We’re living in an age where it’s easy to go online and download complete discographies of music you like, even music you don’t like. Every band can create their own genre and their own conventions. It’s like a big pile of pennies. There’s so much but earnestly valuing your finds isn’t that common. Then a band like Rainman comes along and it’s as if under all those dumb pennies were one of those old half dollars that aren’t minted anymore, with JFK’s face and all. It reminds you why you were digging through that pile of pennies in the first place. This Long Beach band just released an EP and full debut album (available on Bandcamp.com) and will be releasing another album in May. I had the pleasure of sitting down with lead singer Rachel Rufrano to talk about the group, the future of independent music, and Tom Waits.
Union Weekly: So I heard you’re a big Tom Waits fan.
Rachel Rufrano: Well, I kind of grew up with him. My mom’s a really big Tom Waits fan. When I was a kid I really hated him. I would tell her to turn it off.
UW: Why, just because...
RR: Just because my mom liked it, probably. And his voice was really gravelly, but then by high school I really liked him.
UW: Have you seen Down By Law?
RR: Yes. [Laughs]
UW: Isn’t he awesome in that?
RR: “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.”
UW: Why did you put his lyrics on the inside of your CD instead of your own lyrics?
RR: Each CD is handmade and what I did originally was just take my old CDs and collage on the front of the liner notes. The one that you saw was probably a Tom Waits CD.
UW: So is there a different picture on every one of the CD’s?
RR: Yeah, because I just decoupage-d on other people’s CDs and put them in my old CD cases.
UW: You said you weren’t really happy with how this album came out.
RR: No, I am. I’m very happy with it. I just want to do it again. I just want to keep recording. I don’t want to sit on it for a long time.
UW: I heard some Grizzly Bear in there, on the guitars especially on the album, but the demo/EP you put out—
RR: That was actually just like, before I sang in front of people I would write songs in my room and just record them on Garageband and then eventually I was like, “Well, I’ll put these online and if people respond well to them, then I’ll maybe take it more seriously.” But I was afraid to do that for a long time.
UW: Who do you like a lot that you think has influenced you, musically and lyrically?
RR: I don’t know if you can hear it in my music, but I definitely listen to a lot of Elvis Costello and The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, John Lennon. But I think who I end up sounding a lot like is this girl Sam Phillips. And she’s sort of unknown, a little bit. Not Sam Phillips, the Sun Records Sam Phillips. She’s actually like 50 now and she still makes records and they’re still really good.
UW: How long have you been playing?
RR: I got my first guitar when I was eight. And then my sister broke it.
UW: How’d she break it?
RR: She just picked it up—
UW: Older sister or younger?
RR: Younger, she’s only a year younger than me. But yeah, she smashed my guitar, which was like a little kid Spanish guitar. I didn’t get another guitar until I was 12 and that’s when I got my Danelectro. 12 is probably when I started playing a lot and practicing a lot. I started recording on Garageband probably like a year and a half ago.
UW: So you haven’t been in any other bands before Rainman?
RR: No. First band.
UW: I know Anthony, your drummer, I’m not sure what other bands he’s been in, but I know he’s in Brown and Blue.
RR: And he’s in another band Squarefish.
UW: [Bassist] Doug was in Boris Smile for a bit. Is he doing solo stuff now?
RR: Yeah, he is. It’s really cool.
UW: So these are musicians that have been around the block, how did you guys kind of come together to do this?
RR: Actually it’s kind of coincidence. Anthony, I’ve known him since I was 14. Doug actually went to Pacifica too. We all went to the same high school, but it’s kind of coincidence that we all ended up in the same band together. And we’re working on adding another person too.
UW: Do you think there are common stereotypes for female vocalists? And how did you not want to become another one of those?
RR: I didn’t want to play by myself with an acoustic guitar just because I think it has bad connotations. I don’t know, I think I’m projecting all of that, so maybe not.
UW: Just because you don’t like those kind of musicians?
RR: I don’t generally like female singers. I just wanted to play with a band. I thought it would be more likely to be taken seriously than if I was just some girl in a coffee shop singing.
UW: Like Joan Baez.
RR: Yeah. [Laughs]
UW: At least in recent years it’s become more popular, but female singers, leaders of bands, it almost becomes kind of a “thing.” Why does that really matter, you know? It’s a band and it’s someone singing. Why does Karen O have to be this sexual musical goddess just because she’s a female in this awesome band. I feel like that really shouldn’t matter.
RR: The reason I never was in any bands before was because I remember I felt really insecure in high school that people would be like, “Oh, you’re good at guitar... for a girl,” and that would always make me feel like, “well, why am I not good enough to just be in a band.”
UW: “Why can’t I just be a good musician? Why do I have to be a good girl musician?”
RR: But at the same time, I still want to have a female perspective in my songs.
UW: How do you approach your songwriting? Is it inspiration based or do you actually sit down and say I’m going to sit and write songs?
RR: Anytime I play guitar I’m pretty much writing songs. I’ll play a melody, some chord progression I really like and then piece it together and then eventually, I’ll put lyrics to it. Sometimes the whole song will just happen. The song that I think people like the most, or seem to like the most, is “It’s Only Midnight” and that’s one that I wrote really easily and really quickly. “A Love Song” too was one of those. But sometimes it takes a really long time. There’s a song on the album called “Easy” and I didn’t have the chorus for it until like a day before we recorded it.
UW: Do you believe when people say “the best things were written on an empty stomach”?
RR: I don’t think you have to be suffering to make good art. I think my favorite song that I have on the album is “We Knew We Would” which the lyrics are really shallow and almost like an old ‘60s love pop song, they don’t go very deep.
UW: What venues do you want to play, around Long Beach, in LA, even out of state?
RR: I haven’t played out of state yet. We’re trying to do a tour this summer.
UW: With other bands or just you guys?
RR: Depending on how it works out, we might be able to jump on someone else’s tour. We tried doing a tour with Lazy Mary, but I got identity theft. Like the morning of. So I couldn’t go. Someone spent all my money on Christianmingle.com.
UW: How do you fix that?
RR: You just call the bank. And they returned all my money to me. It was only like a hundred bucks [laughs] but that was everything.
UW: Where do you want to see Rainman in the future?
RR: [Motions with hands] In lights.
UW: Bright shiny lights on Broadway.
RR: Rainman on Broadway. That would be a totally different show. That would be like Dustin Hoffman.
UW: Bono could redo your music.
RR: My dad would like that.
UW: I think a lot of dads would like that.
RR: I’d like to make a living off of it, if it’s possible.
UW: So you don’t have a nine-to-fiver.
RR: If I can avoid that, that’s sort of what this is. I’m just going to keep doing this until it becomes pathetic that I’m still doing it.
UW: Where do you see music going? I guess specifically indie music. I don’t know how much credence you give to the Grammys—
RR: I don’t care about what the Grammys have to say, I don’t think Grammys have ever had their finger on the pulse.
UW: Because I love Bon Iver, but winning Best New Artist, it was kind of out of the blue.
RR: It’s like, “Come on, 2009.”
UW: “Blood Bank EP? Come on.” And then Arcade Fire last year won best album.
RR: But Arcade Fire to me is like they are sort of a really big band and they deserve to be a big band.
UW: That’s the thing, is it that these bands that have just been around for so long are getting recognition? Or do you think what indie music is, both as the genre and actual indie music that’s produced by independent labels, is coming more to the surface?
RR: I think every movement of music starts at the bottom, then when they start making money, there’s this really great meeting point where they can fund their creativity and eventually the business finds a way to exploit it. I think the fastest that ever happened was in the ‘90s with like Nirvana. If you just look at grunge music and the way MTV looked, it was all like, “Gruuunge! We know what the hip kids like! And it’s gonna be everywhere.” I think it’s headed somewhere really good, because we’re sort of like in this perfect place. There’s a lot of things for people to be angry about, there’s a lot of reason for social unrest, and I think it’s just going to take a matter of time before we get angry enough to do something about it. But every movement since the beginning of recorded music has happened that way. When I was in the Union I wrote a little thing on it too, just about how I think there’s going to be some big new thing in music, because that’s what happened with the blues, that’s what happened with folk music, that’s what happened with punk music, with hip hop, with grunge, so it’s gonna happen soon.
UW: I’m totally with you, especially with like punk and grunge. They kind of came after these moments when it was really popular for like smooth rock or glam metal, you know, like Def Leppard. I feel like now, ever since Black Eyed Peas got into their weird spacey mode, with will.i.am wearing partial robot things on music shows, and Lady Gaga. That is almost kind of the same, and there’s going to be this new wave coming in that’ll wash over that because everyone’s going to be sick of it.
RR: Have you ever seen 24 Hour Party People?
RR: It’s with Steve Coogan, and he plays Tony Wilson, who managed Joy Divison and The Happy Mondays, but it’s about the ‘90s Manchester rave scene and how it began. And he talks about, I don’t know what shape this is, kind of like an hourglass thing, where one thing is moving downward while the other is moving upwards. I think things start out really grassroots and really small and there’s no money, they get better and they get to a point where they’re making money and then it gets exploited and then it dies, but at the same that that’s going on something else is also going on, so it’s constant ebb and flow.