Robbers on High Street

Looking in from the outside, I’d describe the Robbers on High Street as an indie band. But talking with them, it’s clear they don’t think of themselves in that way. I suppose this is always this case with stereotypes — what good are they, anyway?
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ROHS may be four lanky youths (Ben Troken, vocals, guitars, and keys; Steven Mercado, guitar and vocals; Morgan King, bass; Tomer Danan, drums) with short hair and a tendency toward vintage attire, but their music conjures classic Queen, and even ’60s pop, with Lennon-eque piano vamping and informed 19th-century functional harmony, complete with diminished chords.

The band originated in 2002, when Ben and Steven, childhood friends from Poughkeepsie, NY, found themselves in Brooklyn. I caught up with them at Café du Nord in San Francisco, where they played opposite the Dears (see our April 2005 issue), as they were anxiously awaiting the release of their first full-length record, Tree City (now available from New Line Records). The production on that album, for which the band shares a credit with Peter Katis, is impressive. The music itself rises above the pack with capable vocal harmony and driving 4/4 beats that often host motifs more comfortable in 6/4 or 12/4. Their live show was energetic, even though the band seemed exhausted from traveling — they shared that they had driven away from a gas station in their van with the gas pump still engaged, ripping the hose off the pump, only two days earlier.

On stage, Ben alternates between guitar and the acoustic and electric pianos on his Nord Electro. There are no keyboard pyrotechnics. “I know just enough to play the parts,” he says. But the parts are thoughtful, catchy, and serve the material. For the album, the group added Mellotron and Fender Rhodes, but have yet to cross the line into the synth world.

Ben, originally a guitarist, explained his keyboard modus operandi: “I just found myself doing the same things over and over again on the guitar. I went to the keys for fresh inspiration. And funny enough, it’s affected my guitar playing in return . . . one informs the other.”