If Luke Rathborne is going to achieve stardom, he’s going to do it on his terms. The 25-year old native from tiny The Forks, Maine, which has a population of 35, has been involved with music since he was 12 years old, including playing with punk bands and organizing small concerts since his teens.
Now living in New York, Luke Rathborne is attempting to live his dream – not to be a platinum recording artist, but to share his music and his creativity with as many people as possible. He has his own record label, which allows him to write, record, and produce the music he wants to create. He tours as often as he can in order to connect with fans and fellow music lovers. And keeping with his communal-centred approach, he’s recently transitioned from Luke Rathborne the solo artist to Rathborne the pop-rock band. Luke and his band mates – Jamie Alegre, who is the drummer from Cambridge, Ontario; Darren Will on bass; and Jimmy Giannopoulos on keyboards and guitar – just finished touring with UK artists Travis. They are also about to commence a tour with Albert Hammond, Jr. in November in support of their debut album as a band, Soft, which is available right now.
During our lengthy chat, which happened while Luke was driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco, we touched on a number of topics, including his memories of visiting Quebec City, today’s consumer-obsessed culture, his other music-related “projects”, the greatness of Neil Young, and Luke Rathborne the person in our Feedback section.
You lived close to the Canadian border when growing up in The Forks. Did you make trips to Canada often and what do you remember?
I have a lot of fond memories of Canada. The Forks is also very close to the Quebec border, so when we wanted to go to the “city”, we would drive a couple of hours to Quebec City and hang out. We would go to the Winter Carnival and in the summer we would go rafting in the rivers around the City. Now that I have visited Paris, I have a greater appreciation for Quebec City. I really like it there. It has a really unique feel to it with its beauty and history. Did you know that it’s only one of two fortified cities in North America with the other being Mexico City?
Anyway, Quebec City was a great place for us as teenagers to play music even though the authorities could be a bit touchy since you needed a permit. We would often get kicked off the boardwalk, so we would go to the square with the fountain and busk. But what was great about playing music in Canada was that it was possible to make some money. Canadians would give us toonies and loonies without thinking twice about it. In the US, it’s almost unheard of for people to give you two dollars. There’s just a bit of a better vibe in Canada, where they are more charitable.
I also really like to tour in Canada. For our next tour, we’ll be up in Vancouver. There’s just such a different mentality in Canada and Europe. The promoters and venue managers really look after you and ensure you’re well taken care of. In the US, it’s a much different mentality. In a lot of cases, the bar needs to make money, and bands are a way to get people to the bar.
You’re not busking anymore, are you?
No, but there’s something to be said about how good the street musicians in New York are because they are very good. I would wager to say that many working musicians are freaked out because some of these performers are better than what you see on stage. For example, there’s this great soul singer at the 6th Avenue and 14th Street station, who sounds like Otis Redding. He’s an older guy, but he’s amazing! He always has a crowd and people freak out. As far as I’m concerned, he’s a celebrity.
There also were some great NY musicians, like Moondog, who were known for their street performances. So there’s definitely that history there in NY.
But then in the NE, you could be a cover band and make a great living, better than some independent artists today. It’s really crazy to think about the era we’re living in.
What do you think about the era of music today?
I think it’s great in a lot of ways. People can access music more easily and more artists are being recognized. For instance, I went to see Daniel Johnston with 2,000 people. That’s crazy. That probably wouldn’t have happened years ago. Who would have predicted that? Music is so much more accessible these days.
You’ve talked a lot in other fora about consumerism and capitalism. Did you read David Byrne’s comments?
I’ve been on the road a lot, so I haven’t had a chance to read it. I’ve heard a little bit about it. From what I gather, it’s similar to what Patti Smith said, where she told young artists to not come to New York, and in a lot of ways she’s right. To live in New York, you have to be a hedge fund manager. It’s just pure capitalism.
Heck, you go to a lot of major cities and you ask, “Where am I?” A lot of cities are becoming the same. To live the “American Dream”, it’s no longer about your own dreams but about living the same dream revolved around money. You get that kind of feeling in New York, and it’s happening in every city.
I’ve been in LA the last couple of weeks, and it’s quite similar. You look at downtown LA, and it’s now a big construction site. It’s about bringing in the “next big thing” because that’s what’s coming up. What people don’t realize is that some of the areas like Skid Row, which unfairly have terrible reputations, are neighborhoods that harbor families, communities, and cultures. There may be low-income housing, but these are their homes. There’s this mentality now that we need to get rid of Skid Row, but then you displace people in the name of “development”. Ironically, though, the people who are benefiting aren’t the working people but developers and corporations.
In L.A., they’re doing what they did in NY, where they are putting homeless people into jail in order to “clean up the streets”. For example, you have a tent on the street, so that’s a $75 ticket since you’re loitering. They know 100% that the person cannot pay that ticket, so a few months later they bring more police in to get rid of the people. They find out that the person has not paid the fine, so they’re now in contempt and they go to jail. This is all in the name of commercial development.
And there’s a line of thinking that putting them in jail is cheaper than putting them on public welfare. But it’s not, the numbers don’t add up. Seriously, there’s the mindset that while putting people in jail could cost $125,000, we can increase the property values 10 fold, 100 fold because this will become a go-to attraction area. They’re basically moving people out in the name of “development”, and this is happening across America.
We are creating this new world that we really don’t know much about it, but it’s quite ugly.
Byrne’s comments were more about how the internet could sap the creativity from music and how streaming services could undermine the entire industry and artists’ abilities to make a living.
That’s interesting. A lot of people are concerned about the music industry dying out and that artists can’t sell records. But honestly, people need to look at the fucking bigger picture. People are getting displaced and being put in jail in the name of “development”. We should be more concerned about that and legislation being created to move people from their homes, not whether a person who sold 20,000 records can sell that number again.
But back to Byrne’s point, he’s a really smart guy and ahead of the curve. However, commerce and art will always go up and down. You can’t blame the internet for how people are consuming music. We all need to adapt. I need to read more accurately what he’s saying because there’s probably a lot of truth to it, but it almost seems to be feeding into the attitude that people aren’t buying enough records.
The internet, though, has been a good thing for music. I grew up in a small place in Maine, and I used whatever means possible to get my hands on music. It wasn’t vindictive. I just loved music but I couldn’t afford it. And by getting my hands on all sorts of music, it’s helped me develop as a musician and be more creative.
So if there’s a 15-year old kid that loves music enough to stream it or get it for free, then that’s great. A music lover and that level of fanaticism doesn’t go hand-in-hand with a person’s resources. People often forget that side of the argument – that there are a lot of people who love music who just can’t afford it. So we should support them to access it.
I also don’t think you can tap out creativity. The more of a high-wire act it becomes to maintain creativity, the more youthful and healthy of a time it can be to exist. Even something like Yeezus by Kanye West is a great character sketch and a critique of current art. I wasn’t 100% convinced that Kanye wasn’t this asshole guy, but then he creates this beautiful landscape and character in Yeezus. I think it’s great that we could live in a time that someone could write something like that – something that is character based and playing with the identity of an iconic figure. You can say it is misogynistic and all these things – and in a lot of ways it is – but it’s also kind of interesting in that same way, too.
If we’re going by that logic that popular culture is being controlled by the lowest common denominator, I would not turn around and say Kanye West is the lowest common denominator. He’s not even trying to appease them or pop culture. He’s kind of creating pop culture, which is interesting. Sure the old ways of distributing music and accessing it may be dead, but people saying this don’t really understand the era we’re living in and what’s happening.
An example of how the music industry is changing is the issue of “selling out”. I use to talk about this a lot with older musicians, and we would list bands that sold out. But now, we don’t talk about this anymore because the music industry has changed. It’s now fine to get your music on a commercial. The punk people that I know say how great such-and-such band scammed the corporations.
How do you reconcile your critique about consumerism with your own career, which requires you to market yourself?
There’s this deep-seated belief that if you do something you really believe in, you should put everything into it, and that’s true for me. I’m doing this because I like writing music. It’s why I put out records on my own label, where I can control what I do. Fran Healy, the lead singer of Travis, who is a really smart guy, often remarked to me how there were all these invisible men between him and the final product. That’s why he thinks people should go out and see live music and buy the record directly from the band. And that’s the way I feel.
Before all that shit where everyone has a lawyer and has that attitude of wanting to make a $1 million. Fuck that. That’s so stupid.
When a 15-year old kid drives 6 hours to a show and he tells you about your record, even if they got it in a back-door kind of way, I’m not thinking about how some record company really fucked me over about it or that I wish some of that money went into my pocket. Instead, I’m thinking, “That’s fucking awesome some kid would drive so far and tell me what he thinks about the album.” It’s that punk, DIY mentality. Before all that shit where everyone has a lawyer and has that attitude of wanting to make a $1 million. Fuck that. That’s so stupid.
I grew up playing in punk bands and putting together shows. If the other bands’ music sucked, you didn’t hold that against them. You supported them and hope they would get better. We would put them on the flyer and give them whatever share of the little money we got.
That’s why I like producing my own records. It’s also why I am hesitant towards opportunities where I could sell more records because I’m going to get disconnected with people and the process. I’m only going to live so long, and want to get as much out of this as possible. To me, it’s about the direct connection with the music, putting the record together, and directly communicating with the 15-year old fan. It’s not all about money; it’s often about motivation.
So for me, reaching out to more people merely in terms of selling records isn’t connecting with them. It’s not my motivation. The whole idea of “getting bigger”, to me, is a whole process of isolation and separation. I don’t really like either of those concepts. Those don’t bode well for me as a happy person.
I know there are people out there who like being “rock stars”, but it always seemed so funny to me. I can only look at it like in “Spinal Tap”, where it is an embarrassment to engage in this mentality of grandeur that’s outside reality.
Look back at Fugazi. They sold 200,000 albums of their first record, and that was on Dischord, their own label. I forget the exact number it is, but they played something like 275 shows a year. Those were dudes at a period in their lives who people now would say, “You’re in your early 30s and you got to get your shit together.” But they didn’t give a shit and they prospered with an audience-first attitude. They did what they wanted to do and they stayed connected.
The older I get, the more I embrace the value system that I had when I was 12 years old starting out playing music. It’s really about meaning and the significance about what I’m doing. I don’t need to do this, but it’s what I want to do. And at a really primal level, we don’t need to make money to survive. To really survive, you can live on nothing.
And so I ask, at the end of the day, what’s the objective? Is making money the main thing or is it the art?
Art has often been used as a way to critique the status quo. What are your thoughts about the state of art today as a means of protest?
That’s such an interesting question. Do you remember the Neil Young album, Living with War? On it, there’s a great song called, ‘Let’s Impeach the President’, where he criticizes George Bush. Well, I remember watching a documentary about it, and Neil Young was touring with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Fans were yelling and screaming at them and saying things like, “Fuck you! Play ‘Old Man’.” “You don’t know what you’re talking about! You’re un-American.”
I then remember reading Neil Young’s response to all the criticism in a newspaper, where he was asked why he was doing this at his age. His response was, and I remember it clearly and it was beautifully put, “If I don’t do it, who will?”
It’s so true. Are we so fucking scared about where the next paycheck will come from that we won’t write protest music? As far as I’m concerned, that’s the purest form of music. Just look at where reggae came from and punk music. It’s great to attach something of social significance to art.
And God bless Neil Young for saying that and to do that type of music, which I wish I did write but don’t. It’s amazing that Neil Young is still so far ahead and in front of everyone, where he’s challenging people to stand up and say something about the world we live in today. It’s ridiculous to think that we still ask those questions, “Why did you do that?” We’ve entered a dark time if we have to always explain our motives and why we’re questioning things that are so fucked up.
And God bless Neil Young for saying that and to do that type of music… It’s amazing that Neil Young is still so far ahead and in front of everyone, where he’s challenging people to stand up and say something about the world we live in today.
Let’s move on to some lighter stuff. Why transition from Luke Rathborne, solo artist, to Rathborne the band?
I decided to change this to a band album because I have this perspective that everyone should be a part of it and because I can’t play it alone. Darren wrote the music with me, and he’s a great bassist. Jamie is an amazing drummer, and Jimmy is a great keyboardist and guitarist. The evolution to a band, as such, was quite organic – it was step-by-step; it wasn’t very strategic. The record sounded like a band, so we decided to make this a band.
I also wanted a Crazy Horse kind of thing, which I thought was cool, where Neil Young would sometimes play with Crazy Horse or on his own. And Crazy Horse also made their own record, which is a great album. Neil Young helped produce it and sang some vocals.
What did you learn on your tour with Travis?
They are the nicest people you could ever meet. They were really supportive, and they gave us a lot of advice about being a band. And watching them play on stage, you learn a lot.
The most important thing I took away from this tour was that you’re not just trying to put on a good show every night, which was my mind set. It was kind of a revelation. You’re going to people with a show. You’re going to people with something. It moves around and it’s organic, but it has this foundation to it, which you know what it is. A lot of times over the years in playing shows in New York, and even when I toured solo, I never had that mentality and I think that was wrong. You own the show and you give everything you got, but there isn’t this ideal of the perfect show.
And perfection is such a tricky concept. I remember someone asking why Bob Dylan was able to continue to do shows the way he did. Then there’s Brian Wilson, who stepped away for a while. His explanation had something to do with The Beach Boys and creating perfect music. They would do five-part harmonies but the human voice can only do that for so long, but they were striving for that “perfection”. Whereas with Dylan, it was more about the idea of the song, and his shows have transformed over time. You listen to The Rolling Thunder Revue and hear one of his songs, and you’re like I’ve never heard it like that before.
But then you look at Neil Young, and it’s like not a day has passed. He defies the odds. He still writes great songs.
And he’s a great Canadian as well.
Maybe the greatest Canadian at least as far as I’m concerned.
Well, some may say Leonard Cohen
Oh shit! You’re right. I forgot about that. That’s just the embarrassment of riches right there. That’s not even an argument worth having. It’s like two of the greatest things to come out of humanity. Who’s going to sit around and argue if Neil Young or Leonard Cohen is better?
For your tour, I read you’re going to sell a soft drink at your show. Can you share with me your thought process.
Yeah, I’m going to sell a “soft drink” to go along with the name of the album, and it’ll be available on the tour with Albert Hammond, Jr. I’m really interested to see how people react to it because the “Soft” shirts – the tour shirts – were not all that successful. I shouldn’t say this, but hardly anyone wants to buy that shirt.
The shirts just say “Soft” on it. Guys look at it and they’re like, “What the fuck?”. Girls look at it and they’re kind of like, “Should I buy that? No, I’m not going to buy it.”
I just never thought about it at a very basic level. Don’t get me wrong, the shirt does look cool, but there’s something about it that dudes don’t want to buy it. And to be honest, I wore the shirt once on stage, and I got some weird looks at me. People yelled at me, and they were all dudes. They were like, “Dude, what, you have difficulty getting a boner? You have erectile dysfunction?”
Something like this, you know, is why it’s great to have my own record label. I’m not going to ruffle any feathers. I’m only going to ruffle myself.
So what’s the flavor of the soft drink and why is it special?
It’s orange flavored. It gives you a lot of energy. Some would argue too much energy! It kind of gives you the vibe that two red bulls would give you. It gives you that “unhinged” feeling.
What’s cool about it is that each can has a code on it, and you visit the site and the code allows you to download the record. Like we were talking about before, if you want someone to buy your art, make it cool art. So to me, make the object cool. With CDs, you’re giving something that people can throw away. With the soft drink, it’s really cool and a lot of fun.
I think with the next tour, I don’t even think we’ll have CDs. This might sound self-destructive, but I want to see if people buy the cans. I wanted to make something that was interesting.
How much will the soft drink cost?
I figure a can will be the same price as selling a CD, so $10. If I can find a way to sell it for less, I will. There are just varying guarantees that venues give artists. I don’t think people realize that touring bands depend on selling merchandise to stay on the road. What you sell directly to the audience is really important, and bands know they need to play well because there’s this direct relationship with the crowd at so many levels.
Meanwhile, a bigger label will pay a band to do a lot of things and give advances. Basically, the labels give a lot of money, but many bands aren’t able to give the same amount of money back. That’s why a lot of bands get dropped by labels. So, a lot of bands that are on the road are selling merch that they don’t even own. To me, that’s crazy to think. These bands are on the road making money for someone else, but not for them. Yeah, they get money upfront, but they don’t own their product and have no direct connection to their fans.
People often ask me why do I do all this stuff myself, and I reply by asking why wouldn’t I want to? It’s foolish not to. The alternative is to put your work into other people’s hand and allow them to navigate your life.
This goes back to our chat about consumerism. To me, it’s more about the connection. Selling my music, t-shirts, the cans are a way for me to connect with people. Even if they don’t buy anything, just coming up to the merch table to chat with me about what they’ve heard and saw is what this is all about. It’s more than money.
You did these short vids on Instagram. Whose idea was it to do the videos and what’s the concept?
The idea evolved from incredible boredom from being in a car for 18 hours. It was like being kids again and recording stuff.
I use to videotape a lot of stuff when I was a kid. It’s this classic shit that we can now do all these things with our phones and show stuff on Instagram.
Will you do these clips again on the next tour?
Definitely, otherwise we’ll die of boredom. I think there’s something bigger with the videos. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I’m still trying to figure it out.
I thought it was more about making fun of yourselves as an indie band on the road and what it’s like to be touring.
Yeah, there’s some truth to that, where everyone is in love with one another despite being cooped up together in a car for hours. It’s like everyone is convinced that life on the road is beautiful and all the band members are really nice to one another. It’s like watching The Golden Girls, but in this alternative world of an independent rock band.
How popular have the videos been?
Very popular. In some cases, more popular than our music. Seriously, that’s all we hear about. When we go into bars in New York, some girls will come up to Jim and me, and they would say to us, “We love what you do.” We would be like, “Yeah, the songs are really meaningful and they’re about this.” We’ll go through that whole routine, but then they’ll be like, “You guys play music?” The only thing they know about us is that we have these Instagram videos that their friends have shown them. It’s this really anti-climatic ending, thinking that these girls are really into you because of your songs but it turns out that they only like your videos.
Even our friends want to talk about the vids. When we got to LA, our friends were like, “Those vids are awesome. Can’t wait to see what happens next!”
Have you thought about doing a video about the soft drink?
I have this idea where someone would taste the soft drink and say, “This is awful. What is this?”
And then someone else would be really psyched about it because everybody is drinking it. There would be this weird mentality to sell the drink where you have to buy it because if you don’t, even if it is terrible, you would be left out or alienated.
We do have some videos produced, but they haven’t been put up yet. You’ll have to wait and see it later.
Time to get to know you a bit better. Do you have a pre-show ritual?
I think we’re still trying to find our way as a band and figuring out how to tour.
Also, before shows, I’m usually trying to find the other band members. It’s crazy because there usually isn’t anywhere to go, but they somehow end up being in different places.
When I’m not looking for the guys, I usually pace a lot, just walk around the block, just to get outside and away from the situation.
What’s your go-to drink?
Nobody really drinks in the band for whatever reason. On riders, there’s usually beer, but we don’t drink much. The one thing that there’s no shortage of on tour is alcohol, which is ironic since the demise of almost every band involves drugs or alcohol.
Anyway, for me, I usually drink water. Our rider was initially four waters, and the booking people would call us up and say, “This isn’t a rider.” So we would get them the rider of someone else and use it. So now, there’s often a bottle of Maker’s Mark whiskey. It’s a really good whiskey, but I couldn’t imagine drinking a bottle of Maker’s Mark every night because the band wouldn’t be able to drive to the next show. Plus, you’ll probably play really bad.
Do you have a bucket list?
I’m so scared about thinking about dying that I haven’t thought about it. I’m just living day-to-day, thinking about the current album and what the next album will be like.
Do you have any favorite animals?
I like dogs and cats, really all animals. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not scared of spiders or anything. I think it’s been 10 years since I’ve last killed a bug, well except for mosquitos. (sometimes).
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Sometimes I smoke cigarettes, but nothing too obscene.
Do you have any vices?
Sometimes when I’m not around people enough, I construct these wild fantasies or paranoia. I’d think people don’t like me or something. I just need to be around people.
What other musicians do you think people should get to know?
Jenny O. She’s a really talented musician. She put out an album called, “Automechanic”. It was produced by Jonathan Wilson, the guy behind the Father John Misty record. She was on tour with Rodriguez for a while. Her influences are J.J. Cale and Leon Russell, and you can hear them in her music.
Her record, thematically, is about her own growth and becoming her own person. It’s a bit of an analogy on life, where she gets a broken down car and learns how to fix it.
Dead or alive – with whom would you like to collaborate?
I think it would be great to make a record with a producer like Jonathan Wilson. I think working with someone like that could help create a Harvest like record.
Do you have a favorite Muppet or Sesame Street character?
The Animal. I also always liked the Critic guys – Statler and Waldorf – because they would talk shit about everyone, and I thought that was really funny.
What one word or phrase would describe you?
I don’t like to reduce myself to just one thing or word. It’s like my worst fear. There’s a Walt Whitman quote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” I wish I wrote that.
Photos of Rathborne and Rathborne merchandise taken from the Facebook page or provided by Luke Rathborne.
Photo of Neil Young taken from www.neilyoung.com
Tour Dates with Albert Hammond, Jr.
Nov. 11 – Detroit, MI @ Magic Bag
Nov. 13 – Chicago, IL @ Double Door
Nov. 14 – Minneapolis, MN @ Varsity Theatre
Nov. 15 – Kansas City, MO @ Riot Room
Nov. 17 – Denver, CO @ Summit Music Hall
Nov. 19 – Santa Ana, CA @ Constellation Room
Nov. 20 – Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey
Nov. 21 – San Francisco, CA @ Slim’s
Nov. 23 – Portland, OR @ Hawthorne Theatre
Nov. 24 – Seattle, WA @ Chop Suey
Nov. 25 – Vancouver, BC @ Venue
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