Please welcome from Chicago… Static In Verona !
Static In Verona is actually the one-man-project of Robert Merz. A singer-songwriter-computer-wizard-producer who, after being involved in several musical collaborations over the years started a pop orchestra of his own. He’s a versatile creator of vibrant pop songs. A smart producer of sunny sound waves. A highly inspired popsmith mixing different decades of popular music while injecting 2015 vibes. Static In Verona just released its third album, titled ‘Odd Anthem’ (Spotify link below). A varied work of breezy, catching indie pop with many electronic layers, richly colored melodies and falsetto vocals. An album that reveals new sonic effects with every spin. An album that wants you to know more about its author.
When and where was Static In Verona conceived?
“This whole project started after I found out my wife was pregnant with our first child in 2009. I had been toying around with a bunch of ideas that I wasn’t bringing to my band at the time based on the style or sound, so I decided to record as much as I could before the baby came and I had more important things to worry about. After three months, I had already finished 10 songs that I was happy with and I wanted to figure a way to get them heard by more than just my friends and family. I decided to put the music online for free to see if anyone was interested. Within a few weeks, with help from a couple positive online blog reviews, a lot of people had downloaded it. Eventually, I quit my old band and focused all my attention to Static in Verona.”
What’s the story behind your moniker?
“I never really thought about just going by Rob Merz. I enjoy the anonymity of the band and people not knowing I’m one guy doing everything. Plus it’s just easier to market a band over a solo artist. But anyone that has ever been in a band knows picking the name is one of the hardest parts. Bands have broken up over it. Since I am a solo artist, it was nice to be able to pick a name that I didn’t have to have three or four other band members agree on. For the name, I was looking for a mixture of something elegant with something dark. I always liked the sound of Verona. It’s a pretty word that conjures images of Italy and Romeo & Juliet but couldn’t quite figure out how to incorporate it. Then in the middle of a road trip from Chicago to Northern Minnesota my iPod started cutting out. And as I sat in my car on the side of the road trying to figure out what was wrong, I noticed signs for the town Verona, Wisconsin. So I put two and two together and got Static in Verona. I also like how it has a slight Shakespearean ring to it.”
Don’t you never miss the ‘rock & roll’ feeling of being in a band?
“I miss harmonizing with another person when you sing live and the instant gratification you get when it sounds great. I have had some amazing times being in bands for the past 15 years, but there is a lot of drama too. One person is always not practicing enough or drinking too much or showing up late and I always just wanted to play music. Now I can without the committee of voices and personalities getting in the way. I am 100% in control. I know that’s not a very ‘rock & roll’ answer.”
Do you ask somebody for feedback after you’ve written a song?
“Usually, not a lot of people actually hear my music while I’m recording it. I might play a song or two for my wife from time to time, but we have different tastes in music. Although, last year I struck up a Twitter friendship with an internet DJ named Dr. Bones who has a new music show on Spreaker. I sent him over each song after I finished a rough mix of the song and he played it on his show. These mixes where pretty far along, just needed some clean up on the vocals and add some EQ. Bones and other guests would then comment on the song and it really helped me narrow down which ones I wanted to include on the final album. I originally recorded 12 songs but only used 10.”
Your voice is definitely one of the ‘instruments’ on the album. Are you a trained singer?
“Thanks, but no training as a singer. Just a lot of trial and error in the studio. Sometimes I feel my voice can be a little thin, so I like to thicken it up with a lot of harmonies.”
Who’s the female voice on smooth dream pop track ‘Blink’?
“I am glad you asked. That’s actually a sample from the song ‘Away From You’ by my college band Good Things. The singer’s name is Maggie Kolbe. We toured around the Midwest for a few years in the late-90’s. I always wanted to do more with the songs from that band because Maggie had such a great voice and wrote amazing lyrics, but the recordings don’t really hold up to today’s standards. I cut out several snippets from the album to try and use as samples and that one just seemed to fit in the song. I actually just recently put the album online for free so more people can hear how great Maggie is. It’s at Bandcamp. Its more folk-rock like 10,000 Maniacs.”
On different songs such as ‘Heavy Hands’ – one of my fav tracks on the album – and ‘Future Ghosts’ I hear harmonies as if you hired a full choir. What’s really going on?
“I have two ways of getting the choir sound. First being the way ELO and Queen did it which is just to harmonize many, many times. The other is a way I made up to get more of a spontaneous group sound. I set up two microphones about 5 feet from each other pointing out into a room and hard-pan them right and left, just as you would if you had a group of people singing. Then I record about 10-20 tracks of myself in different parts of the room in different positions. Sometimes I’ll lie on the floor singing straight up or have my back to the microphone, just to use the space of the room and get a full stereo sound. I also don’t worry about small pitch mistakes because it sounds more authentic. You have to play with it a while when you mix it but the final product sounds pretty realistic.”
Several tracks on ‘Odd Anthem’ are immensely rich in sonic layers, harmonies, arrangements and orchestrations. Seems like you’re fascinated by building magical castles instead of small houses. I’m sure you’re a Phil Spector fan, aren’t you?
“Yeah, even my simplest songs sometimes get away from me. The song ‘Then a Hush’ was originally just gonna be drums, percussion, bass, lead vocals and several layers of backing vocals. Next thing you know, I have 30 tracks to deal with. Some would say that’s too much, but what can I say. I love a song that each time you listen to you hear different things. I also just like trying different things to see how they sound. I read the book by the Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick (“Here There and Everywhere”) and he talked about all the techniques he did during the Beatles more exploratory phases to get the sounds they wanted, since the technology hadn’t been invented yet. I found it pretty inspiring. So I did things like record a train outside and slow it down 500% to get an eerie subtle background noise. Or once when I took my kids to a local Children’s museum, there was an exhibit with the stringboard of a piano removed from the frame and kids could whack it with a mallet to see how the different sized strings sound. I recorded it and that’s the sound that starts the song “Shudder to Think”. I wanted it to sound dark and ominous, like someone throwing a piano out a window. I’m definitely a disciple of Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ philosophy. And I’ll say his Christmas album is incredible.”
What instruments do you actually play?
“I have played guitar for about 25 years now, I also can play bass and mandolin pretty well and can fake it on the piano/keyboard. So those, the vocals and most of the auxiliary percussion -shaker, tambourine, etc – are all real. Basically everything else is MIDI with computers, a sampled instrument that I play with a keyboard, which in itself takes work. I figure out how the instrument is played so it sounds realistic. For example, you are not going to play a chord on a violin. Two violins would each play a note, then you might get a viola and cello as well to fill it out. Same goes for brass and woodwinds. I try and respect each instrument individually. For drums I use both complete digital sets that I’ll play the beats and add fills and flourishes in. Or sometimes I’ll use a drum loop. But I try and mix them so they are clearly separate. That way the drums sound real and the loop sounds more mechanical. I do my best to not make it sound like a dude in his basement with a guitar and computer, but that is more or less what is it.”
Are you performing live too, Rob?
“I made the decision about 4 or 5 years ago to go on an indefinite hiatus from playing live. I have always considered myself more of a studio musician and producer. Playing in a live band was incredibility awesome when I was younger, but now I just don’t have the patience to do the promotion and practice it takes to be a great live act. It also makes it more liberating not having to worry how to recreate these songs in a live setting.”
I hear different echoes of 90s British indie pop on the new LP. Snippets of The Charlatans (organ driven Britpop), Slowdive (shoegaze) and Suede (glam rock) among others. Are you familiar with these bands?
“Actually it’s funny you brought up The Charlatans because the organ in their song ‘Weirdo’ was what I was going after in my song ‘Heavy Hands’. I love the sound of all those bands. I really do take all my influences and put them into a blender and try to make a cohesive sound out of it. I pride myself on trying to make the inaccessible slightly more accessible, by adding elements of shoegaze and dreampop music or electronic or post-rock and combine them with traditional pop songs.”
How easy or difficult is it for an artist to decide when the album is ready to let go?
“There is a saying that a song is never really finished, you just learn to live with its mistakes. Since I do everything myself, including the recording, mixing and mastering, I don’t have that outside voice giving feedback. So it’s just me, listening to these songs on several different systems, in different cars, on cheap and expensive headphones just trying get a sense of what the listener is going to hear. I will go back a create another mix to get the vocals up .5 db, which nobody would ever notice. But it makes me feel better that it’s a touch louder. You just listen to it enough where you grow to like it. But I still hear things on most of my songs that I’d fix.”
Did you hear things you wanted to change immediately, if you had the chance, after ‘Odd Anthem’ was released?
“Not really. Maybe small things here and there but by the time that I released it, I had already listened to it hundreds of times and caught anything huge. Although a few days before I released ‘Odd Anthem’, I played it on a Bose Sound Dock which I hadn’t heard it on yet and the bass on two of the songs was so loud I could barely hear the other instruments. So I quickly shot out new mixes with it turned down a bit and everything was fine. In fact, is actually sounded even better on other systems. But you never know how it will react with each speaker. It’s probably the most frustrating thing about mixing music. But it is one of the benefits of doing everything yourself. I have to option to fix things on the fly as opposed to going back to the studio to make last-minute changes.”
Which album would you steal from your parents’ record collection?
“Ironically, I already have stolen all their records, they had a lot of Beatles and Led Zeppelin. But my two favorite songs from back in the days are ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ by Procol Harum and ‘Bring It On Home to Me’ by Sam Cooke. I wouldn’t mind getting the 7” of those singles.”
Which artist would be the one you actually want to write/record with?
“Beck. He’s probably my favorite artist of all time. His versatility and the depth of his catalog is amazing. Even his ‘Song Reader’ project where he put out his music as sheet music is unbelievably great. They actually might be some of the best songs he’s ever written.”
If you could travel in time what artist would you jam with?
“I don’t think I’d have to travel in time, I’d play with Wilco tomorrow if they asked. I think they are the most talented band currently playing and, skill-wise, one of the best collections of musicians ever. Their level of musicianship is scary.”
Michael Jordan or James Lebron?
“Michael Jordan. I’m a child of the 1980-90’s from Chicago so that’s a no brainer.”
What’s Static In Verona’s ultimate ambition?
“I have very realistic goals. I just want as many people as possible to hear my music. Not because I want fame or money but because the more fans I have the more exciting it is to put out new music. To achieve this I basically give my music away – ‘Odd Anthem’ is name-your-price on Bandcamp and free on Noisetrade with the option to leave a tip, it’s also on iTunes, Spotify, etc. Some people see this as undervaluing my art but I see it completely the opposite. I value it so highly that I think everyone should be able to hear it. And for a while now, my biggest goal is to get a song in a commercial, movie or TV show. I have gotten close, but nothing yet. Maybe one of your readers is a budding Spielberg and needs some music.”
Thank you very much for this most informative and passionate interview, Rob.
May the road rise with Static In Verona !
Here’s ‘Odd Anthem’ in full. Enjoy the sonic journey…
Social links to Static In Verona…