Hailing from Memphis, now based in New Orleans, What The Sound recently spoke with IZE’s frontman, Robert Tornillo. The band's music is reminiscent of New York’s LCD Soundsystem, but they bring a fresh new-wave sound to their most recent bedroom-recorded / n e w / EP. Tornillo, a law student at Tulane University, reflects on how their sound, while not entirely new, is certainly new to this decade. Slowly making his start in the South, Tornillo’s music will do well in the Northeast and various countries around the world. Read our chat with Tornillo to hear more about what IZE was originally meant to be, the sad rocker boys of Memphis, and his hopes for 2016.
What The Sound: You found out about What The Sound because of China Gate, and you know China Gate because you are from Memphis, right?
Robert: Yeah, so I grew up in Memphis. My friends live in Memphis, and I grew up three doors down from these kids named Alex and Will Nicholls. They still live in Memphis, and both play in dope bands called Small and Agori Tribe, and I guess Small plays with China Gate all the time, and they are homies with those guys, and I don’t know if China Gate talked to you about Loser Vision and all that stuff.
WTS: Yeah, I’ve heard about Small and Loser Vision from Tiger.
Yeah so there’s this whole Memphis scene of sad rocker boys, and I know China Gate through Alex. It’s been really cool seeing the Memphis scene from far away.
WTS: So you live in New Orleans (NOLA), and you formed IZE during your university years there?
Yeah, I live there. It kind of started because I was playing a bunch of garage rock and started getting tired of that sound, like the fuzzy vocals and 1-4-5s, and I used to be into this really bad dance music in high school, and I realized that there was a way to make dance music that wasn’t just awful, so I wanted to try and figure that out. The first efforts were straight up LCD Soundsystem ripoffs. Not even adventurous at all--just trying to imitate the sounds because I had finally found this dance music that wasn’t just totally “bro” and disgusting, or whatever. It has evolved from there, adding and subtracting people, putting live instruments on top of electronics--stuff like that--figuring out the best way to do it and perform it.
WTS: Who's in your band right now?
The band right now... Well, the show I performed last night was me and a guy named Daniel O'Connell who played guitar, but we also... Well, this is going to sound complicated because the last show we played was in May until my solo shows over December including the one last night. So I'll usually run keyboards and drum machine stuff from this casio keyboard that I have that has a step sequence in it. From there we just add stuff on top. So a guy named Jack Cunningham plays keyboards, and my friend Ruy [de Magahlaes]--I couldn't spell his name--plays bass, and another friend, Stephen Hansel, sometimes does some percussion stuff. Up until last year my friend Connor Crawford was doing percussion but he lives in Brooklyn right now so here we are.
WTS: Where did you meet these guys? All at school or just around NOLA?
Everyone lives around NOLA. Ruy, Jack, and Stephen all went to Loyola. Well, Ruy started there but graduated from Tulane. Dan, Connor, and I went to Tulane, but since the two campuses are next to each other, as far as the music community goes, it’s pretty interchangeable.
WTS: So you just mentioned that you played at some shows in May and then a few in December, which was when your EP was released right?
Yeah I was sitting around studying for finals when I was like, “wow I haven't released music in a really long time, and I really don’t want to study for finals right now.” So I was just like, "Why don't I do this? It’s way more fun." So I just picked the four songs I had that I felt were ready for public consumption, because originally I was trying to put together this whole record, and I was working with this producer named Mike [Saladis] who is the number one homie, but I just did not have the time to be in the studio often enough to put the record together because of law school. So I just had these demos that I polished up and decided that this was how it’s going to be, that it’s better to release music than to be sitting on it waiting for it to sound exactly right.
WTS: You mentioned you were mainly sitting on music. Over what period of time were those four tracks made?
Let’s see. The newest one is “teenage u / teenage me”, and that was made a week before the thing got dropped, and then the other three I had had since August, so I had just been sitting on tunes trying to put it all together. So I have had most of them since the summer. I was just sitting in my house alone for all this time, and I decided I might as well be singing poorly into a microphone.
WTS: What was some of that bad dance music you used to like a lot? Any bands you want to give a shout out to for being bad?
(Laughs) Ah God, man, I was into some embarrassing shit, man. I was into all that awful EDM stuff that was coming out in 2010-2011--like I had this other project that was just straight up dubstep and really bad. You could still find it on the internet, but I would never actively encourage people to search around. It was just horrifically bad. I tried to delete it from everywhere, and I just couldn't remember some of my passwords, and, ahhh, you know what--you grow up you figure it out
WTS: You said you do the vocals, you play keyboard--
Well, right now a lot of shows vary. Currently they are very programmed, like I have a keyboard that I can load up and listen to, and I kind of just trigger 'em, and whoever else is around I ask to play stuff on top of, but I’m primarily a bassist. I don’t get to play that much though because you can only do so much on stage. Currently I'm trying to get more collaborative with it because I'm not a very good guitar player or keyboard player (laughs), so it would be ideal to have people playing those instruments that can add something to the sound, but for now it’s just me.
WTS: So is IZE or yourself very well established in the NOLA music community?
I would not say particularly well established, but we played a few shows last year, and we got buddies to come out and everything, but, you know, it’s one of those things that I try to put all of my time into that I possibly can, but that still doesn’t translate into all the time I want to be putting into it. In terms of promotion and playing a bunch of shows, I have not done the best job, but now that I have a semester of new, weird school experience under my belt I’m definitely trying to amp it up a little bit, and especially do the shows and release some new music.
WTS: Is there any overarching genre that is in the NOLA music community that is very popular and hype right now?
As far as I can say, being plugged into the Loyola and Tulane scene, there is a lot of very 90s influenced Pavement rock, which is cool. I'm into it. I play in another band, Yuppie Teeth, that's very 90s kind of. “College rock” is what you would call it for lack of a better term, and I was just always, like, obviously it’s sick, and it’s great to play in a rock band because there is nothing like playing on a stage with four dudes and just making a bunch of noise, but I've always been very interested in dance music, and the fact that the kind you hear on the radio is the main way you do that, you know, that is what dance music is. I feel like there is so much cool stuff out there, like, especially drawing from the stuff that was happening in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, like Talking Heads and New Order-weirdness.
WTS: I'll tell you what I thought right away when I first heard IZE. So I thought, like, LCD Soundsystem right away and some New Order. Some Thermals, old Modest Mouse, 80s Cure. And, while these are female leads, but I also thought No Doubt and Metric. I could definitely hear a bit of those guys in it. You said you love LCD Soundsystem, and you mentioned New Order. Have you heard those comparisons in the past?
Yeah, well, when I first started I pitched it as my “LCD Soundsystem project”, I wanted it to be something that was very dance-oriented and at least intelligent to that point that you walked away and say maybe something was dance music. So LCD was definitely huge wake up call for me in terms of what you could do with that sort of thing, and I basically could listen to that band like... I didn't care about LCD Soundsystem when they were doing a thing, but then two years ago I was like, “wow, this is the best band ever”, and so I listened to them for, like, a year and a half and didn't listen to anything else. There's this picture on the IZE page--you know, the Spotify top ten songs--last year my top ten were straight LCD Soundsystem, and I went from there and delved into what James Murphy said his influences were, and I found out that LCD Soundsystem was really just a repackaging of the stuff from the late ‘70s. It's led me down this rabbit hole of crazy weird post-punk, disco, and I think IZE has changed the way I listen to music--looking for things to take and how to make songs that make people move, but also make them think. It’s been really rewarding, and I love doing it, and I spend basically all of my free time doing it.
WTS: What are your live shows like when people are engaged with your music? Is it one big party or...?
It honestly totally depends because I am used to playing not with IZE but with other bands-- a lot house shows and a lot of small venue shows where the only people there are your friends, and it’s, like, ready to fucking go. With IZE I need a real soundsystem to play it because it’s so based on my keyboard sounds and everything coming through, so it’s been more venue audiences, but once we’re in the middle of a set people seem to be down to move around a little bit, and, well, it’s definitely a bit of a party, as you say. Especially the whole band, like when it’s 5 people, and we had live drums it was so loud. It’s just like, “wow, if you don’t dance to this it’s gonna be the worst thing ever, so let’s dance.”
WTS: So is this EP the debut release for IZE?
Yeah, well. I did some demo stuff last spring, or like the spring before. Not this May, but the May before that, I released four songs that were the start, and they were all pretty much straight lifted from various LCD ideas, and I, like, listened to a lot of The Strokes, like, you know how the first and second Strokes albums the guitars kinda sound like lasers, like super-precision focused, and it’s over these drums that are basically live but kind of electronic? I was trying to do a lot of that. The demos were very distorted, and I did a lot of it with my computer microphone, and I took those offline right before I sent you this EP because I was kind of, like, this sound is kinda... this isn't what I am trying to do anymore. I still love those songs, like they were the first songs I wrote as IZE, and I was trying to figure something out, and it’s likely in the future that I'll try and re-record 2 or 3 of them or engage with them in a different way, but yeah for the most part that thing called “new” is our debut, actual thing.
WTS: Has anyone out of the ordinary found out about this EP and hit you up about it? Like just some random?
We got some quick little thing on Impose last week, which was really cool. We were in the “Week in Pop”, and it was just a paragraph summarizing what the EP sounded like. It was really cool though, I sent an email to this guy and heard back from him, and I was on a plane, and when I landed I had this email from him that was like, "Sounds good. I'm going to feature it in the ‘Week in Pop’, and I was like, ‘okay that’s cool, haha.’” We did that, and a couple of really tiny blogs reposted it as soon as it came out. Something called Start Track from Slovakia, and that guy runs a label called Z Tapes. I don't know if you've heard of it. It’s a really small tape label, probably only has one thousand facebook likes or so, so whatever. It was still really cool to have people responding to it, like, “yeah, I'm gonna put this on the internet and tell people that I like it.”
WTS: Have you been writing song lyrics your whole life? How does that work?
That's an interesting question. Some songs start with a lyric idea that I want to expand upon, and obviously there’s a lot of focus on. I always come back to particular subjects, and I write a lot about being shitty at being at parties and thinking about this weird idea about what cool is--just like everything we do that is very dumb but very true. I'll usually have something and record a first set of vocals, either with a verse and an improvised chorus or an improvised second verse, and I'll refine from there. It is extremely rare that I go into a recording process with vocals for the first, second, and third verse already fully written, fleshed out, and ready to go because it has to change a lot. I also find that my writing and recording process are the same because it's all done on a computer, and there is a lot of production involved, so if I go in and I feel like I need to cut a song short or I need to expand the song, more or less vocals come into play and more or less lyrics come into play. That's always been a thing I've been really weird about because, on one hand, you want to be talking about something. You don't want these totally empty songs. But on the other hand, who gives a shit what you have to say and who are you? You don’t know anything. But, yeah, I don't know it’s an interesting process and definitely one I think about a lot in terms of how to do it and how to do it well.
WTS: What are your plans and hopes for the rest of 2016?
Biggest hope would be to have a full length done or a full length well underway by the time 2016 is over. Plans are--well I am releasing new, in a limited run of cassettes, probably with some bonus tracks, because my girlfriend is awesome, and she bought me some pressings for cassettes, which is pretty sick. So that will be pretty fun. Probably put two or three bonus tracks that I'll put on my side B of that will be just cassettes that you can't hear on the internet for awhile. Then, I guess, I have a bunch of new songs, so I'll probably do another EP relatively soon. I don't wanna say a say a month, or anything, because whenever I say a month it ends up being three months late, but I'm trying to do one more EP and then have a full length in progress. That's what I am thinking for 2016. I'm trying to go to South by Southwest and start ups with being in places that aren't New Orleans and playing music for people who aren't New Orleanians and who don't know me from a bunch of other bands, because it's just like time to start playing for other people.
WTS: New Orleanians are kinda rare right? Like I know The Generationals. Those guys are from New Orleans right?
Yeah yeah I don't know any of those guys, but, yeah, damn they have that song, “When They Fight They Fight”?
Yeah that song is awesome, I love that song. Classic indie pop, totally hokey and awesome. There's a ton of stuff going on here. It’s a really interesting city to be making music in. We just had this crazy tribute to David Bowie yesterday. Like Arcade Fire and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. It was awesome.