Rentboy on Modernist Poets and Plugging Holes in Past Work

November saw the release of L, the promising recording debut of Philadelphia-based noise-pop trio Rentboy. Engineered by Jack Hubbell of Telyscopes, the EP showcases a signature sound greater than the sum of its parts.

Sam Brown’s guitar builds a fever dream atmosphere, from vaporlike licks and jagged leads on a cover of Haruomi Hosono’s “Sportsman” to looping through angular arpeggios on the instrumental jam “MOGAMI® Gold.”

For his part, Danny Murillo is a drummer off the beaten path, bringing an Afro-Cuban influence in the block and cowbell rhythms of “Emoji.” His slow lurching tom-rolls on “Jaws” provide the perfect backdrop for Rob Brown’s vocals, which float over the track like a lo-fi Ezra Koenig.

It’s a thoughtfully-crafted collection of hazy grooves and lyrical reflections on anxiety, propelled by the strong personalities behind it. To talk about the making of the EP and the future of their sound, Rentboy sat down over the phone for a brief interview with The All Scene Eye.

Congrats on the EP release–how has it been having that out for the past month?

Danny: It’s been interesting. It’s our first real release, so it’s cool to see it out there in the world. We’re not a basement band anymore. We actually have something we can show people, so that’s kind of nice.

Sam: I feel like you make something, and then you think it’s going to be a be-all end-all, but before we even finished it, we were already thinking about new songs and moving forward. We’re still proud of it, and we all think it’s objectively good, but it was more like a foot in the water. To listen back to it now, even a month later, it’s like, we’ve been working constantly since then making new stuff, and it’s all really different.

Rob: We were just rehearsing. We’re sitting outside of our warehouse space on the street in Sam’s car, right next to a boxed-off little building that says “Employee Assistance Program” and I’ve never seen anyone go inside of it. What type of car do you have?

Sam: A Mercury Milan.

Rob: We’re in the Mercury Milan.

Sam: 2007.

Rob: We’ve been writing a lot. I feel like with any art across any medium, you make something, and then you come to hate it in some ways. Then you’re like, “oh, I have to do x, y, and z,” and then you make another thing, and you grow to hate it. 

Sam: You’re constantly plugging holes.

Rob: It’s kind of fun, I love it.

While we’re on the subject, what are the things you you don’t like about it?

Danny: The EP is super macho. I don’t know how to feel about it.

Sam: I think the last EP was very Led Zeppelin, and we want to be more Velvet Underground. We want to be lower, or more strung out, I guess.

How do you quantify ‘macho’ in music?

Rob: It’s a hard thing to describe, because I think it’s so ineffable. Listening back to it, it seems kind of–and this isn’t knocking it at all, this is just from a personal perspective. I don’t know if anybody else who isn’t us and went through the process of rehearsing and making it would come to the same conclusion. It just feels, in retrospect, overly masculine.

Danny: For me, I hear it in my own playing. It’s very flashy and commanding. All of our playing, all of the parts, are really powerful and dominating. That’s kind of what I get from that. We put a lot of effort into the specific parts we were playing, and that came out as something that sounds very tightly controlled. There’s not a lot of wiggle room in any of these songs. They’re very strict.

Danny was telling me about your influences in 80s pop and no-wave, but also Afro-Cuban jazz and footwork music. How did that mix come together?

Sam: I think all three of us enjoy pretty much any kind of music, as long as it’s good. I think our guilty pleasures are very different.

Rob: Oh yeah.

Sam: I’m not going to speak for Danny and Rob, but I tend to gravitate toward shoegaze-y stuff. Rob, probably more like David Bowie [laughs].

Rob: Or Joni Mitchell.

Sam: Singer-songwriter–

Rob: Sensitive people.

Sam: Danny is more into the time signatures of the Afro-Cuban stuff. I think I said guilty pleasure, but that’s just what we listen to on our own. We all equally admire and listen to those types of music, but when we come together to work, we’re all smacking heads with our different influences.

Danny: It feels like we’re taking a lot of disparate pieces from those different things. Specifically, with footwork music, we took a lot of the hustle from that. There’s a certain shuffling groove in a lot of footwork music. We tried to mix it with other things, like janky guitar sounds from Palm or Sonic Youth. More atonal stuff. We’re taking the things we like out of stuff.

Rob: And I had to sing over all of it.

[all laugh]

You mention David Bowie, and “Emoji” is definitely a track where I feel the “Let’s Dance” 80s pop sound.

Rob: You’re not wrong.

Sam: Oh yeah, definitely.

Rob: I think a lot of that came from, actually, Danny was listening to a lot of Madonna. Don’t tell Jack [Hubbell]’s roommates this, but he stole the original silver debut Madonna LP.

Danny: Yeah, I stole it from Jack’s house right before he moved out.

Rob: We would listen to that slowed down, and paint and stuff while we were making it. That was a big influence, at least on the production. I don’t find myself to be influenced that much musically by David Bowie. Maybe when I was 14. You see yourself in different people when you’re young, and you latch onto that, and that follows you.

Writing-wise, a song I wanted to ask about is “Jaws.” Can you tell me about the inspiration behind it?

Rob: I’d say more than anything, the modernist poet John Berryman. I really appreciate The Dream Songs. It’s a book of his poetry that’s always been on hand for more difficult times in my life. The first half of this year was certainly pretty rough, and It got assembled over that time. Throughout this record, or the period immediately before it, I wasn’t in the mind state or physical capacity to write whole, fleshed-out lyrics in the way that I am now. A lot of the more fragmented nature of the lyrics came from that. Certainly poets like John Berryman or William Carlos Williams, rather than any specific lyricists.

There are certain phrases in that song, like “hear me out” that recur as fragments of lyrics that change over time.

Rob: Yeah, I’m big on that. What it’s about, more than anything else, is the traps you can fall into at different points in your life. It was an interesting way to write a song, and I think it was pretty novel for me, even if I’ve moved past it in some ways. You have a very strong idea in the general sense of what you’re trying to communicate, and then you fragment that off into different particulars. But it’s all bounded by that repetition, which is in the music as well. 

It also gets at these themes of anxiety throughout the EP.

Sam: We’re just all super anxious people. [laughs]

Danny: It’s more an emergent quality than anything we tried to put into it. 

Rob: It just happened. I think it’s interesting, because we recorded it, we sat on it for a little bit, and we worked out our personal issues to some degree. At least, we put a lot of band-aids on them. Looking back at it, it’s like, “oh wow, we were in rough shape.” [laughs]

Sam: I still don’t know if that really comes across–if these songs are anxious, or if it’s just us projecting. I can’t tell.

Danny: A lot of people tell us our music sounds sunny, which I think is kind of hilarious. It sounds really cold to me.

Rob: Another comment we get a lot is that people want to exercise to it, or they get pumped up. The shows we were doing over the summer were very high-energy and intense in a way that I think we’ve backed away from in some respects.

If we’re going to talk about exercise, we have to talk about “Sportsman,” the one cover on the EP. Why that song, and what was your process of interpreting it?

Rob: I found it–I didn’t find it, you know, nobody discovers anything–but it was on the internet, and I bumped into it in late June. At the time, I wasn’t drinking or doing anything of that sort, so I had a lot of free time on my hands, and I was obsessive about trying to find new music. That song really hit me. It was the type of song where you listen to it 50 times in a day, and you don’t get tired of it. I felt that probably meant something.

Danny: But then, neither Sam or myself heard it at all until we were well into working on it. Rob gave us the chords, told us the tempo, and we sort of went for it. After a while, it came out the way it is now. I didn’t even hear the song until after we were done crafting it the way it’s heard on the record.

The tempo increase and the change in vibe is very neat.

Sam: I haven’t listened to the song very much, but I get the sense we do more stop and starting kinds of things.

Rob: Specifically, in regards to the interpretation of the song, I think Haruomi Hosono’s version is much more resigned. Than ours is. I think that comes from–I think he was, like, 40 when he recorded that, as opposed to, we’re early twenties. For me personally, I connect with–I really love the lyrics he wrote from it. I vibe heavily.

Another track I wanted to talk about is “Flower,” which is the featured track on the Bandcamp page. Why that one?

Sam: Something like “Emoji” didn’t feel weird enough. “Flower,” it’s still poppy, but it does feel stranger than the other ones. I don’t know if I’d consider it the best track on the album, or the one I like the most, but I think it does the best job of capturing different aspects of our style.

Danny: It just seemed like the most obvious poster track for it.

There’s a really interesting sound–I think it’s a guitar, but I can’t tell at some points.

Sam: It’s all guitar. It’s actually, I’m using a Digitech Whammy pedal–

Rob: A red boy!

Sam: A little red guy. The way it works is every time you play a note, you can have it set so it plays two notes at the same time. I could play a fifth on top of whatever note I’m playing, and I can switch it to a fourth on top, and it goes back and forth. It’s really fuckin’ fun to play.

Danny: Not to mention the effect of it is like–it’s a really shitty digital effect. So when you click on the pedal, it turns the guitar into a carnival. Sam uses a solid state amp, so it already sounds pretty digital. When you put it through the Digitech, it becomes something completely different.

Rob: We’re all very big into shitty, digital, meme-culture, dumb-sounding stuff. I’ve been playing a lot more keyboard recently, for the newer material. We have this–where did you get it from, Sam?

Sam: Oh, it’s a little shitty Casio, and my friend forgot it over at my house when I was in high school, before I even played music. It lived in my closet for five years, until I gave it to Rob.

Rob: And it sounds horrible, and I love it.

Is there a story behind “L,” the title of the EP?

Sam: We wanted a non-title. We all wanted one letter, and the album art was a painting I made. It’s got a little “L” in it, and we were like, “ok.”

Rob: I thought of the title as the train line that runs through Philly. Also, the shape of the letter “L” looks a lot like what I think the music sounds like, in terms of two lines butting against each other.

The angularity of it. 

Rob: And it’s a pretty sound too. Angular and pretty.

What about the name Rentboy?

Rob: For me, it was something I had–

Sam: Your ex-boyfriend.

Rob: Was it Matt who came up with it?

Danny: Yeah.

Rob: Oh, Matt came up with it–

Sam: [laughs]

Rob: I didn’t realize that. Oh, god, now he’s going to read this, and then–oh, dear. Rentboy was a male prostitution site that was shut down by the FBI in 2013. That’s inadvertently how the name of the project started. It was just like, “oh, you should call your band that.” I’m kind of grateful for that. I would hate to have a name that’s like Porches, or Diiv, where it’s very–

Sam: I like Diiv. [laughs]

Rob: For them, though. 

Sam: Yeah, yeah.

Rob: A name like that wouldn’t work for this project.

Sam: I was really against Rentboy when we first started a couple years ago, because I feel like there’s so much weight. There’s a lot of pressure on that name for us to be a specific thing.

Rob: That’s the beauty of it. I had a fantasy, almost, of getting shut down by the FBI. That would be pretty ideal.

Sam: It would be good press.

You guys moved from upstate New York down to the Philadelphia area. What has your experience been like in Philly? How would you compare it?


Rob: Electric.

[all laugh]

Danny: There was really nothing in upstate New York. There’s really no comparison. We were up at college in Saratoga Springs, which is maybe 40 minutes north of Albany. There’s really nothing nearby–it’s the biggest town in the area. There wasn’t a music scene outside of the school, Skidmore College. We all met there. We came here to be a part of a scene, and we’ve gotten exactly that. We just moved here for fun, you know?

What was it like working with Jack Hubbell on engineering the EP?

Danny: He was a dream. He was like our own personal Steve Albini. We went in there with all of our tension, and he just set up the microphones, and we did one day of tracking with the full band, and one day of overdubs. That was it. We had been talking to him for a couple weeks beforehand, just deciding whether we want to do things live or do all overdubs. We ended up doing everything live.

Sam: He’s also a friend, so it was very easy to work with him. 

Danny: It felt more like we were hanging out than working on a record.

Sam: If any of us had a problem with how it was coming out, or how a specific part was sounding, none of us felt anxious about communicating that to Jack, which I think is important for someone who’s trying to help you. It was a good time. We ate a lot of hoagies.

Danny also mentioned that one of the themes you see reflected on this EP is the search for belonging inherent in queerness.

Danny: That’s all Rob right there.

Rob: That’s Rob right here! Danny just–everyone’s trying to get out of the car except for me.

[all laugh]

Rob: It’s accurate. I don’t want to sound pretentious in saying it, so I’m trying to figure out how best to word this. I wouldn’t be a musician if I weren’t queer. There wouldn’t have been anything to get out of. That’s what music is for me, and a lot of kids. The promise that there’s something more out there, something larger you can be a part of.

Sam: I think, for you–let me just talk about your life.

[all laugh]

Rob: Talk about my life, Sam. Wait, no. You have to hand me that chocolate. We’ve been nibbling on a chocolate turkey.

[candy wrapper rustling]

Sam: We’ve had a lot of conversations about this idea of queerness leading you to follow this drive toward making music. You went to an all-boys school, and you felt out of place.


Rob: I did, in fact, feel out of place. [laughs]

Sam: But I think music was something that really helped you. You’ve communicated this to me before.

Rob: Yeah, it’s hard to communicate. It’s there, though. All of us were talking with Danny aobut this last night. The big thing is, in the absence of traditional modes of how you should live your life–I never felt much of what I saw when I was younger really applied to me. I think that led to finding music, and wanting to be a musician more than anything else. I would just be a dumb fuckboy banker, or be out in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania if I hadn’t found music. Music saved my life, more than anything. I would hate to not, you know. To be straight, really. 

[all laugh]

Who are some other Philadelphia DIY bands we should be on the lookout for?

Rob: Sieve, they’re really cool.

Sam: Past Life is awesome, they’re our really good friends.

Danny: The only band that comes to mind for me is Palm, and they’re pretty big. They’re not a DIY band anymore, they’re on a pretty big label, doing national tours.

Rob: Is Empath from Philadelphia? I like Empath a lot.

Danny: Yeah, Empath is from Philadelphia, and they’re great.

Rob: I matched with the drummer of Empath on Tinder over the summer, which is funny. Then I saw them live, and I don’t think he knew who I was. 

Sam: There’s a lot of weird DJ stuff around, too.

Danny: I don’t know who’s from Philly, though. We went to a really good noise show the other night, that was cool, but I’m pretty sure the headlining artist is from Brooklyn.

Rob: Oh, dreamcrusher?

Danny: dreamcrusher is amazing, regardless of whether they’re from Philly or not. Their performances are incredibly powerful. Don’t know how else to describe it.

One thing to clear up. Rob and Sam Brown–any relation? 

Rob: Yeah, we’re long-lost separated at birth brothers.

Danny: Don’t believe him, he’s lying.

Rob: How dare you.

Danny: Everything I say is a lie, except for that.

The whole interview, then. All of it.

Rob: It’s all fake. But no, we both were born by a Portuguese mother in New Jersey, and unfortunately, there was an accident with the ambulance, and some kind of shit happened, swapping babies. In the baby room, I was assumed to be somebody else.

Sam: Rob forgot to mention the fact that we’re conjoined twins, actually, which makes our live shows so sick.

Rob: I’m not going to tell you where we’re attached, though.

That’s some creative Photoshopping you’ve done for the Facebook pics, then. Some good cropping.

[All laugh]

Sam: we like to surprise people.

Rob: With crop-tops. 

Sam: Danny rocks a crop-top. 

Danny. Oh yeah. I made crop-tops my thing for maybe two months, and then it got cold outside. 

Rob: Crop-tops will never be a thing, okay?

Danny: Okay Rob, you don’t have the abs for it.

Anything else, before we wrap up?

Rob: I’d like to thank Bank of America, all of our corporate sponsors over at MOGAMI® Gold Incorporated, and also I’d like to thank Leo Fender for inventing the Fender guitar. And I’m out.


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