The Ballad of Frankie Rose

Written by Jamie Peck on . Posted in Posts.



For better or worse, Frankie Rose had my attention. It
was New Year’s Eve 2009, and the crowd packed into Cake Shop’s narrow basement
space—rockers forgoing the city’s glitzier fetes for the sure bet of a show—was
sweating. Following an anticlimactic countdown (the clock in my cell phone
actually hit midnight during one of the opening bands’ songs; no one cared),
Rose hit the stage with her new band Frankie Rose and The Outs.

The all-girl band—clad in party dresses accessorized with
sunglasses, and Rose with her tattoos and voluminous black locks—looked like it
belonged at a Gothic tiki resort tickled by sea breezes, not a sweltering
basement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. With 1960s pop harmonies cloaked
in layers of reverb and a softened version of that driving beat Rose previously
lent to post-punk act Crystal Stilts, the four swaying ladies on stage could
not have been cooler. Although it was not actually the last band of the night,
many people left afterward.

The intrepid kids in attendance were just a small sampling
of those watching with interest to see what this musically promiscuous young
artist would do next.

Born in Las Vegas to a single mother and raised working
class in the vacation town of Seal Beach, Calif., Rose says she has always
loved music, teaching herself both drums and guitar, but never thought it was
something she could do for a living. Burdened with A.D.D. and what she
describes as conservative, close-minded teachers, she dropped out of high
school at 17 and moved to San Francisco, where she spent six years working as a
bike messenger. After years of drumming with various Bay Area punk bands (one
of which, Grass Widow, formerly Shitstorm, just signed with Kill Rock Stars),
Rose moved to Brooklyn in 2006 in search of a “change of pace.”


In just four short years Rose has started or joined, and
then left, two of New York’s most high profile indie bands: Vivian Girls and
the aforementioned Crystal Stilts. And she didn’t just leave; she left during
an upswing in each band’s popularity. As founding drummer, songwriter and
backing vocalist, she helped shape the
’60s-girl-group-meets-garage-rock-meets-the-bottom-of-a-well sound that made
Vivian Girls so popular among rock nerds. This sound also charmed critics; the
group’s self-titled 2008 debut garnered a glowing 8.5 review from Pitchfork.
She then spent a little over a year in the darker, moodier, garage-pop outfit
Crystal Stilts. Creatively, she played a peripheral role in the band, while
grounding their live shows with steady, bouncy beats that juxtaposed frontman
Brad Hargett’s gloomy vocals. Next, she left Crystal Stilts to do a stint on
drums in the California-based buzz project Dum Dum Girls, while gearing up to
start her first-ever solo project. What would possess someone to do all that?
Supreme self-confidence bordering on megalomania? The savvy to always stay one
step ahead of the backlash cycle? Volatility as a bandmate?

The answer she gives is much simpler: She gets bored. “I
don’t want to be married to any project ever,” Rose says when I speak with her
at her home, a sparsely furnished South Side Williamsburg loft. “I’m not
interested in doing that. If someone’s doing something I like, I can be a part
of it for a while,” she says. “It could happen where I quit my own band with my
own name,” she adds, laughing.

The backlash cycle, she says, is not a consideration of
hers, nor is pleasing a specific group of listeners. “I always try to stay true
to myself and what I want to listen to,” she says. “If I write 10 folk songs
tomorrow, so be it.”

As for the critics, she says she doesn’t generally read what
they write, calling music criticism “bad for my soul.” She is not, however,
above heeding advice from “a small number” of musician friends whose opinions
she respects—“people who’ve made stuff that I think sounds amazing”—a list that
includes J.B. Townsend from Crystal Stilts and members of crossover act of the
century TV On the Radio. And although she may not be listening to what critics
have to say, what they say tends to be positive.

But with success come the haters. She’s gossiped about by
everyone from the know-it-all DIY kids at Death By Audio (recently overheard
comments include “She’s not a nice person” and “Vivian Girls kicked her out”)
to the anonymous commenters on Brooklyn Vegan. It would seem much of this
gossip is gender-based. With big, brown eyes peering out from under
face-framing bangs, smooth, slightly olive-toned skin and an attractive figure,
it stands to reason Rose gets more attention than her male counterparts on a
scene that skews heavily toward the heterosexual and (often) immature male.

“The girl thing is weird because it’s good and bad,” says
Crystal Stilt Kyle Forester, who used to play with Rose. “People love girls in
bands but they want to write lewd shit about them on Brooklyn Vegan. It is
weird that the indie rock world is supposed to be politically progressive, but
in terms of gender politics, it’s sort of like Mad Men.”

Rose herself, however, is reluctant to acknowledge any major
gender issues at play. “All
I know is being a woman, so I’m not sure what the difference would be if I were
a man playing music,” she explains when I ask her if she feels she’s treated
differently on the New York scene, and responds affirmatively when asked if the
scene feels woman-friendly to her. Her stated reasons for having an all-female
band have more to do with personal compatibility than politics.

“It’s the funnest!” she says of touring with her band.
“We’re kind of grandmas. We just want to go home after the show and drink tea
and watch TV.” She is also wary of making sweeping statements about the
much-lauded scene she belongs to, despite (or maybe because of) its insane hyping
in traditional media, the blogosphere and even the press materials that go with
her own album, out Sept. 21. (“Frankie Rose has a reputation around here,” the
PR blast begins. “And by here, we mean Brooklyn.”)

What she does like to talk about is writing and recording
music. “A lot of bands these days, there’s no live band before the record,” she
says. “I feel like I’m doing this the way it used to be done. I have a live
band first, and then we’re recording.” She looks back to Phil Spector, Joe Meek
and Bo Diddley, as well as more recent entities like Factory Records, for cues
on how to record a quality album. She admits to working slowly due to being
“anal-retentive” about her output. “I just want everything to be perfect,” she
says. “If I’m not happy with something, I’ll do it over and over until it’s
right.”

Following the debut LP, Rose plans to release an EP with
Sacred Bones Records, and then embark on a long tour in support of both
releases. Vivian Girls fans might be surprised at how many beautifully quiet
and melancholy moments the LP has, and while Rose’s late-’80s and early-’90s
influences are still evident, the balance on the album tips further toward the
’60s than some might expect. The production values are also higher than most
are used to hearing from her. Given Slumberland’s financial support, she’s
moved away from the lo-fi messiness that characterizes so much of Brooklyn’s
output—to good, distinguishing effect.

The more I learn about Rose, the more I realize there are
two versions of her: the sexy, savvy scenester who exists in the imaginations
of some, and the head-down overachiever described to me by Forester, members of The Outs and by Rose herself. She doesn’t party or drink much while on tour.
She gets up early in the morning. She listens to NPR podcasts. She reads a lot
of “trashy fiction” in the sci-fi genre. She’s been known to play a bit of
Dungeons and Dragons.

Lifestyle-wise, she fits in much better with the type of
anti-rock star driving the success of sunny, safe and neutered indie pop bands
like Vampire Weekend than the black-clad figures of the neo-post-punk scene.
Unlike those sweater-vest wearing castrati, however, Rose inhabits a body
already sexualized by society. And the music she geeks out on is darker,
spookier, more emotional. It’s hard to name anyone else who combines those
qualities in quite such measures. In addition to her musical talent, this is
what comprises a large part of her allure.

The road to creative fulfillment hasn’t always been smooth
for Rose. After playing an important part in the writing, recording and
performing of Vivian Girls’ debut, Rose split with the band she’d helped start
at a time when its acclaim was growing rapidly. Rose cites “big time creative
differences” as her reason for leaving, as well as a “pretty severe” age
difference between her and her now-former band mates (Rose is 31, while her
former band mates are still in their mid-twenties). She was also tired of doing
double duty once she began drumming in Crystal Stilts, which she’d begun to
favor over VG. “Crystal Stilts was much more in the arena of things I wanted to
do with music,” she explains.

Vivian Girls frontwoman Cassie Ramone has a slightly
different version of the story. “We asked Frankie to leave Vivian Girls because
her heart was obviously with Crystal Stilts, to a point where our band was
being jeopardized,” she says. “To be fair, she probably would have left
eventually if we hadn’t asked her to. None of us were happy with the
situation.”

Crystal Stilts, according to Rose, was a much easier
experience. “I love those dudes the most,” she gushes. “It was so wonderful
playing with them.” Forester is similarly enthusiastic about Rose. “Frankie was
good for the band in that she’s a real pro,” he says. “I think she was really
good for the band musically at a time when it was important that the band get
out there and play a lot… she’s super steady and it’s important to have a
solid presence at drums if you’re gonna play a lot of shows.” And despite once
getting pegged unfairly in an article as “J.B.’s girlfriend,” her romantic
involvement with guitarist J.B. Townsend was neither a factor in her joining or
leaving the band.

“I, just for a month, saw someone in that band; it’s a moot
point,” she says, clamming up a bit. Her reasons for leaving, she says, were
once again creative: “I’m much more interested in writing a record and
producing it… drums are no longer creative for me.” She’s always been a
singer, songwriter and guitarist, in addition to being a drummer, and is ready
to use all of her talents.

I ask what she’s learned from the Vivian Girls experience
that’s useful now. “As a strict policy, I will only work with people I totally
love and trust,” she replies, choosing her words carefully. “I have to be able
to be in a car with them and respect them and be able to communicate with them.
It’s important to sound good, but having a strong personal connection with the
people you play with is important.” So important, in fact, that she taught Outs
bandmate Kate Ryan how to play the drums rather than choose a less compatible
but more performance-ready person. But that doesn’t mean they’re not talented:
All of The Outs have played in bands before, and the learning curve was steep.
“They’re all sick now,” she emphasizes, and recent performances corroborate
this.

Also unlike in past bands, Rose is the primary songwriter.
“I have really crappy demo versions I make on Garage Band, and we’ll take it
from there,” she explains. “I’m not interested in that anymore,” she says, of
writing with others. “It’s amazing when it happens, but it’s so hard.”

She says she doesn’t completely rule out input from her bandmates, however, and emphasizes that she wants everyone “on the record.”
Guitarist Margot Bianca agrees. “It started out as Frankie’s solo project, but
now we’re starting to evolve into a more collaborative band, which I am really
happy about… It’s a collaborative environment, to a certain extent.”

While Rose is excited about going on tour, she looks back
with chagrin on the trouble touring has caused in the past. “I lost my job and
my apartment,” she says of a past Vivian Girls tour. “If you lose your footing
[in New York], it’s hard to get back on your feet. I was cleaning people’s
houses for $60 the same month we were in Spin.”
This speaks to just how hard it is for musicians—even critically lauded ones—to
make a living off their music. Rose still bartends part time at Bruar Falls in
Williamsburg.

She says she’s not sure how famous she is in the hierarchy
of indie musicians, but she allows, “my brother thinks I’m super cool.”

Regarding the subject of whether she’d be willing to make
the jump to a major label like her friends in TV On the Radio, she replies
“maybe,” adding, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making money off your
art. I don’t want to suffer for my art. I think that’s really juvenile.”

Perhaps in an effort to make it come true, she says she
doesn’t think anybody is anticipating the album too intensely.

“I have a feeling it’s probably not gonna be that hyped,” Rose
says, which is a classic Frankie Rose understatement. “It would be less
stressful for me if nobody gave a shit.”


For outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage, CLICK HERE!

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