Rival Schools Interview

Walter Schreifels discusses Rival Schools’ comeback, tour and future…and how the digital age has affected an entire industry

Nearly ten years ago, NY-based hardcore band Rival Schools put out their first and only album, United By Fate. Due to immense and tiresome touring (as well as guitarist Ian Love’s decision to start a solo career), the band took a lengthy hiatus for upwards to eight years that seemed to spell the end of the quartet for their fans. But like their fellow New Yorker and former (soon-to-be?) Giants running back, Tiki Barber, Rival Schools has made a comeback…except one most actually believe in.

Frontman Walter Schreifels was courteous enough to talk with me about the band’s reunification and new album, Pedals, along with their plans for the future and, lastly, how the entire music industry has been affected by the digital age.

What sparked the four of you to get back together after all these years?

Cache (Tolman, the bassist) has been the one keeping the torch lit for all of this. He was the one to make motion to say, “Hey, let’s do something, or never again.” And at that point I said, “Alright, let’s book a tour, write some songs, and try to put it in motion.” And, you know, I just felt like years ago, we’d gotten off to this really great start and just kind of ditched it a little too prematurely, but I’m happy that we’ve managed to put it back together again.

Was it an easy transition once you guys just decided to go for it?

We had been jamming now and again over the years, so we believed in ourselves creatively already, but I think doing a tour without a record out definitely helped get us back in touch with who we are as Rival Schools and who our fans are. There’s something about the record that found a place in, not everybody’s, but certainly an audience’s heart, so we kind of got back in touch with that, which helped inform us to make this album. It’s been a fun process, and now that the record’s out, it’s just been gravy.

You guys played with a bunch of bands during the hiatus. Was it difficult to go back and find Rival Schools’ sound, or did you just say, “Hey, let’s get the four of us together and just see what happens?”

I don’t think it was such an intellectualized process like that. Going out and playing the songs kind of informed us that this was what we needed to do, and also having the reaction from the audience allowed me to understand what it was beyond just the idea and memory of it. It made me ask, “Where do I want to go with this,” rather than just make an approximation of something that’s already happened and that people were happy with. We had to kind of say something new and reflect who we are now as much as stay true to what the band set off to do, and I think we managed that.

What does the album title “Pedals” refer to?

I loved the painting (on the cover), and I was looking for something that would make sense with what our band was. It describes our sound; there are definitely a lot of effects pedals on this record, which is mostly Ian and Cache. I don’t really use many effects pedals. I also think of pedaling a bicycle. I feel like we’ve been pedaling this band to get back together for nearly ten years to make a record, and I kind of feel like we’ve gotten over that hill, and I think that of all those aspects, that one is probably the one that sticks to me the most.

In “Wring It Out” and “Small Doses,” you mention the idea of pushing people or things away. Is there something personal that happened to you while writing those songs or that is still happening?

I think to be in love with someone is to open up and to allow someone in, and I think that’s a direct conflict with pushing people away. So I think they’re part and partial of each other. There’s always that love and friction, so I guess it’s a nice place to write from, or at least I feel comfortable writing there at this point. And I think it also applies to, and I try not to get too into what exactly it means because it’s usually an amalgam of things, but I do think those themes relate to the band as much as to my own personal experience. We pushed the band away, for sure, and I think “Wring It Out” refers to that as much as anything. You know, wanting to do it, enjoying it, and then at the same time not wanting it around.

You’re already working on a follow-up to “Pedals,” right?

Yes, we are. We’ve been working on this stuff for so long, my goal is to get another album out, in short-order maybe. Just because I feel like we’ve either got to make another record soon, or we’ll wait ten years. They’re can’t be a four-year wait in between records. We’ve got a lot of new stuff, and I feel like Pedals was about getting the ship up and running again and bringing it back in some way that made sense, and now I feel like we’ve got the ship righted, so I’m kind of interested in making something without that baggage, to some degree. As much as it was cool to have that challenge of making a comeback in some way, I want the next record to be moving faster, forward in a quicker way.

Can fans expect a much longer run of tours and material from Rival Schools this time?

I don’t want to make any big promises, but after us holding it for ten years, I don’t think we should ever technically break up. That way we can freak people out when we’re like 70 years old and make another Rival Schools record and get some press out of it. I just think as long as we never break up, we could leave that open. That could be our little niche.

Sam mentioned in an interview that you’re touring less than you used to so you don’t get burnt out. Is that helping you write new material easier?

I find it helpful. You do come up with some good ideas at sound checks and stuff like that, and anytime that we’re together, we try to make the most of the time. There’s so much other stuff going on while on tour, though, I don’t know if you really get to dial it in. I definitely think it’s a nice opportunity if you have new songs to try to work them into the set and develop them, but it’s more for inspiration, I think, than anything else, because you get to play well together over the course of a tour, and you get more comfortable, and you get to see what things work and what things don’t. So it’s a good laboratory in that sense.

You mentioned earlier that years ago, the record companies made you tour more often because they had more money to send you out. Did I get that right?

It was just back in the day when the budgets were there. The record label saw touring as a way to promote their bands, so it was worth it for them to make the investment. I think the economics have changed now. They’re looking for more ways to get more out of their money than the investment of paying for a bus and having a band be out on tour for most of the year. So now we go on tour and play clubs with the guarantee that, if we work it, we’re not losing money, and we’re promoting the record and having fun. Those are our real criteria. I just think the relationships have changed in how bands and record labels need to work together more to get the most out of the investment, and not only is it an investment of money, but it’s an investment of time and energy. They’re all just different animals.

You guys were around in the days when making a studio album was your primary way of earning money. What was it like as a musician when Napster exploded and you realized, “Wow, the minute we put our album out, everyone has access to it?”

It was kind of like the day the coal mine shut down. It sucks. There are so many colorful characters and awesome things related to the music business that have all just kind of been shut down ever since that time. And I think that’s an economic thing, but I also think that from an artistic point of view, that was more of the bum-out for me. I don’t like the idea that people can find everything you do…I think it lessens the value. I find that if I buy something, seek it out, and own it in my hand as a material object, I value it more. Whereas if it’s just another bunch of files on my iPod, I just kind of flip through it, and everything has a lower value. But I grew up buying vinyl albums, you know? A kid that was born in 1987 could probably give a shit. They’re not thinking of it in those terms, so I do think something was lost. Maybe not for a fan that wants to know everything about an artist, but I think as a guy who saw that transition and experienced it both as a fan and as an artist, shit, I liked it better before. But, you know, we’re making the best of it.

Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?

It’s always been a system of patronage, you know? Like some classic composer in some town in Germany that some Duke paid to write songs for him and his rich friends. Or two dudes in the Mississippi Delta playing on the corner for drinks or something. It’s a system of patronage, and that’s what I think we’ve returned to for Rival Schools. We have a group of people that get what we do and follow it and buy shit from us. Not so much that we’re rich from it, but enough that we can afford to go on tour now and again and make records, and hopefully we can continue to do that and develop artistically so people can contribute to that directly. The record label that we have is part and partial to that. They believe in us and are helping us to get to another level. But that’s not the same as it was ten years ago, or even 12 or 13 years ago, when there was just shit loads of money, and everything was trickling down. Now it’s just a system of that real intimate patronage system, where someone’s a fan of an artist, and they follow them and want to know everything about them. And if they put out a CD that’s just for fans only and it costs ten bucks, ten bucks isn’t a big deal. They’ll pay it, and that ten bucks adds up enough for an artist to keep doing it, and I think that’s awesome. Today, you don’t have to wait for Columbia Records to make you legitimate or to give you some kind of validation for what you do. The internet allows you to receive that same validation. In a matter of opinion, though, I think it was better before…I think it was just kind of cooler and more fun.

So as not to leave you on such a dismal note, let’s go back to Rival Schools. What do you have planned for this year?

We’re doing a festival run in Europe and also headlining shows while out there as well, and then we’re going to be doing a tour in the Midwest. We’ll come back through the East Coast as well in October, I believe.

Can we expect anything more from Walking Concert, or are those days done?

I’ve kind of folded Walking Concert into my solo records. Being in so many bands (Gorilla Biscuits, Quicksand, Warzone), I’ve just realized it’s best to have a solo career that I can blend all those things into. I’m working on a new solo album which is almost finished. It could come out in the fall, but I might push it until the beginning of next year, depending on how busy Rival Schools is. [pauses] You know, talking about the internet, that’s a really cool thing about it. I have a lot more freedom to create stuff. Back in the day, you’d make a record, and then you’d wait three years later to make another one. Now there’s a lot more leeway in doing shit, and so I’m making solo albums and Rival Schools albums, and I’m playing all over the world, which is fun stuff. I like that.

So there is an upside to the digital age!

I definitely appreciate that I’m able to put out as much music as I want. And I can let my fans in on as much information as I care to provide. I can have a direct relationship with them, and I think that’s really cool and positive, but I’d just like to have it back the other way. I’d love to have it that I have my album and it comes out the day it comes out, and no one has it until that day. Wow, that’d be cool.

Rival Schools are Walter Schreifels (vocals/guitar), Ian Love (guitar), Cache Tolman (bass), and Sam Siegler (drums). Their new album, Pedals, was released in March and is available in all record stores and online. They have both European and US tours scheduled for this year.

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