Roman Candles

Roman Candles Interview: Converting Sincerity into Sound By Sean Arenas

Sep 11, 2014

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, a National Historic Landmark, is located in Yorba Linda, a suburban city in Orange County, California (one of the “richest cities” as identified by the U.S. Census Bureau.) There, you will find Nixon’s birth home and resting place on the same nine-acre plot of land. In spite of Tricky Dicky’s right-wing paranoia possibly permeating into the soil, the land of gracious living has been the point of origin of many young punk bands—perhaps even spurred by the city’s heritage—including one songwriter and zinester who I have followed closely for years.

Christopher Gordon has navigated past creative pitfalls to find his comfort zone, publicly struggling to grow out of his nerves and rudimentary musicianship. Eventually, he found the sweet spot, honing in on lyrical frankness and intimate— yet remarkably catchy—vocals. He’s the type of acoustic songwriter who appears easily imitable until you pick up a guitar and realize how difficult it is to convert sincerity into sound.

He found a second voice in his zine, The Stowaways, a critical document of SoCal’s punk scene. Together, both his music and writing have allowed him to gain a following endeared by his dedication, but continually fixated by the memorable melodies and relatable lyrics.

Not even the undead hand of Nixon himself can keep Christopher Gordon away from an acoustic guitar.

The majority of this interview was conducted in the ArcadiaWash on August 6th, 2014.

Interview and transcription by Sean Arenas

Sean: Let’s go back to the beginning of Roman Candles.

Chris: In the summer of 2008, I saw Andrew Jackson Jihad and Lemuria at the Glass House Record Store. This was early college. Riley (Dahlson), who started the band with me, was like, “Dude, we got to see this band Lemuria. They have a female singer and they sound like Dinosaur Jr.” We get there and Andrew Jackson Jihad is playing and it stops me in my tracks. I picked up the split with Ghost Mice and was like, “I’m going to go for it.”

Sean: And you then decided to play accordion?

Chris: I had been taking piano lessons for a while. I bought an accordion out of the PennySaver, because I really liked Dusty Rhodes And The River Band. They had an accordion player. I was like, “I’ll just do that.” [laughter] So, the earliest Roman Candles songs are terrible, because I didn’t know how to play guitar. I’d write lyrics and try to tell Riley to play “bum bum bum.” It’s a terrible way to start a band.

Sean: I believe we met at the Windchime House in Pico Rivera. I recall you and Riley playing until two or three in the morning. It felt like an endless set, maybe a one or two hour-long set.

Chris: It was absolutely not. Calvin (Jalandoni) was at the show. He was allergic to cats. Calvin was crying because he was sneezing and just melting in the corner. He was like, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.” We absolutely played last and it was ridiculously late, but I think we played maybe fifteen minutes. We didn’t have enough songs to play for two hours. By that point, Riley was already over the band. Riley would say, “We should be a live band.” All I could say was, “I don’t know how to play guitar! I’m not ready yet!” It really took Riley quitting the band and abandoning me for me to be like, “Fuck. I need to learn a real instrument!”

Sean: How did Riley quit?

Chris: Riley ducked out about a week into tour. He decided he hated me. It was one of those situations where everything about a person begins to bug you. Everything about me got on his nerves. He decided he had enough about a week into it in Mississippi. We were not supposed to come home for three more weeks. Plus, he was really homesick and had a girlfriend that he missed. I can be annoying. Calvin was playing bass on that tour. He offered to help finish the tour by playing guitar.

Sean: Did you miss any dates?

Chris: Yeah. Because we were in Riley’s car, he made us drive back from Mississippi. It was four dudes in a car, all three of us really pissed off at Riley. [laughter] None of us paid for gas on the way home. I refused to help with the driving. I was just sitting in the backseat super fucking pissed off at him. We didn’t talk for ten months after that. He’s my best friend. It was a horrible situation, but Calvin was like, “I’ll help you finish the tour, but I have no actual interest in being in this band. It’s fucking terrible. It’s a terrible band.” [laughter] Bless his soul for helping me finish the tour.

When I moved up to Berkeley, my friends Christopher and Max, were like, “We’d love to help you keep the band going.” I learned to play guitar that first semester at college. The first show we played—me, Christopher, and Max—went terribly. Our second show as a band was with Summer Vacation, Merry Christmas, and Joyce Manor at the Eastside Café (community space in El Sereno) with Max Riech on bass, Zack Benson on drums, and Christopher Torres playing second guitar. It’s really funny to hear Barry (Johnson of Joyce Manor) talk about that show, because he’s like, “That was the worst fucking thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Sean: You guys?

Chris: Yeah. He’s like, “I thought you went away to college and did a ton of drugs. I thought you playing that bad was supposed to be a joke. You guys were really that bad.” Barry can give honest feedback. [laughter] He’s seen every stage of Roman Candles. It’s really funny to hear him talk about how awful it was. After it going so horribly for so long, it just got to a point where I realized that I don’t work well with others.

Sean: What makes you think that?

Chris: Because Riley made us drive thirty-two hours straight home from Mississippi! [laughter] Because touring with my best friends, like Christopher, Max, and Zack, feeling like, “God, I hate all of you.” I felt guilty. I’d much rather be friends than be in a band together. It was the wrong friends to be in a band with. Going on tour with them—we’re talking 2010—no one was down to listen to Blink-182 in the car. In Chris’s car, we’d just listen to metal for four hours straight. A four hour metal mixtape. Like, “Dude, I can’t do this. I’m having a terrible time.” Also, they were all really competent on their instruments, but I was the one writing songs. It was really boring for them to be like, “Hey, let’s write this 4/4 pop punk song.” They would try to spice it up, but you can only do that so much.

Sean: In retrospect, you dabbling with a live band doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

Chris: I think it was awful for a while even when I started playing by myself. Everyone at that point had decided to leave the band. Zack was playing with Cosmonauts, and Max was playing with Feeding People. Christopher was about to start Layman. I asked Christopher if he wanted to play this show, and he was like, “No. I’m going to go to a metal show or something.” [laughter] I was playing a show with Dangers, Joyce Manor, and Lemuria. Barry said something to the extent of, “That show was too big for you to play. You were terrified.” I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no equipment. I should have mic’d up.

Sean: You weren’t qualified. [laughter]

Chris: I just wanted to be in a band. I wanted to put out a demo tape. I really wanted to put out a 7”. I realized, “All right, I guess I’m going to do this by myself.” It’s been just me since 2011. I’ve just put out my third 7”.

Sean: I admire you because I’ve never met someone who knew they were doing poorly, but kept at it until it got good. That’s dedication. Anyone else would have been like, “I should stop this. This needs to end.”


Chris: Well, it did. It did need to end. And it ended. Then it started over and it was just as bad. The electric band mess needed to end. Everyone had really different styles and liked really different music. It made no sense. The only positive thing that came out of those shows and that time was I met everyone. I stuck with it and kept the band name, which was good in hindsight. I knew there was history in the name—even if it was terrible. [laughter] It’s easier to get shows when you’ve been a band for a while. If I was constantly having to make a new Myspace account with new songs with four Myspace fans, it would have been impossible to get on shows. Because I kept the name, it was easier. “Oh, I know who’s in this band. I know it’s just Christopher. We’ll let him play first.”

Sean: At what point did you finally feel that you had gained more confidence?

Chris: We played a show still as an electric band—it was my senior year at Berkeley. I was home for spring break. We were playing at the Blood Orange Infoshop (DIY space in Riverside) with Tiny Lungs. I had just written “Yorba Linda.” Justin Conway (Tiny Lungs, Merry Christmas) came up to me and said, “Hey, that first song is pretty good.” He didn’t say this, but he was essentially insinuating, “The rest of your songs still sound like shit, but that first song—there’s something to it.” I felt then that I had written a song.

Sean: From that song, did you realize that was the direction you were heading?

Chris: Yeah, just try to write more stuff that Justin Conway would like. [laughter] Also, everyone has always been really supportive even when they hated it. Justin has always adored me as I’ve adored him. Those bands have always felt like a community, and they always let me be a part of that even when they thought it was bad—but it’s better now. I think most people would acknowledge that.

Sean: Would you say a lot of what you write is about having grown up in Yorba Linda?

Chris: No, but I definitely started writing more honestly. Not everything is so location specific. On the full-length (Riley Versus Jason in the Battle of Gracious Living), half of the songs are about Yorba Linda and half about getting my heart broken. All of the songs are honest. I learned to be as honest as I can. Some people are able to write stories through characters. I don’t know how to write about imaginary things.

Sean: As a songwriter, I feel that you can’t be anymore honest. Do you find that you ever want to censor yourself?

Chris: I just stopped caring. A lot of the content is relatable.

Sean: You don’t detach yourself at all.

Chris: They don’t necessarily know that it’s not fictionalized. For all they know, it could all be a big relatable...

Sean: Ruse.

Chris: Yeah. [laughter] It could be, like, a big long con. If I just write about things I know or things that happened to my friends. It’s way easier.

Sean: Before, you were easily pigeonholed as folk punk, but as soon as you became more direct it became less easy to classify.

Chris: That’s because I don’t like folk punk. I listen to indie rock. I like Archers Of Loaf and The Replacements. I don’t go home and put on Johnny Hobo. If I played with folk punk bands, I’d sell more merch. Just because I play with an acoustic guitar and it’s on Plan-It-X (DIY label) people call it “folk punk,” but it’s acoustic indie rock.

Sean: What was it like growing up in Yorba Linda?

Chris: It’s a very comfortable place to grow up when you don’t know anything else. Everyone I was friends with was playing in punk bands and like, “This place sucks.” We’ve had the dumbest amount of bands for a town. And we’ve had bands that have “made it” and put delusional dreams in people’s heads. Atreyu went to the same high school as me and started playing to, like, thirty thousand people, causing kids who were six years younger—my age—to start metalcore bands. God, it sucked. And Cold War Kids who “made it” and are playing on KROQ and Coachella. Those dudes went to my high school, too. These are kids who took music lessons with parents who are supportive of that. “Here’s a skateboard and guitar.”

Sean: Were you supported as a musician growing up?

Chris: My parents bought me a guitar at ten, but my fingers were always too small to make the shapes. I would take guitar lessons for four months then quit. And I was really lazy and didn’t want to practice. It was a combination of things. [laughter] I decided at sixteen that I was going to take piano lessons and just suck it up. I was sandwiched between a seven-year-old girl and a ten-year-old girl, and they were so much better than me. I’m sitting there playing “Hot Cross Bones” and thinking, “Fuck. I just really want to be in a band. I hope this pays off.” All my friends were starting new bands, and I’d be like, “I want to be in a band, but I don’t play an instrument.” My parents were super supportive, though.

Sean: What do they do?

Chris: My mom is a secretary for a local school district. My dad was a pressman for a long time. He emigrated from Hungary in 1977. About five years ago, before I moved to Berkeley, he had a stroke. He was on disability for a few years, but now he works for the same school district as my mom as a substitute custodian.

Sean: You’ve worked in education as well?

Chris: When I was eighteen, I started doing after school child care. I did that for a long time. I eventually decided to get a teaching credential. For a year, I student taught eleventh grade U.S. History.

Sean: Did students ever take advantage of you?

Chris: I was always honest when I didn’t know what I was doing. If you don’t know how to work a projector, people are empathetic enough to help you out. High schoolers are pretty good at reading through bullshit. They can tell if you’re sincere or not. I think they could tell that I was sincere even if I didn’t know what I was doing. “Sorry guys.” [laughter] You have to be able to improvise.

Sean: Is that something you will keep doing?

Yeah. I’m leaving for Colombia in three weeks to teach English in the Peace Corps. I don’t think anyone joins the Peace Corps for any one reason. It’s always a complicated mess of selfish and unselfish reasons. For me, it was the fact that I wasn’t ready to start looking for teaching positions. I knew for a fact that I wouldn’t get hired at the school district I taught at. A lot of young teachers end up getting pink slips at the end of the year. It sounded like a headache. I saw what sounded like a small window of opportunity. It had been on my mind for a long time. Also, I feel like my dad has this larger story of emigrating to the United States, my mom left a family of twelve brothers and sisters in New Jersey to move out here, and my sister spent the last five years teaching in Brazil; I want to do something with my life. The only thing that would have been holding me back was being in a band and going on tour, but I wasn’t being offered tours.

Sean: Any fears about being gone for two years?

Chris: The fear of missing out. Mostly music stuff. I think two years is also such a short time that not much is going to change. I can play music in Colombia. Real life things, too. My older sister is married and she’ll probably have a kid when I’m gone. I might miss that. Those are things I don’t want to miss. And scary things. My dad is not the healthiest dude. What if something terrible happens? What if he passes away? Things like that. I’m taking this risk of not being in everyday contact with people I care about.

Sean: Is your family supportive of your decision?

Chris: My mom doesn’t want me to do it. She wants me to get a teaching job. My mom wants me to be teaching in high school. “You got a teaching credential. What the fuck are you doing?”

Sean: Let’s talk about The Stowaways.

Chris: I started doing a blog while living in the dorms at Berkeley. It was February 2010. I was basically just doing show reviews. I couldn’t do Roman Candles full-time, and I needed a creative outlet so I decided to write about bands I like. When I would read larger zines, they weren’t covering the bands I wanted to read about.

Sean: You did what punk should do. You filled the void yourself.

Chris: I just wanted to read interviews with bands I like. Stowaways has a primarily local focus.

Sean: When was the first issue?

Chris: The first issue came out in September 2011. That was an interview with Joey Siara of The Henry Clay People, who was getting interviewed frequently, but they were never the questions I wanted answered. We went to the same high school—granted he’s older—and I wanted to know specific things. I wanted the nitty gritty details.

Sean: You write really honest show reviews. You’re not afraid to say, “This band is fucking terrible.”

Chris: That’s because my band is terrible. [laughter] I would have loved for anyone to review my band, but no one else was writing show reviews at the time. A lot of times bands are terrible because it’s their first show. If my first show had been reviewed, I would of loved it—even if it was terrible. Like Mitchell from Tough Stuff, I think he legitimately does not like me because I wrote a bad show review. They tried to cover a Green Day song and they couldn’t sing and play guitar at the same time, and I said that in the review. I don’t fault people for it. I just hope bands get better.

Sean: True. Through your show reviews you’ve documented bands that have evolved and gotten a lot better.

Chris: Most of these bands I will see again. I don’t dismiss someone after one show, because I know I’ve had plenty of terrible shows. If someone was to dismiss me after one band show—it’s not really fair.

Sean: You’re critical of everyone, including friends. I recall you describing Madison (Woodward of Pocketknife) punching the air during a set, and you said it felt like it was a move practiced in front of the mirror.

Chris: I think a lot of my friends don’t like that I’m that critical, but I can write that and still love Pocketknife. I drove to Madison’s house and paid five dollars for my Pocketknife 7” when it came out. I’ll also be the first one at the show. I wrote a terrible record review of these kids who wrote me the nicest letter. They sent me a CD, but it was terrible. I hated it. I’m not going to write a favorable record review because you sent me a nice letter.

Sean: Every hear back from this band?

Chris: No, I felt kind of guilty about writing that review. Maybe that was terrible of me, but I’m leaving to the Peace Corps. “I’ll see you never.” [laughter]

Sean: What do your parents make of Stowaways?

Chris: My mom was super supportive. She finds it exciting when I’ll get something from England in the mail. She’s the one who made the photocopies of the first twelve issues. She did everything at work.

Sean: She read those issues?

Chris: I think she just scanned them. She was probably terrified of getting caught at work. There were things where she would be like, “Christopher, this is terrible.” [laughter] If I say “fuck” too many times or when I did the issue with Michael Ryan Reinhart. A lot of his artwork is disgustingly vulgar with, like, dicks coming out of the back of people’s throats. My mom was like, “I will not photocopy that stuff!” I had to convince her that it was art and that I was documenting something. I had to plea my case to my mom to make photocopies for free, because I’m a piece of shit. [laughter] I have since learned the Staples copy code—which I shouldn’t be talking about in an interview. On the days when I’m printing, I’m beet red and sweating and looking terrified. I can only imagine what my mom must have felt at her work.

Sean: Has she seen you play?

Chris: She came to the very first Roman Candles show. We played with Limbeck, which was a fluke. They were a popular OrangeCounty indie rock band. I saw them open for The Get Up Kids when I was sixteen. I loved Limbeck. We got on that show because they thought we were The Roman Candles. I don’t why they thought that. I sent them a message from my Myspace page which said “Yorba Linda, CA.” I don’t know why they thought we were on tour. They were like, “How was the drive?” I said, “Fine. It was, like, fifteen minutes.” [laughter] I didn’t trick anyone to get on that show. There’s also a group called Roman Candle. People always think I really like Elliott Smith, because he put out a record called Roman Candle, especially now that I play by myself. But, really, Riley was reading Kerouac’s On the Road. So, Riley named the band.

Sean: At any point did he want you to give up the name?

Chris: No, he was the one who left the band. [laughter]

Sean: What did your mom say about the show?

Chris: “That’s cute. That’s fun. He has a hobby.” Now, I think she think it’s really exciting that I’ve gone on tour. She knew when I put out the LP last year that it was a big deal for me. I showed her the artwork, and she was like, “This is some scary shit.” [laughter] It’s Michael’s tripped-out LSD artwork.

Sean: Has she heard the record?

Chris: My sister sent her the album. I would have never sent it to her. I’m bad at advocating for my band. I just don’t care. I’ve seen bands be like, “We’ve got fifty hoodies left! Get it in the next three hours or they will be gone.” How do these bands sell fifty hoodies in three hours? I can give you my tape for free. I only pressed a hundred. It’s going to take me two years to get rid of a hundred tapes. [laughter] But Plan-It-X was the dream come true. It was the first time that Roman Candles was validated.

Sean: It’s exciting that you’ve come full circle.

Chris: Getting to play Plan-It-X Fest this summer was the first time I’ve met a lot of those people. It was wonderful. Strangers were singing, which never happens. It was a really good feeling, because I couldn’t convince friends to put out a 7”. I’ve always put out stuff myself. No one is rooting for me except me.