Rob Landry has filled an unusual number of roles in the New Orleans DIY and indie rock communities. He’s drummed in too many bands to easily name here, while quietly releasing his own records on the side. He co-runs Strange Daisy Records, a vinyl-focused label that’s grown in both size of operation and quality of output since its 2017 inception. He’s been a reviewer and former editor for ANTIGRAVITY—and thus, perhaps, one of the most prolific gatekeepers of musical taste in this city. All the while, he’s been sunlighting as a writing tutor at Delgado Community College and has recently accepted a full-time job in the school’s writing department. His new project, Mesopeak, is a fully solo endeavour, and its debut, self-titled album is the fruit of five years spent writing, recording, and re-recording. It’s mathy, angsty, and a little shoe-gazy—qualities sure to resonate with both Strange Daisy heads and newcomers to Landry’s work. We spoke on the phone in mid-August, days before Mesopeak’s release, about band autocracy, simple songwriting, and supermarket lines.
I’ve seen you play drums in a million bands, but never as a bandleader or soloist. How did Mesopeak evolve out of your time as a backing player?
Meso is an offshoot of this other project I have called Astro, which was originally Astronomical. I basically started making Postal Service songs on GarageBand. I was very attached to video game music growing up, and I used Astronomical as a way to make the kind of video game music I wanted to hear. Later, I started picking up a guitar and joining rock bands, so at a certain point, Astronomical went from being a computer-based project to an emo rock band. If you went on the Bandcamp, you’d find the Postal Service shit from 2012, but then the next album would be this very ridiculous emo math rock situation. The live version of that band had Zach Quinn from Pears and Evan Cvitanovic from Sexy Dex [and the Fresh]. Around that same time, I joined All People and some other Com Rec [Community Records] bands. So the full band of Astronomical went away and I went back to making electronic music.
With Mesopeak, I didn’t want to write complicated math rock songs. I wanted to flex some songwriting skills. I wanted to play everything on the record: I play drums, I play bass, I play all the guitars, and I do all the singing. I wanted to introduce myself as a local songwriter in New Orleans, to show that all drummers are not just drummers. [laughs] Astro and Meso are also related because the mesopeak [aka stratopause] in the atmosphere is a space between the stratosphere and the mesosphere. It’s at an altitude [30 to 34 miles above sea level] where it’s nearly impossible for humans to breathe. Gravity operates in an interesting way there: Planes can’t go there, but spaceships can’t stay dormant. No manned aircrafts can be in the mesopeak.
When you emailed me about this album, you said it was the first time you’ve ever fully “gone Grohl.”
I really did go Grohl. These songs took me like five years to write because I had to think about every aspect of them: the lyrics, the lead lines, the drums. It was almost like I was competing with myself. As a drummer, I play to the guitar player, but the guitar player’s me, so I had to tap into a lot of layers of my musical persona to come to an agreement on everything.
In Mesopeak’s Bandcamp bio, you mention how you’ve gotten sick of the diplomacy of writing in group settings. It sounds like you’re saying you had some of those same dynamics internally while making this album.
It’s very strange. As I’m writing the second [Mesopeak] record, I’m like, “OK, what would my drummer self think of this?” It’s really interesting having those sorts of conversations with yourself. [laughs] But yeah, I’ve been in so many bands where the band writes the songs, and I’ve just recently joined groups saying, “Hey, I just want to play drums. I don’t really want to contribute to the songwriting process.” That way, I can focus on being a drummer instead of having to give my two cents on every little aspect of the song.
Some bands could use a little more autocracy.
I really think so. Every band needs a maestro, somebody to do the quality control. Otherwise songs become so segmented; the drummer needs to have this thing and the guitar player needs to have that thing. It ends up feeling less authentic when bands write as a cohort and everyone needs to have their little piece. When you’re writing for the greater good of the song, there’s a lot less of that.
Now that you’ve gotten to control every aspect of a rock album, how would you say it ranks against your other work, both as a soloist and a sideman?
This record, more than anything else I’ve done, is my baby, so I’m apt to say it’s my best work yet; it’s definitely the most intentional. The process really made me think about how, in past projects, I’ve often competed with my bandmates. I’ve made it difficult for them to have their songs get to the place where they wanted them to be. I don’t plan to make this project a long-lasting one. I think I’ll just do one more record and that’ll be it. I like change: I love making electronic music, but I also wanted to challenge myself to write a rock record from start to finish. I want songwriters in town to be like, “Oh shit! Where the fuck did this come from?” I want your Neil Berthiers (even though Neil doesn’t live here anymore) and your Matt Sefarians—all these people who get a lot of attention within our scene, and rightfully so; they’re very talented and they’ve really stepped up the game for songwriting in New Orleans—to hear this record. And I also want to encourage other musicians who maybe haven’t thought about writing their own songs or doing something from scratch like this to try it. If a drummer can do it, I think anyone that’s picked up a guitar can. [laughs]
How experienced were you with singing and playing bass and guitar before you started this project?
I started all that with Astronomical in 2011. So I was familiar, but I’m not a good guitar player. I play in an open tuning. I used maybe three or four chords the entire record and I just moved around the capo to change the key of the songs. It’s not like I became a great guitar player through this. I’m a one-trick pony, but I have no qualms with that. Thinking like a bass player was the hardest thing. I like playing bass, but I’m not very good at it. I don’t like playing guitar; it’s very difficult for me. But I like songwriting. That’s my takeaway from all of this.
Are you hoping to play these songs live with a full band?
I have a couple guys together and we’re working on the tunes right now: Nick Pope from Fruit Machines and Island Days, Pat Bailey from Static Masks and Strange Daisy, and Michael Rivera from Hand Out and LeTrainiump!. That’s my supergroup. Nick helped me record this album. I couldn’t have done any of it without his help, without him saying, “This is good shit, keep doing this,” encouraging me to move through it. I’d tried to record this album once before, and it just wasn’t going well. My engineer had to quit, so I had to trash the recordings when I was pretty deep in. I could’ve just sent Nick some recordings I already had, but at that time he was recording at James Whitten’s HighTower Recording studio, and I knew I was going to get better recordings there.
Has it been interesting for you being the frontman with someone else behind the drumset?
[Laughs] You know, I think Mike would be cool if I was really like, “No, man, it’s gotta be exactly like this.” I think he’s one of the only drummers who would be; he’s very laid back. But as a drummer—even if I’m playing someone else’s songs—I still want to have some kind of liberty with the music, so I’m not really on Mike’s butt about it. He may not play the songs exactly as they’re recorded, but I’m not even sure I’d want him to. The recordings are the recordings and they should stay that way. I don’t want Mike to try to play like me; I don’t think that makes sense. With Pat and Nick, it’s a little different because those [guitar and bass lines] are actually the melodies of the songs, so they have to play them exactly how they were written. But I think Mike should be able to lead as a drummer. It’s kind of a social experiment to show how much drummers actually lead a lot of bands unknowingly.
You mentioned you use the same open tuning the whole album. What was your reasoning for that, and how did you pick D, A, E, F#, A, E?
I see a lot of beauty in simple songwriting and simple sounds. I think working in themes is better than trying to be very technically proficient. If you’re using too many ingredients in a dish, you can easily muddle it and make it gross. Working with limitations allowed me to paint the picture I wanted to paint on this album. That specific tuning… For a second I thought I made it up, but I think American Football plays in that tuning too, and probably some other math rock bands. I just kind of fell on it. It’s pretty. Barely anything sounds bad.
Listening to the record, it sounds like you also use a lot of the same effects across tracks, both on your voice—the double-tracked vocals an octave apart—and on the instruments—the super reverby crunch guitar, for instance. Were you trying to make the album play like a single long track, or a suite?
I wanted this record to be a point in time. A lot of people don’t like that: They’re like, “Oh, every song sounds the same.” Well, yeah, every song does sound the same. This album is an album album. If you’re gonna listen to it, you should listen from start to finish. I don’t write songs that are inherent bangers or super catchy tracks you can listen to over and over again without any context.
It definitely felt that way to me. If I had to pick a favorite track, though, it would be “Friendly Fire.” That song feels like it comes from an especially dark place. You come back to the refrain, “There is no easy way out of this” a few times throughout the song. Is there a specific situation you have in mind there?
I sing in vignettes more than I sing in any narrative way. If you look at the lyrics… Well, actually, I didn’t include lyrics in anything I sent out because I don’t really like my lyrics. I come from a place of loving instrumental music; lyrics and vocals have always been secondary to me. I know lyrics are a pivotal part of pop songwriting. Even the way Nick mixed me, it’s like I’m singing these beautiful poems, when really it’s just bullshit that I put together randomly. It’s funny how lyrics take on different meanings every time you sing them. I don’t even remember what those lyrics were connected to when I wrote them. There’s that saying, “Anything worth doing is hard,” or something like that. When you’re stuck in a place you don’t want to be, it’s not easy to get out. It’s not easy to walk away from something that’s hard to walk away from. I was thinking about that gravity. I know that’s kind of vague, but the lyrics on Mesopeak are all vague! [Laughs] I think that situation can be applied to anything, whether it’s something as heavy as a long-term relationship or just standing in line at the grocery store with only one item when the line’s really long but you really want that candy bar or that six pack of beer. You either have to give up the thing you went in there for or stand in line and do something you don’t want to do. I wanted to write lyrics that could be applied to very serious moments, but also to silly things. It’s up to the listener to apply their own weight to it.
On that song in particular, I heard a lot of Modest Mouse, and on the album in general, the vibe is sort of early-aughts alt rock with a strong tinge of emo. What were some formative bands for you from that time, and were you consciously calling back to them with this album?
In a way. Maybe not in terms of their melodic content, but Modest Mouse—especially Isaac Brock—evokes a vibe that I aim for sometimes: the aggression that’s not nerdy like Promise Ring, for instance, but more like a weird, twisted, edginess. I get a little loopy on some of these songs in a way that’s like, “Don’t fuck with that guy, he’s kinda crazy.” It’s not, “Don’t fuck with him ‘cause he’ll beat you up” or “Don’t fuck with him ‘cause he’s macho.” It’s just, “He’s crazy and I don’t wanna fuck with that.” That’s what I want my front-person persona to be: a little crazy but not as serious as if I were in, like, a screamo band. I want to bring my voice to places it definitely doesn’t need to go, but I do it anyway. I like Duster a lot. They make very simple, short songs. True Widow is a huge inspiration for me. Somebody told me that I write really fast True Widow songs, and I took that as a compliment. [laughs] And then, obviously, you have your American Footballs and your Braids, that whole Polyvinyl scene. Those bands have the kind of persona I want to bring to my songwriting. I also love this Chicago indie math rock band Colossal that was on Asian Man Records. They didn’t get a whole lot of clout in the math rock conversation, but they’re one of my favorites. Mesopeak has a bunch of weird time signatures, but you wouldn’t notice it because of how I wrote the songs. A lot of those bands make music that’s weird for a reason you can’t really pinpoint, and then when you think about it, you realize “Oh, this is not in 4/4.” But it doesn’t feel like it because the drums aren’t sporadic or angular, trying to copy the guitar.
You said this album was five years in the making, but I know you’ve also got a million other things going on with Strange Daisy. Anything in the works that you’re particularly excited about?
We just started working with People Museum, and I’m really stoked on their stuff. When we started Strange Daisy, we had a certain threshold, and I feel like by adding bands like People Museum, we’ve raised the bar; we’re putting out awesome shit. We’ve also been buddying up with Com Rec and some of their bands—we did that comp [Works on Progress Vol. 1 of music by BIPOC New Orleans independent artists] with them not too long ago. I’m excited about the next Strange Daisy comp, which we’re gonna be putting out on vinyl, too.
Where did you see Strange Daisy in relation to Com Rec when y’all started out, and how has that relationship changed?
I think where Strange Daisy is now is pretty similar to where Com Rec was when they first started. They were a label of flunkies. They put out the most dork-at-the-kids-table bands in the beginning. We just got with some serious acts recently, but our initial inception was to put out bands who no one else wanted to put out, but who we thought had something to contribute to the conversation of New Orleans underground music. I think that was the initial inception of Com Rec as well, but then Greg [Rodrigue] started putting out bands that were kind of serious. There’s a lot of bands that want you to put out their record, but there are so many bands and only two indie labels in the city. You can’t put out everything. It’s tough to draw that line in the sand, but what we want to do at Strange Daisy is make vinyl exclusively, if possible, and that takes time and money. Of course, there are some acts that might not want to put out vinyl that we still want to work with. We just want to put out music that we think is contributing something unique, something we haven’t heard before, to that New Orleans conversation.
photos by Katie Sikora