Instead of trying to describe Chokebore's music with my usual adjective-laden synopsis, I'll just say that their sound is at once strange and appealing, a combination of elements that perhaps shouldn't work together, but do. Imagine melodic, borderline yodeling over grinding guitars and a thumping rock beat, and you're somewhere in the ballpark.
Since signing on with Amphetamine Reptile Records, the band has released three full-length albums, their latest entitled A Taste for Bitters. Originally from Hawaii, Chokebore now use Los Angeles as a home base, but are rarely there due to incessant touring. Recently, however, the band has been forced into a rest of sorts while guitarist Jonathan Kroll recovers from heart surgery (yikes!). I recently called his house and woke him up for this interview.
I heard you just had surgery...
Yeah. I've been home trying to recover.
Did the rest of the band continue to tour?
Yeah. They turned into a three-piece for about three weeks and continued to tour Europe.
I was told you guys are really big in Europe, like Nirvana big.
No, not Nirvana big, but things are definitely going pretty good there; it also depends where in Europe.
Does it feel strange to be more popular away from home than you are in your own country?
Yeah, but we've also spent a lot of time over there in the past couple of years. It's been fun to go over there and travel; we just enjoy the countries better.
What was it like to be the first band to play in Bosnia after the war?
That was definitely weird. We didn't know what to expect. We got flown in on military airlift. But the shows went really well. The first night there was a rolling blackout that took out power to our show three songs into the set and it didn't come on again until about 15 minutes before curfew. Everyone had to be in by 11, otherwise they'd spend the night in jail. We played as much as we could. The cops would've let us go if they caught us because we aren't from there, so we played until everyone had to leave.
Had the people there heard of you before or were they just checking you out?
Some DJs found out about us somehow and asked us to go there, so I guess we'd been played on the radio. They seemed to know what was going on outside of Bosnia. They had tapes and stuff.
It seems to me that all attempts at describing Chokebore's sound have fallen short of the mark. What is it that makes your sound so elusive?
We have a hard time describing it ourselves. We're not trying to play any "type" of music and we don't really have an agenda. We just try to write nice songs.
I'm sure as long as you're on AmRep people are going to call you a "noise" band.
There are little noisy parts I suppose...
They seemed to be subdued in the mix, though. The vocals are really prominent and so melodic.
We enjoy writing melodies. But we like AmRep and they like us, so we don't pay much attention to the fact that we're not really noisy.
The songs are made up of pretty disparate parts, but it all seems to flow together. How do the songs come about?
Me and Troy and James all write, so the songs come about every which way. Sometimes we write them all on the spot in the room together or sometimes one person will write a whole song. Other times we'll take several parts and figure out how to fit them together. We generally give each other a lot of room while still working together.
I was playing the new record and when "Days of Nothing" came on my friend thought it was The Beatles. Was the trippier sound of the record done consciously?
That song, specifically, was recorded on a four-track home studio and the rest of the record was recorded in a totally different studio. I don't think we were necessarily trying to be trippy or strange but we ended up playing around more with different things. "Days of Nothing" does have some effects on the vocals, which we usually never do. We worked with a different engineer and in a different studio than before. I think it came out good. We like playing around in the studio and will probably continue to do so. We'll probably keep using 4 track stuff as well.
How do you think the band has changed over the course of three records?
Well, we're not writing as many faster songs. But we've always had mid-tempo and slow songs, too. I don't know... maybe the melodies have gotten more overtly melancholy. We started getting in to writing sad songs and decided not to stop. We've learned different things you can do in the studio and that's always helpful as far as creating atmosphere.
As strange as the sound is, the arrangements are pretty straightforward.
The arrangements are pretty song-like. We do like pop songs, too. It ends up being a combination of all these different things. There are some songs we play in our live set that we've never recorded and haven't attempted to. Maybe we'll try next record, but their arrangements are changing all the time. They can be pretty long.
I know that Troy writes all the lyrics, but do you care to comment on them at all?
Our band works democratically, but Troy doing all the lyrics just happened naturally because he sings them. Luckily, we like what he writes. I'm happy with the band's progression considering the three of us growing up together in Hawaii in various types of bands.
It's interesting to hear of a band from Hawaii. Is there any sort of punk or underground scene there?
There was the whole time I was growing up, but everyone tends to leave after they turn eighteen because it's an island. So the scene keeps changing and the next generation of kids have to restart it. I don't know where it's at now. I'm sure there's still something but I don't know how much is going on in terms of actual live bands. Bigger alternative rock bands are going there, which didn't even happen when I was younger. Ska was big there and now it's big all over the place, so I suppose it's still big there.
Have you played there in a while?
We played there about two years ago. They have a festival once a summer that's like their answer to Lollapalooza. The production people that put it on knew we were from Hawaii and put us on the bill. It was pretty strange because it was sort of like a homecoming but I hardly talked to or saw anyone. It was one of the few times we've played there since we left.
You have a new drummer...
Actually, for the new album we had a new drummer. When he joined about a year ago, it was pretty much understood that he would probably move on, but he thought it would be fun to play with us and help us write the new record. He was actually enjoying being in the band but he was going deaf from touring too much and figured it would be best if he quit. Our new drummer is a friend from a band we used to play with in LA. He was living in Australia and we called to ask him if he wanted to be in the band. It seems to be working out really well.
I notice some of the songs on "A Taste for Bitters", like "Smaller Steps" end quite abruptly, sometimes with no feeling of resolution.
I guess that came about from playing around [in the studio]. After we recorded "Smaller Steps" we listened to it and decided we wanted it to end sooner so we played it to a certain point and hit stop on the tape deck. It literally was cut off on the last chorus, which is one of the things I hate the most when I'm listening to a cassette that someone made at home and the song gets cut off at the end of the tape.
What's up with the low, droning vocal on "Sleep with Me"?
The really low vocal comes from using Dictaphones a lot. We recorded that vocal on microcassette and laid it over the song at half speed. We've always used microcassettes to write songs because you can have a bad memory and not know how to write music on paper and still not forget things. When we go into the studio we bring all the microcassettes that we recorded and sometimes use them.
Are the distorted drums on the beginning of "Narrow" intentional?
Yeah, the drums were actually recorded beautifully and we messed them up afterwards on that song.
Are there any plans for a Chokebore U.S. tour soon, and if so, will you be coming down to Florida?
We'll probably be touring the U.S. reasonably soon. I've actually got to recover. I'm not allowed to drive a car for another month. So we'll probably play again in the summer or fall. We've been touring since mid-January. We did two American and two European tours in the past 6 months but we haven't made it down to Florida since the new record came out. Right now, everyone's resting.