It’s Sunday night at the Sixth Ward, a pub on the Lower East Side, and three out of four members of Des Roar are standing behind the bar. Ryan Spoto, the group’s bassist, grabs an opener and runs it across a slew of vodka bottles, creating a tinkling echo of beats. Guitarist Alan O’Keeffe uses a pen to tap a rhythm along the whiskey bottles. Front man Ben Wolcott adjusts his glasses and stares somewhere off in the distance with a smirk on his face.
This is Des Roar—well, most of it.These co-workers and bandmates are missing only their percussion section, consisting of Miss Lyla Vander, but seem to be making up for her absence with typical good humor and charm. Bar patrons watch in amusement as the trio, who rarely stop performing no matter where they are, put on yet another New York show. On stage, however, Vander provides the missing link to what might otherwise be considered your typical garage-rock band; her small but powerful presence behind the drum kit, and her girl-groupesque vocals lend a much-needed woman’s touch from behind the frontlines.
Almost 17 months in the making, Des Roar’s first full-length offering, the self-released Mad Things, has been a tremendous project to tackle. Without the headaches, but also without the support, that working within the music industry brings, the only factors on the group’s side have been a clear vision and a common goal. With their long-awaited debut they may finally get their break.
Des Roar was formed over three years ago, when Spoto made one of his first visits from his native California to consider a possible shift from West coast musician to East coast painter. “I came here to get away from music,” he says. “I played in bands in California, and the band that I put my heart and soul into broke up and fell apart, so I moved out here. I left all my guitars and everything at home, I came out here to pursue art as a painter, and then I realized what a silly idea that was. I decided it’s way more fun to play music.”
The band that fell apart was Bellevue, a three-piece garage-rock group formed on the edges of surf towns around southern California, mostly Los Angeles. Elements of that group can be found in Des Roar, starting with the lineup—two guys and a girl on drums. The group’s front man was none other than Wolcott, who has been playing music with Spoto for the past 16 years. After Bellevue’s disbanding, Spoto came searching for a clean break from it all but found, as many of us do after making such a big transition, that true passions or problems tend to follow us wherever we end up. Considering the New York scene he and Wolcott found themselves in the middle of, it was only a matter of time before they’d created yet another musical project.
It was at a dance party at Black and White bar that Spoto met their soon-to-be lead singer, Aria, and couldn’t help noticing the records she was spinning: old soul, girl groups like the Ronettes and the Shirelles, Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, the Stones, and the Beatles mixed with the raw flavors of bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, Brian Jonestown Massacre, and others who would ultimately inspire the melody-making of this new rock ’n’ roll quintet. Through Aria came Vander—both of them worked for fashion retailer Betsey Johnson—and through grapevine chatter the two discovered each other’s musical talents and ambitions to create a successful rock band.
“Ben was gonna stay [in Los Angeles] and do his own thing,” said Spoto, “He wasn’t in a position to move out at the time. It wasn’t until he came to visit and sat in on a Des Roar rehearsal that he decided he wanted to move to New York.”
Shortly after the group’s formation, Aria left and Wolcott and Vander took over on vocals. After about a year of performing as a threesome, they recruited guitarist Alan O’Keeffe to add an extra layer of sound and to allow Wolcott to concentrate more on singing.
While Des Roar undeniably displays some of the stylish trappings of a contemporary indie-rock band—cute guys, tight jeans, similar haircuts—there is an attention to the music that is becoming increasingly rare in the New York scene. But the devil is in the details, and there is definitely a darker element to the sounds of Des Roar. With songs like “Ted Bundy Was a Lady’s Man,” which explores the complexities of the infamous serial killer, and “How Much Is Too Much,” a duet between Vander and Wolcott that depicts what happens when love becomes a scary obsession, the group’s lyrics tend to be more spine-chilling than heart-warming. “Don’t wear your clothes too tight / Or you don’t go out tonight / Any girl that wants a taste / Will get acid in her face”—it’s like a 1950s psycho beach party.
“We try to make a big conscious effort to take a lot from girl groups,” said Spoto, “In the beginning [Lyla] was doing a lot of the vocals, so everything that we wrote would [revolve] around her being a singer in a girl group. It’s naturally evolved into a more modern rock ’n’ roll vibe, but I think we try to go back and maintain the roots of 50s and 60s music. The surfy vibe comes from growing up in California.”
Des Roar sings about many things—sex, obsession, hooking up—that are familiar subjects for young bands. But instead of trying to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, they give you a taste of anxiety, of dark brooding, of what it’s like to have sociopathic tendencies. This could be just a pose, but in Des Roars’s case it’s likely rooted in real-life experience. “Lyrically, it can be described as our perception of moving to New York and what those experiences are like,” said Spoto. “Going to a bar. Meeting a girl and her telling you that she wants to have sex with you in the bathroom. Us going crazy and becoming whores. Just general mayhem.”
Beyond their philandering exploits as musician-bartenders, the members of Des Roar managed to set aside enough time to write, record, and produce Mad Things, slated for release this month. The album shows a more complex side of the group than fans have generally seen on stage: of course their surf-inspired ballads and poppy dance numbers are there, but the record’s obsessive production brings out deeper layers and a darker vision.
“I don’t know if we’d want to do another record the way that we did this one,” said Spoto. “It sounds really good, and we really took our time. We did three 16-hour sessions to do just drums, and I don’t even know how many sessions to do guitars and vocals. We did a lot of pre-production on the record. Time is money, and we didn’t have a huge budget, so we had to really concentrate on being ready to go once we were in the studio.”
According to the members of the band, independent is the only way to go. Long gone are the days of lavish budgets from wealthy record labels, and Des Roar has few illusions about the prospects of becoming the next big thing. “I mean, if it happens it happens,” said Spoto, on the topic of getting signed to a record label. “But the way the internet works and how the music industry has kind of faltered, it doesn’t really make it necessary. The idea of being in a band, getting signed, and making lots of money is long gone now. That idea and that reality are so far dead. [Labels] are basically just like banks who give you a loan and then put you in debt.”
If anything, the goal for Des Roar is and has always been to take their music on the road. Having established themselves soldily in New York, the next best thing is to find fans elsewhere. “It’s good and it’s bad,” Vander said of the New York music scene, “You can hear all kinds of music and it’s accessible. While that’s a plus, it’s also a negative because it’s a bit over-saturated. There are so many bands and so many venues, so people can be dismissive about it. People are less responsive. I feel like we have a good support base here, but you eventually hit a wall, like there’s only so much we can do only in New York.”
The group will take a big step toward accomplishing their goals in January, when they’ll be heading up the coast of California to perform at various spots in Spoto and Wolcott’s old stomping ground.
MEGAN MARTIN is a freelance writer and editor in chief of Working Class Magazine.