DS Interview: Rob Taxpayer (The Taxpayers) on new album, punk ethos, and dream gig

The Taxpayers were the first band to ever convert me live. I saw them with Bomb the Music Industry! and the Sidekicks at the now defunct Backspace many years ago. It was a night to remember. The band ripped through their set, but also taught us dances and threw blow-up animals into the pit to be knocked around. They showed me what a good live band was supposed to be, while proving that serious and fun don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The Taxpayers can have it both ways, and seeing them do it so successfully has made me a lifelong fan. The night, the stage, the show is for fun. The album is for art. A band can have both– and the Taxpayers regularly do.

Big Delusion Factory is their latest in a long series of wonderfully intricate punk albums and I was lucky enough to sit down with vocalist/guitarist Rob Taxpayer to discuss that and much more.

Click here for full interview.

So, last I heard, you moved away from Portland and the Taxpayers have existed in a sort of ethereal quasi-state of being a band or not-being a band. Its been three years since Cold Hearted Town, what’s the state of the Taxpayers?

“…ethereal quasi-state…” Haha, that is a great description.  Well, the Taxpayers have never really stopped being a band, but we have gone through extended periods of just not doing anything.  When we began moving away from each other geographically, it was slow and gradual.  Kevin (trumpet) fell in love with a music teacher in New Orleans that he met when we played a show there while on tour in about 2010 or so.  He moved there to be with her, and they are married now.  A year later, I was feeling kind of depressed and stagnant with my life in Portland, so I decided to apply for graduate school at the University of New Orleans, where I knew I would see some sunshine finally and would get to hang out with Kevin.  I met my life partner there and decided to stick around.  A year later, Phil (bass) decided that he needed a change too.  He grew up in Portland, and was ready for something new, so he moved to Minneapolis, where we have made lots of friends throughout the life of this band.

I think Dylan (accordion and keyboard, formerly called Danielle) put it best by saying that this band is the longest relationship that most of us have ever been in.  Next year will be our 10th anniversary of being friends in a band together.  It doesn’t really make sense to any of us to call it quits.  We use the band as an excuse to see each other, which is especially important now that we all live in so many different places.  That said, life sometimes gets in the way, and it can be a few years before we are all able to set aside enough time to get together and record an album, which is what happened between Cold Hearted Town and now.

How and when did the concept of Big Delusion Factory come together?

To answer your question on how the concept for Big Delusion Factory came about, well, we decided that we’d like to get together and see each other, so we bought some plane tickets and planned to meet up in Minneapolis for a month or so.  Then I started vomiting up as many song demos as I could and sent them to everybody.  After we picked the ones that we liked, we practiced and recorded them in Minneapolis.  About halfway through that process, we began noticing some common themes in the songs, and scrapped the 20-ish songs that we’d already recorded that didn’t fit the theme.  Maybe they will end up on their own record someday, who knows.  The theme we stumbled across was basically a fictional post-disaster American city being forcefully changed by predatory real estate developers, poverty displacement, crumbling infrastructure, etc.  Basically, the kind of stuff we were seeing in our respective cities (and the kind of stuff happening in most major American cities today.)  We started actively trying to tie that theme together from song to song, recorded some new stuff in Portland and New Orleans, and squished it all together.

So, with everyone so spread out, The Taxpayers are an almost stateless band; content to transcend geographic norms and band bios for eternity. How do you reckon this with your band’s’ reputation as a band that demands to be seen live? Will the release of Big Delusion Factory be accompanied by a tour?

There will be a small east coast and midwest tour that we are working out right now, leading up to Plan It X fest in July.  Up until about 2012, we were touring every few months or so, and we got a little burnt out by the end.  I will say, though, that we are able to handle pretty much anything that happens on tour at this point; we have had vans stolen and sold to chop shops, band members arrested in various small towns throughout the country, lived through tornados, had to abandon 13 broken vans mid-tour, hitchhiked to shows, slept in bushes, been cursed by scary witches.  Just all kinds of crazy stuff.  It made us feel like pros at touring, to the point where I now feel like we could problem-solve our way out of almost any situation.  But all of that definitely took it’s toll, and we now try to only bite off as much as we can chew when it comes to planning and booking a tour.

I thought the themes on gentrification throughout Big Delusion Factory were a very interesting way to tackle political punk rock. The nature of the genre is that it reacts and combusts to turmoil, internalizing strife with energetic rock ‘n roll– all from the eyes and fingers of the outcast. But, at least for me, this is a fact all too easy to take for granted. Political bands come and go, their art becomes generic angst and as they try to say everything they start to say nothing. The Taxpayers never had this problem. When you write, you double-down on specificity and flesh out an issue on a ground level perspective, as in the album’s final track “The Right Permits.” Is punk rock an inherently political genre? Do we need to get more creative with how we deal with our outrage?

In regards to the political themes in Big Delusion Factory, I’m not sure that gentrification is the right word for it – it’s something more openly sinister than the racial or income demographics of a place shifting.  Though that is certainly a symptom of it, and a problem that needs to be solved.  It’s companies buying up entire neighborhoods, demolishing them, and building private for-profit hospitals and prisons.  It’s real estate gamblers lobbying local governments for property tax deregulation.  Education “nonprofits” padding their school’s budgets by taking in special education students (who are worth 40 grand per year in federal subsidies) and denying those same students their legally mandated services.  Basically, it is people making millions off of the suffering of other people.  And getting away with it because a disaster has everyone looking the other way.

But to answer your question, I do think that politics can become watered down and meaningless if it is 100% vitriolic all the time.  Most folks don’t give a shit about some person screaming about how the government sucks, especially if that’s all that person ever does, and if the extent of their criticism never reaches beyond “fuck all authority”.  The world and it’s problems are complicated, and it takes serious, nuanced thinking to figure them out.  That said, we did have a few of those types of songs that we cut from this album.  And we have definitely written some of those in the past.  Screaming into a microphone can be therapeutic and help you blow off steam, but it can become like semantic saturation – if you do it too much, it ceases to have meaning.

One of the things I really like about Big Delusion Factory is the sonic scope of the album. None of the songs run together, each being pretty distinct, due in part to songwriting but also to instrumentation. When does the decision on how to play a song come into play with the band? And what inspires you to incorporate a lot of the non-punk influences?

I’m not really sure!  Sometimes I will write a song that I think will be slow and quiet, and when we start putting it together, everyone will decide that “this will be much better loud and fast”.  Or vice versa.  It kind of just happens; as stupid as it sounds, songs will usually tell you what they want to be.  Sometimes you try to force a round song into a square hole and it works out, but more often than not, when things aren’t working out, it’s because 1) the song sucks, or 2) you just haven’t figured out what the song needs yet.  That is what happened with the song “Call Me Linda” from this record.  We tried to make it fit onto Cold Hearted Town as a fast, punk song.  It just came out sounding wrong.  We hadn’t yet figured out that the song wasn’t a stand-alone track; it was more of an introduction to world with lots of different characters, and therefore worked much better as a piano tune.

In regards to incorporating different influences, we just kind of do what we do without worrying too much about whether the punk kids, hardcore folks, or jazz / noise weirdos will like it.  I realized with this record that while I find bizarre time signatures and unique sounds interesting, they don’t move me quite as much as simple, more traditional song structures.  Which is why we have a lot more major-key songs and piano-based songs on this album than we have had on previous records.  For better or worse, I guess, depending on who you’re talking to.

Is the Taxpayers your main creative outlet? I know you’re a writer, as I’ve read the Henry Turner book. What other art mediums inform your music?

For me, it is.  I mess around with writing prose from time to time, play some different instruments in various short-lived bands every few years, and have been learning to play jazz clarinet for the past few months, but I definitely reserve the majority of my creative time for Taxpayers material.  I know that Andrew (who play guitar and banjo with the Taxpayers) would probably tell you that his main creative outlet is the band Shitty Weekend, which he is in with Noah (who plays drums).  Noah might tell you that his main creative outlet is visual arts and theater / stage construction, which is what he does for a living.  Dylan spends a lot of time playing with Tensor, Backbiter (who are joining us for the tour this summer), and a few other acts.  You’d have to ask Phil, Kevin, and Alex about their main thing.

Outside of music, I have been getting a kick out of building weird utilitarian objects out of scrap wood.  My partner and I live part of our time in a little house made out of a 20 foot shipping container, so I spend a lot of time figuring out ways to make the house work the way a house should: keeping the windows from leaking, trying to build gravity-fed outdoor showers, that kind of stuff.

Portland has a pretty diverse and happening punk scene, at least in my opinion. How is New Orleans in that regards? The whole world knows about Pears now, but are there enough people making music to fill bills for your average Wednesday night dive bar show?

I had never actually heard of Pears until you mentioned it.  After a quick internet search, it appears that the band is made up of some of the folks involved in various Community Records-related projects.  It’s good to hear that some of those folks are doing well for themselves – they have all struck me as very nice, and seem to be in it for the right reasons.  One member of Pears used to be in a band called the Rooks, which were one of my favorite local groups.

Honestly, I really couldn’t tell you much about the New Orleans punk scene these days.  It seems to be as diverse and vibrant as any major American city, but I am just not currently able to be involved in the way that I’d like to, due to a pretty heavy teaching schedule and my own unrelated personal projects.

I will say that it was pretty difficult for me to make new lasting friendships in the New Orleans punk scene after moving here in my 30’s, though that probably has something to do with the fact that it becomes more difficult to make new friendships the older you get, in addition to the inherent transient nature of the city.  Locals definitely seem more wary of newcomers, since so many newcomers arrive and leave in the blink of an eye.  A few years ago I played drums in a group called Negation, and throughout the lifespan of that band I definitely encountered a thriving, exciting DIY scene.  So basically, it is like anything: you get out of it what you put into it.

What do you get out of the punk scene? What are we all working for when we write music, book shows, or, if I may be so self-serving, interview and review bands? Does punk rock have an inherent value in and of itself? You write all these songs, you put your heart into it, you write about these issues that matter to you, flesh them out with buddies, and then release them into the world– what do you want from the people that hear them?

These are broad questions, and maybe unnecessary ones, but I think as punk rock people who talk with punk rock people it’s all a foregone conclusion. When you burst out of the bubble and talk with working class folks who view music as disposable entertainment, who don’t go to shows, who wouldn’t dream of posting fliers for a band for free– it becomes apparent how alien the world of punk rock is to the average human. Popularity is commonly equated to quality in a lot of circles, and maybe it is, and the quality is just differently defined. But, it all comes back to the hierarchy of needs. Have we, as the punx, become so detached from common struggle that we feel the need to take a spear against ideas? Has punk rock already been co-opted? Are we now just a self-indulgent out-cropping of first world affluence?

I had some very lucky formative experiences with DIY Punk, most of which I owe to the band Delay, who come from the same area of Ohio where I was raised.  Delay started, I think, when they were 13 years old (around 1998?), and were the moral heart of our local scene.  I became involved around the age of 15, and the scene was very supportive to everyone.  It encouraged creative people to do creative things.  It was delighted when newcomers arrived, and opened it’s arms unconditionally to outcasts, weirdos, and nerds.  We booked shows at community centers, put together benefits in church basements, went sledding and swimming together.  Later on, the Taxpayers tried to recreate this through the Goof Punx ethos.

My partner has had very different experiences with punk.  Where she grew up in Detroit, the punks were exclusionary and picked on the “nerds”.  When she came on tour with the Taxpayers, she found that the more radical punks around the country shunned her or actively despised her (though to everyone else, she is a friendly, goofy preschool teacher with an incredibly good heart and a weird, adventurous spirit).  I, too, have felt shunned in certain punk communities, and that sucks.

Now, I think that DIY Punk can be very different from other types of punk, because punk (like all things) exists on a spectrum.  It can be an aesthetic, an art form, an excuse to party, a political force.  For me, it is a set of guiding moral principles with room to grow and change.  It helps me figure out – but does not define – the things that are important to me and worth fighting for.  And it still affects me to this day – I am currently building a house , which is something I probably would not have had the blind confidence (or naivety) to do without the impression that DIY Punk made on me: that anyone can do just about anything if they give it a shot.

I’m not sure if that answers the questions you were asking, but I think that if we view punk from a personal, micro lens, rather than a large-scale macro one, it can absolutely be essential to our daily struggles, both for people inside of and outside of the small world of punk rock.  Anything that helps us create meaning and find belonging can be powerful.

That’s a great answer. Thank you so much for talking to me for so long and humoring my multi-part questions. The new album is great and I can’t wait for people to check it out. I have one last question and then I’ll let you get on with building a house.

If the Taxpayers could go on a dream tour, what bands, defunct or still kickin’ would fill out the bill?

:) It was nice to chat with you, Carson.

Dream tour…a relatively unknown Jimmy Buffett from the 1960’s would open up the show with his country songs about robbing gas stations and stealing peanut butter from mini-marts.  Bikini Kill would go on 2nd and completely eviscerate all the idiots who are at the show to see Jimmy.  The Clash and Harry and the Potters would share the final set, and the last song would end with a violent battle between good and evil witches and wizards.  Good would win on some nights, evil on others.  The Taxpayers would just sit back and haul gear for the bands.


Thanks again to Rob for taking time out of his day to talk with us. You can find tracks streaming for the new album here. Big Delusion Factory is due out June 1st. 

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