Nakatomi Plaza: Music With Sociopolitical Significance
Photos by Saige Stuto.
Many musicians come together for the simple fact that they just enjoy playing music. Making songs is an activity that is cathartic as well as being a catalyst which propels them forward in life, and the New York City trio of Nakatomi Plaza finds music serves both purposes for them.
Currently, the band comprised of singer/guitarist Oscar Rodriguez, singer/bassist Al Fair, and drummer Lou Maiolica, has released two new singles, “The Strikes” and “Not Hopeless,” from their third album, Unsettled. The songs possess the band’s high voltage of power punk pop settings along lyrical content that has a sociopolitical significance shared by all three members.
“I really didn’t want us to be just another emo/indie/hardcore/whatever band singing songs with insignificant themes,” Oscar Rodriguez emphasized.
It was during the recording of Nakatomi Plaza’s second record Private Property, that they found the right impetus for their songs. “My interest in sociopolitical issues was at an all time high and that came through in the lyrics,” Oscar said. “Musically, we wanted to write more energetic and complex music. I can see the faults in that record, but in all, I’m still very proud of it.”
Since Private Property, Nakatomi Plaza’s impetus has come from sociopolitical issues like the song “Meanwhile in Greenpoint,” when Oscar chants: “Now it’s our turn/ So raise a fist and we’ll scream together f&% this.” Their name, Nakatomi Plaza, has sociopolitical significance, as well, hitting a chord with the band after watching Bruce Willis’ movie “Die Hard.” It is the Nakatomi Plaza tower in the movie where a shootout takes place between the good guys and the bad guys.
Oscar explains, “One night (former band members) Liam Hurley, Matt Galek, and I were watching “Die Hard.” It’s one of my favorite movies. I think Liam tried to justify the NP name in an early video interview by talking about how we were the byproducts of ‘80s pop culture, etc. but really we just couldn’t think of anything else and after a couple of tours, we had to keep going with that name. The band’s been around long enough that if you know us, then the name fits and it has become a part of our collective identity.”
Nakatomi Plaza has undergone a number of line-up changes, but one person who has remained consistent is singer/songwriter/guitarist Oscar Rodriguez, who began his musical journey growing up in Rhode Island. “I was born in Warwick, Rhode Island,” he said. “All I really remember is that there was always a lot of school work to do, and though I usually received good marks, I would’ve always rather have been playing music.”
He remembered, “My mom had me and my older brother take piano lessons when I was 5 years old and [I]continued until I graduated from high school. I developed an obsession with The Beatles and music in general around the age of 9. My parents got me my first guitar when I was 10. Then I started studying and practicing pretty seriously.
“At age 13, I also started studying classical organ,” he recalled, “and that’s when things first got really busy - piano lessons, organ lessons, guitar lessons, practicing, school, etc. After considering being a piano or organ major at different conservatories, I decided to be a jazz guitar major at NYU. It was basically four years of studying, playing, writing, performing, etc. with some of the best musicians in the world, and it’s continued since.”
Although Oscar’s mother encouraged him to take music lessons, it was meant to be more of a set of guidelines than a chosen path for him. “My family has always been supportive in one way or another, though once my folks saw that I wanted to do this for a living, they grew concerned. I had picked my college major before graduating from high school and I did meet some resistance. No one else in my family is an actual musician, but my mom likes to sing and every once in a while I’ll catch my dad strumming my guitar when he thought no one was around. My older brother used to take piano lessons with me and actually started playing guitar well before I did.”
Oscar Rodriguez reminisced how The Beatles, a band whose heyday was long before his time, would become one of his biggest musical influences next to his own generation’s musical icons, Nirvana. “From age 9 and to this day, my favorite band is The Beatles. Yeah, I know that’s a generic thing to say, but it’s true. Something about The Beatles Rock N Roll Music Vol 1 changed my life. I guess it was how energetic and excited they sounded. Whatever it was, it resonated in me and led me to check out a lot of other music, mostly by rummaging through my older brother’s cassettes like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, etc.
“When I was 13,” he shared, “my drummer friend, Shaun, turned me onto Nirvana, and that was important as it showed me you could write great songs without a lot of complicated unnecessary ideas. After learning a few Nirvana songs by ear, I started to try and write my own songs, another turning point for me. Nirvana was also important as they later got me into punk/hardcore and other independent music. If you put all that together, that’s where Nakatomi Plaza is coming from.”
Oscar not only thrived in music during his studies, but also in finding work playing music. “I have been lucky not to have too many actual jobs. I worked in a record store in high school. In college, I worked (the role) as monitor in the Music Tech department at NYU. After college, I very briefly worked as a canvasser for the non-profit organization ACORN, but for the past six years I’ve been a full-time freelance musician in addition to Nakatomi Plaza. I have played, recorded and toured with a variety of other artists, including New Electric, De La Hoya, Paul Schneider And The Close Talkers, Shimmerplanet, Ari Hest, The Pierces, Cheryl B. Engelhardt, Alex Sweeton, Eric Hill And Hidden Drive, Hightower Smith, and many others.
“I am also in a wedding band,” he said, “mostly playing ‘80s covers with members of the French Kicks and The Exit, called Dexter Lake Club Band. And I teach private guitar lessons at Columbia Prep and have an extensive private teaching practice.”
Before becoming a sessions player and forming Nakatomi Plaza, Oscar was in a few rock bands during junior high school and high school, most notably Confusion and Mindset. They played local clubs in Rhode Island. “Some friends of ours were already playing clubs in Providence, and they started bringing us with them to play shows my freshman year of high school. It was a lot of fun.”
In 1998, Nakatomi Plaza was formed and, though Oscar could not remember the first original song he ever wrote with the band, he remembered their first live show as if it was yesterday. “January 16, 1999, at a VFW Hall in Providence, Rhode Island,” he said, firmly. “The line-up was me, Matt Galek (on guitar), Liam Hurley (on drums), and Meredith Donnolly on bass. We opened the show with a three-song set, [including] ‘Circles,’ an instrumental song that eventually became part of ‘Good Friday’ and ‘Spinning Off.’ I had a blast and was greatly encouraged. Though, because it was a side project, we didn’t play another show until June of that year, but by October, Al was in the band and we were getting busier.”
He recounted how he met Al Fair. “In 1999, I was playing in a punk/hardcore band called De La Hoya. The drummer of De La Hoya used to be in a punk band with Al Fair called All Mouth No Trousers and he introduced us to each other. Nakatomi Plaza had already started as a side project with me, another jazz major drummer Liam Hurley, and guitarist Matt Galek, but we could never find a bassist. Al’s band was about to break up, and I told her we needed a bassist and we were going to tour. I think that really excited her.”
With NP’s line-up consisting of Oscar, Al, Liam, and Matt, they put out their first effort entitled By Chester Copperpot. It was in these early years when Nakatomi Plaza explored what they wanted. About their first album, Oscar said, “The album is really just a full length demo. It was recorded by Matt Galek at his parent’s house. There was little rehearsal involved and Matt was just learning the ropes of recording. The songs had been written over the previous year. At the time, I was very much inspired by the music of the Canadian band DBS.
“That was a particularly hard time in my life for various reasons,” he remarked, “and all that awkward sadness and frustration really came out in the lyrics. Though I’m downplaying the record, we really did have a lot of fun making it and there are a handful of songs off there I still enjoy. If anything it was a fun learning experience.” After the tour, Matt decided this wasn‘t for him.
Oscar described their second EP, Private Property, “Me, Liam, and Al wrote and recorded the songs for the Private Property EP. Joel Remland joined the band on guitar. Shortly after that, we toured the US and Canada for six weeks. Things were a lot different with the second record. We recorded in an actual recording studio during mine and Liam’s senior year Spring Break. The studio itself was in an office building in Pelham, New York, and we weren’t allowed to make any loud noises until 6pm, so we ended up recording and mixing for three or four days straight from 6pm to 6am. It was brutal. On the other hand, we were fortunate to work with Sean Hanney and John Herrit - the two guitar geeks/studio wizards. We had a blast together.”
Liam Hurley would stay for a few more tours and to record three additional tracks to make NP’s Private Property EP into a full length album for Immigrant Sun Records, which was to be released before he left the band. Liam would be replaced by drummer Andrew De Stefano, who would leave and be replaced by NYU jazz major Max Goldman, who would also leave and be replaced by Lou Maiolica, NP’s present drummer. Each drummer left after realizing “he wasn’t a big fan of touring,” Oscar recounted. “You can tell by the amount of line-up changes we’ve had that it’s been a long journey to find the right people. As far as it being ‘right,’ I don’t think you ever really know for sure until you are in the thick of it, making records, touring, etc.”
For Nakatomi Plaza’s third album, Unsettled, Oscar collaborated with former band members Andrew De Stefano, Max Goldman, Joel Remland, and Liam Hurley, along with present member Al Fair. Oscar chronicles the recording sessions as, “I’ll bring in a skeleton of a song, everyone learns the basic idea and we all start messing with it, changing the structure, the arrangement, the chords, etc. Sometimes I’ll write music and Al will come up with amazing vocal melodies and lyrics like on ‘Not Hopeless’ and ‘A Manifest Destiny Grows In Brooklyn.’ Also, having a small ProTools set up at home has helped demo songs more efficiently.”
For Unsettled, Nakatomi Plaza worked with record producer J. Robbins. “I had always been a big fan of J. Robbins and whatever music he was involved with, from Jawbox to his production work with some of my favorite bands,” Oscar said. “We always used to talk about who we want to work with and his name always came up, but it never seemed like a realistic possibility. Then this other band, New Electric, that me and Liam were in, played with J.’s new band, Channels, and I just went up to him after the show and started talking to him and handed him a demo of Unsettled’s songs. About a week later, and much to my surprise, we were talking via email and a few months later, J. was sleeping on our couch while we were tracking. Weird but totally awesome.
“He’s not just a producer/engineer,” Oscar said with admiration, “he has played in bands and has been a songwriter all his life, so I knew he’d relate to us on that level. Two, he is an amazing engineer. We recorded at the sadly now defunct Jarvis Studios, which was located in the same building as the also now defunct Tower Records, where he had never worked before but immediately got a grasp of his surroundings and the equipment, which was quite amazing. Three, his resume speaks for itself. He’s built up an amazing portfolio of works and I’m happy that Unsettled is now a part of that. It was awesome working with J. My only hope is that if we do get to work with him again, we’ll have more time. I think we were all a little stressed about the budget and time constraints.”
He noted, “As a producer, [J.] made some excellent decisions about some issues we had with some of the songwriting. For me personally, he was able to coach me through the vocal sessions, which I sorely needed. Right before we started recording the drums, I lost my voice and couldn’t speak for a few weeks. I had to undergo all these annoying tests, as well, so they could figure out what was wrong with me. I had to communicate with everyone via hand gestures and a sharpie and notepad. The doctors said I had really bad acid reflux and I had fried my vocal chords. Others said I had an allergic reaction, which had irritated my vocal chords.”
Oscar visited his old vocal coach, Don Lawrence, whom he said, “ran me through a warm-up and said I was fine and that the doctors had over-diagnosed me. Figures!” Don Lawrence has been a mentor in many ways to Oscar. “I studied for one summer with Don Lawrence, who is amazing. He coaches everyone from Mick Jagger to Christina Aguilera to the dude from Life Of Agony, and it’s really made all the difference.”
Oscar’s vocals for the tracks on Unsettled were recorded after a month of rest. “J. realized I was mentally OK and got me through it all. In fact, I think that marathon, three-day vocal session,” J. put Oscar through, “actually increased my range a little.”
As the band became more serious, so did their rehearsals. “Our music has become more complicated, and we really have to rehearse this stuff before going out to play a show. So much has changed,” he assessed. “Back then (in 1998), I didn’t have the first clue how to sing properly, but somehow felt confident enough to go and scream my head off anyway. When we started seriously recording, I realized I needed to take some (advanced) lessons if I wanted to progress. Also, in the past two years, we’ve also been rehearsing with different kinds of click tracks to strengthen our time and feel as a group.”
Touring for Nakatomi Plaza has provided some exciting experiences to compliment their heavy rehearsal schedules. “In 2002, we played Mac Rock on the same bill as Fugazi. Granted, we played way below Fugazi in the lineup, but nonetheless it was with Fugazi,” Oscar pointed out.
“This past year’s CMJ Marathon (in New York City) was incredibly fun,” he enthused. “We played the Red Leader Records showcase at the North Six basement (in Brooklyn), which was packed. All the Red Leader bands put on amazing performances and having everyone packed into that room made me feel like we were a part of something vibrant and important. That night was a huge morale booster.”
NP has also played shows in Canada, which prompted Oscar to shout out, “Canada rules!! We’ve done the Courtenay, an island off of Vancouver to Winnipeg route, which takes about a week, twice so far. We’re also played a few shows in Quebec. The audiences up there were so receptive and they showed us a lot of love. Courtenay, in particular, is an amazing experience. You have to take a ferry to get there and the scenery is just beautiful. I guess not many bands make it up that far because everyone is completely excited to see live music.”
Oscar revealed, “During our first time in Winnipeg we also got to meet one of our favorite bands, and one of the main reasons Al plays music - Propaghandi. We happened to see them in this café and Al invited them to our show. Much to our surprise, all three of them came, and afterwards said a lot of kind things about our performance. That blew my mind.”
Even though touring has given Nakatomi Plaza a good share of fun, Oscar does not deny the difficulties that come with being on the road. “It’s really hard to be in a band. We’ve had a lot of money issues from day one. Independent bands like us have to front all the money for recording and for rehearsal studios, van payments - we’re on our third van, insurance, and maintenance, merchandise, etc. It gets excruciatingly expensive. We’ve also been an entirely self-booked band. It’s hard enough trying to book out of town weekend shows, but try booking a seven-week tour across the US and Canada.”
He recommended, “Avoid problems on the road. Get your van checked out before you head out. Confirm and re-confirm every show. One of my favorite bands, Poster Children, once said that bands break up on days off and it’s kinda true. You’ll find that there will be more inter-band fighting on days off, so book a show for every day on tour if you can.”
“I also think that bands break up on tour when they don’t bring someone to roadie for them, so try to get someone to come with you when you go out,” he added. “Having someone around who is not in the band may help keep everyone on better behavior. Or better yet, try touring with another band,” he advises. “Not only will the extra company be beneficial but the other band can also help you book shows, load gear, etc. And have fun!!”
MusicDish.com encourages bands to use sites like MySpace, that are social gatherings for musicians, and music festivals and conferences to meet artists and forge relationships. These outlets give artists opportunities to reach fans that will associate their music with performers that fans know. “With sites like MySpace and PureVolume, we’ve been able to reach new fans more quickly and you can distribute and sell your music online physically and digitally through sites like CD Baby. Though these sites can never replicate the experience of seeing a band live or even listening to their actual record, it’s good for checking out new music and seeing what’s out there.”
“The way a lot of labels are being run right now, excluding labels like Red Leader and Brightskull Records, seriously, they don’t want to sign anything they have to develop,” Oscar imparted. “If you’re a new band, I wouldn’t worry about that so much. I think it’s important to try to make friends and develop real relationships with people. It’s such a turnoff to me when people are overtly trying to network and make contacts. I understand why people do it and I catch myself doing it as well, but I want something more genuine.”
Competition often fuels a rush of adrenaline in bands, and Nakatomi Plaza uses that energy as motivation to improve their sound. “We’re based in Brooklyn, New York, where there’s already a lot of bands and it’s easy to get lost in the mix. That said, there are a few people over time, most recently Red Leader Records and Brightskull Records, that are actually trying to help us out and we can’t thank them enough.”
It takes quite a few villages to make a band thrive and it is often easier to give up then to keep going. When this happens, Oscar offers, “When you’re thinking of giving up, you have to remind yourself why you’re doing this in the first place and see if that reasoning still holds true.”
Nakatomi Plaza’s new singles, “The Strikes” and “Not Hopeless,” from their third album, Unsettled, and anything else which you would like to know about the band, can be found at the following links:
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