In Conversation—with The Racer

The Racer is an indie band from Monroe, New York, renowned for intelligent lyrics, an inimitable post-rock sound, and hugely entertaining live performances.  In 2017, after producing three LPs, the group decided to stop creating albums for now to focus on singles and videos.  In the last few months they’ve managed to produce four songs, two videos, go on an acoustic mini-tour, and work on a podcast series (listen to the moving track “Isolation/Apogee”)Recently the band’s lead vocalist, Pete Marotta, and bassist/keyboardist Eric Sosler took the time to talk with us about their unique approach to music-making, sharing their insights into music and creativity.  (The band also includes Mike Esserman on guitar and keyboards, Steve Kondracki on guitar and keyboards, and Mike Perri on percussion.)

Tell me something about the role music played in your early lives.

ERIC SOSLER:  I pretty much listened to whatever my dad played.  So it was mainly oldies, country type stuff.  I was never in tune with pop culture.  I always thought that although it was good, my dad’s music was corny.  It wasn’t until my late teens, early college years that I started exploring new music—more emotional, deep, weird music that didn’t always make sense.  I just started connecting to it emotionally, as you can imagine a confused, unconfident teenager would.

PETE MAROTTA: Similar to Eric, I grew up listening to a lot of the music my parents were listening to, like Bruce Springsteen, The Who, and Neil Young.  I have a great appreciation for that music now, but at the time I didn’t really connect with it.  In fact, I really didn’t like rock music at all; I was more into hip-hop.  I think it was the energy and attitude of the music that I loved.  It wasn’t until my aunt played Under a Blood Red Sky by U2 that I got into guitar music for the first time.  It had that post-punk energy and attitude I was looking for, but I was also drawn to the icy tones of the music.  It just sounded like nothing I’d heard before.  That album opened the floodgates.

How did you develop an interest in post-rock?

ERIC SOSLER: I started getting interested in post-rock stuff when I discovered how sounds in music can reflect your emotions.  Taking away those distorted guitar sounds in grunge rock and adding in those melodic, clean, ambient guitars just started to feel more inspirational to me.  A lot of times when I found myself down in the dumps for whatever reason, listening to these atmospheric, inspiring sounds got me through them.  Death Cab for Cutie really introduced me to this type of mood.  That’s the type of band I wanted to be in and be a part of.

PETE MAROTTA: My first interest in post-rock was actually when I first heard Sigur Rós “Untitled 4 (The Nothing Song)” in the final scene of the movie Vanilla Sky in 2001.  I think it was the first time I’d ever heard a song in a movie and then had to go and find out what it was.  I instantly started listening to Sigur Rós, and, like the first time I heard U2, it was unlike anything I’d ever heard.  It sounded like a soundtrack to my life, and the way they sing in a made-up language had a super impact on me as a writer.  Whenever we write a song I always scat sing at first to get the melody and vibe and then go back to write the lyrics.  For me, the melody and the feeling of the music is so important to the song and this made-up language was brilliant because it ensured that the vibe would always come through.  And anyone who speaks any language can sing it and interpret it any way they want.

How did the band members meet? What made you decide to make music together? And how did you settle on your band name?

PETE MAROTTA: Eric Sosler, Mike Esserman, and I are childhood friends who played basketball together growing up.  In college, Mike and I were watching a band play on TV and, at the same moment, we both expressed how amazing it would be to be in a band together.  Somehow we believed it would work, even though none of us played any instruments at the time.  We just wanted to be a part of something special together.

As far as the band name, we initially went by another band name called “Stuedabakerbrown,” which was just a friend’s nickname from high school, but we wanted to change the name because we didn’t think it fit the music we were making.  Over the course of six months and probably 1000 emails we still couldn’t get all five people to agree on a name.  After all of these failed attempts I mentioned “The Racer” as an option to just have a placeholder until we came up with something else.  The name stuck ever since because I think we were just so mentally exhausted by that point.

How do those clever lyrics get written?

PETE MAROTTA:  In the past I would write the majority of the lyrics, but for the last album and the current singles I opened up the opportunity for everyone in the band.  Usually I’ll scat sing the vocal, then go back and either write lyrics that I think reflect the feeling of the song, or, if I have anything specifically I’d like to say, I’ll attempt to do so.  If I’m unsure of where to go in terms of the subject of the song, I’ll actually try to translate the scat vocal into lyrics.  Sometimes they make sense and it’s a really liberating and creative process, and other times they need to be worked on a bit more.

Recently, myself or anyone else in the band bring their own drafts and we sit in a room and go through the song line by line with the expectation that anything is up for debate, which has been really interesting for me.  It’s allowed me to grow as a writer because we’re trying new things lyrically and having really honest and hard conversations about what my tendencies may have been in the past.  Thanks to these guys, I think we’ve written some of our best lyrics as of late.

Why are you concentrating on just releasing tracks as opposed to albums?

PETE MAROTTA: We’ve released three full-length albums in the past, and we love the album concept.  We grew up buying albums and listening to them in full while looking at the artwork and lyrics.  I even have nostalgic feelings about the smell of CD packaging!  As writers though, we were growing really frustrated with how long it takes to write, record, and set up the release for an entire album.  Sometimes it can be a process years in the making, and by the time it comes out you’re already on to the next batch of songs and may barely like the music you’re releasing.

We wanted to take advantage of the fact that we now have the ability to record anytime and to release it to the world instantly.  This way we’re constantly staying fresh, and the listener is hearing the kind of music we’re into creating at that exact moment.  Plus, the way people are listening to music is changing.  We still believe in albums and are even exploring the idea of packaging certain singles together in an LP or EP if a listener would like to enjoy them in that format, because some of the songs were written with that in mind.

What thoughts and experiences are behind “Apogee?” And who came up with that brilliant idea for the video?

ERIC SOSLER:  Some thoughts behind Apogee are the idea of those moments when you’re feeling great and know exactly what you want, but then realizing that what you want isn’t happening.

The goal for the video was to just try to capture the emotions of the song while showing a distorted time loop.  “Life is being helplessly trapped on a roller coaster ride, and all the while capturing those emotions as they keep recycling themselves, over and over again, trying to figure it all out.”

Although it may look like a simple video, there’s a lot of symbolism going on.  Not sure if everyone’s able to grasp it, but the intentions are there from the expressions on the model’s face, to going backwards, the rest of life going forwards, etc.

The model is Noel McGrath, from our home area, who is a photographer as well.  We knew her look and style would be perfect for the video.

To make that smooth gliding effect of going backwards, we placed Noel in a Dutch bicycle known as a Bakfeit (we had to rent one from a place in Brooklyn).  So she was crammed in the basket along with Mike, our guitar player, who was doing the filming on his iPhone, while Eric, our bass player, was pedaling the bike, and while Steve Kondracki controlled the music.  It was quite the scene for passing vehicles to see in this part of the black dirt region of the Hudson Valley.  You can imagine we got a few honks of the horn!

Has anything funny or bizarre ever happened to you while recording, performing, or touring?

PETE MAROTTA:  During the course of a two-week tour we were in an earthquake and a hurricane, and our drummer quit.

If you had an artist’s mission statement, what would it be?

ERIC SOSLER: Create only what you want to create.

PETE MAROTTA:  Be the band you want to hear.

What’s your next step?

ERIC SOSLER:  Just to keep creating.  As long as we enjoy that as a band, then that’s all we can do.  Clear away any expectations of financial success and just make the art we want to make.

PETE MAROTTA:  Keep creating and growing, and enjoy it as much as we can.