More than 15 years passed between The Rock*A*Teens’ fifth album, Sweet Bird of Youth, and their sixth, the aptly-titled Sixth House. It’s worth noting that gap because in terms of the sound, this new album by the Cabbagetown, Ga. cult favorites could have come out in 2002 and fit into the group’s catalog perfectly.
There are some differences, obviously; Sweet Bird of Youth combined the band’s cheerfully ragged garage-band bashing with neo-psychedelic keyboards, while Sixth House is pretty much guitars, bass, and drums. And while Sweet Bird had a punkishly unkempt edge, Sixth House is more polished; the guitars ring out more than they slash and burn. But the music is still catchy-as-hell indie-rock. Singer/guitarist Chris Lopez’s emotionally charged wail is still front and center, and hell, they even put the album out on Merge Records, the Durham, N.C. label co-founded by Superchunk members Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan that served as the Rock*A*Teens’ home for five years, four albums, and one EP.
“When we first got back together four or five years ago, it was like we picked up right where we left off,” says drummer Ballard Lesemann, “both musically and personally. Chris Lopez (frontman) and (guitarist) Justin Hughes still have this Lennon-McCartney kind of partnership; our strengths and quirks are all still there — we’re just more mature and have wives and families and stuff like that. We’re more focused as musicians and people. The dysfunctional things that were part of being in a rock band aren’t there anymore, thank goodness.”
Though the Rock*A*Teens never officially broke up, and the band members have remained friendly over the years (bassist Will Joiner and Lesemann have even opened a bar, Buteco, together in Atlanta), the grind of being a young indie band on the road eventually got to the group before they played their last shows in 2002.
“It was rough back in the day, going super low budget, begging for places to stay after each gig, sleeping on floors and stages or in the van,” Lesemann says. “We’re not the youngsters we were before where we’d just get in the van with no A/C and hit the road, driving from Phoenix to San Diego and just dealing with it.”
The band initially reunited for a show in 2014 to commemorate Merge Records’ 25th anniversary and a reissue of Sweet Bird of Youth, and the show both went well and felt like old times.
“There was stuff breaking, amps going bad, strings popping, people asking, ‘What song is this? How does it start?'” Lesemann says with a laugh. “All of it came rolling back. It was a blast.”
After the gigs, Lopez, who Lesemann says writes constantly, mentioned that he had 20 or so song ideas that he wanted to work on, and a full-on Rock*A*Teens reunion was born. But rather than the razor’s-edge, no-budget approach the band was forced to take on most of their previous releases, they resolved to take their time, recording Sixth House over a year and a half with producer and percussionist Rafael Pereira behind the boards.
“We were a low-budget band for years,” Lesemann says. “It was always, ‘OK, we’ve got six days, let’s finish it up, the clock is ticking, and, after that, it is what it is.’ This time around we spent a year and half putting it together, trying this and that, and it clicked better than anything we’d ever done before. I think it’s the most fully realized thing we’ve done.”
Even though the band was excited to work together again, Sixth House and its subsequent tour wouldn’t have happened if the Rock*A*Teens didn’t still have fans out there willing to listen. And Lesemann says they were delighted to find that it wasn’t just their devoted cult following awaiting them when they got back together. “People still seemed to be hanging out and interested,” he says. “Our old friends and our old supporters seemed interested and there’s this whole new group of people, who read about us or knew about Merge or had heard us on college radio. People are getting babysitters to come to watch us play and that’s extremely encouraging, but there are also these 21-year-olds with garage bands who are actually reacting positively. We’ve been opening for bands both young and old, so we’re getting different audiences and the reaction has been extremely positive, even from people who have no clue who we are.”
And of course it also helps to have a label like Merge behind them, even if the Rock*A*Teens aren’t commercial heavyweights.
“We’re not one of Merge’s top-selling bands,” Lesemann says. “But it’s like family. The folks are interested in our music for artistic, supportive reasons rather than because they’re going to make a ton of money. When the recording came around after the reunion, we sent then some of the songs, and they said, ‘Cool, we like ’em, let us help you out,’ and it was a handshake deal. It’s a mutually supportive relationship, and they’ve always been like that.”