Q&A: Rainer Maria On Splitting Up, Reuniting, & Their Great New Album S/T
Rainer Maria’s new album technically took 11 years to make — hell, longer than that, given that some of the writing sessions go so far back, they were captured on a MiniDisc. And yet, the trio talks about S/T as if it was almost effortless, nothing short of a telepathic miracle. Both bassist/vocalist Caithlin De Marrais and guitarist Kaia Fischer use the idea of “finishing each other’s musical sentences” to describe the process of putting together their first batch of new music since 2006’s ironically titled swan song Catastrophe Keeps Us Together. But as far as explaining the how and why S/T came into existence, this is where communication breaks down.
My phone conversation with the band is full of long, thoughtful pauses and requests to demur, each member questioning whether they have the best answer about the state of Rainer Maria or perhaps whether one of their bandmates has more insight — nothing awkward, just a reminder that for all of their clairvoyance inside of the studio, they’re still getting used to reemerging as a part of each other’s lives outside of it. After all, Rainer Maria broke up in the first place because, as Fischer puts it, “We had spent the entirety of our adult lives in the context of the band, so what comes next was a really good question for everyone. And everyone answered that one differently in accord with their own interest.”
That’s something of an understatement — De Marrais, Fischer, and drummer William Kuehn have spent the past decade on almost entirely different planes of existence. De Marrais became a solo artist, making two LPs, including 2009’s My Magic City, which Fischer co-produced and engineered. Fischer had quietly released Black Milk in 2008, and later enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, where she studied Tibetan language and took on an “old school” apprenticeship that eventually brought her to live in Asia for several years where she began practicing Buddhism. She also came out as trans during this time — Black Milk was released under her prior name, Kyle Fischer. Meanwhile, Kuehn spent the past decade living in Yemen, Syria, and New York City as something of a globetrotting drummer-for-hire.
But for now, the reunion can happen because all three live relatively close to each other for the first time in years — De Marrais resides in Connecticut, Fischer is in Queens, and Kuehn moved to Philadelphia “four days ago.” “If you add them all together and divide by three, it’s Brooklyn,” Fischer jokes, alluding to the most recent place that the band could all call home. Rainer Maria took shape in Madison, WI and were on Polyvinyl at the same time as Braid and American Football, and thus are viewed in historical context as a quintessential Midwestern emo band; there’s little doubt that Rainer Maria benefited from the heightened interest and influence of those bands in the past few years. But after 1999’s Look Now, Look Again, they were actually a Brooklyn band, though any sort of cosmopolitan cred mostly escaped them — “we weren’t ever considered a New York band, we were just Rainer Maria after that,” Fischer notes.
Though they were the first band to take the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the road and used heralded venue Northsix (now Music Hall Of Williamsburg) as their practice space, not surprisingly, there’s no mention of Rainer Maria in Meet Me In The Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman’s fascinating and divisive account of New York City’s rock ‘n’ roll rebirth at the turn of the century. No one in the band has read it yet, but none have any sort of resentment about being left out of the story. Like most of us, they see it as an important historical text, a formative document of rock music in the 21st century as well as what Fischer calls, “one of the great last gasps before gentrification.”
“My rent was $350,” she recalls. “You could still get a room cheap and be creative and live in a loft in Williamsburg.”
Regardless of how they fit into the city’s narrative, Rainer Maria were selling out the Bowery Ballroom in 2000, and by 2006, they seemed to be on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough. Rainer Maria’s last extensive profile shows up in The New York Times, with Kelefah Sanneh lauding Catastrophe’s streamlined, triumphant sound and assessing the promotional firepower of Grunion Records, an indie imprint started by Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch of industry superpower Q Prime Management — Sanneh raises the possibility of Rainer Maria reaching a commercial level of Dashboard Confessional, Rilo Kiley, or Death Cab For Cutie.
Instead, the band broke up later that year and, according to Discogs, Grunion ended up releasing a grand total of two albums — Catastrophe Keeps Us Together and an album from a British lad-rock band named Mohair. Nonetheless, Fischer expresses nothing but gratitude for the opportunity that presented itself when the music industry still had some money to throw around and stresses that Grunion provided the enthusiasm and support of the indie label it wanted to be. “We were adjacent to all this massive Shania Twain and Metallica stuff, but it wasn’t like they handed us a $10 million budget.”
Rainer Maria have returned to Polyvinyl for S/T, and it sounds like a logical continuation of Catastrophe Keeps Us Together — bolder, brighter, even more emphasis on De Marrais’ plainspoken, evocative lyrics — “I think I tried to meditate on and keep myself very attuned to being surprised by associations between the natural world and your inner emotional world, the expressions of desire that are happening in the natural world and the expression of desires that happen between people,” she offers. Despite the slick, streamlined sound, it was produced in-house by Kuehn, and you can tell a drummer was behind the boards given its emphasis on low end — if it is arena-ready, it achieves that in a way reminiscent of the Joy Formidable or Secret Machines.
Fischer’s decreasing role as a foil to De Marrais had been a point of contention amongst diehards since Long Knives Drawn, and that’s not going to change here. And even after all this time, it might still require a readjustment period for anyone who’s ever plugged “and I’m certain if I drive into those trees/ it would make less of a mess than you’ve made of me” into a LiveJournal status update. Still, the band hasn’t lost their affinity for the high drama of fan favorites like “Rise” and “Tinfoil.” “I think I find that those songs reveal their meanings to me later throughout the years,” De Marrais says. “I trusted my instincts and now I have more wisdom with age.”
That also seems like a fair assessment of Rainer Maria’s decision to close down after Catastrophe Keeps Us Together. When asked if that title was intended as foreshadowing, De Marrais says, “We didn’t plan the breakup to go our separate ways, so I think it was an accident. Now it can just be interpreted in a funny way, that it has more meaning.” For perhaps the only time in our conversation, Fischer finishes her sentence — “We’re also playing again now, so we get that and the last laugh.” Read our Q&A below.
STEREOGUM: Do you remember the particulars of the conversation where Rainer Maria decided to close down?
CAITHLIN DE MARRAIS: I’m rolling back the annals of my brain…
KAIA FISCHER: We had all this stuff we wanted to do or the idea of what we might want to do — and it turned out we all did really cool and interesting stuff. In that regard, it was a good decision to stop when we did. It was amazing to come back together and see how all three of us had grown personally and musically, and to be able to bring all those new experiences to bear on this music that we already knew and loved. What we’re doing now is predicated on all of the things we did — you can’t know that exactly at the time.
STEREOGUM: Kaia, was the decision to pursue Buddhism a way to distance yourself from being in the music industry, or the result of a slower process of soul searching?
FISCHER: I went to grad school for religion and I knew I wanted to do something more directly in the service-oriented or helping professions. Music is tremendously helpful for people, but I thought I’d become a chaplain or something, even though I wasn’t keenly following a religious tradition. I happened to connect with some Tibetan Buddhist teachers, particularly my mentor; that philosophy ended up being a good match for my character and I stayed with that. It’s maybe more of an increasingly exclusive thing in terms of my religious and philosophical settings.
STEREOGUM: What does an apprenticeship in this realm look like in the current day?
FISCHER: [My mentor] is much older than me, he was 76 at the time I met him, he’s 83 or 84 now. I ended up renting a tiny little room from him in the back of his place, and I basically spent most of every day with him or around him. He taught me things out of the Tibetan monastic manual — little books or texts, you might say — to memorize. He taught me the Tibetan language and how to translate that into English. That religious tradition is really rich and important and it was the first time I encountered something where, even if I spent my entire life, I felt like I was never gonna master it or know all of it. Music can be kinda the same way. But that impressed me and humbled me: “Oh, I can’t just show up and puff myself up and pretend I’m really good at this. I have to really start at the beginning and study really hard.” And that was very rewarding and different.
STEREOGUM: How did this experience alter your approach to being in Rainer Maria?
FISCHER: Profoundly, but very quietly. I think I was a lot less concerned with some kind of individual self-expression over or against [the other members], if it could be in any way disentangled from that of my bandmates. I found I was really much more committed to understanding them aesthetically or otherwise and helping them achieve the kind of goals that they had, which is one of the reasons why I was really interested in William producing and why it was so exciting. I found that, contrary to what I might’ve expected in my younger years, in no way was my own part of that process or my own voice lost. I found that the more I’m willing to stretch myself, bend, be a part and yield to the process, the stronger I got as a player. And I think that was kinda true of everyone — I think we were more telepathic than we’d been. There was a lot less communication and a lot more completing each other’s musical sentences instrumentally.
STEREOGUM: Caithlin, how did your experiences establishing your voice outside of Rainer Maria as a solo artist alter your approach to the new album?
DE MARRAIS: It certainly gave me a better sense of myself, or perhaps more confidence. But it also was also a nice way of keeping myself up with songwriting and lyric writing, especially — with enjoying putting words together so that they conveyed something meaningful. It gave me a sense that when I came back to Rainer Maria, “Oh, I remember what it’s like to write with people intuitively and sort of complete each other’s phrases.” Your musical sentence can finish mine. But when I was working with people I’d never worked with, it was joyful in another way.
STEREOGUM: And for William, what did you retain from being kind of a drummer-for-hire?
WILLIAM KUEHN: I played with a lot of different bands in Europe and the US, and spent some time in the Middle East playing with spiritual musicians as well. My time in the Middle East affected my aesthetic, the way I appreciate music, the way I listen to music and I think some of it is evident in the record. I would learn after recording, “Oh, that’s where it’s coming from.” As far as playing with other bands, it was usually the case where I’m the hired gun and someone who wrote a record in their bedroom on a computer and now they needed a drummer to help them realize it live. Whenever I came into that situation, it was much different than Rainer Maria, in that this entity already exists; I have to listen and figure out what they’re doing, but also how they came about doing it so I can fit myself in. I think that was especially helpful in me producing the new Rainer Maria record. It gave me the perspective and experience of stepping back outside the group and see how everything is fitting, how everything could possibly fit in a different way.
STEREOGUM: Did you return to the fold intent on producing?
KUEHN: I was approached by the other two with no intention of producing.
FISCHER: I think William, you were kinda surprised because we told you we wanted to ask you a question and you were like, [serious tone] “What’s going on.” We’re like, “…do you want to produce the record?” And you said, “Oh, this wasn’t where I thought this was going.” [Laughs.]
KUEHN: No, not at all.
FISCHER: It’s totally unprecedented in our band, which is part of what made it so interesting.
STEREOGUM: Rainer Maria had been the subject of reunion rumors and been given offers to play basically since the band split up — what made things different in 2014?
FISCHER: A lot of it was location. I went to grad school, then I was in Thailand and Caithlin had family stuff going on. For three years at least, it was the first time that we would’ve all been available anyway in terms of all being in the country and not being otherwise occupied.
STEREOGUM: Did doing that reunion run make touring seem like something more feasible or less?
FISCHER: We’re not touring like we used to tour, it’s not like 100 dates in a year. It’s not a strong either/or. For this run, it was, “We wanna play some shows because we enjoy that, so how can we go about that?” Touring made sense to promote the album, it’s very real, but it’s reasonable.
STEREOGUM: Last year’s Wrecking Ball put you back in the mix with other bands from your era like Thursday, American Football, Hey Mercedes, the Promise Ring, and Piebald. Did that feel like going to a class reunion?
KUEHN: It was a really fun show. When we were around the first time, we didn’t have the whole festival experience. We did a short run down there [in Atlanta], small club shows which were fun, and then we play this huge festival and we show up and it’s all our friends from the midwest: We played, then the Promise Ring, and then American Football. It’s obviously pointed in that direction, and why we were asked to be a part of it, which was really cool. It was a really fun day for everyone.
STEREOGUM: A lot of those bands had broken up or dissolved by the time Catastrophe Keeps Us Together came out — did you feel like the “last band standing” to an extent?
FISCHER: There were musical mini-eras cascading into one another, but we had a lot of musical compatriots, the Braid kids among them. It’s not until you’re in the middle of it where you see, “Oh, we’re in a new thing now.” We were around in our early iteration for long enough to see two or three of these things, starting from the early kinda Midwest emo thing where people were even still in high school participating in that. Than that matured and a couple different generations were seen in Brooklyn and the East Coast. Stuff rolls over pretty quick, but it kinda stays the same.
STEREOGUM: One of my colleagues saw you perform for the first time last year and wrote, “As a girl who grew up with early ’00s mutations of emo — and became a young feminist as a direct response to the sexism ingrained into my Hot Topic teenybopper years — Rainer Maria is the kind of band that I’d like to believe would have blown open my mind.” Is this an effect you’ve become more aware of in the current day compared to the early 2000s?
DE MARRAIS: I love what you read because it’s such a nice resonance with someone who’s younger. I think gender perspectives were different back then, and [the music industry] was experiencing some varying levels of awareness when it comes to sexism. I certainly felt like people in our scene perhaps had more awareness and I didn’t feel it internally in our scene. There was some invisibility — cis women, trans women, anyone who’s fighting for visibility, fighting to be heard, there’s more awareness now. There’s lots of anecdotal things I can say, but I’m really pleased that the levels of awareness are increasing. We used to joke that there just weren’t very many women in emo; I had a lot of female musicians to emulate, fortunately, but they weren’t always in our genre, or the genre we were placed in.
FISCHER: I struggle to find words exactly, because the lens that you have in any given year or any given day is always invisible. So the particularities of our view today that help construct the way that era appears to us now are invisible to us, and when we look back and it just looks like that. But at the time, you have less awareness of the dynamics that are at play in constructing your own location than you tend to later. It’s hard for me to say what it was like, I can say what it was like [then] from our perspective today. The social context for even talking about it from the way it was then wouldn’t make sense now. It’s really abstract, but I just need to say… I’ve been watching The Office and there’s so much freighted comedy in that at points that at the time was completely innocuous. By the same token, there were dynamics in music and all areas of life at the time that now look much more problematic than people might have had awareness of at the time.
There’s ways where you didn’t know how good you had it, and there’s also ways that you didn’t realize that it could’ve been better for you and also that you were maybe participating in dynamics that weren’t great for everyone. We all live in these patriarchal, capitalist societies and so we all struggle with how to find space in that and how to help deconstruct that.
STEREOGUM: What was the first song that came of the new writing process?
DE MARRAIS: We were enjoying doing that before we had a reunion show — we had written so many.
FISCHER: [plays song over phone to the rest of the band] I think it was called “Indifferent Sea,” that was the first song we wrote all together [after reuniting], but it didn’t make it on the record. The oldest song on the record is actually the last one, “Hellebore.” William and I wrote the spine of that in an oddball practice where Caithlin was still eating lunch or something and there was a recording of the basic drum and guitar riff from…what year was that MiniDisc made, 2003?
FISCHER: 2001! At some point, William stumbled onto that recording and said, “What is this?” And I had no recollection whatsoever. No one did. We ended up bringing it back and turning into a song, so that’s in a sense the oldest. But it started out long ago…the one written in the newest configuration that made it on the record would’ve been “Blackbird.”
STEREOGUM: Was that the song that led you to realize, “We should make a whole album now”?
FISCHER: When we started writing, that was our idea. The idea that we could make a record was the idea that got us all playing.
STEREOGUM: When I spoke to Mike Kinsella about the new American Football record last year, he felt like they could make an even better album after getting reacquainted with what to do and what not to do in the studio — are there any plans for Rainer Maria to explore that?
FISCHER: We’ve always been forward looking. That said, the album hasn’t even dropped yet, so we’ve been really busy with the business of helping making it happen. We haven’t written much since the recording.
STEREOGUM: How has the business of making a record happen changed since 2006?
DE MARRAIS: Polyvinyl has a lot more employees!
FISCHER: From the start they were great, and now they’re an incredible juggernaut, it’s so great.
DE MARRAIS: I think it’s just different. We just don’t take anything for granted. When you’re younger, you think have all this time to do all these things. But now I think, this might be our last thing ever. So we just try to enjoy, there’s no guarantee for anything.
S/T is out 8/18 on Polyvinyl.