Austin’s Invincible Czars have become known and lauded for their sprawling catalog of original material and for arrangements of classical works such as Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and 1812 Overture. The group’s annual dance-along Nutcracker Kids’ Show has become an annual tradition, and other seasonal events like the Olde Fashioned Independence Day Indoor Picnic set them apart from other bands. They even co-present an unofficial showcase during South by Southwest each year called the Bizarrebecue, presenting the best of art rock in Austin during SxSW.
Today we’ll be speaking with band leader Josh Robbins.
For those who might be new to your band, can you give some background on yourself and on The Invincible Czars? What are the first tracks one should listen to?
Every time I’m asked this I’m at a loss because we’re so much better live than recorded. Also – The Invincible Czars have changed so much from year to year (we’ve had someone come/go every 9 months on average lo these 11 years) that it’s hard for me to pinpoint a definitive era of the band.
“A Glezele Vayn” has been a staple of our live set since 2004. It’s a Klezmer traditional that I arranged for us. It’s got all the elements of what we do – dynamics, eastern modes, world influence, improvisation, intricate ensemble play, changes in tone/mood, etc.
“The Curse of Foxes, Birds and Rabbits” encapsulates the other side of the band that likes to mix the familiar with the obscure. “Birds” (as we call it) is essentially a pop song that morphs into prog rock journey that explores/expands upon musical themes of the pop song portion. It also has Leila’s singing, which has become a bigger part of what we do over the last 4 years.
“Willie Poland vs. The Black Keys”, “Mursketine” and “The Fight/After The Fight” are three of my favorites from the era when our line-up had actually been together a long while between 2006-2009.
Then of course, there’s all the classical music we’ve played. “Russian Dance” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite is probably our most downloaded track. 1812 Overture came out pretty well, too.
You’ve written a number of original songs and also done a lot of composing. Which do you prefer? Can you describe the differences between the two in writing material?
I go back and forth and that’s been evident by the schizophrenic catalog I’ve created between the Invincible Czars, La Mancha, my upcoming solo project (Josh Robins and His Therapists) and my compositions for chamber ensembles, theater and film/commercials.
Lately, I’ve been writing more songs than pieces – but the pendulum is about to swing back the other way.
With songs, the lyrics really need to be good, in my opinion, and you often have less time to develop instrumental ideas because the focus is on the singer/lyrics most of the time. I also work to write lyrics about things that aren’t just the same old topics of love, heartbreak, sex, etc.
With composing, the challenge is less about expressing an idea poetically and more about setting a unique tone keeping the presentation interesting for the listener by moving forward. It’s also especially challenging because your audience is usually a smaller and more refined one and so you’re working even harder to connect with a more difficult-to-impress audience.
If people have an ear for instrumentals, they’re REALLY listening to every little thing whereas people who just love a good pop song just need a hook and memorable lyric. Neither is easy.
The early Czars tried to mess those worlds – our song structures were often verse, chorus, verse, chorus, long exploratory instrumental bridge that might as well be its own song, verse, chorus.
I joined a songwriter’s group in 2008 and really focused hard on improving my lyric writing and overall prosody. It has given me a much greater appreciation for good lyric writers like Neko Case, Gillian Welch and Sam Beam. It’s also made me aware that most lyrics are just cheap icing on the cake.
That can be fine when the cake itself is especially unique and tasty on its own. Ex: Melvins. Their lyrics seem to work whether inventive or not because the music is so unique.
On the other hand, cheap icing isn’t enough to save the bland, homogenous cakes of the many talented singers out there who all essentially sound alike. Relatively unpoetic lyrics about love, sex and heartbreak are often just cheap icing on a cheap cake when you sound just like every soul singer or Beatles imitator that came before you.
Instrumentals can be that way. Frankly, I think Austin seems to generating more boring “alt. classical” type bands lately. There’s one band that I hear on KUTX frequently (who I won’t name) who make classically influenced indie rock that actually DOES appeal to the untrained ear. I find them terribly boring. There’s nothing to distinguish them from any other act in the country doing the same thing. They create texture and nothing more – icing with no cake in my opinion! It’s as generic as can be. Of course, this is hugely popular with cool kids in the glamor cities, filmmakers and NPR listeners.
Obviously The Invincible Czars music already has a presence very much like a film score…Almost if Sonic Youth did a film score, with more orchestration it reminds me of at times. Where does this influence come from? Was it something always in your history of those two elements.
Yes! When I first start creating the music that became the songs of our first album Gods of Convenience, it was all one big piece of instrumental music. I didn’t know what I’d ever do with it. I seem to have a real knack for scoring narrative film works. I don’t know where that comes from but it definitely manifests itself in my compositions and that has spread to the other members of the group. People often tell us about the scene they see in their imaginations when they listen to a certain tune of ours. That’s great! That means the music is conjuring images like a lyric might! Like a film score to a dream.
You have a large tour coming up recently. Any great stories from the road or any tips you’ve learned along the way?
So very many.
Touring is a tough thing. Like most bands, we don’t go out as much or as far as we used to since fuel and food prices started climbing back in 2007.
My number one advice is – figure out who your target audience is and go where they are. You don’t need to drive to San Francisco to play to furniture. You can do that in San Antonio (or right here in Austin!).
My number two piece is – don’t go to a place that you can’t get back to within 3-5 months.
You have to take risks, though, or it’s not worth bothering.
I was surprised to learn that many bands I like(d) and thought had “made it” just barely break even on the road. They used to justify it because it would mean more record sales…. Now all it means is more facebook likes which generally seems to translate into $0 more in your pocket. In spite of all the Derek Sivers and Ariel Hyatts out there, most of us still can’t translate a facebook like into $.
That said, I just booked the easiest tour I’ve ever booked because we just keep going back. When a region or club knows you and knows you’re good – it does make things easier!
One last fun tidbit:
Brian Kenney Fresno also has a great mantra to keep in mind when touring – good music town = bad show. Unless you’re pretty big or have a connection with a drawing local act in a music hub, you’ll have mediocre to terrible shows. Austin, New Orleans, LA, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle are all tough.
I’m sorry to say I just stumbled upon Sweatmeat, though I’ve heard you reference before in the past. I have to say the tunes are quite lovely. What’s your role in that project? How do you handle all your various side projects as well as duties in Invincible Czars?
My role in Sweetmeat was/is simply to play guitar. The songs were all written by Gina Holton and either Sam Arnold or Andy Nolte.
I balance by reducing my duties in other projects and choosing stuff that I either REALLY care about, can easily be substituted or that is really easy to do. Sweetmeat was all of those for me. J
My new band won’t be. It’ll be tough to balance that with the Czars.
What are your favorite places to go to in Austin, and what are your favorite things to do? Any tips for readers or the many, many newbies?
Most of my weekends are spent doing things like swimming at Barton Springs, going to other people’s live music shows. One area that I want to explore more and that I think others might like is the arts scene here. There’s a TON of cool, creative stuff that’s NOT live music happening here. Rude Mechanicals, Trouble Puppet Theater, etc. etc.
How have you seen Austin change over the years? Any thoughts?
Yes, but I’ve only been here for 13+ years. Plenty of people have been here longer. I remember visiting Austin when I was 10 and thinking it wasn’t very big compared to DFW. It’s still not as big as that metro area but it sure is getting more crowded. I feel like the traffic took a noticeable leap in awfulness since the new year.
That said, I’ve been hearing people say, “Austin just ain’t what it was in the (insert your favorite decade here)’s.” Austin’s dynamic and changing and growing but it doesn’t mean it’s ruined and that all the condos going up will drive us all away. The four biggest cities in our nation (NYC, LA, Chicago and Houston) are all pretty cool towns. I’m not saying Austin will end up like those cities, but I’d rather be like an NYC than a San Jose, a Dallas or a Phoenix — BIG cities with not much personality. I don’t really think we’re in danger of that. Austin attracts people who like to have fun. It’s going to take a lot more than a bunch of condos and the Waller Creek river walk to change the attitude of this city and region. The creative people that live here might all wind up in Pflugerville or Spicewood or Manor, though.
Any tips for the aspiring musicians?
Adjust, make do, wait, try something different, explore options, drop a ball or two – but never quit.