Joy and Subjectivity With RAQ
Approximately four weeks prior to this interview, a doctor told Todd Stoops not to play piano for two weeks due to injury at a show in Auburn, Alabama that tore the tendon in his wrist. Only a couple weeks into their five week, nationwide tour the prodigious keyboard player for the four-piece band, RAQ, weighed his options. Now he explains that the pain wasn't as much a problem as he had thought it might be. He maintained not only the ability to play, but the ability to charge on (like his bandmates) against all odds.
You see, RAQ knows something about going against the odds and they've been doing it for several years now. Chris Michetti (guitar), Todd Stoops (keyboards), Jay Burwick (bass guitar) and Greg Stukey (drums) formed the current incarnation of RAQ in 2002 with the addition of Stoops to replace former keyboardist Marc Scortino. In the over-saturated jam band market, RAQ has been struggling to find a niche. Comparisons to another Vermont four-piece, Phish, have further complicated matters for a band that is still trying to find their unique voice. But with the release of Carbohydrates in 2003, the band seems focused on defining their collective visions in a way that is wholly their own.
On this nippy fall evening in Chicago, the mood is jovial and spirited – not what you would expect from four guys that have been on tour in a van for five weeks. There are no signs of exhaustion or hostility or frustration, despite the fact that many of their shows on the tour had been near empty. In talking to them, it becomes clear to me why. It's the same phenomenon with say, college basketball vs. the NBA. The college players still have something to prove, and they play with heart unparalleled by any professional big-timer like Shaq. They do it because they love the game, and not because they're pulling in cash hand over fist. When you're sitting on a pile of money and the chicks are flocking, where's your motivation? It's not necessarily mutually exclusive – Vince Carter still tears it up like he did in his days for the Tarheels. But there's an undeniable passion for the game in the players that still have something to show the world, that still have peaks they have not yet attained. And every member of RAQ expresses this sentiment in some way – be it the hours of pondering over two minutes of the prior night's show in the van the next day or the willingness to play through an injury – these guys have got heart.
HI: I read and one of the things that you said in that interview, Chris, was that you felt like there just wasn’t enough time put into making the first album. You were looking forward to going into the studio to make Carbohydrates because you thought you would have more time. Did that end up happening?
CM: No, not at all. We recorded Carbohydrates in 14 days or it may have even been 12 days.
HI: Was this an even shorter time than you had for the previous album?
CM: It was even shorter. Carbohydrates was done with a little bit more money and we had Mark Johnson and Robin Moxey who were the two producers. We told them, we have this much money, which is nothing. We have nothing, unfortunately, and we want to make an album that's awesome you know? An album that sounds like it's been made with a million dollars. So these guys were willing to come and you know, despite the time limits, they were awesome and professional and they did the best they could in two weeks which was excellent. And it turned out really, really well and we're all definitely satisfied with it. But, in an ideal world, I think we'd all like to have about three months in the studio. That way we could write the tunes in the studio and feel the vibe coming off the walls and just throw it back and not have to cut any corners. I mean, Stoops did all the piano on the album – all the grand piano – in five hours. With a clock.
HI: Do you think that pressure from the time restraints makes you rise to the challenge or do you think that pressure stifles the creative energy?
TS: Well, we only had the piano for one day, so yeah, it was a lot of pressure.
CM: When I laid down the guitar parts, they were really helpful and smart about it. We would think about a game plan before we started so we didn't waste time. But it was like, "holy shit you've got 10 more solos and we've only got 2 hours so…you better be on." (everyone laughs)
HI: Was there anything that you learned from those two recordings that you know you’re not willing to compromise going into the next one?
CM and TS: Yeah, definitely.
CM: Well the mixing of the album really.
TS: Yeah the mixing was a big issue because Robin and Mark mixed it in Los Angeles while we were in Vermont. So they sent back the roughs and we went over it and gave them about 10 pages of notes, down to the millisecond of what needs to pan here and go there and levels up and down. And if we had been standing there with them it would have taken a lot less time.
CM: It's just having that window of, "let's try this even if it doesn't work, let's see what it sounds like." We never had that.
TS: Only logistical changes.
CM: Everybody besides us and our organization fears the day that we get this time too. I don't know why, I think it will be a lot of fun.
HI: So when will you be going into the studio again?
TS: Within a year.
CM: We'd love to do it right now. Unfortunately it would probably be even worse with the time constraints and the money constraints.
GS: It's tough. I think we're mainly a live band so that's what we have to concentrate on in order to stay afloat. And we're still paying off the last album.
CM: We really want to do that studio stuff. We've had jamband fans, at least I've had fans, say "Well, how come you guys don't jam a lot on the new album?" Like it's a complaint. And we're like, "Dude, we want to make an album, album. You know what I mean?"
HI: What’s the difference in your attitude going into the studio versus playing a live show?
CM: The live show versus the studio is two different worlds. That's all I can say. In the studio, perfection is able to be achieved (detectable sarcasm in his voice), it's at your finger tips. Live it's just like let's create "the magic."
TS: I'm a psycho in the studio. I am an absolute psycho-case. I can hear every little thing. Sometimes you hear something and your neck jerks and you have to hit the space bar and…
CM: The space bar is your best friend.
HI: Jay, what has been the best thing for you thus far on the road?
JB: My favorite part of any night has been after the show. Going out in the audience and talking to them. I get some really interesting comments. The other night we opened for these guys who play in 311 and every fan in the audience was a bunch of 311 fans. And they were all staring at us, the whole time we played. We were like, these people do not understand our music at all, they don't even know how to describe it. At the end of the night they would come up to us and say, "You guys really rocked!" And at the end of every song – huge ovation, they loved it! But during the songs they would just be staring.
HI: Have there been any shows on this tour that pop out in your head where you felt you played exceptionally well?
JB: I think the Fox Theater in Boulder, CO was awesome and in Portland, Oregon. It always happens in these places where you go and you don't expect to see people you know. But then it turns out that people you know moved to that town. All four of us had a friend or someone we knew who we weren't expecting to see there. It gives you that feeling of, alright let's put on a really good show. Not that we don't try our hardest every night. We're hard working guys, that's for sure. And you know, being in such a good mood at the end of the tour, it's like we had peaks and valleys and it just so happens that the end of the tour is a peak. We're playing well, the shows have been really good. You know, when we started out the tour it was a valley, it was really low.
HI: Why was that?
JB: Well, you've got a dozen people at four shows in a row.
HI: So it’s a crowd-size issue.
J: Yeah, that really gets to you after a while. You're like, what are we doing this for…we're not making any money. At that point, we're paying to play. It's just one of those things and you have to get through it. So once we got to California, those shows were all awesome. Tons of our friends were out there, the venues were all great, crowds were really great.
HI: Do you write most of your material on the road or when you’re at home?
TS & CM: At home.
TS: Although, this tour, I've written some things in my head, but we haven't materialized it. We get four hours of sleep a night and then we have to drive eleven hours the next day. It's kind of tough to get creative. But some actually do come out when we're playing. We'll play something one night and then the next day we'll try to recreate that.
HI: Do you tape every show you play?
TS: Yep, we taped every show this tour.
CM: Yeah, I don't know. We call it 'the magic'. Which is what everybody in the jam world is looking for. If you're a blues fan or a jazz fan you're not so much looking for that magic. You might be looking for a lot of notes. Or you might be looking for this one guy's trademark sound. But the jam community wants some crazy connection to happen no matter what.
TS: It's also good playing for a group of people that is so intense. You'd be surprised how intense today's jam band fan is. They're sitting there picking out every little thing. It's like playing for a bunch of judges in the Olympics or something.
CM: But deep down they're all mellow. They're accepting.
TS: Oh yeah, they're accepting, but it's great that they are listening that intently because I mean, you can't just get up on stage and screw off.
HI: What kinds of things do you do in rehearsal to facilitate a group dynamic?
TS: We have deep discussions about what we're playing.
CM: We'll remember minutes of a show from months ago. And we'll ask ourselves, well what happened at that show? Then we'll analyze it to death. That's what we do.
HI: Do you feel good coming out of a discussion like that?
CM: Sometimes we feel bad, sometimes we feel good but it's all for the better of the group. It's all better that way.
TS: I think we do. Very rarely has it ended badly.
CM: We have a thing in our band where we're allowed to say pretty much whatever we want to say. We're not trying to make someone cry or anything like that, but you should be able to take that kind of criticism in order for general observation. When things work, we're like fascinated by it. We're like, wow, why is tonight working and why did last night not work? The same fucking song. Why tonight, why did this happen. And we'll all talk about it until we fall asleep or we'll sometimes wake up the next morning and keep talking about it.
HI: So you spend a lot of time on the road listening to your tapes of the previous night. What else do you do?
TS: We talk a lot.
CM: (laughing) Everything we do in the van is strictly legal. Everything. We talk a lot, there are certain bodily functions that come out a lot. The windows go down, the windows go up, windows go down. We drive. We listen to music.
HI: Shifting gears, Todd you’ve been in the band for two years now right?
TS: Just over two years, I had my two year anniversary a couple of weeks ago.
HI: Was there any initiation for you?
TS: Marc and I toured together for two weeks. It was seamless which was really cool because when they asked me to join the band I had a week to learn all this music. And instead of going out there and being put under the gun right away, for a couple weeks I toured with Marc. Marc would play and I would come out and sit in and I would play a tune. Slowly it was less him and more me until it was all me. It was great. Scortino taught me a lot when I joined. He's one of the funniest people I've ever, ever met in my life.
CM: He just played with us a little while ago.
HI: So the relationship between him and the band is still really good.
TS, CM: Oh yeah.
TS: Scortino has a walk on anytime he's around. He's got a golden ticket.
HI: What are you most proud of accomplishing in the last year?
CM: The compliments that we get sometimes from fans are unbelievable. We were just in Colorado and it's just so positive there; it's just unbelievable. When we do this for a living, we put ourselves through so much stuff and you ask yourself sometimes, is it worth it? But you get some compliments from people and they'll tell you that you made their lives change. And it might not even be a great night for us. But you learn a lot from that.
TS: It's a lesson in humility. We can come off stage pissed off and we're about to ask "oh what happened" you know what I mean? And then all of a sudden someone comes up and says "you changed my life tonight, it was amazing" and we're like, WOW! And then the focus shifts from the one sixteenth note that we heard that was weird to wow, that's what we're putting together as a whole and it overshadows everything else.
CM: Say we sold out a show or we had this many people at a show, or we opened up for so and so…those are all proud accomplishments. But to have someone email you or compliment you after a show and you can just see the spun-ness in their eyes, it's great. I mean, your goal when you picked up the instrument is fulfilled. Your goal is fulfilled. It's an amazing rush.
TS: And it's like I said before, it's a lesson in humility because sometimes its hard to realize what you're even doing. When you're traveling so much and playing every night you're in this groove. But to really sit and listen to someone when they're talking to you after the show and to kind of get a glimpse into their world and how they respond is just amazing.
HI: Do you think that makes you any less self-critical when you’re playing?
TS: No, if anything we become more so because now we feel like we owe more to these kids. I mean, they're paying so much attention. You feel like, I've got to put in extra for the audience. If they care that much, then I've got to care more…so it definitely puts it into perspective that way.
CM: I went through a phobia at one point where I felt like everyone was just waiting for that one thing during a show and then you kind of just get over it, you know? I mean, there's music that I hate, that people love. It's someone else's whole trip. There's no reason to criticize them for that. That's the joy of music – how subjective it is.