I'm sitting down with Boston-based indie band Krill at a Polish restaurant in Brooklyn, but they aren't ordering anything. I get a meat boat and a beer inside of a glass boot, but Krill are fine with water. I figure they must have eaten on their way to meet me, which seems weird since we'd planned on lunch. Then I get it.
I tell them that I'm picking up the tab, and the band leaps to grab their menus. Soon the table is full of every conceivable combination of meats and potatoes and cabbage. Krill's bassist and singer, Jonah Furman, who looks a little bit like the mouse from The Rescuers Down Under, drinks two glasses of pineapple juice before we finish our first course. When you're living out of a minivan for weeks on end, trying to keep expenses low, you take advantage of any free meal that comes your way.
Krill has built up a fiercely loyal fan base over the past year or two, but you may have missed them unless you live in New York or Boston and keep careful tabs on the musical renaissance sprouting up around the label Exploding in Sound, which has been churning out stellar albums by bands like Pile, Speedy Ortiz, and Porches. since 2008.
Exploding in Sound re-released Krill's second album, Lucky Leaves, earlier this year, and the songs garnered enough attention to get them touring more and working on a follow-up, which is slated for release in February. Fans have told the band that Lucky Leaves sounds like "Modest Mouse on pot," but Modest Mouse never wrote songs as proggy and knotted as Krill, or cataloged their neuroses in lyrics so well.
The guys in Krill know that their brand of vulnerable guitar rock isn't going to skyrocket them to fame and fortune. They're not chasing the old dreams of Led Zeppelin levels of excess with drugs and groupies and mudsharks. Being in a rock band in 2014 means that you'll probably be broke and stuck navigating the convoluted ObamaCare website forever, but that's fine with Krill. They just like playing music, and they'll suffer through rainy tours and gigs in empty venues if it means making enough to scrape by.
Jonah slams another three pineapple juices as the band tells me about being broke, how touring is shitty, and why they do it anyway.
VICE: So, does anyone care about guitar rock anymore?
Aaron Ratoff: You should have seen our show at Sarah Lawrence. Nobody cares about guitar rock.
How are you feeling about the new record?
I think it's got a lot more going on than any of the other stuff we've done, but there's no single. Thank God that's not how it works anymore.
What do you mean?
Jonah Furman: We're just boring people doing hard work. If you approached music any other way, then it just wouldn't happen. Bands are trying to follow old models that are just fantasies now.
Ian Becker: Some bands get anointed. My roommate in college got signed to a major label and now he tours the world. It happened to him, whatever "it" is... But we're not going to be a buzz band. It's not about the press cycle, and it never was.
Those bands either implode or settle into the tour grind, anyway.
Right. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is still chugging along. They were just in Boston again, playing for the third time this year. They had a big explosion and now they're back to where we are—just driving around.
Jonah: It's kind of liberating to know there's not some huge end goal. We're never going to get consistent checks.
It's not about money.
Remember that article about how the dude from Grizzly Bear doesn't make enough money to have children? If I wanted money, I would have done literally anything else. But that's helpful for me to understand why I'm doing this. I don't have to be disappointed when we go out on tour for two months and make no money, or just break even, or lose money. It was never about that.
Are you guys making enough to support yourselves?
We definitely make more money than we did on our first tour. But it's not because we signed to a bunch of labels or whatever. It's because we kept doing it. Things have progressed, but not astronomically.
You played with Deerhoof a while back. That's pretty huge.
Aaron: It was a crazy thing for us, but then you look at their tour itinerary and every single show they've played has been with a different band I've never heard of. Krill's just one of those bands for someone else. It was a dream to play with them, but it was funny, because they're touring in a minivan, too.
Jonah: Even a band that you idolize is just going through the same mundane thing.
What's tour like?
People always ask that for some reason. Touring is the most boring time of my life. When we go away on tour, we just drive and wait and then play for 30 minutes and then we're done.
That's the entire thing, and then you do that 25 times in a row. You have no friends except the two other people in the car, and you've already had every conversation with them. You never get to shower. Every night is uncomfortable. You eat diarrhea food. It's terrible, but it's not even just terrible—it's boring.
What about the Krill groupies?
Any ladies willing to stay at the show until 3 AM are weird.
Ian: Touring is much better as a story than a lived experience. It's cool to say that you've been to all those cities. But it was the same story as every other city—it was fine.
Jonah: The shows we play with a huge crowd, like Deerhoof, they're still the same shit. What could be different? When your dream situation happens, you're still going to be doing your same thing.
It's not about the crowd.
Crowds don't make it a great show. We played in Vermont the other night and it was one of the best shows of the tour. Maybe 15 or 20 people.
Ian: We played a very well-attended show in Baltimore that made us never want to go back.
Jonah: Sometimes we play to nobody and it is the best moment of my life. Sometimes we play to a packed room and everything should be perfect but the vibes are off.
So much of it connects to the overall reasons for being in a band. The old justification was, "I want to make money and be famous" and you can get trapped in those old narratives. You tell yourself that you need to get on a support tour, or a bigger label, but that's not why you're playing music. You're getting trapped in someone else's vision.
We like to make records. We like to tour, at least we tell ourselves that. We like figuring out how to make songs good. Does it seem stupid to say that we like to practice a lot just so the songs will be good?
No, that's true craft.
It's fun to put in all that work and then listen to your record and think, "That sounds sick." That's when you say, "Right. This is why I'm doing this with my life." I can't imagine how a party band can deal with it mentally. It would hit me hard because it hits me already, and I think what we're doing is totally worthwhile and interesting.
I get that, for a big party band, every night's a blowout. You make money and you get to do whatever you want all the time. That makes sense to me, because of the external rewards. But a party band where nobody shows up? A party band with the crowds that we have? Nothing could be worse than a lonely party band. We played fucking Sarah Lawrence last night to nobody. How can you do that and not care about the songs at all?
It's like facing the void. You stand up on an empty stage and have to really get straight with yourself.
The whole process of recording our new album was stressful. We were all working full-time, practicing every night, and then we went on tour. There were two weeks straight where every fucking show sucked and it rained. But then there was a moment when we listened to the unmixed album in the van on our way back to Boston from Worcester, Massachusetts, and it was worth it.
I get it.
You tour, you record, you tour more. That's it. It's just a path and you walk down it, because otherwise you feel aimless.
Ian: I think it's OK to face the mundanity of that. Because once you confront that, it's freeing.
Krill's new album, A Distant Fist Unclenching, is out February 17 on Exploding in Sound. Pre-order it here.
Follow River Donaghey on Twitter.