Clare Quilty, named for the man who steals Lolita away from her pedophile lover in LOLITA, is a hard band to pin down. With lyrics and music by the introspective Mike Rodi and stage presence by the flighty, yet grounded Jenn Rhubright up front, CQ could be dismissed as an overly academic band with no where to go once the college crowd finds a new shiny object. But CQ seems to have a little something extra. Signed practically sight unseen by Dcide in 1997, the band has just released its second album, STRONG, which is riding high on the college charts and critics are saying they are “definitely a band to watch.” I spoke via the internet with Rhubright and Rodi (separately) and, critics aside, they both seemed to be fairly grounded in the business of their art.
CA: (to Jenn) When Mike writes a song, how do you go about making it yours; overcoming the gender difference and stuff like that?
JR: It’s actually a lot easier than you would imagine. I don’t dissect the song, or consciously plan how I am going to interpret the song–I just sing it! After the band goes over it a few times, I can feel my “voice” start to take in the song as its own. Does that make sense? Mike and I are a lot alike in more ways than I ever imagined–and there is definitely a higher level of understanding that we are sharing. As far as the gender difference–I ignore it–if anything I just listen to the mood of the song; and regardless of the he/she’s, the song eventually takes on a gender of its own!
CA: (to Mike) When you’re writing lyrics, do you take into consideration that you are writing for a female lead singer or do you write independently of the eventual performance of the material?
MR: Generally I write for my own voice–I tend to write on an acoustic guitar. One reason I love working with Jenn is that she does such great stuff with the material I give her–she really makes it her own. Of course, she always complains that I write stuff in too low a vocal range, and she will (rarely) edit lyrics, changing gender (“…everyone watches you when you are around, you shamelessly flirt with the men…” got changed, but “makes me hard” got left. How cool is that?) I do occasionally abandon some more hardcore ideas because I know Jenn will be singing them.
CA: (to Jenn) What’s the difference between Jenn Rhubright on the stage and at home?
JR: You know what? ABOSOLUTELY NOTHING! No alter ego here! I am very for-real-on stage and off–which has lead to some wonderfully heated arguments about my stage presence! There are certain individuals who at one time or another felt that I should be “utilizing” my aesthetics more. I can only do what I feel comfortable doing on stage. Dancing seductively, flirting with the crowd, showing off my body- FUCK THAT! I don’t judge what women who do on stage if that’s their natural tendency–that’s fine. Hey, now that I think of it there is one difference on stage than off stage–I’m much funnier off stage! I have this incredibly dry sense of humor that does not cross well on to the stage. But that’s what I believe.
CA: (to Mike) With your Nabokov title and philosophical references you are kind of an Academic punk pop band. Are you afraid that might be off putting to potential fans or do you see it as a draw?
MR: Yeah, I we’ve got some pretty academic leanings, although in mostly political and artistic ways, if that makes sense (I’ve always thought of us as having a fairly perverse sensibility, rather than an academic one). I don’t really think of myself as academic, but I know that by most people’s definitions, I probably am. I do worry that people might misread us as pretentious, but I’m also not interested in changing what we’re doing or who we are in order to maximize our fan-base…hopefully it makes us attractive to some and doesn’t turn too many people off.
CA: (to Jenn) Do you and Mike have the same musical influences or is there someplace in the scheme of things where you diverge from him?
JR: :”Diverge” would be putting it lightly! I think it’s kind of funny that we are said to sound like Sonic Youth all the time. I don’t like Sonic Youth at all–haha! I know we get that comparison because of Mike’s song writing and guitar playing- but it always sounds odd to me when I hear the comparison–from my perspective I guess. Mike is definitely into the whole art-rock genre that has always passed me by. Don’t get me wrong–I was huge into the New Wave thing in the 80’s. Yaz, Erasure, New Order, Depeche Mode, Mission UK, but then I took a lot of hallucinogens when I turned 16 and I found myself on the whole Grateful Dead Tour circuit. Then Nirvana showed up with NEVERMIND and Scott Weiland’s voice came on the radio with STP’s “Plush”, and I was back into alt/rock again. So I went off there–sorry–but Mike and I actually have old school stuff in common: The Doors, Led Zeppelin, The Police. Does any of that ranting up above answer the last question?!?!
MR: I’m a big fan of Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse); also Elliot Smith, Kurt Cobain, Black Francis, Steve Malkmus…
CA: (to Jenn) How much influence have you had in shaping the persona of the band?
JR: I think I have had the honor of influencing the persona a lot actually–as lead singer it’s kind of a default isn’t it? You have to understand though that when I joined the band, I really had no personality in my singing. It has developed with Clare Quilty–which I think is great! One thing I pride myself on is being able to own a lot of dynamics in my singing style. I think it helps win over a lot of people who ordinarily would not be into our kind of music. That and the hookiness of Mike’s song writing–actually the combination of the two–I find simply wonderful.
CA: (to Mike) How does the band go about composing a song; you write the lyrics but how does the music develop?
MR: I usually start with music, then melody, and lyrics come last. Our old drummer, Jody, used to make a joke about that, but if I repeat it I’ll definitely sound too academic. As far as the music’s development from my acoustic guitar to the full band, that really varies from song to song. Sometimes I’ll record drums, bass, guitar, vocals, even background vocals to show the band what I want; other times I’ll just say “this should be really heavy,” play it once, and work it from there.
CA: (to Jenn) Now that you’re deep into being a lead singer, how do you feel about
JR: Huh? The word “deep” lost me! Let me see…well…I feel quite lucky to be doing what I am doing. I have a creative outlet that I have never had before in my life and I am happier than ever. Music is so much a part of me. Deep into being a lead singer- man you threw me on that one…I don’t think about it that much–I just do it. Really, not to get all dumb-blonde on you or anything, but I just can’t think of anything cool and profound to say!!!!
CA: (to Mike) What place does music fill in society, as far as you are concerned.
MR: I don’t think of music in terms of its substance or content, but just more as an object. It’s something we consume, and as such, it’s something which defines us (like which car we drive or which sneakers we wear, or which form we take our high fructose corn syrup). This to me is a major issue, and if music is to have any other impact on our culture, I think its status as commodity needs to change. That’s one of the motivators for CQ in terms of our not being strictly punk, or strictly pop, or strictly alternative, or whatever, and also in terms of the “subversive” approach that we take to songwriting. Can’t actually say whether or not it works, but it’s part of the thinking process
CA: (to Jenn) What’s your favorite track off the new album?
JR: “Anger Is Beautiful,” I think it’s a perfect representation of what Mike had in his mind for the song. It’s also an accurate representation of the direction I think Clare Quilty will be going in the future.
CA: (to Mike) What’s your favorite track off the new album?
MR: I think “Anger is Beautiful.” Not necessarily my favorite song, but as a track, I think it does the best job of doing a song justice.
On Strong, Clare Quilty explore issues of sexual power over potent, distorted pop music. The CD almost functions as a dialogue on the topic, between the vocals (representing the female) and the guitar (male). Lead vocalist Jen Rhubright discovers and asserts her sexual identity and desires, while the guitar (Michael Rodi) responds with the same combination of excitement and edginess with which most men react to sexually confident women. Naming the band after a character from Nabokov’s Lolita (the man who won/stole Lolita from Humbert Humbert no less) only adds to the tension. This is danceable, catchy hard rock, reminiscent of Sonic Youth at their poppiest. But if it snares you while dancing to it, beware of what it might do to you.
G. Murray Thomas