The Rugs are comprised of Nolan Ford, Jeremy Gerrard, Austin King, Katrina Rodriguez, and Andrew Alvarez (playing keyboards, guitars and vocals, drums, ukulele and vocals, and bass, respectively). Three rugs join them onstage at all times: one hanging from the keys, one hanging over the kick drum, and one formed to Jeremy’s guitar (it’s a rug-guitar. Get over it).
Jeremy’s voice is abrasive and almost Dylan-esque, contrasting beautifully with Katrina’s sometimes lilting, sometimes powerful, always striking vocal prowess. Their music is like tubing the Sac River while sipping a glass of wine and wearing your favorite songwriting sweater. They’re releasing an excellent 14-song debut album this week, May 24th, at Duffy’s.
“The inside joke of the Make Yourself At Home title of the album is that it has a cozy vibe to it…” Nolan said, “and also the double meaning of literally tracking it at somebody’s home.”
Andrew continued, “My parents were in the process of moving out of their house in Forest Ranch. It was pretty much vacant for a couple months. It was really isolated, big ol’ hardwood floors, open space, beautiful view, vaulted ceilings… A nice, comfortable, fun place for everyone to meet, so we had a few sessions up there… We recorded drums, guitars… as much as we could, I think…”
“We tracked everything there except the violin and some electric guitar overdubs,” Nolan finished, “So almost all of it was exclusively recorded at The Eagle’s Nest.”
“Affectionately dubbed,” Jeremy said. “It doesn’t sound like a lot of other bands. It’s not an in-your-face party album… It’s something you have to warm up to. We didn’t wanna write songs that people already knew they liked. That’s what cover bands are for. So we hope people will branch out and go, ‘This is familiar enough, and this is new enough, and I’m okay with liking it, even though it’s different.’”
I asked them if they could come up with a sentence that evokes the essence of their new album.
“I hope it’s the kind of album you couldn’t put in a sentence,” said Jeremy.
Andrew chimed in, “It’s the thinking person’s getting away. That’s mine.”
“You’d need at least a stanza to contain it,” Nolan replied.
Jeremy had been assuming an expression of hard thinking, and he finally added, “A familiar road with new scenery, how about that.”
“Yeah, that’s cool,” I agreed.
Jeremy continued, “Musically and thematically, it’s close enough [to other music] to be accessible, kinda like [listeners] have been here before, but they’ll notice some new things. Like, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting way of saying that,’ or, ‘I wouldn’t have expected a 7th chord there,’ or, ‘How about that key change,’ or whatever it is. Little things that make the familiar road a little more interesting.”
With a steady, plodding tempo, Make Yourself At Home takes the listener through 14 tracks full of great guitar solos, three-part harmonies, and striking lyrics. I found the songs to be excellent examples of what Jeremy had been aiming for: it was deceptively similar to a lot of rock music, but I couldn’t at any point name a specific moment as reminding me of anything except The Rugs.
“It’s songwriter rock,” Nolan told me. “The lyrics are a valued part. You want to clearly hear each word in each song, you know? That’s something that’s harder to find these days; you’re always like, ‘What did they say again? “Haughty?” “Hottie?” What was that?’ That’s a cool goal of our music: to put the vocals and lyrics in the front.”
I ask Nolan if he could pinpoint some lyrics of Jeremy’s that he likes the most. I know I like the line, “if you can’t see through the fog/go meet Dr. Dog/they know,” for obvious reasons.
“A lot of Jeremy’s lyrics do similar things that Dr. Dog’s lyrics do,” he replies, “Like in their double meanings… In the way they’re crafted; there’s almost a sense of humor about them that makes you think; they’re said in a clever way that’s interesting to hear. Like, ‘I’ve shrunk down the more I’ve grown.’ Contradictory things.”
Jeremy took up the narrative here. “I’ve always been a huge Bob Dylan fan; listened to Dylan over and over again for a long time. I REALLY like James Mercer of The Shins; I think he’s a great lyricist, for a more contemporary band. He has a lot of obtuse imagery… He doesn’t let the melody dictate what he wants to say. You can tell he’s being genuine, without letting the music dictate it. Good word-play without having to say very much.”
Between Mercer and Dylan, I feel that Jeremy’s execution leans very much toward the Dylan, albeit the slight abrasiveness to his vocal tone is very uniquely Jeremy’s… It’s almost TOO abrasive at first, like when I first heard Joanna Newsom’s “The Book Of Right-On,” where she sounds kind of like a cat dying (don’t worry Jeremy, you sound a bit better than that).
As I listen to the music of The Rugs, sometimes the lyrics catch me, and sometimes they don’t. Every song feels slow, solid, and honey-sweet, so that the first few songs lulled me into a sleepy, contented daze and had to be re-examined later.
I haven’t seen The Rugs perform live in about a year, so I watched their performance from The Big Room on YouTube (search “rugs sierra” and it’s the first hit) for some fresh perspective. When actually performing the songs, everything is heightened. The chilled-back, honey-sweet feeling is more apparent, but so is the clarity; the emotions.
Jeremy’s awesome lead guitar tone cuts through the live mix with a lyricism as sharp as his words were obtuse. Everything he tries to say with words somehow finds full expression when he settles into his shred, sometimes solo-ing for a minute or more, with my mind hanging on every effortlessly executed note. This is where he shines.
KATRINA’S GOT CHOPS
Katrina’s positively radiant when put on the stage with four guys in subdued outfits (no offense, guys), both in her appearance and her vocal performance. The songs that put her voice in the forefront help greatly in breaking up the pace of the album, offering a different way to listen to the same smooth rock songs. The final track “Dandelion” oozes a relaxed happiness, with Katrina exhibiting her impressive range and obvious optimism, before breaking into a great three-part harmony, and a final guitar solo. Actually, I think all the tracks end with guitar solos.
“I think [Katrina’s growth] is obvious to anyone who’s been to our first shows, and goes to the shows we play now,” Austin said. “She’s grown a thousand times as a performer. The first show I played with you guys, I know we were all a little scared, you included.”
“Yeah,” Katrina said with a smile.
Austin continued, “Now, when we get to songs like ‘The Loom’, or ‘Let’s Get It On’—when we cover that, you can tell she’s comfortable, and those [performances of hers] can be the most intense parts of the show. She’s really rocking it out, and that wasn’t happening the first few shows.”
“‘The Loom’ was definitely the hardest song for me to be comfortable with,” Katrina said. “Before this, I’d done choir, but I’d never done this ‘deep down, reach somewhere far, hit that note and turn it around’ kind of thing…”
“That’s the most ‘Katrina-Showcase’ song,” Austin added. “Like, ‘You gotta do it, or it’s not gonna get done.”
“It was so hard to figure out at first,” Katrina admitted. “I’m so grateful. I don’t know what it is that took away my nervousness… just feeling more comfortable around these guys makes all the difference in the world. And I feel like I’ve gotten more confidence from doing the dances in the Everybody In Outer Space show. Dancing in front of people? I’d never done that before. Or playing with Aubrey Debauchery and Lisa Valentine in Duffy’s Sirens, or just playing my own stuff around town, along with being in a play recently. My confidence has been boosted ten-fold, and now I feel like I can really go for it without holding back. It’s just having fun now; I’m not so much worried about being embarrassed, it’s more about having a good time.”
“This is my first band ever,” she said. “Joining them was partly curiousity, and partly just wanting to be around musicians that could teach me something. Along the way I’ve discovered so much about myself, about ukulele, about guitars. A real love for music in general; all this has really opened my eyes.”
“It sounds like Nolan’s the one who orchestrates the harmonies…?” I asked.
“Yeah. We try to break up the practices,” Nolan replies, “Have some of them be acoustic ones, where we hash out what each person is individually singing. The biggest part is just trial and error, finding out what’s a comfortable range for each person; our four voices (Jeremy, Katrina, Nolan, and Andrew’s) tend to fall into natural pockets, so just observing that…”
“We’re blessed with these kinds of voices that we have; they’re so different,” Jeremy said. “But they blend well when you orchestrate them in the right way.”
Nolan continued, “It started out as, ‘Let’s all just blast it. Here it comes, just do it!’ and then, as we started recording, we began isolating things, and figuring out where we’re doubling each other and it could actually benefit from finding a new note, or figuring out where it makes sense to double notes, stuff like that. It was all discovered through the recording process, which is why we took our time with [recording].” They took about a year to record the album, with the invaluable help of Matt Franklin.
THE SONGS WE KNOW
I asked the two less vocal members of the evening, Andrew and Austin, what they enjoy most about the songs Jeremy writes.
“I appreciate their unique quality…” Andrew began, “I think that, if I were to write this music, my songs would be ten minutes long, with a lot of fluff, and he’s able to get them just like that: (snaps his fingers) only three and a half minutes. They’re structured in a really nice way, but with room for improv. They’re big enough, but still succinct enough to be on the radio or something. Not that people listen to the radio, but you know what I mean. There’s room for everybody, in a small amount of time. Even the short songs are complete; they don’t feel short.”
“I like the feel of the songs,” Austin said. “Every time Jeremy showed me a song for the first time, I’d just start playing about 30 seconds in. It felt really natural, and there’s a lot of dynamics built into the song. I’m not a fast, technical drummer… but I think my strengths fit in with the strengths of the band. They’re well-written songs; well-crafted. They’re thoughtful. He cares about what he writes, and it really shows.
“The songs have a good balance,” Nolan added. “Really engaging; you can listen to it in your car and really analyze it, and it’s not too abrasive; it could also be music you listen to at a dinner party or something, while people are having conversation and it’s in the background. It’s just fun to play also, and that’s the number one important thing: Every show’s been fun.”
“You know how you have a CD, and it’s your summer CD?” Nolan continued. “For me, one of those was Guero by Beck; that came out in the summer… albums that just stamp a time period for you. Even some Ambler’s CDs (Jeremy’s previous band) have that nostalgic feeling for me. That would be cool if there were a few people out there who do that with Make Yourself At Home.
“We know ONE person who will buy it…” Katrina said. “Thomas Almond! He drives from Red Bluff to all our shows.”
“Right!” Nolan said. “He’s not just a friend. He’s a fan. He would love it if he got a shout-out in this article.”
Come see The Rugs perform live at their CD Release Party on Saturday, May 24th at Duffy’s, alongside Aubrey Debauchery & The Broken Bones and Lisa Valentine & The Unloveables. $5, 9pm.