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Arts and Entertainment

LAist Interview: David Sandholm of The Rollo Treadway

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Every so often you come across a CD so good that you enjoy every track—and this discovery is made even more precious when you find it before it's played on KCRW or included on a Paste sampler CD. For me, The Rollo Treadway is such a band. Their self-titled CD blends dark and melodic pop with surprising lyrics and a Beach-Boys-meets-The Zombies vibe.

Although they haven't nailed down their LA tour dates yet, we figured LAist readers might appreciate getting to know them before they come to town. We recently spoke with The Rollo Treadway lead singer and songwriter David Sandholm to get the scoop on their self-titled debut CD, the songwriting process and what he's looking forward to when the band comes to LA.

LAist: What is your musical background?

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I come from a very unmusical family as far as my parents go, although I do remember my grandfather on my dad's side had a bunch of harmonicas. He was very protective of his instruments. If you wanted to play one—I don't know if it was a germ issue or what—he'd go out and buy you one, but he wouldn't let you play his. (laughs)

I didn't really have any music growing up. It wasn't until high school that I got into it. My parents would listen to doo-wop and the Cats soundtrack and Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits. I kind of like doo-wop now, but I associated it with Cats and Barry Manilow for a long time.

Also, when I was really young, I had a Dr. Seuss record, and I think that was a really big influence—the background music is still lodged in my brain. And I had a K-tel record called Dumb Ditties that was all novelty songs. So those were the two records I had until high school, and then I got into the Beatles and stuff like that.






The Rollo Treadway - "Kidnapped"

When did you write your first song?

I didn't really start writing until college. I could play guitar a little bit and I could kind of sing, but I wasn't great. Then during the last week of college I wrote something I thought was kind of good. And at this point I thought, "Well, I'm graduating, so I'll get a bartending job and give this a shot."

So when I wasn't bartending and going out and getting drunk, I just locked myself in my apartment to figure stuff out. I bought a four-track tape machine, which was the biggest leap for me in learning how to write.

You mention The Zombies as a major influence. When did you first discover them?

They don't have these on TV as much anymore, but when I was growing up, they'd have these Sounds of the 60s and other different compilations you could buy on record or cassette. You know the ones—with the song titles running like credits down the screen—they'd all be in yellow and one would be in red, and that was the one that was playing.

You'd hear these 10-second clips of songs and a lot of them would be lame ones, but then one time I remember hearing "She's Not There" by The Zombies and I was like, "What was that?!?" I responded to it instantly even though I didn't have any background with that kind of music. I think certain musical ideas just resonate for some reason—who knows, maybe it's in the genes and you just respond to certain things—but I was trying to do stuff that made me feel like that. Stuff that made you excited just from hearing a little bit.

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Is the band name based on Buster Keaton's character from the 1924 movie The Navigator?

That's where I got the name but it's not really based on it, though I am a big Buster Keaton fan. I just wanted it rooted in something American. All of the psychedelic stuff I liked from the 60s was rooted in British music hall kind of stuff. When it got nursery rhyme-ish, it was all British-based. That's why I was happy when I discovered [Brian Wilson's] SMiLE stuff. It was psychedelic and yet it sounded very American.

I liked that putting a "The" in front of "Rollo Treadway" made it sound like a railroad company or something. So maybe it sounds pretentious now, but at the time, I didn't think anyone would figure out what it was. Then I realized that when you Google the name you get all these links to the Keaton movie.

How did the band and the album come together?

I formed the [Brooklyn-based] band after recording the album. The whole record is pretty much comprised of songs I wrote over a number of years. Those aren't the only songs I wrote, but those are the ones that kind of went together.

My demos turned out fine, but I was always worried that if I went to record these things, I wouldn't know quite enough to articulate the way the strings should go and stuff like that. It was a little out of my scope, and I felt that if I were living in the 60s or 70s, I'd just get a great guy to arrange it. But nowadays it's hard to find that.

Then I heard this group, the Lilys, who had a few records in the 90s that were produced by a guy named Michael Deming—and the albums he'd worked on were just fantastic production-wise. So I contacted him and we made the record.

And I'm really lucky to have such a great band— Tyler Wenzel (guitar), Jörg Krückel (organ and electric piano), Nick Hundley (bass guitar) and Blake Fleming (drums). It's a really talented group of guys. Blake , for instance, was one of the founding members of The Mars Volta. He's the only other member of the group that played on the album.

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Do you consider it to be a concept album?

It wasn't supposed to be, other than the two songs, "Kidnapped" and "Dear Mr. Doe." In an earlier sequencing of the record, those were back to back. I actually ended up singing one of the songs in a key that wasn't comfortable for me so that one would end in A minor and then the next one would begin in C, so it would have the relative minor/major. But then we didn't end up putting them next to each other, so I sang it in an uncomfortable key for no reason. (laughs)

At some point I think I realized that some of the songs did fit together. But then there were songs that clearly didn't have anything to do with anything.

Of course I thought of all this after the fact, but I don't want to lie and say that it was premeditated other than those two. But who knows? Maybe it kinda was. I had written those two songs first.

Speaking of those two songs, what was your inspiration for "Kidnapped" and "Dear Mr. Doe"?

I was trying to write something that was like an old radio theater show. I'm a big fan of old radio shows like "The Shadow," "The Whistler," "Suspense" and Orson Welles' "Mercury Theatre" and I was trying do something with that kind of feel. That's why those two songs have the sound effects.

Production-wise, "Kidnapped" has a big Phil Spector influence—with the castanets and such. The big thing I like with him was how the music started, like in the song "And Then He Kissed Me." That's a great blueprint for how I began "Kidnapped," just to have a riff that's a really solid idea and then the percussion starts and it's off and running.

"All Heads Turn" is one of my favorite songs because it sounds like a demented merry-go-round. What's the story behind it?






The Rollo Treadway - "All Heads Turn"

When I haven't written anything for a while, the guilt mounts up and I sit down and churn out a few songs. It's like painting—not painting pictures—but it's like when I have to paint my apartment or something. I dread it, because when I get to the corners I'm so anal with taping and stuff. It's very satisfying when it's right, but just the mindset to get into it is very anxiety-ridden and I put it off as long as possible. So sometimes songwriting gets like that.

Anyway, I wrote "All Heads Turn" after a night of heavy drinking. At that point, I hadn't written anything for so long and I was thinking, "I'm such a loser, I have to write something." The next morning, I was eating breakfast and the melody got in my head. I was so hung over from the night before and I thought, "What's the name of that girl that I was talking to last night? Ah yes, Bridget. Her name is Bridget…" And only so many things rhyme with Bridget, so it made the lyrics easier.

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I love the two instrumental songs on your album. How did those come about?

"The Seahorse" was part of this 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea song I was working on. It was one of several underwater adventure instrumentals that were supposed to make up a whole piece. "Avenue X" wasn't supposed to be an instrumental, but because it had such a weird structure I had trouble writing lyrics to it. I like to have the lyrics not be too arty-sounding. They can be a little bit, but it should still tell some kind of story. They should have other levels, but I like it to also work on the "Be My Baby" level.

And then I didn't know what to do with "Avenue X." The studio where I was recording had a couch and a TV in the basement, so I'd hang out there when Michael was attending to his microphone business (he makes his own microphones in addition to producing records).

One night there was a Bruce Lee documentary on TV and when it came time to record the song, we decided to go with a Hong Kong vibe. This guy, Jamie Sherwood, played a 12-string in it, and we had him do vibrato, but completely randomly. Normally you shake it in the rhythm of the song but he did it completely arhythmically, which is tough to do—to play in time and shake randomly—but that's why it has that funny sound.

As for the name of the song, "Avenue X" used to be the last stop on the F train, though they've changed it now. It would say in big, black Helvetica letters "Avenue X," and I thought it was weird and funny.

In recent years, which CDs have been at the top of your personal playlist?

I really like that first Shins record—those melodies are so good, like in the song "Girl Inform Me." Hearing that song made me think, "I've gotta do something better than what I'm doing!" I like when you have very slow, very deliberate melodies.

I like songs where the melody would sound good even if there weren't any words, where the lyrics work so smoothly with the melody that they come off more as just sounds without any meaning the first time you hear them. The way the rhymes work and the way the consonants sound, it's just like nothing obstructs it. You'd be satisfied even if the lyrics didn't mean anything, but when they do mean something it's a bonus.

A group I found on myspace that I thought was great was Higgins. This song called "Drop Off" is just amazing. It's a little bit Pink Floyd-ish with great melodies, sorta T.Rex, but not too blues-sounding.

I've also been listening to a lot of Roger Miller's stuff. He's the guy who wrote "King of the Road" and he had these four records that were unstoppable. This one song of his, "Swiss Maid," really gets to me.

Margo Guryan is also great. She made one album in 1968 (Take a Picture) and it's insane, definitely one of the best pop records of all time.






The Rollo Treadway - "You Laugh, I Cry"

You were speaking earlier of the fusion between melody and lyrics—do you have a favorite lyricist?

I'm a big fan of Gerry Goffin. His writing works so well that sometimes it's just creepy how perfectly the melody is independent of the lyrics, but then with the lyrics laid on, it just gets this emotion. It's hard to put into words—like trying to describe the taste of water.

You'll get a line or two, maybe where the melody goes into this minor thing and it'll show something vulnerable about the character, or the character's trying to play it cool, but in that one line they're exposing themselves a little bit.

A great example is the song "She Don't Deserve You." It's touching because it feels very real. It's a one-two punch: You have the lyric, but then all this other emotion in the melody hits you in a raw way.

Anyway, in "She Don't Deserve You," this girl is talking in a daydream to this guy about how he'd be better off with her than the girl he's with who treats him badly. But you get the undercurrent that maybe it's more about her trying to get with this guy as much as she thinks that other girl is the wrong girl for him. The bottom line is that she is alone and it's just…it's so specific. There are certain lines where there's this really great change where the melody goes, and it just kills me how the lyric works with it.

Is a second album already in the works?

I do have another record written that I guess would be another Rollo Treadway record. I have all these songs for a real 60s "Brill Building"-style girl group record. But I don't know any 60s-style girls to sing it, so I have to figure out what I'm going to do with that. Actually, that song "Charlie" from the record was one of them—though it got psychedelic-ified.

Any plans for a tour?

Definitely. My son was just born, so we took a little break, but now we're just starting to practice again. We're heading to Canada soon for a TV appearance, then we'll get to doing a proper tour. We'll make it to LA at some point.

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Anything you're looking forward to doing while you're in Los Angeles?

I love the food in LA. Last time I was here, we went to Dan Tana's. I like the mood of the place.

I'll also be sure to visit Paradise Cove in Malibu so I can see where Jim Rockford's trailer was. I'm a huge fan of The Rockford Files.

To Learn More
The Rollo Treadway MySpace Page

The Rollo Treadway Official Website

Buy the CD

Photos used with permission of The Rollo Treadway, except for Avenue X by sierraromeo and Paradise Cove by Eleventh Earl of Mar via Flickr.