Kenny Roby
Friday, June 16
The Pour House
224 S. Blount St., Raleigh

Granted, 2006 isn’t even half over yet, but I still don’t expect to encounter a better four-strong stretch this year than the one toward the end of Kenny Roby’s The Mercy Filter. It starts with “Evidently You,” a song of great tenderness and, above all else, hopeful thanks that has the kind of warm cello-rock flow that has made Ron Sexsmith a critic’s darling. “On the Wind” features a 10-story hook, a catchy, thumping chorus, and a textbook bridge; it’s as close to a power pop song as Roby has ever written, or maybe an E Street Band anthem as reimagined by the Kinks. “Foot Soldier” starts with genuine ache showing in Scott McCall’s country-soul guitar before giving way to a melody that you’ll be humming from now till doomsday, with the line “Even if I get better/She might not come back” becoming an incantation. Finally, there’s “The Committee,” a Farfisa- and handclap-driven extended metaphor for feeling like you’ve lost control of your life. Besuited pointyheads sit smugly in the conference room of the mind calling the shots before giving way to tiny back-perched monkeys in the second verse.

In other words, The Mercy Filter (Roby’s fourth post-Six String Drag release, following Mercury’s Blues, a live record made with kindred spirit Neal Casal, and Rather Not Know, which was primarily born in the wake of his father’s death) displays the kind of confidence, variety and spunk you’d expect from someone who’s spent over half his years on stage leading bands. Roby started as teen frontguy for punk band the Lubricators before forming Six String Drag, a celebratory, often horn-sporting roots rock band that teamed with the Backsliders, Whiskeytown, the Two Dollar Pistols and others to make the Triangle a true hotbed of so-called alt-country in the mid to late ’90s. These days, Roby splits his time between playing solo (or as a duo, when the in-demand McCall is available) and doing shows with his latest band, also named the Mercy Filter. It’s a credit to Roby’s songwriting that his tunes work equally well in any configuration.

Here’s what Roby had to say during a recent conversation with the Independent Weekly.

Independent Weekly: Please talk a little about the making of The Mercy Filter, and its half homegrown/half fleshed-out-in-the-studio origins?

Kenny Roby: Basically, Scott McCall put together the core band of himself, Mark O’Brien, David Kim and Justin Faircloth to work in Justin’s Cougar Camp studio in Charlotte. I had met the other members a few times but didn’t know them well at all. It was a risk that worked out great in the end. I had a handful of songs I wanted to try out with the band and some that were still churning over in my head. We sat on the porch a good bit and came up with arrangements and twisted things inside out to then take them back into the studio and twist them around once more. The idea on much of the record was for me to depend on the band’s ideas and less on my preconceptions of what the songs should be coming in. Some of the songs, such as “Concentration,” I hadn’t even figured out any kind of chord structure for. I just came in with lyrics and a guideline for a melody, with the willingness to go wherever it took us. This process had to be pretty quick due to time constraints, so I think you get a feel of the moment in the songs.

IW: Both The Mercy Filter and Rather Not Know have their share of autobiographical moments. Which type of song is harder to write and why: one that has a big chunk of you in it, or one that has none of you in it? Actually, is it even possible to write a song that has none of you in it?

KR: I think you are right in that it is impossible to write a song that has none of you in it. On the other hand, I think it’s very hard to write a song that is autobiographical that doesn’t have a bit of fiction in it. Hell, it’s all our perception, and we tend to lie to ourselves and others at times. I guess you can call it “historical fiction.” I don’t think one is easier to write than the other. Either way you have to go someplace, then be there to capture it.

IW: You seem equally comfortable playing solo or duo shows and leading a band. Do you prefer one configuration over the other? What are the pros and cons of each?

KR: The band is pro and I’m a con. (laughs) Seriously, I’m comfortable with either one. I like the interaction of playing with the band. When it’s on it’s great. But if the ship goes down, there are more men on it. You can work very hard to prepare that ship for a show and it can come short of expectations, and you feel more of a letdown than a solo gig. Solo gigs are great because there is very little gear involved. It takes less effort to prepare for, so if it doesn’t go so well, there’s less of a letdown. Also, if the pay isn’t good, you have no one else to answer to, except maybe your family. (laughs)

IW: I know it’s not good to generalize when talking about music, but can you share a couple of sentences each to describe a typical Lubricators show, a typical Six String Drag show, and a typical Mercy Filter show?

KR: The Lubricators was full on, the whole show. I used to come close to throwing up at the end of a show because it was so non-stop. There was very little finesse involved. A Six String Drag show was a combination of that intensity and finesse. It was very dynamic. There is no typical Mercy Filter show. I hope there never is.

IW: You cover Randy Newman’s “Feels Like Home” in your solo shows. Newman might not necessarily be the first artist to spring to mind as one of your influences. Who are some other artists who inspire you that people might be surprised about?

KR: Are you trying to trigger some Andy Gibb out of me? I really like ’60s and ’70s reggae. I actually like some ’80s soul stuff. I like a lot of ’80s and early ’90s rap/hip hop: Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Run-DMC and others. I like good songs, no matter what the genre. I think the Bee Gees were amazing songwriters. And yes, I think the bridge in Andy Gibb’s “(Our Love) Don’t Throw It All Away” is as good as any bridge ever written in pop music.

IW: At the time of The Mercy Filter‘s release, you said, “I guess, in a way, for a lot of it, I was kind of doing something new by going to something old.” Can you explain what you meant by that?

KR: I believe I meant that I was tapping into some of my hard-rock and punk-rock influences on certain songs that I hadn’t touch on since the Lubricators and early Six String Drag. Coupled with the influences that I had picked up since those early bands, it was something new for me.

IW: So what about this concept record that you’ve had in your head for a while and that you have a couple songs for? Can you talk a little about it?

KR: It’s ever-changing. I’ve written some more songs since we last talked and might have dropped a few. It’s tentatively called We Are The Machine. And the rest is a secret. Even to me at times.

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