"Stephen Tanner's not here, is he."
It's really more of a statement than a question, said to no one in particular by singer-songwriter Luke Roberts from the stage of the Mercury Lounge in downtown Manhattan. Tanner, an enigmatic figure known both for his daunting work in the combative rock band Harvey Milk as well as his addictive comfort cooking in unpretentious Brooklyn restaurants, isn't here. An untouched electric guitar evidently meant for him sits vigil propped up to the right of Roberts, who spends much of the set visibly stony and stiffly nervous.
And reasonably so. The intimate gig had been billed at least informally as the debut of Roberts' new band, replete with drums and keys, the one meant to join him for a tour of his latest album Sunlit Cross. Recorded in Georgia by Kyle Spence of Harvey Milk and featuring contributions from each of its members, including the absentee Tanner, songs like "American Music" and "Untitled Blues" off the record made the setlist, alongside older if likeminded material from prior releases. Roberts made light of things as best as he could muster, referring to the impactful single "Silver Chain" as an "internet sensation" for example.
Still, tonight his voice exudes uncertainty. In this live setting, it hints at Neil Young's quivering lower register, a contrast with the smoother albeit painfully earnest approach delivered on his rather inviting record. At any point a "From Hank To Hendrix" cover could break out. But behind that green and black windbreaker and electric-acoustic guitar, Roberts could do no wrong, captivating those in attendance with nearly an hour of sincere sentiments and tuneful opportunities.
A few weeks prior, I spoke with the Tennessee-based Roberts on the phone to discuss the making of Sunlit Cross, the world travels that inspired it, and his affinity for fast food.
As a big Harvey Milk fan, I came to your music differently than some people might. This is your third record with Kyle Spence. How did your working relationship with these guys start?
Stephen Tanner, the bass player, we became friends in New York. I was washing dishes for him. I told him I was going to record a record, but he hadn’t heard my music or anything. We were just really good friends at the point we started working together. He introduced me to Kyle, and said why don’t I go down there since he knew I was not happy in New York. He said, “Why don’t you go down here, stay with Kyle, look at trees and record your record.” So then I went down there and me and Kyle hit it off too. I became friends with a bunch of people in Athens. Ever since then, they wanted to help me out. They wanted to do shows with me and back me up. At this point they were literally seriously talking about quitting being Harvey Milk and being my band--which was, like, so awesome. I don’t think it’s gonna happen. [laughs]
When you play live you often play with members of Harvey Milk? You’ve got a New York show coming up. I have to imagine you’d play with Stephen, right?
Yeah, I play with him. It’s just if I can get him to. He’s not a big fan of practicing. He also doesn’t like being on the road very much. So maybe it’ll happen and maybe it won’t.
Down in Athens, what was the working relationship like in the studio? What does Kyle bring to your records that keeps you coming back to work with him?
We’re just friends. We were friends instantly and I get along with him. I haven’t really met anybody else to play with that I have fun with. I don’t really know how else to say it. He understands what I’m trying to do usually. He’ll hear something. If I write a song and send it to him, he’ll do a really good job, doing everything that needs to be done, a really simple sensibility.
Did you come to Athens this time with the Sunlit Cross songs more or less fully formed or were they still raw at that stage?
They were just raw demos. I hadn’t talked to anybody for awhile, and I came back to America. I was living out of the country for awhile. I came back and had a baby and got back in touch with everybody. Stephen Tanner came down with me to Athens. I had written a handful of songs, just recorded them on my phone real quick.
What brought you abroad? You were in places like Cambodia and Kenya.
Oh man, I just wanted a different life. I was bored or something.
But now you’re in Tennessee?
Yeah, I’m in Tennessee, because I’m from here. It feels safe and comfortable, a place to raise a kid. [My son] was born in The Bronx, because his mom had a job working in the business world. She saved a bunch of money and when he was one, we moved down and bought a house and some land with that money, moved to Tennessee. It is not fun having a baby in New York. It stressed me out a lot.
With all your travels, location seems an integral part of your music. How did location influence Sunlit Cross?
When you travel the world like that, everywhere you go you get a different perspective on who you are, because of where you’re from. You get a closer look at what somebody might think of an American. It made me think a lot about my musical style on a world scale. Being in a third world country, I really wanted to do something creative. I tried to get recordings and video. I was able to hang out with some folk guitar players. That was so awesome. I didn’t do a good job of documenting any of it. I found it really exciting to play my songs to these guys and hearing their songs. It was exciting to think about the similarities and differences, but mostly the similarities.
I was in Cambodia for a little while, a few months. It was real crazy being there, in Phnom Penh. I didn’t meet very many adults that spoke English, but there were tons of street kids, like hustlers everywhere. I was hanging out with them all the time. [laughs] I’m poor but when I was there I was rich. So I would get them to be my tour guides and take me to all the places they wanted to go to, like water parks and arcades and shit. I got them to sing a lot of songs. I did get some recordings of kids singing Cambodian music.
What do you hope that listeners will get out of listening to your new songs?
Well, the album might put you to sleep. To be perfectly honest, I wrote it with my son in mind, who was a little baby at the time. Thinking about him growing up, I wanted him to have this music in the world, strong and gentle music. That was a huge influence on all the lyrics. I was really excited when you said you came to me in a different way than most people do. I didn’t really end up where I am from people finding me that way on purpose. I write for as wide an audience as I could possibly think of. When I’m writing, I think of everybody, everybody in all of cultures in America, all the cultures that I know of in Europe, all the places I’ve been. That has a big influence on what I say and the way I play.
Looking at press releases for your records, it seems like fast food is a constant reference. White Castle, Arby’s. There was a great article a few years back about Stephen Tanner hanging out in Checkers all the time. What’s behind your appreciation for fast food? Does it come from your time working in kitchens?
I’ve worked in restaurants so much that I hate cooking. I don’t know if I could speak for everyone you’re thinking of, but it’s pure laziness. Just totally giving up on life and surrendering to the path of least resistance. [laughs] Maybe gluttony. Drinking tons of alcohol and eating suitcases of White Castle burgers is maybe a way of giving up on life.
I look at it from the familiarity standpoint. You can go to a White Castle anywhere in this country, or any of these places, and you’re going to get the exact same meal the exact same way. There’s a comfort in that familiarity.
Yeah, I think it’s just giving up on life. I don’t know if Stephen is still hanging out at Checkers all the time. He was sending photos every day. He’s really in love with the culture in that particular neighborhood’s Checkers because the place is like an insane asylum. He’d send me photos every day of these really sad, fucked up people in the middle of the night at Checkers.
But you can also just get what you want and get out, eat it at home or in your car.
Or you can sit all night in there because you have nowhere to go. You get like an hour there until you have to leave.
There’s this McDonalds in Queens where these Korean senior citizens spend their entire day, drinking one cup of coffee apiece. The cops would be called on them and they’d just come back in an hour. You couldn’t tell them what to do.
I’ll tell you something you probably never heard about hanging out with the Harvey Milk guys. They can get into some arguments about food. If you work with Kyle, you gotta plan out meals. He’s really thrifty, knows all the good deals. But when you get the three of them together, you get some arguments about fast food. I’ve heard stories about them being on tour, trying to get on the same page about fast food, what to eat and when. It’s pretty funny.
Luke Roberts’ Sunlit Cross is out on Thrill Jockey on October 14.