When It Started: An Afternoon with RFA
When we first begin to entertain the idea of going to college, the typical (and obvious) attraction is the inherent promise of independence, the freedom finally go out into the real world with nothing to hold you back from being who you want to be. The initial excitement, however, eventually wears off as the realities of that freedom quickly settle in. The microcosm of high school life soon becomes quaint when you get smacked in the face by crippling, morning-after hangovers, deadlines, and hard learned lessons that follow thrilling weekend nights of depravity. In 2016, no record has managed to accurately capture the simultaneous jubilant highs and the heartaching lows you experience during this time than “Something New from RFA EP” by Philadelphia’s latest rising Rock band, RFA. The band, comprising of singer/guitarist Dan Cousart, lead guitarist Christian Turzo, drummer Alec Powell, and bassist Brendan McHale, debuted onto the scene with their first EP “Freaking Out” in January of 2015. A casual listener could easily compare them to bands like The Strokes, though, once you dig a little deeper, you find much more to empathize and connect to with RFA. Where you connect with Julian Casablancas over his “too cool, too jaded” Rock anti-hero vibe, RFA offers a more sincere perspective that only enhances their already catchy melodies and mosh inducing performances without sacrificing the same edge. They’ve slowly fine tuned their no-bullshit, no-filler Rock sound and now seem prepared to make the next step in their career. I sat down with the band and talked about recording “Something New…” their bond as bandmates and friends, and their aspirations for the music.
Trebel: When did RFA’s identity really solidify?
Dan Cousart: Probably when Brendan came around. A year and a half ago. When our first EP came out, it was like “Alright, now we’re sort of taking this seriously.” Brendan joining was when we began to really come together.
Brendan McHale: When I joined, RFA was already a tight unit. I saw them progress through senior year while I was still with my other band. When we all got to college, we had a lot more free time than we did in High School. It sort of began to take over our lives.
Trebel: What brought you all together initially?
Alec Powell: Dan, Christian, and I met in the school’s Rock Band. Then they decided to make a band and I just showed up for it.
BM: Dan and I met at crew camp when we were still aspiring athletes.
DC: The first time I met Alec was math class in Freshman year. He was wearing this The Who shirt with Keith Moon from Quadrophenia on it. I’m a big fan of The Who, so when I saw it I said, “Yo, I love that band!” and he just turned and said, “Yeah, they suck.”
Trebel: What did you initially perceive in the band that separated RFA from your other projects?
AP: This was my only band I’ve taken seriously. I had some solo stuff I had been doing but nothing I took as seriously as this.
DC: I was in a couple of bands in grade school and early high school. I also did the School of Rock program and was in my school’s jazz band. My first main band was made up of a bunch really good friends of mine, but they were more into athletics than I was at the time. RFA had much more of a defined sound, so it made more sense that this was gonna go places than the other group.
Trebel: How has your creative process evolved?
AP: It’s gotten easier just because I think we’re all getting better at our instruments. We’re students of music more than anything, so we know what’s going to fit, what’s going to sound cool, what will sound different than someone else, shit like that.
BM: I think we’re developing our own style as a unit and own individual trends. Some we start to really appreciate because they worked so well the first time. But then, each song is unique.
AP: Dan will usually write a skeleton song idea and then we turn it into a beautiful baby.
BM: Then we’ll fatten it up and eat it.
DC: The process is becoming a lot easier. I’ll sit down and write the chords and lyrics before I come to the band and tell them “All right, you do what you do” to everyone and we mess around. It’s never super easy at first, especially because we’ve been playing these songs for a while. When we introduce a new song it’s kind of bumpy at first. It takes a while for it to take shape, but once it does we just keep playing it and playing it.
Trebel: Do you ever try to perform a new song at a show to gauge it with the audience?
AP: I’d say it’s when they’re 70-80% done-
Christian Turzo: Yeah, we’ll play them at certain shows and try them out. If it doesn’t work out, then we’ll hold on to them for a little bit to practice some more.
AP: There’s a certain point in the writing process where we feel that we can take this, let’s try it, see if it works, and if we don’t feel it.
BM: You have to try it live versus the studio because you get these sparks of intuition that will make you play a certain note you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. With the energy of the crowd or whatever venue, the inspiration just comes and it creates this organic moment that can help us write the song or add more to it.
Trebel: RFA has played in a lot of different environments. What kind of venue do you think works best for RFA’s sound?
DC: I think small clubs, I feel like we perform the best when we’re on a stage. There’s a certain energy and people are definitely more psyched to see us.
BM: Yeah, especially with clubs. House shows are great, but it’s usually a group of people we don’t know. We obviously have to be tight with our sound, but it’s fun when it’s more about the show when you don’t have the lights or the perfectly mixed sound. People that close want to see something amazing because they’re all together in a shitty basement and everything is gross. You have to try extra hard to put on that good show. You’re doing everything to create something people want to watch.
AP: And we have to mix it all ourselves.
BM: Yeah! And you’re creating the show. When the band’s not there, it’s just a shitty, old basement, you know? But once there’s music and a band’s playing, you’re doing everything to make people want to stand and watch. It’s not like a prepared stage with a light show all ready to go.
DC: It’s our proving ground. It’s our Hamburg, Germany. It’s straight up Rock n Roll in basements, which is cool. It’s really gross and really messy. House shows are great, but I love to be able to have monitors. It’s kinda sad when you can’t hear yourself.
CT: We always wanted to do play basements when we were in high school. That was almost a goal of ours. We’d say, “Aw we gotta play some basement shows.”
BM: It’s nice when you have people there. I probably can count on my hand the number of times this happened, but there are shows that, sometimes, have people singing the song from the Freaking Out EP. It’s like, “Holy shit, that’s really cool I hope that happens a lot more!” That being said, I also hope we don’t ever stop playing house shows, because there’s nothing like it.
AP: There’s such a raw energy to it.
CT: I think we play better for a club scene, but, at least personally, I enjoy house shows.
AP: I do like the way we sound at Milkboy.
Trebel: Have you experienced anything particularly… unusual at one of your shows, yet?
DC: Absolutely. *laughs*
AP: See, I’m never looking. My head’s always moving so I never see anything.
DC: I feel like that’s any show that people are getting into though. We’ve had plenty of weird shit happen.
BM: We were playing one show with our friends in Minor Setbacks and this girl started dancing on one of the speakers and our friend Mike ripped his shirt off.
AP: Yeah, Mike likes to take his clothes off… *all laugh* And he’s not in shape or anything either, so it’s like “Okay, Mike…” He’s very comfortable with himself.
DC: I remember we were playing “Freaking Out” one time. I went into the crowd and people just started hitting my head *Powell laughs*. I remember for about five seconds I couldn’t hear anything.
Trebel: You’ve managed to get yourselves out there in really unique ways. RFA was featured on Daytrotter, recorded a song with Converse Rubber Tracks, and now released 360 VR music video. Do you credit that success to your sound or the work ethic?
AP: Both. We’re not just sitting here waiting for it to come. We’re working at it, we’re not just bullshitting here. But I think people like our sound, and that’s cool too.
BM: At the same time, we’re learning that, even if people like our sound, that’s probably not enough. Because people can find a thousand different artists who sound like you. You have to work extra hard today and I think we’re starting to really get how we need to work as a band that’s becoming a business. We’re building ourselves and our team.
Trebel: That’s the truth, though. It’s almost forbidden to consider your band a business, for whatever the reason.
DC: Yeah, it’s definitely true.
BM: We’re kind of a non-profit *laughs*.
DC: That’s one thing we do have to credit ourselves as a team. We’ve done virtually everything ourselves. That’s very cool, but, obviously, our main thing is “Alright, let’s not write crappy songs. Fuck the MIDI keyboards.”
AP: Yup. Can’t put out shit.
Trebel: You all seem pretty upfront about your opinions with each other. Does that honesty exist in your creative process as well?
AP: I think they all know that I have no qualms about saying something sucks. *laughs*
DC: That’s why I can’t write some of these acoustic songs in front of everybody. These guys give me more shit than anyone.
AP: “That sucks.” “Oh, That’s shit.” *laughs*
DC: I remember when Christian and I wrote “Too Much” and it was just back and forth, “No, that sucks.” “No! That sucks!” *laughs*
BM: We just push each other in a really great way. We don’t settle for mediocrity. I think that’s the biggest sin of the arts.
CT: We all need each other to say “That’s stupid” or “That’s not a good part.”
BM: In healthy way. I mean, we spend every day together. So, we know that there’s no judgment of character when someone says, “This sucks.” The response, usually, is, “Great… let’s make it better!” We want to please one another.
CT: I think that’s what you need in any creative group. Because you need people to push you to avoid falling into the same routine, creating the same thing over and over again. That’s not cool.
AP: That’s one of the first reasons I wanted to play with Dan and Christian as the trio. You guys were the better musicians in our class, so it was like, “Well, they’re gonna make me better.” And they did! I wanted to be a better drummer than you. *laughs*
Trebel: It sounds like that came about naturally.
BM: Yeah, if everyone is cool with something except for one person, we stop and address it.
DC: It’s about being honest with each other for the general good of the product. Sometimes we get sensitive about certain things, but it’s for the better, ultimate well-being of the group.
Trebel: The lyrics on Something New really stood out to me.
DC: A lot of my lyrics come from personal experiences. I’m not really good at writing fiction really. Especially songs like “Saturday, January 24th.” That kind of came as the flipside to “Freaking Out.” It’s almost the opposite side of that. Sometimes, things have consequences and… I dunno, I think that what I liked about this whole EP is that it’s exploring a lot of different moods that we haven’t explored on our previous efforts. It’s bringing new innovations to the group.
Trebel: What really stood out to me is, not just the overall chemistry you have with each other, but how this EP makes room for everyone’s parts in the mix. Is that something you emphasize when you’re in the studio?
DC: It’s just straight-up Rock N Roll. It’s about energy, really. The reason we have that energy when we play live is because we just rock out and play our instruments as hard as we can play them.
AP: Because what’s the point, otherwise?
CT: I think we all just like to play as hard as we can and put on a good show.
AP: I hate going to a show and seeing the band just stand there playing. I don’t want to just hear the music, I want to see it performed.
DC: Obviously, that depends on the artist or music that’s being played. Bands like Beach House don’t move very much, but it’s about the experience. Then there’s The Strokes and, the thing is, their music is a lot more Rock n Roll so they don’t really need to move around a lot.
AP: If you watch them, they do in their own way. They’re not jumping or dancing around, but, when you watch them, they’re really giving it to you.
BM: I think the way we play is how we listen to The Strokes or other bands like that. Our extreme moments of showing how we physically feel about the music is how we play onstage at our best. It’s a vital part of the show. I really want people to come see us. It’s the most important thing.
AP: I want the record to sound good, but you should come see us.
BM: I’ll hear, “Oh, I loved your CD” and I’m like, “Come to a show, please!” I want people to think to themselves I want to see that, then show up and say “Holy shit!”
Trebel: Which would you prefer: someone listen to the music first then go to a show, or vice versa?
DC: Uh, Listen to the music first. I’d want them to come see us. That’s the main goal, but I’d like them to know the songs a little bit first.
BM: I think this new EP was more like a trailer to come see the movie kinda. It almost sounds like what you can hear but you want to go and actually see how they’re playing it. That’s what I’d like to think.
Trebel: Something New had an unshakably loose feeling throughout the record. What would you attribute that to?
AP: That came a lot from the studio experience. It was so relaxed, we weren’t on a time limit, we could try new things, [the producers] Dan Siper (of Mike Pays Heat) and Jake Kampman would throw things at us, who is an awesome guy to work with, it was an awesome experience and they just kind of let us do our thing.
BM: We’ve also just matured a lot more over the last year. When we recorded Freaking Out, we were in college for little over three months. Now we’ve been here for almost two years, and we’ve seen a lot more of the city, a lot more of the world, and… I think that definitely influenced it.
AP: On the individual musicianship, I think I’ve developed my style now as a drummer, Dan’s got a pretty consistent sound now, we all have our thing and that helps a lot. You’re not trying to do something, make something new, or find your slot. You’re doing your thing. It’s like, “This is my style and this is how I’m going to do this.”
Trebel: Was there any reason why you kicked off Something New with that series of fuzz, the squeaks and fast-forwarding tape?It really gave this feeling of waking up in a haze.
BM: You can say that. That’d be the artistic answer, but the actual answer is I was just trying to find the spot on the tape where he started playing and I just kept rewinding it. We didn’t actually edit it, it’s just what I was naturally doing.
CT: At the end of the song, Dan Siper had made this collage of a bunch of different sounds.
DC: We also wanted to work in the sound of people talking. The original idea was to make it seem like I was recording it with my iPhone, you know? You can hear cars going by and stuff like that. I wanted to capture that atmosphere and Dan Siper did a really great job of that.
Trebel: You’ve guys have released a couple of EPs now. Do you see yourselves doing an album anytime soon?
DC: We want to do a record when we can get it properly distributed. The whole thing about these EP is that they’re really affordable for us and we can make a couple of great songs, sequence them correctly, and put them out pretty easily ourselves. If we were to do a record, we’d want to do it right. If we were to get signed and do a full-length it would kind of be the best of our previous EPs, except, get it right and throw in a couple new songs on it. I think that’d be a great consummation of what we’ve been doing.
BM: That’s a big undertaking, too. I think a lot of people, not naming anyone in particular, but artists who just have a lot of songs. When you go about it the wrong way, it usually turns into putting together a bunch of songs in a unit and then call it a record. I don’t think that’s what it is. I think we need to mature a little more, maybe, and get to that point of composing a great piece of music. It needs to be cohesive.
AP: Just like everything we do, we want to do it right. That’s the main point. What’s the point? Why would we rush it if it’s not gonna be good? It’s about patience. Maybe it’ll come. Maybe it won’t. I think we have enough to go on between Freaking Out and Something New where, that’s almost eight songs. That’s about enough for people to listen, get a feel us and then come see us. I think it’s a good starting point.
Trebel: You guys spend a lot of time together. What do you do when you’re just hanging out?
AP: We’re usually incapacitated. *all laugh*
CT: We “blow off steam” as some might call it.
BM: … We smash bottles in the backyard.
AP: No, Brendan smashes bottles. That’s his thing.
BM: We actually scream out the window at people in the city a lot. We like to freak people out a little bit just because we think we’re hilarious.
CT: I talk to a possum that lives under my house.
AP: *laughing* He named it!
Trebel: You named it?
CT: Yeah. Kel.
DC: Yeah… It’s really hard to meet new people sometimes… *all laugh*
BM: We just look for random shit to do. After a show, we’ll be looking for where the party’s at and, if there’s no party, we’ll make our own. There’s something to be said about four dudes who can sit on a couch, get really stoned and talk about nothing for three hours. When you’re meeting someone for the first time, for the most part its like, “Oh they’re kind of weird,” and then you get to know them and you see how cool they are. I’m the opposite. I seem socially normal but, then you get to know me, and start to get a little bit weird.
AP: Yeah, he’s got some weird shit. It freaks me out sometimes, and that’s really hard.
BM: I’m a complicated guy. Whoever this will think we’re totally cool…
DC: We hope so. *Laughs* I can’t wait for my grandma to read this.
AP: Your mother has already learned things about me that she can never unknow *all laugh*.
Trebel: What does the future of RFA look like to you right now?
BM: I think we should run for President one day. Collectively.
What stood out to you about RFA? Kel The Possum? Dan Cousart getting repeatedly punched in the head at a show? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!
Featured image via Bahama Jeff
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