THE BETA BAND'S ROBIN JONES
Interview by Wayne Chinsang
Illustration by Fphatty Lamar

THE BOYS OF BETA HAVE DONE IT AGAIN WITH THEIR NEWEST ALBUM, HEROES TO ZEROS. WAYNE CHINSANG CAUGHT UP WITH ONE OF THE BETA BAND'S MULTI-TASKERS, ROBIN JONES, ON A BEACH IN ENGLAND, TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE NEW ALBUM AND THE STIGMA OF ALL THINGS BETA.

Wayne: Are you in Scotland right now?

Robin: Iím in Portsmouth, England. Iím enjoying the summer off in the sunshine.

W: Oh, thatís nice. Iím in Milwaukee enjoying nothing.

R: (laughs) Oh, come on.

W: (laughs) Well, I just wanted to start by saying congratulations on the new record.

R: Thank you.

W: Itís been out for a week now?

R: Actually, two weeks here [Europe].

W: Oh, alright. Has the feedback been good?

R: Yeah. Weíve gotten really good feedback. Weíve been on tour for a couple weeks now, so thatís a bit of a shock to our systems. But, itís going well. Weíre getting the grips of it, and weíre getting stronger every night, so thatís good. By the time we hit the States, weíll be streaming balls of light.

W: (laughs) Youíll be on fire.

R: Possibly, yeah. (laughs)

W: I read that you guys approached this album [Heroes To Zeros] differently from the ways youíve approached previous albums, and that you practiced the material for 18 months before you even laid down one track in the studio.

R: Yeah, thatís right.

W: So, I know the songs progress a lot on tour for you guys. But is the new material still progressing as much on tour? I ask because they were so solid by the time they hit the studio.

R: Theyíre morphing a little bit, but theyíre pretty much the same.

W: Well, does it then feel more formulaic, since you know the material so well now? Are you expanding on it as much as you would have, if youíd have just went directly into the studio and recorded?

R: Maybe not. But thatís what we wanted to do. If you just go and record it in the studio, letís say, and youíre dealing with, like, 400 tracks of bloody bells or something like that, when youíre actually going through it, youíre going to find something thatíll make you think, "God, I wish we had done this or that."

W: Right. With this new album, I know you guys self-produced it. Now, I may be making this up, but I could have sworn that there were some tracks done earlier, over a year ago, that were done by another producer. But, eventually, they were scrapped. Is that right? Or am I making that up?

R: No, thatís right. We recorded 17 tracks in the final session for the album. But, prior to that, we had been thinking about working with a producer, so we hooked up with Tom Rothrock [Beck's Mellow Gold]. We did five tracks with him just to see how it was gonna work out. Heís a really great guy, and he works well. But there just wasnít enough of The Beta Band there. It sounded like someone elseís version of The Beta Band, and it wasnít what we wanted. So it all got scrapped.

W: Are some of the songs still there? Or is the album all-new material since then?

R: There are some of the same songs. There were some songs that we tried and tried and tried, again and again. Trying to record different versions of them, re-recording them. We tried everything, but they just never found a natural home.

W: Since the album was self-produced, essentially, there were four producers working on it at any given time. Although it sounds like fun, did it ever prove to be a pain in the ass?

R: No, no. I mean, thatís the way itís always been in The Beta Band. Thereís always three other people ready to tell you that what youíre doing is shit.

W: (laughs)

R: But, you know, as long as itís a fresh idea, as long as youíre not just running the treadmill, you have to respect their opinion. Because itís usually the person who has got the strongest vision for that section, so you respect them enough to say, "Yeah, youíre right." It works out fine. Itís great. The way we did it was that each person works independently of each other for the first four or five months, and each person does their own version of each of the demos. So, when we came together, it wasnít like we werenít getting our points across, because we had all these versions sitting in front of us, saying, "This is how I think it should be." But then you listen to what everyone else thinks it should be. And weíre old enough to be able to see amongst all of that which bits are the strong bits, and which bits are really working.

W: Right.

R: So, itís ultimately fulfilling.

W: Was the mixing process with Nigel [Godrich] pretty painless? Because I know that he came in after everything was essentially done.

R: Yeah. It was totally painless. I mean, at first, we were like, "What? What do you mean? We mixed it! Itís our record! Why do you have to get someone else?" But then we thought, "Well, why not?" I mean, even if it improves it by just three percent, thatís an improvement. And Nigel is a really nice guy, because heís really honest, and has really strong opinions and character. For example, I remember him saying, "You know, I love 'Assessment'. I think it's great. I love the first bit. But why put that ridiculous pop rock section on the end with the brass? I fucking hate that. I think you should just leave it." And we were like, "Well, we do like that, so please leave it alone." (laughs)

W: (laughs)

R: And he said, "Well, I donít like it, but Iíll go along with it."

W: So there was a good amount of give-and-take.

R: Yes. Absolutely. Heíd have an idea and bring it to us, and weíd say, "Great. Go for it." Or weíd say, "Donít do that."

W: Thatís great. You know, Iíve been listening to you guys for awhile now, and Iíve caught you guys live before. And the thing I like about The Beta Band is that I can never really explain to people what you sound like.

R: Yeah. Thereís usually an awkward silence.

W: (laughs) Exactly.

R: Or theyíll come up with some long, rambling, ridiculous metaphor about a quadruped animal and a body of water, or something like that.

W: (laughs)

R: Itís not easy.

W: Yeah. I mean, I donít think a genre exists that you could be put into. But every press release or review I read, theyíll always throw around the term "acid pop" or "stoner music".

R: Yeah. And I donít know why we have to be classified. Itís better in the States, to be honest. Over here [Europe] itís like (in mocking tone), "Yeah! The Beta Band! Itís like Beck meets Bob Dylan lying on a grassy bank, listening to Shawadiwadi!" And weíre just like, "What are you talking about?" But in the States, theyíll go in and describe a specific track, or something like that. But, at the end of the day, come to the show and make up your own mind.

W: Do you think thereís a stigma attached to The Beta Band? I mean, obviously, you have your High Fidelity fans. And then you have your stoner, pothead fans. Is it hard to be a member of The Beta Band?

R: Well, if they had read all the press first, they would probably expect it to be something. And then theyíd probably be surprised or shocked or maybe disappointed, because itís always going to be something different. Itís ever-changing. But itís truly just weird. There isnít one sort of specific fan that joins up. Itís everything from baggage handlers to politicians to spotty, little 12-year-olds to crazy middle-aged women. Itís mainly people who have seen us once, and then they come back again.

W: Yeah, your shows are pretty fun and amazing. I saw you guys in 2002, the night after you performed in Chicago, when all the lights went out. (laughs)

R: Oh, yeah. (laughs) That was an interesting night. I wish we could have done more.

W: So, with having produced the new album, and with having been in charge of directing the music video for "Assessment", is it safe to say that you guys are control freaks?

R: Yeah. Pretty much. But not in a sexual way. (laughs)

W: (laughs)

R: If youíre doing something creative, it pays to be in control of every part of it. Otherwise, it gets put into the machine. And the machine just has one huge eye that doesnít see very well. So it just sort of runs around out of control, and mangles things up. Itís important to try and do everything yourself. Because, inevitably, through the process of communication, something gets lost. We have all these ideas for videos we want to do, or how the artwork is to look, or how the live show is supposed to be. And, at the end of the day, we probably wind up wearing loin cloths. (laughs)

W: (laughs) Whose idea was it for the "Assessment" video?

R: Well, the first video we ever made... I had a lot of sets of Army clothing, because theyíre pure function, and I love that about them. So I said, "Letís go make a film up in the park." And I had all these wardrobes of ridiculous outfits in my house, so we just put on these outfits, and filmed us jumping around. And now, Steve [Mason - lead singer] said, "Iíd really like to make another Army video." And then we decided to make it about the history of war, and make it all one shot. But then we realized that we needed a point to all of this; a reason why theyíre fighting. So we introduced the mysterious object, which has all sorts of symbolism. So it just morphed into that. Weíll start with one idea, and then brainstorm, and it always goes to extremes, reaching into the totally ridiculous. But at the end of it, you have a video.

W: Well, it turned out really well.

R: Weíre really pleased with it.

W: Good. You know, it seems like Heroes To Zeros is a lot more political than previous work. Is that because the entire planet is more political now?

R: Yeah. I mean, the work isnít really referencing anything specific, but it is generally more aggressive. And we all feel slights of anger about all these things going on in the world. And you just feel so powerless against it all, because itís just so cloak-and-dagger.

W: Right. But I feel that there is this movement in almost all art right now, and things are starting to get more political. For instance, I know the upcoming Beastie Boys album, To The 5 Boroughs, is much more political in nature than their previous work. And there is a belief that in times of restrictions and Patriot Acts, that the best art is created. Do you feel that the politics of the world are changing the art for you guys?

R: Itís entirely possible. I guess I donít have enough of an overview of politics to be able to comment, but I definitely agree with that. I think that only suffering and deprivation is ever gonna get anyone off their ass, and make them stand up for any tiny thing they believe in. Thereís a classic line in The Count Of Monte Cristo. I donít know if youíve read it, but heís locked up in some cave for the rest of his life with some guy who has been in there for his whole life. So he meets this guy, and this guy has written all these amazing books, and kept all these amazing records. And he says, "Bloody hell! Imagine what you would have done if youíd have been free!" And the guy says, "I probably would have sat on my ass and done nothing. But, because Iím trapped in this desperate condition, itís forced this all out of me to keep me sane."

W: Thatís a cool statement, and itís very true. So, I know you guys do a lot of video work in addition to the music you create. And you are planning on releasing two DVDs soon?

R: Well, it might end up morphing into the same DVD. But, yeah, some of it will be music videos, some of it will be short films. Some of them weíll do, and some of them we might give to friends, because theyíve got some great ideas, too. I had a friend filming us during the entire time we were making and preparing the album, so, if he ever ends up editing that into something of coherence, that might be the other DVD.

W: Do you guys approach visuals in the same way that you would approach making the music? Or is that a totally different process?

R: Itís pretty much the same. I see everything in pictures. When Iím making music, I see it in pictures. So, itís a natural thing to add visuals to the music. The really abstract thing is editing it together. You have to pay attention to what would make a good camera shot. Now, rather than have a mad film playing behind us while we play, which everyone gets mesmerized by, theyíre more abstract now, and they donít change as much.

W: Right. And I think that then adds a nice accent to the show.

R: Right.

W: In the past, I know The Beta Band has been fairly critical of their own work. For instance, you guys werenít crazy about your self-titled album.

R: Yeah. But, what can you expect? I mean, weíre control obsessed. And that was our first album, so we really had huge expectations of it. But, at the end of it, to have to hand that over and say, "This is what weíve done. Weíre not happy with it, but we just didnít have the time or money to work on it anymore. But, there it is." I think itís still good, especially now, because itís in the context of history. And weíve had a few albums after that that we were entirely happy with. Itís just that there was a lot of attention on us then, and we didnít feel that it was up to the standard that we imposed on ourselves.

W: Right. Well, my question is, I know itís your new baby, and it just came out, but now that the CD is pressed, in stores, and in peopleís homes, is there anything on it that you wish you could have done differently?

R: Iíd have to say no. It was such a long process; to be with it that long, go through different versions of each song, playing it live, listening to it a million times while recording it, and then to have to pick 12 tracks out of the 17... that was all hard to do. And we could have put them all on, because they were all great. But that just makes for a stronger record, to then refine it even more. So, no, there would be nothing to change.

W: Thatís great for you guys.

R: I am kind of hungry to get back to the process again. It was so fulfilling, so Iím quite excited about making more music now.

W: Are you all considering solo projects?

R: Well, we did have a bit of time at the end of last year. So, Rich [Greentree] finished a four-song EP with his friend thatís fucking great. Being a perfectionist as he is, heís still tweaking bell noises and stuff like that on it. Steveís got an album thatís about 60% hashed. But heís just run out of time now, and lost enthusiasm for it, because weíve been doing Beta Band stuff. And Iíve been working on this project with a friend from back home, but I donít know where that will all fit in, or whether or not it will be released. And John [Maclean] has been writing a screenplay for a film he wants to make.

W: Wow.

R: So, weíve all got irons in the fire.

W: Everybody is busy.

R: Yeah.

W: Well, the last question I have for you is one we ask everyone we interview, and it has nothing to do with anything we just talked about for the past half-hour.

R: Okay.

W: Do dogs have lips?

R: (pauses) Yeah. They do. Yeah.

W: (laughs) Right on. Well, thanks for doing this, Robin.

R: (laughs) Sure.

W: And have a good tour.

R: Thanks. Weíre heading to the beach now, actually.

W: Cool. Well, have fun at the beach, and Iíll see you guys when you come around.

R: See you in September.

W: Definitely.