The NJ/NYC all-instrumental outfit bring the chilled-out jazzy Americana goods—for a bunch of old dudes
The Royal Arctic Institute have been around the block, and then some.
An indie rock supergroup of sorts, it’s members own to die for underground cred having logged time in beloved 80’s/90s psych-punk heroes Das Damen, the Thurston Moore-endorsed alt-grunge rockers Cell, bluesy doomers Two Dollar Guitar and Roky Erickson’s band, just to name a few.
With most of their wild rock action and the get in the van touring days long behind them, guitarist John Leon, bassist David Motamed and drummer Lyle Hysen now balance day jobs and fatherhood with the jazzed-up, countrified twang they subtly jam out under the Royal Arctic Institute moniker. Just don’t call it dad-rock. Sure, Motamed and Hysen are proud fathers but as they tell it, “dad-acceptable” is a term more up their alley.
Sinking back beers at a West Village watering hole, the indie vets hilariously provide a peek into their lives as an unapologetically old AF band with rather heavy jobs in the medical fields (Leon is a psychologist while Motamed is medical associate). “We have some really boring conversations at practice, especially a bunch of old guys talking about what’s wrong with our bodies,” says Hysen laughing. “We should really just have full checkups at our gigs. Do you need a shrink or do you need a checkup?”
High jinks and old dude jokes aside, when Leon, Motamed and Hysen, along with guitarist Lynn Wright (And The Wiremen) and keyboardist Carl Baggaley join forces, their deep-seated chemistry is off the charts. Their recorded output to date includes a couple of records with original bass-man Gerard Smith (of Phantom Tollbooth fame) but their dialed-in rapport reaches a whole other level on the recently-released Sodium Light, their first effort with Das Damen, Cell bassist and Hysen’s friend since childhood, Motamed. Sodium Light is a strings-bending, cinematic sprawl of cosmic Americana rife with bucolic, drive-by imagery. It’s hypnotic soundscapes and subtle shreddage are easy to get lost in. Nodding to the folk-jazz of Bill Frisell and the zoned-out fret-hopping of Tom Verlaine (both admitted huge influences), Royal Arctic Institute, with the steady as she goes rhythm section of Motamed and Hysen as its guiding force, lay down thick and easy grooves while Leon and Wright provide the otherworldly riffs. As you read on, Leon worships at the altar of guitarist royalty like Frisell, Nels Cline and Marc Ribot so that gives an idea into Royal Arctic Institute’s inspiration for its deep cuts.
After actually thriving during the pandemic lockdown (a full album with twelve new songs is on the docket), the core three of Leon, Motamed and Hysen are, like everyone else, itching to get back to the live circuit. That goes down this Saturday, June 26th at Jesse Malin’s downtown NYC spot, Berlin, where the band will open for headliner Annie Hart (grab tickets here). Royal Arctic Institute hit the stage at the dad-acceptable hour of 8pm sharp.
Over a stream of tasty craft beers at Blind Tiger, the members of TRAI filled the Globe in on all their activity: the new EP, a recent livestreamed concert, how it’s clicked big time with Motamed now in the fray, new material and more. Hysen also let it slip that Das Damen reunited a couple of years back and a comprehensive box set may be in the works—that is, if a label wants to put it out.
Check out Sodium Light and other Royal Arctic Institute records here.
They play this Saturday, June 26th, at Berlin.
A pal of yours that you go way back with, Tim Foljahn, has worked with the producer Tom Beaujour on a several of his records, most recently on I Dreamed A Dream. You guys have also worked with Tom, notably on Sodium Light, your new EP.
Lyle Hysen: Tom Beaujour did all our records. He’s a real good friend of mine and my Cheap Trick guy. We go deep. We’ve seen Cheap Trick so many times. He’s great and he’s done all our records and he even did, here we go, Das Damen, two years ago at this point.
David Motamed: Oh, shit!
Hysen: We (Damen) reformed to record two songs for a Flamin’ Groovies tribute comp that’s never came out. And we recorded one “new old” Damen song that never came out. Damen had a whole album of stuff that never came out so we brought back one song. We’ve also been trying to get all our masters back and do a (Damen) box (set). (Daman singer/guitarist) Jim (Walters) is working on songs that he wants to do as a trio with Tom, too.
John, were you a Das Damen fan?
John Leon: Yes…because here’s Das Damen for me and here’s Redd Kross. Damen reminded me so much of Redd Kross. I like Redd Kross’s version of “Citadel” on Teen Babes from Monsanto better than the Stones version.
AUDIO: Das Damen (1986)
Let’s jump from Damen to Royal Arctic Institute. How have you dealt with the pandemic as a band? David is a newish addition on bass with the departure of Gerard Smith, too.
Leon: The pandemic happened and we just kind of shut down. I thought we were done and then we decided to reform (with David). We wanted to do something different and wah-la.
Hysen: We love Gerry very much and he’s the reason why John and I know each other. Gerry had gotten us together.
Motamed: When these guys reached out to me, it was a five-piece. It was no longer a trio. It was a completely different animal.
Yes, you are the core three but you also have guitarist Lynn Wright and keyboardist Carl Baggaley in the fold now.
Leon: Lynn and I have known each other since the early 90s. Lynn is the best guitar player I’ve ever played with. He played with an artist named James Hall. They were based in New Orleans and I grew up in Mobile, Alabama so they would come play in Mobile. My band would open and Lynn and I knew each other that way and we stayed in touch. Then somewhere around the late nineties, he moved to New York and we lost touch. Then one night I went to see a show and Lynn was sitting there. It was like, “Holy shit, Lynn! and he goes, “Oh, my God, John!” So Lynn and I put together a trio. It was two guitars and upright bass but that fizzed out. He’s become one of my best friends. His band now is And The Wiremen.
You guys released your new EP, Sodium Light, during the pandemic so it sounds like the band was actually productive while in lockdown.
Hysen: That was really the benefit of being in a band with two guys that work in hospitals like David and John. They were getting tested all the time. Lynn had COVID so he was good and the only guy who didn’t show up was Carl, the keyboard player. But honestly, during COVID we practiced every week for hours because it was the only time we were getting away from our horrible lives. I was talking to Glenn Morrow and he’s like, “I think you might’ve been the only band that flourished during COVID.” We really did! It was like old school. We did practices for hours!
Motamed: We did. Our practice space in Hoboken was a real anchor for us during that time. I can’t speak for them, but it kind of saved my life through it (COVID).
Hysen: And it’s really interesting because we’re not a band that can practice four times a week like Damen did. But we get ready, we do all our work and so when we’re practicing, we’re really hitting it. It was really nice that Glenn said that because we just hit the ground running. As soon as we could, we were, like, “Okay, we’ve got to record during COVID.” How are we going to do that because we’re having a good moment?
Motamed: And the EP came out of that.
Hysen: That was the first moment of Dave hooking up with us and playing with the five-piece. So, we got Tom and we did it masked and separated in booths. But the five of us, were like, “Okay. We did this and now we have another dozen songs.” We’re just trying how to figure out everything.
Lynn and Carl seem to have added new dimensions of sound to the Royal Arctic vision.
Leon: Yes, Lynn and Carl are amazing and I can’t imagine not playing with them but if they can’t show up the three of us can still play.
Hysen: Even though John wrote the basics on the song, “Prince of Wisconsin,” on Sodium Light, it’s a showcase for Carl. He’s such a frighteningly good keyboard player so you can’t even touch that.
Leon: That’s the thing about Carl and Lynn. They can just show up and everything they do is just solid gold. You kind of call out the chords and they’re just right there. Playing with Lynn has been a real game-changer. He’s just fucking amazing.
Motamed: When we did the EP, Lynn came in and did some overdubs. He had done some practice work with us but on the new batch of songs, Lynn has been there from the ground up as opposed to coming into the studio and doing overdubs. So, there’s definitely a different oral component to the new stuff because his input has been there from since the bare-bones stuff. I think you can hear that.
You recently did a livestream concert that came off pretty cool.
Hysen: We worked very hard to make it the most not boring livestream because they are all so bad. We did that as a four-piece because Carl couldn’t show up but Lynn really hankered into learning Carl’s parts.
Leon: It was phenomenal.
Hysen: That (stream) was real fun because I don’t know about you, man, but I just saw so many white guys playing guitars in their bedrooms and was like, “This is so boring.” So we just went all out. I got a friend of mine who did our video and, basically, we shot it in our spot. I said, “Make it look like Monty Python meets SCTV meets pop-up video” and he just went nuts. We were very happy with that. It’s all weird shit being in a band in 2021. We put out the record and, well obviously, we should do a whole bunch of gigs. That’s what you do. And every record we’ve put out, I’ve tried to book a whole bunch of gigs and it’s like, “We are a bunch of old guys, so we don’t draw. our audience doesn’t really go out.”
Leon: Towards the end of my time playing with people in Texas, if I got called for a gig I wasn’t as concerned with what it paid as I was with what time it started and parking proximity. That was a big deal towards the end there.
Hysen: I’ve been trying to figure out a way to do a seated music festival—that’s what it’s gonna be called. And it’s gonna be in one venue with rooms and seats so everyone doesn’t have to go walk that far. That’s my dream festival.
Motamed: It would probably get sponsored by AARP.
VIDEO: The Royal Arctic Institute “Tomorrowmorrowland”
Do you have trouble getting gigs? You know, being old dudes (laughing).
Hysen: Our elevator pitch is we do a lot of different genres. The theme is we are instrumental. But they are like, “Are you jazzy? Ehhh. “Are you post-rock?” Ehhhh. We’re none of those but we’re a band that puts its toes in a lot of different waters. We could play a quiet set. The only reason we’re able to make this record (Sodium Light) was because we played a party. It was the last thing we did as a three-piece and they paid us really well but we had to play quiet. We had to do two hours of quiet while the richest people in the world or the one-percenters are eating hors d’oeuvres. But that got us enough money to do the EP but we need to go to do the new record. We gotta do another one of those (parties).
Motamed: Yeah, we do.
Hysen: That was a fun show.
So you have a batch of new songs?
Leon: We have about twelve new pieces or something like that.
Lyle, you and David have punk and indie rock backgrounds. How much of a change is it for you being in this world now and playing this type of music?
Hysen: I’ve never played in an instrumental band and I never played with anyone like John. My first time playing with John, I was like, “Well, now, he’s the best guitar player. Sorry, Jim and Alex and Tim and all the other guys I’ve played with.” John just brings a whole different…a lot of the people I’ve played with were hardcore, punk, indie and grunge without bringing other voices. John isn’t that voice; he has that voice in him. He has this great, Tony Joe White thing, I like to call it, like this Southern thing. He plays behind the beat. He’s got a whole thing, a whole different vocabulary of musical influences that are fascinating to me. So, I was like, “Okay, we’re gonna to do this thing and it’s going to sound like Tom Verlaine’s solo albums like Flash Light.” But Verlaine’s thing is more improv. Since we don’t practice that much, we rather just focus on songs. We can (improv) but TRAI is far more compositional.
Motamed: Here’s the funny part about it being compositional: something will get written and brought to all five of us and we completely deconstruct it in rehearsal. Then it ends up sounding nothing like the original and that’s one of my favorite things about doing this: watching how a piece of music will completely turn into something else. And that’s my favorite (thing about the band).
Hysen: Before it was John who was demoing and he was showing it to Gerard and I then I worked a lot on song structure and things like that. But once we got Dave, Carl and Lynn, I kind of got downgraded because those guys just took it to another level, which is great. I can just worry about drumming things.
AUDIO: Tom Verlaine Flash Light (full album)
Lyle and Dave, you guys have never played the low-key all-instrumental mellow music that Royal Arctic does?
Motamed: I played mellow stuff before. Tim’s (Foljhan) stuff is pretty mellow and I did stuff with Townes Van Zandt which is pretty mellow. This is different but it’s where my head is at so it’s a good thing. I’m not interested in what I did twenty years ago.
Hysen: Once I started playing with John, it was another vocabulary of music that I don’t know how to play at all.
Motamed: You’ve done great (laughing)!
Hysen: Before the other cats joined in, my main thing was nothing too rock and nothing too happy. But now it’s weird, because on the new record we have that song, “Prince of Wisconsin,” and that is our happiest song and in the weird world of people who actually do listen to the record, they really like that song. That was kind of fascinating and funny to me to find out that the happy song that we call the “Peanuts theme” or the “Fat Albert theme” was the one that people really gravitated toward.
Did you think that you could play Royal Arctic type music?
Hysen: No. It was very challenging, which is awesome and at this age I want the challenge. I was like, Okay, I’m going to learn how to play this, I’m going to try to play the shit out of this so I’m going to study really hard and learn all this stuff that I didn’t have to learn as a punk guy.” John wasn’t, like, “I learned this from a Circle Jerks album or a Clash album.” He learned it from…it was records I don’t have or records I thought I’d never play so I was like, “Oh, man.”
Leon: I loved all that stuff, I started off playing that stuff. My first band I was 13 and we did Dead Kennedys, Cramps and Gun Club covers. That was our thing. I love that stuff! But somewhere along the way I fell in love with Bill Frisell. That was kind of what happened. You have the holy trinity of guitarists that are still working now: Bill Frisell, Nels Cline and Marc Ribot.
Hysen: John turned me on to all those. I mean, I’m a “jazz guy” now because that’s part of the progression, right? But not a lot of guitar jazz. Bill Frisell did a record with Elvin Jones and if you find that record, it almost not that far from what Royal Arctic do. I’m not saying I’m Elvin—or let alone a 90-year-old Elvin! I brought some of Royal Arctic’s music to my drum teacher and he’s, like, “I think I know what your guitar player listens to” and he handed me that (Frisell) record. He said, “I hear that in what you guys are doing.” My teacher is smart. He flagged it right away.
It sounds like you’ve really embraced the jazzy, all-instrumental approach in your advanced age.
Hysen: There was definitely, like, “I don’t want to play any rock and no rock beats.” That was my main thing coming into this. I just don’t want to rock anymore because there’s so many dad- rock bands. The worst insult someone once said to me was, “You guys are dad-rock” and I was like, “No, we’re not!” That’s fighting words. We go out of our way not to be dad-rock. I feel we are “dad acceptable.” Dave’s wearing a baseball cap but that’s okay. John wears the most dad rock stuff out of on any of us (laughing).
There’s this tempo that all the dad rockers kind of set into: the 90BPM kind of thing that I really want to stay away from and when I see bands do it, I get really…I mean all bands should be allowed to play but If I’m going to see some older cats play, they’re doing that kind of thing. It’s kind of like doing boogie-woogie—that to me is boring. That’s my main impetus. My driver is anti-dad-rock—even though we’re dads. We have to go against stereotype. So that means no pleats, no shorts, no sandals, no cargo shorts—there’s a lot of things we have to go against (laughing)!