DS Exclusive: Ray Rocket on his solo debut, and continuing Teenage Bottlerocket after Brandon’s death

Teenage Bottlerocket founding member and co-frontman Ray Carlisle is the latest and greatest member of this little scene of ours to dip his Chuck Taylor-adorned toes into the ‘solo acoustic punk’ waters. Performing under the Ray Rocket moniker, Carlisle’s debut solo album, Do You Wanna Go To Tijuana? is due out April 1st on Rise Records, and features a dozen tracks, two of which are new, and the remainder of which are reworked (sometimes almost unrecognizably reworked) versions of Teenage Bottlerocket classics. News of the album just dropped officially last week, and brought with it the title track’s music video that will undoubtedly go down as one of the best damn ways to spend three minutes that you’ll have this year (get your minds out of the gutter, you filthy animals).

By now, you’ve all seen it, probably way more than once. The clip for “Do You Wanna Go To Tijuana?,” the lead single and title track from Teenage Bottlerocket’s Ray Carlisle, features Ray and his nine-year-old son Milo hanging out and doing all the rad stuff that dads and their kids get to do when it’s just them hanging out: practicing karate, snowboarding, dance parties, and just sorta generally spending time together being awesome. (Haven’t seen it or need a refresher? Go here.). It’s all of the adjectives that we’re not supposed to use when describing things on a website with its roots planted in the punk rock community: funny, sweet, adorable, inspiring, heart-melting… You get the idea. “I really just wanted it to be sort of a Saturday with me and Milo,” Carlisle tells me over the phone. “Even though we filmed it on a Thursday! I took him out of school for the day, that’s why we were the only people at the ski area; that’s the local ski area near Laramie. I think that we totally captured that. I love the feel for the video.

That sort of positive, uplifting feel is a pretty recurring theme on Do You Wanna Go To Tijuana?, as you would probably expect given Ray’s typical wheelhouse. After some demoing and fine-tuning, Carlisle holed up at his recording studio home-away-from-home, the legendary Blasting Room in Fort Collins, Colorado, to lay down the dozen tracks that appear on the album. The bulk of what you hear comes from Ray and his recording partner/engineer Andrew Berlin, with the exception of backing vocals from fellow Bottlerocket Kody Templeman, an appearance from the Spastic Hearts’ Angi Phalangee, and drums on “First Time,” the album’s final track, from Carlisle’s late brother, Brandon. “That’s Brandon on drums,” says Carlisle, sounding about as choked up as I felt upon hearing those words. “That’s the last song Brandon ever played drums on before he died.

As it turns out, production on …Tijuana would wrap on October 27th of last year; Brandon fell into a coma on November 3rd before eventually succumbing four days later. The track, which the Carlisle brothers penned together following the death of a loved one, takes on particularly heaviness given Brandon’s death. “It’s not conventional the way that he plays drums (on “First Time”)” says Carlisle. “It really shows off everything that Brandon was capable of with his drumming. He was spectacular.

Though the Ray Rocket album was obviously planned and recorded while Brandon was still alive, the project seems to carry his spirit throughout. “Brandon was into it,” says Carlisle, before half-jokingly noting that “(his) number one concern was that it was going to suck!” Fans of TBR and the Carlisle brothers can undoubtedly rest assured that Ray’s solo project, and the album itself, do not, in fact, suck. Carlisle notes, and yours truly agrees, that “it just turned out so cool and I hope that people don’t judge it (based on it being interpreted as strictly an acoustic TBR album). Everything does have its own personality, and I changed it up enough that the excitement is there!

While it might, on the surface, appear to the outsider to be on the early side for Carlisle and his Bottlerocket brothers in arms to get back on the active side of the music circuit, Ray is careful to run most decisions through a “what would Brandon want” filter, particularly as Brandon served as chief decision-maker in Teenage Bottlerocket. He “was always such a huge decision maker with our music, as far as every aspect of it goes. I mean, the songwriting, the production, the T-shirt design. Brandon was always driving the boat, you know? So things are gonna change, and we’re all gonna miss him, especially this first handful of shows.” The coming year will prove to be a busy one for Ray and company. Teenage Bottlerocket will shake the rust off in mid-March with a few local shows before Ray hits the road for his first solo tour, opening for the likes of The Copyrights for the bulk of the month of May. “I think that it’s cool that I get to get out there and get my mind off of stuff,” says Carlisle.

Check out our extensive interview below, and head here to pre-order Do You Wanna Go To Tijuana?.

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Thanks for taking the time to talk to us for a while, I’m really excited about this.

Ray “Rocket” Carlisle: Yeah, not a problem at all, man.

I finally got to hear the album (Do You Wanna Go To Tijuana?) for the first time today, and I think I had it on an endless loop while my wife and my daughter and I were snowed in today. I think we listened to it four or five times in a row. It’s really, really good, man. I love it.

Wow. Thanks, man. I’m super excited with the way everything turned out.

Getting to see the video for “…Tijuana” for the first time the other day…I think if you’re a dad especially or in your mid-30s or both, like I am, it’s probably not overstating to say that it just sorta melts you a little bit. It’s such a fucking cool video.

Thanks for saying that! I watched it a lot and Brian, the guy that filmed the video, came over and I came up with the storyboard, and I really just wanted it to be sort of a Saturday with me and Milo. Even though we filmed it on a Thursday (*both laugh*). I took him out of school for the day, that’s why we were the only people at the ski area; that’s the local ski area near Laramie. I think that we totally captured that. I love the feel for the video and I’m glad that you “got” it.

Oh totally. And at one point, I was sitting in my living room and my daughter wanted to know what I was listening too and I told her she should actually come over and look. She’s about Milo’s age and as said “look, this is Ray from Teenage Bottlerocket playing guitar with his son Milo.” So I was playing guitar, picking out the chords to the song with my kid while we were watching you and Milo hang out, so that was a really, really cool moment as a dad. So thanks for putting that out!

Awe, that’s awesome. That’s great! A couple people wrote me and said that it inspired them to pick up the guitar for the first time in a long time. And overall, it’s gotten a really cool reaction and it seemed to generate some stoke on my record coming out April 1st! I’m really excited with the way everything’s going so far.

Why’d you pick that as the song to do a Milo video for? There’s a little bit of, I don’t want to say ‘dark imagery’ because it’s still a pop punk song, but there’s ‘dark imagery’ in there…

Right, right. The song’s not about Milo, and you’re right it is a little… what really helped determine the focus track and the song we did the video for was that, and you know as much as anyone now that you’ve heard the record, it’s one of the only things that I wrote for the record because the rest of them were Teenage Bottlerocket songs that I thought translated over acoustically. So I could have done a video for “TV Set” but I decided to do it as new and fresh as possible. Everything on the album is its own take on the (original)song, but I didn’t to just re-record a video for a song that was already on a record, because that’s already out there. So me and Andrew (Berlin), the engineer on the album, wanted to give every song its own personality and to add our own twist to every one of the songs. So “…Tijuana” is a song that’s new, and it’s the title track, so that’s why we did the video for that.

Why pick those particular Bottlerocket songs to go on the album? Like you said, they obviously work pretty well acoustically, but do you write them typically acoustically?

A little bit of both. Obviously I didn’t write “Without You,” which is a Kody (Templeman, fellow Bottlerocket) song that’s the fourth song on the album, but I wrote “TV Set” on an acoustic guitar. There’s some more songs that I think work well on an acoustic guitar that I just didn’t get around to recording for the album. Like “Go Away” and “She’s Not The One.” But it was already running upwards of 35 minutes, and a lot of the songs were slowed down, and twelve songs being thirty-five minutes is definitely unorthodox for a Teenage Bottlerocket record, so it’s got its own vibe. I think the main reason I picked the songs I did as far as redoing Teenage Bottlerocket songs acoustically was just because I thought they translated over well acoustically, the melody worked well acoustically, and most of the time I dropped the songs down a little bit as far as key signatures go. For instance, “TV Set” is in B and I dropped it down to A for this album. Sometimes they stay the same, like “Go With The Flow” was in A on Freak Out! and it’s in the key of A on the acoustic record as well. So like I said, I think it’s mainly because I thought they sounded cool on acoustic guitar.

When you’ve recorded Teenage Bottlerocket albums, you’ve talked in interviews and stuff before about trying to capture the band’s live sound, because that’s your bread and butter. But is that a different mindset going into recording an acoustic album, particularly where you’re adding instrumentation that you’re not going to have on the road with you?

Yeah, totally! Absolutely. Because you hit the nail on the head; with Teenage Bottlerocket recording, more or less, it’s what we sound like live. We’ve gone with the formula that if we can’t do it live, we’re going to stay away from it in the studio. (*here’s where our phones begin to have, shall we say, compatability issues; doing my best to piece it together*) As far as vocal harmonies, we’re not doing anything where we’re cheating. It’s not that Kody’s singing two tracks and I’m singing two tracks below him. It’s usually Kody singing and me singing, whether at the same time or separately, it’s pretty much how we do it live. Now with the acoustic album, the Ray Rocket record, I realized that as I did a lot of demoing here in Laramie, as far as getting things tracked out to get beats per minute and stuff like that down before I went into the studio…when I was recording the demos I realized that just doing a little bit of tambourine and some hand shakers, with eggs, I realized that I didn’t want it to be just me and an acoustic guitar, because I think after twelve songs, that would be too much, like “oh, here’s another song with Ray and his acoustic.” It adds a certain excitement to the songs. And certainly, like you said, I’m not going to be on the road with a full orchestra or anything, but I think these songs with just me and an acoustic sound rad live, especially with everybody singing along and stuff. But yeah, with the album, I just thought with me and an acoustic guitar it would be boring, and I wanted to make it as exciting as possible. I really think that me and Andrew did a good job with trying to tastefully add as much instrumentation as possible.

I could see you almost going overboard in the studio with something like that; not that you did on the album, but I could see that experimenting being a thing that sort of snowballs on you. Like the more you start adding layers, the more you could get carried away.

Yeah, I mean, it could happen in the studio, and I think it’s more difficult to determine what you need to take out at the end rather than what we should have added or something. Even though with Teenage Bottlerocket, I remember that when we recorded “Bloodbath At Burger King” the first time, I sang that song with Kody and it was just too much. It was a big decision to take that backup out, and it was just overworking it. There was a little bit of that with the Ray Rocket record, but for the most part I thought it was done tastefully, you know? We recorded each song trying to give it its own personality. Not like “oh, we’re going to do tambourine on every song on the record now.” We did every song one at a time, and would record a song in its entirety at once and then move on to the next song, so that helped out as well.

Where did you record the album, in Laramie?

No, I recorded at The Blasting Room in Fort Collins. That’s where we recorded every Teenage Bottlerocket album except for Another Way.

Is that basically the only place you would go nowadays, like a second home in terms of recording?

Yeah, I mean the studio is an hour away from my house. There’s so many bands that travel through to record there. I’m real comfortable there recording. I know everyone that works there, all the engineers, and we work well together. At this point, I really couldn’t see myself working at another studio. Not to say that I’m afraid of that, but I have the best studio in the world right on my back porch, so I’m all about it.

There’s no liner notes in the press kit that I got late this afternoon. Who plays with you on the album, particularly some of the other instrumentation? Is that just you and Andrew or are there other people who came in to help?

Yeah, that’s right. It is just me and Andrew on the instrumentation, and a lot of it is done with MIDI stuff. Kody sings backup on the entire album. And Angi Phalangee from the Spastic Hearts sang backups on “Without You.” And then “First Time,” the last song on the album, is the entire band, and that’s…that’s Brandon on drums. That’s the last song Brandon ever played drums on before he died.

Oh damn…I wanted to talk about that song, because there’s a lot going on with “First Time.” Obviously it’s polar opposite to the way it was on Tales From Wyoming, where it was the only acoustic song and now it’s the only full band song. So that’s sort of one layer. But then, listening to that song in the context of Brandon not being around anymore…I know that it’s not about Brandon, but man, that song was a total punch in the stomach to listen to this afternoon.

Yeah. Brandon and I (here, our phones start to disagree with each other again; did my best to piece it together) wrote some of the lyrics together about someone who’d passed away. The lyrics started talking on new meaning now…”for the first time I can’t see you, for the first time I can’t be you.” When Brandon and I wrote that lyric together, it maybe didn’t make any sense. But now, in the past, when people would call me Brandon, I would just pretend to be Brandon and say “what’s up” and take pictures with people. And it was easier sometimes than explaining “no, no I’m Ray.” And he would do the same thing. So the lyric “for the first time I can’t be you” has really taken on new meaning.

Did it make it hard to put on the album or bittersweet to put on the album that way? Actually, first off I guess, when was the album actually finished in terms of having a product that you were going to put out and approved by the label and with a release date and all that stuff? Was it all before or after Brandon passed?

Well, the release date came after Brandon passed away. It was finished recording before he passed away, obviously, because he played drums on that song and Brandon actually heard the record a couple times. But it was right around the same time. I got done recording October 27th…

Oh Jesus…

Yeah, and Brandon was in a coma November 3rd. This was all within the same week.

Was there any trepidation at all about putting a song like “First Time” on the album after it was recorded, particularly with the new meaning that it took on? Or was it a no-brainer that it had to be on there?

Yeah, it was always the gameplan. Like you started out saying, it was the only acoustic song at the end of Tales From Wyoming, and it’s the only full band song at the end of the solo record. That was always the plan. If anything, since Brandon died, we had to include it. It’s the last song he ever recorded drums on. And it’s not conventional the way that it plays drums. It really shows off everything that Brandon was capable of with his drumming. He was spectacular. I know that a lot of people think about the 1/8th notes on the hi-hat, or the 1/16th notes too, whatever you want to call it…Brandon’s style, that Tommy Ramone style on the hi-hat and the ride cymbal. I thought that this was a cool depiction of what Brandon could do outside of that box.

Oh, totally.

He was always stoked on the drum part that he wrote for that, and it turned out really great.

Did you work out a full-band arrangement for it for Tales From Wyoming and just chose to do something else with it? Or did that come about because of this album.

I went over to Brandon’s…we would always do our pre-production stuff at his house, and his stuff is now at my house…but he lived down in Fort Collins, and I went down there for a weekend and recorded “First Time” after Tales From Wyoming came out as a full band. But when we were recording Tales…, Bill (Stevenson) recommended that we record that song as a full band, but we never got around to doing it. I think we were just lazy. So the idea was always out there. But I changed the key signature because I’m singing it differently. We needed to get the BPM down for how fast we were going to play it. So I cruised down and we worked out the arrangement and burned a CD. So we got to The Blasting Room and the very first thing that happened when I started recording Do You Wanna Go To Tijuana? was we recorded drums for that song. Brandon listened to the demo that we did a couple weeks earlier, like, halfway through and said “alright, I got it,” and he did his drums in an hour and he was done. Then we did bass…I play bass on the song.

Oh, like the old days!

Yeah, totally! And that was that. As far as other musicians go, like I said, it was just Angi and Kody. The rest was me and Andrew.

Why the decision to do a Ray Rocket album back then? I know it obviously became public at the end of last year…I think I first heard rumors about it from people at Fest…why the decision then to do an acoustic Ray Rocket album versus an acoustic Teenage Bottlerocket album?

Well, Kody doesn’t really feel comfortable playing acoustic. He doesn’t really like it, and I do. And I think that was a little bit of a dilemma in terms of me moving forward with this. I’ve always really loved playing acoustically and playing songs with Kody sometimes works great and sometimes doesn’t. I could just tell it made him feel a little uneasy. So I thought, “well, shit, should I not play acoustically because Kody doesn’t feel comfortable?” So I talked to him and he said “no, go ahead and rock this!” I did a Kody song, and he sang great on the record. So it was just one of those things. When I was in college, I played acoustic a lot. I played in an acoustic band called The Tom Cruisers.

No shit! That’s awesome! (*both laugh*)

As much as I can I play, I did a feature with Exclaim!, I played “Radical” for those guys. I was always trying to get my foot in the door acoustically. People were coming through and playing, like Sundowner or Brendan Kelly…and I was always thinking “oh, I wish I could play with those guys.” And finally, I was just like “screw it, I’m doing an album.” It was one of those things where, if you’re going to do something, do it. You can’t just sit around and think about ‘what if you did it.’ So that’s really the motivation behind it.

Was there any weirdness in talking to Kody or Miguel about that you were going to do a solo thing and if it would impact the band going forward? I mean, it seems like they’re totally cool with it, but…

Yeah, totally. Miguel was the first person I told that I was going to do an album, and he was just like “that’s awesome!” And as soon as I booked the studio and got the dates lined up, I called up Kody and I asked him if he would come sing on it, and he was like “absolutely.” And Brandon played drums on it. So it was just all around support from the Teenage Bottlerocket dudes. The album is predominantly Teenage Bottlerocket songs, and I think Brandon’s number one concern was that it was going to suck. (*both laugh*) He was like “if this record sucks, everybody’s gonna be like ‘oh great, a Teenage Bottlerocket acoustic album and it sucks,’ great.” And in a way, it is a Teenage Bottlerocket acoustic album. But I called it Ray Rocket because it’s just going to be me going out and playing these shows. It’s not going to be, like, Miguel out there sitting with his legs crossed playing an acoustic bass (*both laugh*) and some guy playing a djembe or something.

Like Unplugged from the mid-90s or whatever.

Right. We won’t have Dave Grohl with drum brushes (*both laugh*).

Is the goal to be able to do them both half-time going forward? Doing Ray Rocket and then doing the Bottlerocket thing and switch on and off, or just to see where it goes?

That’s sort of the long term future. I know Teenage Bottlerocket’s going to record another record. We got a new drummer, we have a huge tour this summer that’s being announced in March, and we have two shows coming up in March in Laramie, where we live, and in Denver. After the next Teenage Bottlerocket record, we’re gonna continue to do some touring, probably not as much as we did, but we played 165 shows in 2015. This is just something where I can go out and do it without having to bother everybody else. I’m going to do this tour in May with the Copyrights and support the Ray Rocket record with as many dates as possible. I’m doing a lot of fly-ins; I just confirmed and Edmonton and a Calgary show. I’m doing Portland and Seattle, Denver and Fort Collins, I’m doing the Copyrights tour, and after the Teenage Bottlerocket record, I’m probably going to focus on Teenage Bottlerocket and do something compared to, I’d say Chuck Ragan and Hot Water Music, or Joey Cape and Lagwagon. I’ll do as much as I can with both. If I was given the choice of Teenage Bottlerocket or Ray Rocket, I’d definitely choose TBR, but it would have to be the right situation where everybody is comfortable in TBR. As far as me playing shows acoustically, I’m the only one that has to be comfortable with it for me to go and do it. There’s a couple more hoops to jump through for Teenage Bottlerocket to get together and play. So that’s what the future’s going to entail. Teenage Bottlerocket is definitely going to continue playing.

I’m really excited about that. Because there’s always speculation about what’s going to happen if somebody leaves a band, let alone if somebody passes away, and especially somebody with Brandon’s personality. So I’m really excited that you guys are still going, because I think you have a lot left to do and say.

Yeah. Thanks for saying that. And it’s not a decision we came to overnight. Even though it does seem fast from an outside perspective. But we know that Brandon would want us to carry on. And it’s going to be difficult to carry on without him because Brandon was always such a huge decision maker with our music, as far as every aspect of it goes. I mean, the songwriting, the production, the T-shirt design. Brandon was always driving the boat, you know? So things are gonna change, and we’re all gonna miss him, especially this first handful of shows. Being on stage together, playing these songs for the first time without Brandon is going to be intense, I’d imagine. I think we’re all going to have to take our minds off of that and focus on what we do have, which is our lives together.

Is there a sense when you’re making decisions now, like, thinking “what would Brandon want?”

Yeah, especially with moving forward and with playing together. There’s been some stuff that we’ve said no to, and that crosses my mind too. Would Brandon be interested in playing this show with these bands? You’ve gotta think to yourself that “yeah, he would love to!” or “no, he wouldn’t want to play with these guys, he thought they sucked!” (*both laugh*) It’s one decision at a time and one day at a time.

The tour that you have coming up with The Copyrights and The Lippies…are you sort of excited that your first real shows back out playing or your first tour after Brandon passed is your own thing, and it’s not going right back out to Teenage Bottlerocket stuff? And maybe excited is a poor choice of words…

I never really thought about it. I think that it’s cool that I get to get out there and get my mind off of stuff. But, I had the Ray Rocket thing secured, and I knew I was releasing this LP, but I sure as hell thought to myself that I don’t want to be in that situation where I’m leaving the stage with my guitar and thinking “man, Teenage Bottlerocket would have kicked that crowd’s ass!” And just not getting as much out of rock and roll as I want. Because, the acoustic thing is a completely different thing. Teenage Bottlerocket is a sweaty band that goes out there and tries our best to have fun for ourselves and for everyone else. The acoustic thing is going to be more interaction with the audience and playing songs that people want to hear. Not to say that it’s going to be full Kumbaya and everyone’s going to have to sit Indian-style on the floor while I play. (*both laugh*) It’s just going to be a different thing, you know? It’s not like I’m doing anything new. Everyone’s seen Tim Barry play and everybody knows what Avail did. There’s a situation right there where he doesn’t have Avail anymore, he only has the acoustic thing. I wouldn’t be content with that. There’s a part of me that needs to have an electric guitar, and I want to play some music that my mom doesn’t necessarily think is good… (*both laugh*)…and my mom LOVES the Ray Rocket album!

I was just going to ask what mom thought! That’s funny!

I mean, she doesn’t like the song “Bullshit,” but I do!… I think that we achieved making it as awesome as it could possibly be. I listen to the record and I think it sounds cool!

It really does sound great. Maybe that’s the Blasting Room part coming through, because it’s not like it’s just demos you put together at your house. It sounds like a great record. It sounds like I think it’s supposed to sound.

Yeah, totally! That is one thing about going to The Blasting Room that comes with it. I knew if I went and recorded at that studio, sonically, the record would sound great. Then it’s just all up to me as far as how the performances go. It would suck if the performances were there but it didn’t sound loud enough, or whatever.

The title song itself I know is one of the two songs that’s not a Teenage Bottlerocket song, but if you close your eyes, you can picture that being a Teenage Bottlerocket song I think.

I think with some songs, like “Please Feel Free,” it’s unorthodox for my style of songwriting…and I didn’t write that song, actually, it was my roommate in college in that band I was talking about. But that’s just the way I’ve always written songs and I don’t really plan on changing that. I think that just an acoustic guitar and all the different things I’m doing is change enough.

So you’re not going to start to wear flannel and grow a beard and move down South?

(*laughs*) No, I mean I’m not really that dude that hangs out on the front porch with his dog with one eye.

Well, there’s a lot of guys that pretend to be that guy…especially nowadays…

I know, I hear you, man. But, we did practice with the new drummer with Teenage Bottlerocket, and we did go over “Do You Wanna Go To Tijuana” probably five or six times, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it made it into a Teenage Bottlerocket set here and there.

It would sound natural.

I think it would too, and it was Kody’s idea that we try it. … And there’s such a spin on the rest of these songs that it all is fresh. When people write “I can’t wait to hear how the rest of this record sounds,” there is some excitement. Because people could think “oh, I’ve heard “Radio” a thousand times before, I don’t need to hear it again but on acoustic guitar.” The reality is that it’s a lot different, with the violin and the cello and the tubular bells. It just turned out so cool and I hope that people don’t judge it that way. Everything does have its own personality, and I changed it up enough that the excitement is there, in my opinion.

I think that there are people that may not be Teenage Bottlerocket fans that will like this album and maybe look back through the Bottlerocket catalog because it works so well as a standalone album.

That’s awesome, and that’s good to hear. Maybe there’s somebody out there that doesn’t like Teenage Bottlerocket that’ll really like Ray Rocket. It’s definitely a possibility. And the other way around is a possibility too! (*both laugh*)

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