“How did you even hear of us?” asked vocalist/guitarist Michael Hansel shortly before my conference-all interview with three of the four members of rRope. It’s been about 15 years since the Bay Area noise-rock quartet called it quits, and I wasn’t recording the conversation at that moment, but it seemed a fair question. I suppose the internet would be my answer; if it weren’t for the exuberant write-up promoting the new We Are You There triple-LP rRope discography on Deathbomb Arc, I doubt I ever would have heard them.
Hansel sent me some old press clippings in the week after the interview, and many of the reviews were excitedly positive. Gina Bittner wrote of rRope’s self-titled album for Magnet, “Here’s an album that could be interpreted in a million different ways, none of which are mainstream.” Bruce Adams in Your Flesh #32 wrote of rRope’s A Thicker Wire as Tightly Strung As EP, “The most impressive debut by a guitar-based American band that I have heard all year.” Critics and musicians seemed to dig their recordings, and after years of hard work, all while slowly gaining positive word of mouth, things were looking good — and yet, very little happened. As Hansel recalls, “I recalled the reviews we were getting and being perplexed that with these reviews by esteemed mags/fanzines/weeklies that response and support was slow and terrifyingly silent at most times.”
Now, largely thanks to the efforts of superfan Brian Miller and Deathbomb Arc, a 3xLP collection entitled We Are You There has been brought into the world, compiling rRope’s discography plus a few live tracks. We Are You There presents a varied, disjointed-yet-somehow-cohesive smattering of noise-rock relics that could have been lost to the obscurity of time, but have now been restored and properly mastered.
How did you all meet, and how did the band form?
Scott Thiessen: Mike [Hansel] and I met — we were the two broke guitar players. We met in a town called Leadville, Colo., which happens to be the highest town in the United States. We had both moved — I had moved there from LA., and Mike from Ohio, so we kind of learned how to play guitar together. Though we moved to San Francisco —
Damon Styer: It’s a college town.
ST: It’s not really… Leadville is a crazy place, or it was at that time.
Michael Hansel: It’s definitely a college town.
ST: And then we met Damon in a —
DS: I was shopping for a bass amp.
ST: Bass amp. And he was in a used music store. We met him within a couple days of me arriving in San Francisco. [We] invited him over — it seemed like he understood “art.” And, so we started playing together. And then the drummer, Mic [Michael Gendreau] — we tried out 11 drummers before we finally, basically begged Mic to play with us.
DS: We wrote him a drunken letter.
I think many of your songs are unpredictable in that they often go in directions that could be loud and noisy, detached and bizarre, or in the case of “Mercury,” dead quiet. Can you elaborate on what your song writing process was like?
ST: Well, each of us would come up with different ideas, and then we would just kinda work it out. As far as things being so disjointed… I don’t think we ever set up a groove and then just went with it. That was popular with bands like Sleep or bands like that. We really liked the Thinking Fellers [Union Local 282], they were a big influence. They were pretty disjointed. However, we were a lot more “in your face,” and aggressive.
MH: And I think it’s kind of interesting that you would bring up the term “sabotage.”
I don’t want the negative connotations, but the way a song kind of – like you said, is “disjointed” and falls apart.
MH: I’m not taking that as a negative comment at all. I think it’s an interesting idea as a composer.
ST: But I think of the time period — It’s kind of strange. It’s been about — it is 20 years later now. I really thought back in 1992 that in 2012, music would be in a very different place. I was not expecting to hear music in 2012 that sounds exactly like a certain type of 1960s music, or music that sounds like a certain type of 70s music, or a certain type of 80s music. I was expecting it to go to place where I never thought — where I wouldn’t know where it was going to go. So we were trying to, in some ways, create something new. And that was some of the, why it was disjointed. I’m not saying that we were the future, but we didn’t know what the future was.
MH: I’ll go with that!
DS: Sounds good to me.
Each of us were very inventive people, and it was different than a band where you had one really inventive person and maybe three people who kind of go along. So there were a lot of ideas thrown out there. Maybe that’s why the songs all sound so different from each other.
What kind of things would you say you were influenced by, musically or otherwise?
ST: I think our surroundings. None of us were really “city people” — maybe Mic was — but the surroundings, the chaotic-ness of the city, and also nature — the peacefulness of nature.
MH: I think it’s pretty broad, though. Everybody in the group brought a wide swath of musical experience to the table, whether it be Hank Williams or Einstürzende Neubauten or musique concrète, or whatever. It was pretty broad.
And when you played shows, how did people tend to react?
DS: Run for the doors?
MH: For a while there was one person, the woman who would just stand as close as she could to the front of the stage with her eyes closed. Nobody ever knew her, that’s the thing! She would disappear before we could even say, “Who was that person? The lone person in the room, up close?”
DS: That actually crossed my mind though, with what you said earlier about “sabotage.” I think we had a pretty antagonistic stage presence, because not only was the volume absurdly above what it had any reason to be, but also, we would shine very bright headlights out into the crowds. It was the kind of place that was like, to stay in the room for a rRope show, you really had to want to be there.
More generally, how do you recall the musical climate of the Bay Area at the time? What was it like being in a band like rRope amid everything else?
MH: A few things come to mind. Peculiar; boring. The great thing about the Bay Area, though — I’ve learned this afterwards, and I probably would have recognized it at the time, too — but I found, and I think everyone else in rRope did find that at least there would be one person that would say, “Yeah! That is absolutely spot on!” So, it might not be masses behind that, but there was someone who really intrinsically knew what you were talking about. I got that from Damon, Scott, and Mic, and a few other people outside of the group. […] But as a whole […] it’s a challenge, in the Bay Area, for numerous reasons. As opposed to like a Chicago or New York, or another domestic city.
DS: I found it really delightful to be able to play out of the city because I felt the reception in San Francisco was all too often “arms folded.”
DS: Yeah. Maybe an occasional appreciative nod and light clapping. For the most part, it seemed like a lot of very bored and hard-to-reach people. And then we’d go play a show in Chico, where it’d be off the hook! Or in Monterey…
MH: Santa Cruz was like that, too.
ST: We should have toured—
ST: Yeah. It was hard. We weren’t really able to do that.
Were there any bands you would play with quite often? Or was it hard to get anyone — as in, would it be hard to fit a bill?
ST: Yes, in some ways. But I think at some point there were — you became friends with other bands. There was a band called Fuck that was, they sounded the exact opposite of us, very quiet. That was a fun band to play with. […] You also have to remember at that time period, it was post-Nirvana. This small band, Nirvana, had gotten large, and so there were so many bands thinking that was going to happen to them. And so the world was very competitive, and I think if the Nirvana thing hadn’t happened, maybe bands would have been more fun. I think – as in, me just playing shows recently with friends and stuff – these shows are often much more fun than I remember it being in the early 1990s, where it was so competitive.
MH: And paranoid! People were paranoid, all, “I don’t know if I can like you because someone from this label or that band’s not like you and I’ve gotta cover myself to hopefully get a contract.” It’s like, what are you talking about?
MH: It’s like a Tuesday at the Chameleon [a club], man.
ST: (Laughs). But that probably still happens these days, with people being too cool for school sometimes, not sure if they should like something or not.
I read in Brian Miller’s write-up on you guys that your last show was in 1998, opening for Sonic Youth. Whenever I tell people this, their first response is usually something incredulous along the lines of “What the hell? Why would you break up after that?” What led you to decide that was it?
DS: We had already broken up before that.
ST: We rejoined, and then that show just sort of happened. […] We had been a band at that point for five years. It was a serious, more than just hanging out with your friends kind of thing, and in that time it had gotten basically nowhere. At least it felt to us like nowhere. But I think, in retrospect, I feel we had laid out a groundwork for that time period — things moved very slow, it was pre-Internet, you couldn’t just go see a band and send an e-mail to your five friends that are into music or whatever, saying “Hey, I saw this band, they were great,” and at that point it was all word-of-mouth, and word-of-mouth was also controlled by the zines, so you had to be popular in zine culture and whatnot — but I think in retrospect we had laid a groundwork that we hadn’t realized we had laid. Whereas a lot of people who were good musicians liked us, people who weren’t musicians often didn’t like us, and so it felt like we had gone nowhere after working so hard, and that’s why we decided to stop. Though I still play guitar every day.
MH: And we’ve played together since ’98.
ST: Not at shows.
MH: No no no. But privately.
ST: Yeah, in the studio. We all still respect each other as musicians.
MH: I think also on that note, we covered more ground than we had thought, in a very hard, very difficult, challenged, lack-of-resource(s) way. Meaning we didn’t have connections in the industry or booking agents — it was all word-of-mouth, one show at a time, one 7” at a time.
I was going to say — listening to all of the tracks on the discography, there really is a lot of ground that gets covered. When you guys would come together to play, was it a democratic process in that each person would bring in some ideas to get morphed by the group later, or was it something else?
MH: You know, before I or anyone else answers that, in terms of “covering ground,” that’s one of the beautiful aspects of it: regardless of the intention or possibilities or support outside of ourselves, we kept moving. For better or worse. “Let’s try this, let’s try this, [busy noises]” — and it all kept moving, as it bears witness now. You had creative people with energy that were going regardless of the obstacles, as best we could.
ST: Well yeah, there were four of us, and we all had really different ideas with things; pretty much anything was game, which is probably why it sounds so different. I think if we were also in a situation where we were touring or we were playing every night for three months straight, things probably would sound less disjointed. I remember as a guitar player always trying to do something new every time I picked up the guitar with rRope — trying to get a new sound or something like that. That’s something I don’t do anymore. It was very intentional, at least on my part, to sound different each time.
I had read you had even worked with old tube-amp schematics to make your own amps?
ST: Yeah, we played really loud, so we kept blowing our amps. I didn’t have any money to fix em. I opened one up and it looked kinda simple, so I thought I could fix ‘em. I learned how to fix ‘em, and then to modify them — of course I did some things wrong every once in awhile. But if someone wants an amplifier with more bass, well, that bass could be so low it would rip the speakers and you could even hear the bass frequency. But for my part, I was definitely into electronics, and still am. Often it was just trying to keep the stuff working, but also for sound. I definitely was very aware — I would test the sound between different switches. People thought I was crazy for that.
MH: I didn’t.
DS: Scott has built his own recording studio in the years since.
Like a private studio?
ST: It’s private. It’s called the Brick Factory, but it’s private. I recorded some of the most recent Nite Jewel record, which sounds very different than rRope.
I’m curious as how We Are You There came about. I know Brian from Deathbomb Arc’s write-up on you guys is exuberant enough that he might have contacted you about it?
ST: Yeah. It was Brian’s idea.
Did he just ask, “Hey, I really want to put this out. What do you guys think?” Did you get together and ask each other, “Do we want to reissue this?”
MH: Yeah, wasn’t everyone inclined to see what this stuff would sound like once it was mastered?
ST: Yeah, none of our other recordings were ever mastered. Which I think was a problem. We didn’t know what mastering was. (Laughs)
So coming back to the songs now — compiling them, hearing them mastered — how has that been? Have your thoughts about the music changed over time?
ST: Yeah, definitely.
ST: Some of it I was amazed how inventive that some of the playing was! And also how, especially Mike’s playing, how visceral it would be. It’s like an immediate emotional response. We would make these recordings very quickly — I think the first CD was recorded in two weekends. Which, I remember there was a European interviewer that thought it took years, but it was just the way we played — we practiced songs with all these different parts and different sounds. We would just lay down the tracks immediately. Also, I wish we could have spent more time — and I wish I knew more about recording at the time — but I think what comes to mind is just the immediateness of the music, and how we were doing something different, but maybe we didn’t realize how different it was at the time.
I really thought back in 1992 that in 2012, music would be in a very different place. I was not expecting to hear music in 2012 that sounds exactly like a certain type of 1960s music, or music that sounds like a certain type of 70s music, or a certain type of 80s music.
Do you think that’s become more readily apparent now?
ST: (Laughs) Yes, for myself. I think music — there are a lot more niches of music out there now, so I think, maybe there are more bands like rRope out there. Or maybe it’s more accessible. I remember one thing: I saw My Bloody Valentine a couple years ago. I saw them also in the 90s. When I saw them a couple years ago, again, it was one of the loudest shows I’ve ever seen. But the crowd did not leave. In the 1990s, they left.
MH: Right, right.
ST: I felt that the difference was that electronic music and rave culture had happened, so these high volumes — people were more used to that. Because If they went out to a club, that’s what they were used to. And with rRope, people — I don’t feel they were used to this volume we were working with at the time.
More generally, what kind of thoughts do you have on your time in rRope?
ST: It seemed like it was a lot of work and really intense. Emotionally, as well as — just a really intense time. But really true to doing something that you really cared about 100 percent, and there was not a monetary reward for it.
MH: Or a goal, I guess.
ST: Yeah. We of course would have loved to have made a living at being musicians, something like that, but we didn’t have an exact set agenda.
MH: My feeling, and I think the three of you would concur as well, is that it was trying to maximize creativity. It’s like, OK, you’ve got this idea, I’ve got this idea, let’s go with this idea — that was the fuel, that was the goal.
ST: We didn’t — in fact, one of the things that might have been problematic is the way that all four of us, each of us were very inventive people, and it was different than a band where you had one really inventive person and maybe three people who kind of go along. So there were a lot of ideas thrown out there. Maybe that’s why the songs all sound so different from each other.
What are you up to now? What did you do after rRope?
MH: I’m in Chicago. I still play. I don’t play out. It’s basically just sounds and so forth — got into some Urban stuff, landscaping and so forth like that. I go to California and see those guys at least once a year, and as best we can, we try to get together and play. Or go snowboarding or skiing…
ST: Speaking for Mic — Michael Gendreau is an experimental musician who has done quite well and is well respected in that world. He plays a lot of shows.
MH: Out of the country and around the world.
DS: Musically, I’ve not done much — played in a band with a kid of a family friend who, at the age of 8, decided he wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll superstar. So I’ve decided to try and help further those dreams along for a while. And then I ran out of steam. I said, “You kids gotta to get someone your own age to play with.”
ST: They’re great! They’re called Total Annihilation. I played with an electronic thing — I mostly played guitar in it, called Turbine, and later played with a group called VNC, but not with the intensity of rRope.
Anything else that anyone would like to add?
MH: I would like to add that something like rRope takes a commitment on many levels — but it also takes a lot of time. A lot of concentrated time, and by “concentrated” I don’t mean it’s boring or lacks joy or so forth. I’d say that any kind of endeavor like that, you’ve gotta be focused. Challenged ideas, challenged in logistics, living in a city where you’ve got to play loud and take amps across town, and you’ve got to get four people in the same spot at the same time. I think some of those logistics contributed to the sound and experience. I think there’s more music to be made.