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Few artists can juggle their involvement in multiple interesting projects at once and pull it off like a seasoned pro. Erik Kase Romero is a perfect example of such an artist. He splits his time between being an active member of The Front Bottoms, his production/engineering work, where he pours much of his creative juices into his efforts to help up-and-coming bands shine to their fullest on record, putting out music under his own name, and you know, having an actual life outside of music, too. This month, the New Jersey native released his highly anticipated debut full-length album, how to be still and still be here, to much fanfare, and we were eager to talk to him about his journey. Luckily for us, Romero was generous with his time and willingness to unpack what the last few years have been like for him. He gets into what it’s like playing to massive crowds around the world with TFB, the music that helped mold his artistic identity, what new bands are inspiring him today, and much more. Let’s get into it!
Q. Do you feel your experience as a producer helps you be a better band member and songwriter?
A: I think only so far as the fact that since I’m working with bands and songwriters frequently, I get the opportunity to observe and learn a lot while producing. Beyond that they feel like really different roles with distinct skill sets to me. To be honest when I was making this record I found it helpful to mix things up or change my usual production patterns just to get me out of the producer/engineer mindset and more into the songwriter zone and to keep it from feeling like “work.”
Q: You played for years in the band Dollys with Natalie Newbold, how did it work out that you both are in The Front Bottoms? I imagine you two are super tight?
A: Yes me and Natalie are super tight! On top of all of that we lived together for almost three years as well. Dollys was our first band together and we really became close during those years of touring and recording; she’s been my best friend for a long time. I feel super lucky to be still getting the chance to play in bands with Natalie after all the years and adventures that we’ve had. She’s an incredibly talented creative and a very honest and loving human being. She’s been one of my biggest supporters with taking this step into my own songs and I couldn’t have done it without her.
Q. What was it like going from playing smaller clubs in your previous bands to playing large rooms with TFB? Are there plans to play small rooms or join larger tours with your newest project?
A: I love sharing music with other people in the context of a show. I think there are obviously idiosyncrasies to each show and opportunity to share however I think the main idea stays the same. The only insight I can offer is that after being fortunate enough to play some larger shows than I ever thought I’d get to, it’s become clear that I’m still personally looking for the same thing at any performance. It’s all just about exploring the ways that the opportunity can lead to the art connecting with people in some way.
Q: In your opinion, what are the essential qualities that make a “good songwriter”?
A: Woof. That feels so hard to even make a judgment about. I think it’s really about authenticity and connecting, at least in my opinion. I think my favorite songwriters are always those who I “believe.” Meaning that I believe that their art is an authentic expression of themselves. I think that can be manifested in a lot of ways obviously. It could be communicated lyrically, just through aesthetics, through the production or instrumentation choices…. Yea it’s a bit esoteric, but that’s the best I can do!
Q: In a quote about your new song “still” you say “It’s a song about the struggle of being present” can you expand on that thought?
A: I would imagine in our current climate culturally, and especially through the lens of technology and the internet, that many people may also struggle with being present in one way or another… but I know for sure that I certainly do. My intent in the song was to unpack the ways that I have trouble feeling connected and present while exploring my own longing for it. I wrote the majority of the song during a considerably painful and depressed period in my own life and it was a healthy meditation to try and get some of my feelings out in a song.
Q: What is the basis for writing attention-grabbing music in this day and age?
A: I mean there’s certainly really exciting artistic reasons to want to make art that is “attention-grabbing” in my opinion. I think trying to do something new or “dangerous” is the fuel that keeps music and culture evolving. What I struggle with is the idea of trying to tailor a song or a piece of art to be more attention grabbing as a response to the general conception that the “audience’s” collective attention span is somehow dwindling. There really seems to be a lot of pressure in the music industry around “standing out” or even just getting to the hook of a song quicker. I always wonder if there’s a cyclical nature to more music being made that requires less patience and a lack of general willingness to be patient with music in general. It’s hard to navigate though, because of course as songwriters we want our music to be shared and experienced by other people (why else would we release it?). However I think it can be healthy to try and make the distinction if a decision about making a song more accessible or “attention grabbing” is actually serving the song itself or heading more towards pandering to expectations. I struggle with it a lot, personally, and definitely made some decisions on this record that felt like risks in relation to this idea, but those decisions felt very right for the songs.
Q: Can you pinpoint some specific songs and songwriters that changed the way you write music?
A: Well, Jackson Browne and Tom Petty from a young age definitely shaped my early engagement with songwriting. My mom had a lot of their records and now looking back I feel really privileged to have been exposed to such excellent role models at such a young age. Recently I’ve been really inspired by Adrianne Lenker, Buck Meek, and Big Thief (proper) in terms of songwriting. I get such a sense of freedom and intentionality with those artists that has absolutely inspired me as a songwriter in so many ways. Their music is somehow so fearless but so familiar in so many ways and it makes me want to learn how to harness that ethos as a creative myself. Also recently I’ve become a really big fan of what Wednesday and MJ Lenderman have been creating. Their recent records feel like such an important movement back towards songwriting that is so exciting and inspiring for me.
Q: Do you find it hard to be inspired by artists that are younger than you, or are you motivated by their energy? Can you name any new artists you find inspiring?
A: Not at all. A lot of my clients as a producer are now younger than me, and I’m constantly so excited to see what kind of energy and new ideas are coming out of younger artists. There’s a freedom with being new to things that cannot be replaced and I’m always here for it. I mentioned Wednesday and MJ Lenderman in the last question. Some other notable younger artists that I personally have been listening to are: Soccer Mommy, Colter Wall, RatBag, The Lostines, and Madison Cunningham.
Q. Do you prefer being a small but important piece of a band like The Front Bottoms or being the main heart and soul of a project? What are some of the main ways you approach these roles differently?
A: I’m not sure if I prefer one or the other. They satisfy very different pieces of what I love to do creatively. Producing artists or playing/touring with a band like TFB are such incredible ways to collaborate and truly serve others. I’ve always been really attracted to that kind of dynamic and have made a career out of it! Writing and taking ownership of my own music is such a different animal. It’s definitely more difficult for me just because it’s something I’ve done less. However I feel like I’m at a point where I have enough to say that writing my own music can have a satisfaction that is totally unique.
Q: For your new album, how to be still and still be here, what are some of the main inspirations you drew from lyrically, thematically and even in the art direction?
A: Thematically, this collection of songs has a lot to do with accepting myself and allowing myself to be vulnerable enough to admit and explore the ways I am broken. I think pretty much all of the songs go there in one way or another. I don’t know if it was intentional or not but it’s the energy that has been surrounding me during the period of time that I wrote them.
Musically I think I was really inspired to try and find a way to fuse the americana and country vocabulary that I know and love so deeply with my identity as a guy from New Jersey who’s been steeped in indie, emo and punk for his entire life and as a producer who craves experimentation and innovation. I don’t know if it was a success but the search for it absolutely led to what this record is and I’m grateful for the journey! I think lyrically I’ve always been struggling to find what my authentic voice is, and to be honest I’m always really inspired by my friends and clients who are incredible lyricists. Definitely Dogwood Tales, Rick Barry, Brian from TFB, and Shannen Moser are a couple examples of people within my community that have inspired me lyrically.
Visual art wise, I really relied on some people I’m very close with: Stephen Omark, Natalie Newbold, Luke Ivanovich, and James Waltsak to help me translate my songs into a visual component. They are all incredible creatives and I’m lucky to be able to collaborate with them.
Q: When writing do you find that you ruminate over songs and hold on to them for a long time before putting them out there? Or do you prefer to write them, release them, and be done with them. Do you ever revisit old material to do a re-write or once it’s done it’s done?
A: I try not to let anything sit too long. I feel like the quicker I can catalog a song the better. It’s helpful to me to be as close as I was to the mindset I was in when I was writing it. That being said, some of the songs on the album are older or even reimagined versions of older songs but in general I like to try and just ride the energy of a song as quickly as possible.
Q: Were there any important lessons you learned during the writing and recording process that you’ll take with you?
A: Absolutely! If i’m not learning I’d be scared! I think one big lesson I learned making these songs was how to explore my own singing voice more. I’ve never really enjoyed having to hear myself sing and I really wanted to push myself to try new things and understand my own voice more deeply. I sing a lot more songs in the lower part of my register on the record, which is very new to me. I also feel like I learned so much from the other musicians who collaborated with me on the record. Max Connery, Evan Dibbs, and Samir Tawalare played the bulk of the instrumentation on the record and each of them really pushed themselves creatively. Together we stumbled on a litany of new approaches and techniques that are now a part of our collective vocabulary in so many exciting ways! I tried my best to highlight a lot of these moments throughout the record.
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