KOLARS – Q and A time
By Aimee Williams-Maynard
Sometimes you meet people who outwardly present themselves as something that they are not, and sometimes you meet gems who are through and through true to themselves with a nonchalant attitude that is only but admirable. The latter describes Lauren Brown and Rob Kolar of KOLARS, the rockabilly come glam chic married couple. Having played hundreds of shows with their previous five-piece band He’s my Brother, She’s my sister, Lauren and Brown have since played as duo alongside legendary artists such as Funkadelic, Julian Casablancas & The Voidz, and The Kills. Bringing blues from out of space to the stage, this musical duo are a huge presence despite only being two people.
Marking the release of their debut album ‘Kolars’ (in physical form) in the UK, Underground had the chance to talk about love, fashion and living life on the edge. Dressed in pre-gig clothing, which included a bright faux fur hat to protect Lauren’s head from the bitter Autumn winds, Underground met the couple in a dark corner of The Lexington – where they were to play that night. This is how it went:
Can you guys describe your style in three words?
Lauren: That’s hard, but it’s good… it’s a challenge
Rob: Can they be hyphenated words
L: You’re a cheat. Sweaty.
R: we’ll go with space-age
Can you explain where the name comes from?
L: It’s his last name. We’re married so it’s kinda my last name too even though I didn’t take it in marriage.
R: It’s kinda symbolic too. For one it was a funny joke because when we go married Lauren was like “I’m keeping my name”.
L: I was like I’ll take your name in the band. Like a compromise.
R: I also feel like it’s a tribute to my dad who’s name it came from, because he died, and he was one of the biggest fans. He was there early on, so it carries his name on forward.
So, your debut album came out last year…
L: Well it keeps coming out.
R: It comes out in different ways it officially came out in the UK just a couple weeks ago in stores in physical form: but digitally it came out before.
What influenced the strip down to just a duo from He’s my Brother, She’s my Sister, which was obviously a bigger musical group in terms of members?
L: It naturally scaled itself down.
R: Yeah, people weren’t ready to tour anymore, and Lauren and I missed it, and we thought well we could do it just the two of us. It felt very naked
L: Very exposed!
R: Well Lauren used to be in the back.
L: In the shadows…
R: So, we were like why we don’t just share the stage, no front person just both of us at the front.
L: It was petrifying at first. Like you couldn’t hide. And you [Rob] weren’t sharing lead vocals any more.
R: Now we do still share it but singing on every song was like a new thing to bring to the table.
How long have you been playing as KOLARS then?
L: So, we started this band officially 2 years ago. And then we were in the other band for about 6 years.
R: But we’ve been playing music together for almost 10 years.
L: We’re 60 years old…
R: And Laura’s evolved as a drummer, because it started just as a plank of wood with spiderwebs on it that we picked from a trash can. So, she was just a percussionist.
L: Very DIY.
R: Then we were like let’s just add one drum. Then she became a foot percussionist with a tom and a snare and then a kick drum and then a crash and then we upgraded the tap box.
L: Do you need a drink… like an alcoholic drink
R: Um yeah, I’ll take a tequila and soda with lime.
Wow that sounds scary…
R: That’s what everyone says here. England does not embrace the tequila, or Scotland when we were up there.
L: But I’m a whiskey drinker and scotch drinker so I’m like at home here.
How did you meet?
L: We’ve known each other for almost 18 years, can you believe it? I’ve only just realised that. 18 years Rob! How are we still getting along?
R: We weren’t always together, there was some heartbreak.
L: Yeah it was like a little soap opera.
R: But we met in New York, in a pool bar – well it was more like a dive bar with a pool table. And Laura rolled in in a leather jacket, I remember it very clearly. And she whooped everyone’s ass at pool. She grew up with a pool table, but no one knew it. She was as we call a ringer… and I was like who’s this girl?
L: And then we spooned.
R: Yeah, no hook up. I didn’t have a bed to sleep in and she was kind enough to share.
L: And then we evolved. But he was playing music long before I was playing music. And he was in bands long before I ever thought I’d be in a band. So, we were a couple before we made music together. Which I think was kinda helpful because we were relaxed and had respect for each other before we entered this “whole world”.
You’ve been described as ‘desert disco’, and from your aesthetic I can see how this categorisation came about. You clearly have a unique style with the way you dress and perform, what fashion icons are you inspired by?
R: It’s all instinctual choices really, some you regret later, some you don’t. But fashion wise, for me, I love that teddy boy rockabilly kinda look infused with the glam of like T-Rex and David Bowie, 70’s era thing. Mixed with a little bit of modernised rock and roll. Like I’ll take patches and sew them on pants, I guess that’s pulled a little bit from the punk ethic: like hey I can’t afford that Saint Laurent suit that looks amazing, so I’ll make something myself.
L: And then it will still be my own and it has my own stamp on it.
R: And Alexander McQueen is a huge influence because he kind of did that early days as well.
L: There’s something straight about him but also dreamy and surreal. Like a Dali or something…
R: Yeah! And then we love like Paco Rabanne and all these other fashion designers, so we kind of infuse that. And some it inspires the music, we’ll watch like an Alexander McQueen documentary, for example, and I’ll see his pieces and I’m thinking of music that would like compliment that. So, it kind of crosses mediums also.
L: As far as performance style, I feel like we are influenced but, at least for me, I feel like I discover the more I do it. You go out and make choices, and you can be like “I love Blondie” or “I love this or that” but when you go out there something just takes over and you’re like “ I guess I’m doing it like this now. It’ll be like “I didn’t even plan for this” but then it takes on its own journey. And that’s the exciting part about it because every night is different.
R: Some of those choices turn into a broken ankle…
Oh no, a broken ankle?
R: Well I’ve been experimenting with jumping off stage and playing with the audience. And we did a show in LA couple months ago and there was a photographer and I though oh wouldn’t it be fun to walk with my guitar off the stage over the photographer. And so, I did that and then landed, and my foot decided to go upside down. It was like a Spinal Tap moment of me realising: now how do I get back on the stage because I must sing in 30 seconds. So, I started hobbling around, trying to find the ramp to get back on and I must go around the sound guy and then back on the stage.
L: And it was only like the third song…
R: For the rest of the set I was gritting my teeth with what turned out to be a fractured ankle.
L: Yeah and then I broke my snare that same song. So, then I played the whole set in like this weird position with my snare and he was all contorted. But the strangest thing is no one could tell! It was probably one of the hardest shows.
How did the tap-dancing drumming come to be?
L: It’s like that thing, that DIY where it started first out of necessity, because we were in another band and we had a drummer and I was just tapping on that dirty plank of wood. Then the drummer quit, and Rob was like to do you want to play the drums. But I didn’t know how to play the drums. So, Rob said why don’t you learn to play the drums but keep all the tap dancing. And I’m like that’s fucking crazy. And I watched videos but there was nothing out there, so I was like I’m going to invent this thing. Then I started with one drum, then another and so on.
R: But that wasn’t over a week or two, that was over a year or two. Evolving bit by bit.
L: I was performing and not being sure too. When I was performing, I would be like “is this how you play the drums? I don’t really know I’m just going to do it.” I think doing that more and more you get more fearless and you figure out your own style. I think that’s how I developed my style because that’s the only way I know how to play.
R: I don’t think anyone else I’ve ever seen in the world does that…
L: Not yet! I hope there’s more because I want more, I want a little hub.
What is your first memory of music? Is there certain musicians or tracks that made you realise that you wanted to make music?
L: I think Rob came out the womb that way.
R: I guess there was a lot of different influences, because my mum grew up in Jamaica and my grandmother is from Jamaica so there was a lot of Bob Marley playing when I was a kid. It puts everyone in a good mood, and it made me want to create an atmosphere and be part of what triggers the party or the good vibes. But it changed over the years. Punk was a big influence as a kid, I think the first concert I saw was Rancid and it was my first encounter with mosh pit culture. Seeing that style, with the mohawks and chains coming out of people’s noses, was a real shock because I was maybe 11 or 12. It was a real eye opener to see bands that were not perfect. And it was this idea that it’s not always about playing perfectly, it’s about the energy and what your putting out there.
L: I think that’s one of the biggest inspirations: this idea of imperfection. Not your chasing perfection ever, you’re chasing the feeling of connection.
R: Because sometimes you must remind yourself of that, it can be easy to forget. Like sometimes I will get obsessed with my vocals and worry if the pitch is off or stress about the tuning. Then you must go is that really what being a musician is about? As a musician you’re doing a service, ideally, for the audience because your sharing an experience. So, if your wrapped up in only your experience I think the experience that everyone else has suffers. The moment your lost in it that’s what I think the audience enjoys.
L: Because that’s what you want to make everyone else feel. You want everyone to be lost in it. I don’t want people to be thinking about their day at work or do I look OK at this club. I want everyone to just check out for a while and I want to do that too. Like the drums can be off or the vocals can be off, but if the feeling and the intention is there it can be a mind-blowing show.
Well once you see enough independent bands play in tiny, grimy pubs then you certainly know that there is an experience that can’t be matched by huge venues.
L: Yeah! That’s the best shit.
R: And we’re seeing a resurgence of this.
L: We just did Somerset House over the summer and that was like 3,000 people and that was fun but if this is packed this is going to be way more fun than that because the connection isn’t the same playing bigger shows. Career wise the bigger venues are great, but do you really enjoy it the same? No, you don’t. You enjoy the smaller ones, always.
On your debut album you have the song ‘Dangerous’ and that question “is how I live dangerous” is a really interesting topic. Have you had any crazy moments where you thought is this the pinnacle of risk? I am living dangerously?
L: Oh yeah!
R: Every day. Like there’s a financial risk, we’ve invested a lot into this band because we decided we aren’t going to wait around for a label or for a manager. We have a manager over here, Jo, but we don’t have a manager in the States. So that’s one risk. But also, day to day. There’re moments that come to mind, like once we were in the car and on the high way to play Dot-to-Dot and a car spun out. The whole tyre flies up hit our windscreen, this car spins and smashes into the barrier on the side and it just stops. So, we stop to see if everything is ok, and the guy has this moment and pauses for like 3 seconds to realise he’s alive. We he just goes “yes!” and raises his arms.
Sounds like quite a miraculous thing to witness.
L: Yeah! But there’s lots times like that. I feel like this life is just a giant risk. Being a musician is a giant risk.
R: The track was about being personal experiences of being a band and being on tour but, like a lot of our songs, you can interpret it to suit your experiences in life.
Can you tell us about your newest single ‘King of Carrot Flowers’?
R: it’s a cover, by Neutral Milk Hotel. Our’s is very different from the original. So, they play in ¾ which makes it almost feel like an Irish folk song and we were just playing around with in the studio and we thought what if we made it 4/4 it would give it a rockabilly, T-Rex kind of life. I felt like the lyrics really reflect this side to America, this fucked up, but wonderful side and we wanted to play up to that by giving it a blues/rock and roll feel that would complement the lyrics and give it a different sense of direction.
L: It’s a pretty sad song too.
R: Yeah, and their version feels a lot more emotive and sadder. I feel like ours is maybe a little bit lighter, giving it more of a playful touch. Giving a sense of humour even though some of the lines are heavy.
L: It was also the 20th anniversary of that album.
R: Right. So, we released it on the same year, which is this year.
L: Oh, my it’s still this year?!
So, you’re playing the Lexington this evening- which is a great venue- how do you prepare for a performance? Do you have any pre-gig rituals?
L: Eat, drink… one drink.
R: We should have more pre-gig rituals. We sometimes take a moment to say, “have a great show”.
L: But we’ve been doing it more because we are like: we should do that more.
R: We have this sound bowl that we use during the set, and we use it when we do sound check as a kind of good luck. We are a bit superstitious. I got the bowl from a psychic in Savannah, and she recommended it and it’s been very helpful.
L: Whenever there’s like weird sound issues we play it and it goes away. Well not always, we don’t want to jinx the bowl. We feel super hippy when we do it.
We are a big supporter here at Underground of indie venues and live music. Too many of them have closed down. Are there any venues that you sadly miss?
R: From my experience I think venues keep popping up, weirdly.
L: There was a spot in Minneapolis that we played in the early days with our other band and it had people like The Replacements and The White Stripes who played their early shows there, photos on the wall. Then when we went back there it had closed, I remember that one.
R: You don’t remember the name, do you?
L: No! But I remember that spot. There’s a venue in LA that’s called Satellite, but it used to be called Space Land. And when it was Space Land it was cool.
R: Yeah, they were changing the bookers and they brought in different bands and it just sort of lost the magic. The name change was part of it but there was more than that.
L: It used to be a seedy place, and you could smoke in the room and it would all just be really bad.
R: A lot of touring bands played there too. I remember seeing a lot of English bands and overseas bands and then you would know what is cool over there.
L: Tons of people played there.
I have read that you’ve played over 300 gigs, which to me sounds exhausting, is that right?
R: Well in both bands it probably adds up to like 1000. The shows definitely bring energy back.
L: Yeah, we were supposed to have December off but our friends Shakey Graves, who’s really big in the States, asked if we would support their run in the West Coast.
R: We can’t say no.
L: It’s like 3,000 capacity theatres, but it’s two days after we get back from the European tour. So, we are going until Christmas.
R: Right! This has got to be the first thanksgiving we haven’t been with family.
In a sea of new music, how do you remain relevant while still making music that is meaningful?
L: We talk about this all the time.
R: I think ultimately you just gotta play music that just feels genuinely right, instinctively right. There isn’t a ton of bands doing rockabilly sounding music, but that just feels natural to what excites us to play. And experiment with that by infusing it with disco or with indie or with other music. So, it’s just doing what feels good to you. The bands whose careers we’ve looked at and been like that’s a great career are bands like Spoon, or Wilco, or The Flaming Lips where they just kept doing their own thing. It was never that they were hugely in-style or fashion, or out they just kept picking up fans and you see them over the years keep putting out great records, keep putting out good music, keep playing festivals and they just keep growing because they have been true to themselves. And not pushed it too hard any which way and not capitalise on something that’s not happening.
L: It’s a dangerous thing, because some bands can fall into a trend and for one minute, they get popular. And that feels good. But when you’re in a trend you can quickly fall out of a trend, and it’s not necessarily the true you it’s just “if I do this, I can get really successful and then I’ll be really proud of myself and the radio will play me” etc. And you fall victim to these choices. You just have to be strong and say hey maybe the radio won’t play me straight away and maybe they’ll come and maybe they won’t but I’m playing music that I’m proud of.
R: Yeah, like the minute that you get on stage and you’re not excited about it the audience can tell. You want it just to be natural and genuine.
Can we look forward to any newer material from KOLARS anytime soon?
L: We’ve been recording all this month.
R: yeah, the aim is to put out a new single in like February to lead up to a US tour.
L: Oh, we have a single coming out on Mike McCready’s, from Pearl Jam, record label. Their bringing out a special vinyl of ours for a single in March.
How did that happen?
L: He’s so nice and like the coolest guy. We played a show on New Year’s Eve in Seattle with our friends Thunderpussy, and he was there. He saw the set and when we came off, he was like: let’s do this.
R: It was one of those funny things, that was like wait this still happens in the music business where you walk backstage and there are two people sitting down waiting for you to sign on the dotted line. But no signing in blood or anything. It was just like an old cliché.
L: But yeah that’s like one of the newer records coming out.
R: And the new album will probably be out the end of next year. But we will be leaking songs as we go, which you do now. Which I quite like, even though there’s some things where the album format has kind of been lost. I feel like there’s something cool about the single thing because it lets people really focus on the song. But it’s all about balance… and we are trying to figure that one out.
Interviewed by Aimee Williams-Maynard