“Keep that in the van at all times,” the guy says, placing a tiny, battered liquor bottle on the café table before turning to walk away.
“Thanks, man!” Mark Lombardo calls after him, “but what is it?”
“Soil from Upper Yosemite,” says the stranger. “Tallest waterfall on the continent.”
Underneath a faded Wild Turkey label, the bottle is a tiny terrarium, the loamy contents fogging the glass from within. If this isn’t “reasonable cause” to have your entire tour vehicle searched at a routine traffic stop, nothing is. Still, Lombardo and Derek Rogers, his counterpart in the Albany dream-pop duo Titanics, are smitten with the auspicious token and promise to keep it with them on their innaugural East Coast tour. “How did he even know?” Rogers later wonders. But the guy is out the door before Lombardo can explain that they’ll be travelling in his Honda Civic.
Lombardo and Rogers aren’t the type to expound on karma and synchronicity but, given their composure through the episode, you get the sense that this kind of thing happens to them with some regularity. Barely a year after releasing their debut, Soft Treasure, the duo have checked most of the boxes on the local-band bucket list: headline the clubs, play the street festivals, earn airplay on WEQX and WEXT, and build the kind of local following that might, say, approach you anonymously to bestow artifacts of spiritual guidance. Yet, they’ll be the first to tell you it was never really the plan.
“We’re playing big shows,” says Lombardo, who plays keyboards and programs beats in addition to his lead-vocal duties, “but I’ve always felt like we’re the ugly ducklings [of the local music scene].”
“Or weird cousins,” offers Rogers, the guitarist and graphic designer.
True, Titanics likely won’t be winning a SPAC band battle or playing a Dave Matthews Band afterparty anytime soon. Nor will they be opening for Eddie Money next time he plays Alive at Five. And this is the thing that has made them stand out to an audience with ears tuned to frequencies outside our area code. Blog hype and a gorgeous music video for the single “Low Frames” have made the band a mini sensation on Spotify, earning an archipelago of listeners primed by labels like 4AD and Captured Tracks. When I reviewed Soft Treasure last year—a relative eternity in the online trend cycle—it felt like the first regional response to “chillwave,” a now-obsolete genre built on pastoral synthesizers and blissfully anesthesized psych rock. As the blogosphere continues to churn up new listeners, the record now feels less reactionary and more authentic in its post-ironic embrace of the simple ambiance that culture used to refer to as new age. After all, what most urban chillwavers were romanticizing is what these upstaters are living: long summer afternoons on the banks of the Mohawk River and long winter nights writing music in a remote woodshed. For the most part, the two childhood friends have just done what comes naturally. After that, the fact that others should want to listen in feels less like kismet than consequence.
The woodshed in question sits way back behind Lombardo’s parents’ house in Latham. Now retired, it’s where Titanics were born. Having grown up playing bass and guitar in prog bands with Rogers, Lombardo moved to the synthesizer—a microKORG he bought on a whim—only after injuring his wrist.
“We had no plan to make music with synthesizers,” Rogers says, until Lombardo locked himself in the woodshed for a spell, only emerging to tell Rogers he’d been “making the music of his life.” Rogers agreed and began adding electric guitar to the stripped-down tracks Lombardo had been building on a portable Tascam 8-track digital recorder, filling the harmonic space between gooey synth lines, verbed-out vocals and Casio-simple drum figures. The presence of a drum machine has earned the band somewhat dubious billing with more conventionally electronic performers, and the pairing is compatible, but there’s still something very analog about what Titanics do. There are no laptops, no samples, and the project’s objectives remain traditional.
“We’ve always been in love with a great melody,” Rogers says. And this is likely what has helped the band grab ears. Soft Treasure splits its running time between impressionistic instrumental snippets like “Yoota” or “Clouds, Ponds, Myths” and undeniable pop gems like “Low Frames” and “Cars.” Lombardo often takes the photographic work of New York artist Morgan Quay as his starting point, building the image of a broken car in in the Utah desert into the lyrics of “Cars” or a tired scene from a casino into the mood of “Table Bet.” Quay herself is featured on the art for single “Low Frames,” seated at a slot machine with the Ghost Busters arcade game in the background. The image has become so iconic that the band have printed sticker decals that lack even their name.
This is a testament to Rogers’ graphic design sense, which is indispensible to a band’s online aesthetic. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” he says, “but I do it every day.” Just as Rogers has entrusted Lombardo with the band’s recording and mixing duties, Lombardo defers entirely to Rogers for visual decision making. The cover of Soft Treasure is no less striking: a vintage photo of a well-dressed man in aviators, drinking Miller High Life in the snow. The image suits the record’s vibe so well, it’s almost coincidental that the man is Lombardo’s father.
The seperation of labor has created a dynamic between the two that is amiable and conversational. “Low Frames” characteristically trades off between vocal melodies and guitar fills, each leaving space for each other while supporting the song’s simple arc. “I think the duo format is super powerful,” Lombardo says, admitting the 8-track allows the two to work and record pretty much wherever they are. The two list a number of duo projects that have inspired them, from Youth Lagoon (in their pre-band days) to Darkside, who more directly mirror Titanics’ guitar-and-electronics formula. But inevitably the conversation turns to the region’s most famous duo, Phantogram, who might be credited for validating the formula on a national level. “I think they’re the only local band we can say we somewhat relate to,” Lombardo says, although they’ve developed a strong alliance with soul-rockers Wild Adriatic and shared the stage twice this week in North Carolina.
The Phantogram Doctrine does more than enforce the power of the duo, though, and Titanics have accordingly become acolytes, although perhaps unconsciously. It demands that a band keep one foot in two contradictory worlds at all times, developing a local presence while courting kindred spirits online, asserting oneself as the outsider while keeping the aesthetic approachable, cultivating new material while getting the most mileage out of the hits, and being prepared to play any gig or collaboration at a moment’s notice. Before leaving for their tour of East Coast rock clubs, including Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory, Titanics played an electronic bill at the Fuze Box and a yoga festival in Saratoga, improvising ambient music for two hours.
“I feel more comfortable playing a show like that than unloading into some grungy venue with rock bands, but I love it all,” Lombardo says. The band are committed to building their touring chops for the forseeable future, continuing to push Soft Treasure for as long as they can find new audiences. “It’s a great introduction to us,” Rogers says, admitting that the ambient nature of the album works equally well as background music. Lombardo is excited to return to recording, though, when the band settle down a bit, but stasis might not be necessary anymore for that kind of thing—at least not if you have the Tascam in the Civic and soil from the continent’s tallest waterfall on the dashboard.