Interview: 7 Questions for Rob Wilcox of By Surprise!

Rob Wilcox is on Y-Rock at XPN Wednesdays 5-8 pm and is a member of the band By Surprise! The interview below is not short, and I debated breaking it up into shorter entries. I think it’s best to leave it as is, and let Rob speak for himself fully – in person, he is definitely one of the most articulate, engaging and interesting people I have come across, and I think what’s below conveys that very well.

1. Let’s start with something specific. What’s the difference between working in radio and doing what you want to do exactly?

I’ll try to answer this without going crazy or digging a hole around me. Deep breath…GO!

Ultimately, I want to pursue a career in music. Because the state of the music industry has changed so greatly in the past decade, I choose to leave that loosely defined.

In radio, there’s not much room for art and vice versa. In radio, from my perspective, you have a communication model that enables A to deliver a message to B. Radio is the sender, and the listener is the receiver.

The point of radio, on the surface, is to relay information over the airwaves. Thus the communication model comes into play. Scratch a little deeper and its purpose comes down to creating profit. Scratch the surface a little more, and its purpose is to deliver music and news to the people who are in search of it.

In radio, my objective is to play the best music possible for people who are listening, while doing the best I can to project my personal tastes and personality. If you listen to a specific radio station for years, to one single DJ, you feel as if you might “know” them as a person.

However, this is changed with face-to-face communication.

After working for a company like Starbucks for so long, I’ve learned that it’s hard to have a genuine connection with people when you’re stuck playing the role of A delivering a message to B. You need to focus on the product in order to generate profit.

In radio and coffee, I try to step out of that, by breaking “out of character” to show people who I really am. I may make a snide comment about coffee, or purposely act like an absurd 1970’s disc jo[c]key on the air just to do so.

Relate this to Music…well…in radio you get to play music…but it’s not your own. In life, I’ve become hungry for personal communication…to see all there is to see, and to give all there is to give. To learn and to teach. This is why I prefer physically playing music for an audience, over playing someone else’s music over a medium. I may like that band, but I can’t put the same heartfelt effort behind someone else’s message and hope for someone to understand it.

There’s a message in every medium, but I’ve become increasingly eager to make sure each message sent is a genuine, more personal one.

2. When did you decide you wanted to be a musician, in earnest?

In grade school, these kids would set up in our cafeteria with their instruments and did a lip-synced performance of some Dookie-era green day songs…they were all the notorious bad  boys. One of them even had a rat tail and a Bart Simpson shirt. I wanted to be those guys, lip-syncing to green day.

When I was 13, I saw my first punk rock show. It was in the amphitheatre of my town’s park. The band playing was loud and jumping around like idiots. I was riding bikes with my friends, who had all recently started listening to Metallica and Green Day. We pulled off to the side of the road and looked down at them in all of their glory. I think I even saw a mohawk (something I wanted at a young age to seem cool in the early 90’s).

The Sniffits were the band, or maybe it was the Dickheads…anyway, and all of their songs were about girls and being stupid. More and more, I became increasingly aware of the local punk rock scene…and it was something I wanted to be apart of.

So I got a guitar and began learning Metallica and green day covers. Then I found out that my older sister was “punk rock” and listened to local bands too. I stole her local band shirts and cassettes and began learning what I could. I had a band called No Order…we were the shit. We were the only band at St. Rose of Lima school in the 8th grade outside of the kids who played in the musicals. My dad hated us because I wasn’t Brian Wilson. My mom encouraged it, but only from a safe distance. After three or four shows, one of which was at a party for the cutest girl in the 8th grade, we broke up.

Once I got into junior high school and made my high school transition, everything blew up for me.

I was asked to join the only band in my high school that had their own screen printed shirts. It was another punk band…I was saved by Dirty Larry. This band gave me a sense of identity away from the kids who were too busy drinking and smoking trying to be cool. I even claimed straight-edge for a short time until the drummer of my band talked me into drinking a beer.

Anyway, this punk band became a ska band, and our cult following grew far beyond our school. We became semi-serious, and even recorded a full-length CD. We played a nice handful of shows over the course of four years. Then I was kicked out during my sophomore summer while attending Rowan University. I wasn’t good enough apparently. I was pretty devastated; my motivation and self esteem were shot. I’m not sure why I took it so seriously. At 18 years old, It’s easy to get caught up in things when you don’t know who you really are. It took me a few more scrapes before I could get back into playing music again.

3. How would you characterize your development as a musician?

In all honesty, it was a reflection of who my friends were at the time. As my circle of friends grew, my musical tastes diversified. I went from owning Weird Al and Aerosmith cassettes to my first Queen and Bon Jovi cds, to Metallica, to Limp Bizkit, to the Offspring. It’s been a long, upsetting road.

4. Who’s doing something really exciting in music that you think more people should be aware of?

Well, James Murphy of DFA Records and LCD Soundsystem in NYC is a good place to start. It’s like listening to Daft Punk and The Buzzcocks at the same time. Maritime is a band out of the Midwest that deserves some recognition…same goes for House + Parish out of NYC. Both bands are post-emo indie-pop bands that really make some wonderful music.

For the peeps who like bands like the Kinks and Nick Lowe, I recommend Fourth of July; they’re from Lawrence, Kansas. If you love poppy music, I recommend listening to The Rentals. Guided by Voices are wonderful. Owen is a musician by the name of Mike Kinsella…he’s got the goods.

My big recommendation though, and usual local favorites is this band called Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start. Their new album, Worst Band Name Ever, is phenomenal. A definite must for anyone who’s on the prowl for new music in the vein of indie rock or pop with odd-time signatures…

This is never an easy game for me. Oh yeah, I was also blown away by The Polyphonic Spree‘s set last week. Did I mention The Rentals? Listen to The Weakerthans.

5. From your experience, is there a “way” bands interact with each other, or does it always depend on something? Like, are bands that are just starting out ones that will try hard to promote each other, and are there bands that make it that are really cool despite all the pressure?

It’s good to be self-sufficient. Bottom line.

When you’re in a high school band, you can interact with other high school bands. You meet kids in bands at sporting events, or at marching band competitions because one of them is wearing your favorite band’s shirt.

Most bands starting out will base their sound off of a template. They’ll either look at their peers or at other bands around them, and find ways to fit in. Then they’ll try to make friends and have all of their friends bands play on one show together at the local VFW or church hall. Anywhere really. All you need is an outlet, a surge protector…and maybe a PA system.

Starting out, you’re going to need help from someone, so it’s good to have friends. If you’re lucky enough to sound amazing once you start playing shows…people may be more willing to help you out…or exactly the opposite. Bands can become incredibly territorial.

It’s easy to become jaded, but even more so when you’ve been working your ass off and only wind up losing money or not getting your “message” across.

However, if you’re playing music because you love it, then interacting with other bands is something that comes naturally because your not worried about who’s better than you. If you don’t have your heads up your ass, and you don’t put pressure on yourself, then you’re golden. Work hard, have fun, and never doubt yourself.

6. Did your work in college influence the music you make? If not directly, how did it affect your thinking?

Not so much. I look at things more analytically now since graduating from college. My work in college has only changed my way of looking at things. I rely on life situations and my constant search for “totally rad” music inspire my writing.

After taking a course in astronomy, I’ve learned just how small our planet is. I look at things on a “grain of sand” scale. Take all of the individual grains of sand on this earth, along every coastline, and pick one of them out as the earth. There’s still going to be more stars and planets than grains of sand. Take everything you know and look at it on a bigger scale.

Freaked out? You should be.

7. Talk about the band and future projects, please.

Right now I’m in a band called By Surprise. The band came together after playing music with three separate friends over the course of a year or so, struggling to get them all under one roof to meet each other, and then look for common threads.

Our sound still has some of that punk rock influence that’s crept into my other projects, however this time around, it’s being applied in a more tasteful manner. We’re just starting out, only a year now. We’re still working out of our template…but we all listen to enough music obsessively that moving in different directions shouldn’t be too hard.

Since I’m horrible at this game, my darling friend, Emily answered the dreaded “what do you sound like” question.

Me: how would you describe it to someone from ohio

Emily:  hm, I am not sure, I always think like Up Up Down Down… just with longer songs

So…in terms of future projects, I just like working with people who share the same drive as I do. When I play music and write with people who have lives and can’t dedicate themselves as strong as I would like, I tend to slow down to that level.

I’m just looking for people who love music and are willing to lose a little sleep and maybe even money just to create something awesome. The human potential is limitless. If you care enough about what you’re doing, everyone else will catch on. If you build it, they will come. If it makes you smile, it’ll make someone else smile.

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