeling of a class photo. When it came time to shoot, it got really serious. Everyone took their parts very seriously. So we put secret subliminal messages on the cover. There's one right in the middle, I'll tell you about right now. Above everyone's heads there's text that says, 'you're too serious.' You need a magnifying glass to read it."

NS: The New Yorker called you [CENSORED ON THIS DOMAIN]gaze, which I don't think is really fair. What do you think of that title?
TR: "I thought it was great to get the acknowledgment. But the term actually goes to this band Psychedelic Horse[CENSORED ON THIS DOMAIN]--their singer coined the phrase. I think it was funny to be called that. They also wrote about Beach Fossils and The Babies in that piece. Maybe the writer didn't listen to the music at all before writing that piece. Because The Babies, they sound almost like The Replacements. And Beach Fossils has a really clean sound. They were just trying to lump us into a whole Brooklyn thing that really is pretty inaccurate. But my dad was thrilled to be able to go a Barnes and Noble in Salt Lake City, Utah and read about us in that magazine."

NS: Did one of you have an alien experience in the Southwest?
TR: "Actually yes! Emily claims to have. The whole 'Psychic Mesa' idea was inspired by Emily when I first met her. She and Ross are both from Sante Fe and went to high school together out there. Emily's family lives on the outskirts, on this ranch. There's a mesa a couple miles away from her house, one that you can see very clearly. When she was 10 or 11, she saw something up there and she told her parents about it. Apparently it was pretty big deal. Later on, she found out there was an old community around Sante Fe of Native Americans that of course have been there for generations. One of them worked on the ranch. He told Emily's dad there are all these legends about aliens being buried on the mesa. When she told me that story, we were on the L train platform, and i immediately heard this weird melody come into my head."

NS: What else?
TR: "Ross and I were talking recently about how we want to get people excited about America without being overly patriotic. It seems like everyone's down on America and rightfully so. But it just seems like things will be better, we just have to tough it out. I want to people understand that through our music."

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