Originally published in Brooklyn Courier:
August 7, 2006
“As songwriters we’re constantly growing and maturing,” said drummer William Kuehn about his Brooklyn-based indie rock band Rainer Maria. “If people are reading ‘mature’ as like a bunch of old people making music, I don’t know.”
One can hardly describe the members of Rainer Maria as being ‘old,’ as in early bird specials and retirement homes. But the band has spent the last ten years together, which in the context of the sometimes fractious nature of rock and roll is an accomplishment.
“From my perspective life is very haphazard,” said the band’s singer and bassist Caithlin De Marrais. “If something feels right, then you should keep it going and see what comes of it. Fortunately here we are, ten years later.”
During its career span, Rainer Maria has built a reputation on the critical acclaim for its emotional music. Its last album, 2003’s “Long Knives Drawn,” yielded a Number One song, “Ears Ring,” on the Alternative Specialty Chart. But rather than delivering a quickie follow-up, the group—Kuehn, De Marrais and guitarist Kyle Fischer—took its time before releasing its next record.
“We toured pretty hard for all of 2003 and into 2004,” explained Kuehn. “We wrote a couple of songs at the end of 2003 that we demoed. Then we did another tour in the spring of 2004 with Coheed and Cambria, came back with more songs; and hooked up with [producer] Malcolm Burn over the summer of 2004.”
This past April, Rainer Maria released its fifth album, “Catastrophe Keeps Us Together.” The trio had been touring recently and will play at Irving Plaza on August 12. The album is the first for the new label Grunion founded by the management company Q Prime, which represents Metallica and Shania Twain.
“We’ve been looking for a record label for about a year,” said De Marrais. “There was no plan, so we ended up revisiting songs and recording with two different producers. But it was a great way of doing an album because we’ve been so used to going into a studio for two weeks and then it’s done. So it’s a really nice change.”
On “Catastrophe Keeps Us Together,” there are many soul-searching moments on the album’s melodic and emotionally-driven songs such as “Catastrophe,” “Life of Leisure” and “Already Lost.” De Marrais’s wistful and dramatic singing, Fischer’s shimmering guitar work, and Kuehn’s spirited drumming defines the band’s sound.
”I think the songs are a bit more experimental and we’re exploring more,” said Kuehn. “We’re more open-minded in trying new things.”
As a songwriter, De Marrais finds enjoyment in looking at the human condition. “On this album, I was looking to write lyrics that other people can read something into—a lot less metaphor than I’ve used in the past.”
An example of that can be found on “Catastrophe,” the song that leads off the album. “I got the idea for the song from a recurring nightmare about the world ending—the ‘end of days’ talk again that, which probably happens every 1,000 years,” she said. “I think maybe getting a little bit older—I use my lyrics as a way to put out my concerns or fears, and then look at it from different angles and to come to terms with the fears. I’m always trying to find the place where you can turn it into, ‘What is good about this situation? That has to be something—I better find it because my life is so lucky.’ I wanted it to turn into a more hopeful thing.”
With the exception of two songs handled by producer Peter Katis, the majority of the album was produced by Malcolm Burn, who has worked with Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Emmylou Harris. It was Burn’s previous association with Dylan which proved advantageous when the band covered Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” a spare and lovely track that contrasts with the album’s up tempo and driving rockers.
“We’ve been fans of that song for a while,” said Kuehn. “Malcolm had the idea of this stripped down Velvet Underground approach to it. We just all sat down one night and he let the tape roll. He handed me a hand drum and it sounded great. We did three takes in a row, and took the best take, and that was it.”
“Catastrophe Keeps Us Together” could either break Rainer Maria to the mainstream or maintain its best-kept secret status with its fans and the critics. Although the band hasn’t reached the level of widespread recognition of say Taylor Hicks or Carrie Underwood, it didn’t just arrive on the scene overnight. The group was formed a decade ago when the members were students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
“We were putting on shows as part of a collective for a lot of underground indie emo bands like Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill back in 1995 and 1996,” remembered Kuehn. “We had influences from all over the place from jazz and blues to contemporary shoe-gaze and hardcore bands. I think that’s what shaped [our] sound is that we had input from different directions.”
“We were part of a Midwestern scene with bands that were loosely classified as emo,” said De Marrais. “We felt like we were a DIY punk thing that was coming from Fugazi as our focal point. For me I always felt like part of an indie rock scene like the bands I listened to in college [such as Siouxie and the Banshees].”
A few years after finishing school and having already recorded two albums, “Past Worn Searching” (1997) and “Look Now Look Again” (1999), Rainer Maria relocated to Brooklyn since the band members had loved ones who were living in or close to the New York area. “A Better Version of Me,” the group’s third album, came out in 2001.
“We lived there for about seven years now,” said Kuehn. “We’re all about a year out of school and we decided to make a move. So New York it was. It’s tough to make it in the city, but we were really lucky.”
The band has played many shows and will continue to do so in support of the recent album.
“Traveling abroad always feels like a huge accomplishment,” said Kuehn, “and playing to people in foreign countries who don’t know [English] but are singing every word. The accolades are really great too. I think the accomplishment I’m most proud of is our records. I listen to them and I still love all of them. The fact that I was able to create something like we’ve created just makes me feels so proud.”
Rainer Maria will be playing on August 12 at Irving Plaza, 17 Irving Place, New York City. For information, visit rainermaria.com.