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Moonwalking with Knoxville’s kings of pop

Like the team itself, TWER‘s “Music” section heads north this week to Knox on the door of the fantastically rocking Royal Bangs, who will most certainly not be in Neyland Stadium this Saturday. Though we remain intrigued by Jamie Barrier’s (Pine Hill Haints) perennial, unsubstantiated reports of a ragtag, anarchist marching band trumpeting “Rocky Top” through Market Square on Tennessee game days, it appears that the current vanguard of Knoxville hipsterdom proudly and profoundly shuns the lewdness of school spirit: “I can’t believe (football) passes for culture,” laughs frontman Ryan Schaeffer (neither can we — it’s winning by four touchdowns, it should just keep it on the ground). This bodes well for Auburn. But more on all that later. Now, please to enjoy the pigskin-less scoop on the Peyton Mannings of turbo-pop – Royal Bangs.

Royal Bangs: Good ol' Rock 'n' Roll, Rock 'n' Roll, Tennessee.

Ten years ago, it was a rule that interviews probing the influences of hip, up-and-coming, underground-ish bands had to include gratuitous citations of “just, you know… like… jazz.

These days it is Michael Jackson. Everyone says they dig Michael Jackson. Thriller-era. Or, to be even cooler, Off The Wall-era.

To listen to frontman Ryan Shaeffer, it is pretty obvious that Royal Bangs dig Michael Jackson. Specifically Off The Wall –era Michael Jackson.

“He was always one of my favorites when I was a kid,” Schaeffer says. “We always really liked him.”

Of course. Everyone did. These days.

But that Knoxville’s latest-and-greatest are being completely, ironically, eerily for’reals about it cannot be overstated.

Because the music they were listening to in the van on their way to the show in Atlanta, the music they were listening to on June 25, the music they were listening to when they got the text message that Michael Jackson was dead … was Michael Jackson. Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson.

‘Keep on with The Force, Don’t Stop … Don’t stop ’till you get enough …’

Schaefer, 24, sums it up thusly: “It was weird.”

Weird, yes. But also indicative of Royal Bangs’ actual cultivation of actual authenticity.

When Royal Bangs say they consult the Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac, Springsteen, Thin Lizzy, the Blade Runner soundtrack, and Michael Jackson for inspiration, it isn’t hipster posturing. They actually mean it.

And the sincerity has their recently released sophomore record “Let it Beep” sounding bad. Like, Michael Jackson bad.

Not that that is anything new.

The lore behind the band’s 2007-ish discovery has Black Key’s drummer Patrick Carney not checking out some obscure demo or catching the band’s 10th showcase at South by Southwest as a favor to a friend of a friend, but finding them randomly and completely on his own … on MySpace. Finding them and signing them, quickly, to his own Audio Eagle Records, and even re-releasing their self-recorded 2006 full-length debut “We Breed Champions.”

“It was flattering,” Schaeffer says of the official, professional attention. “It’s flattering anytime someone wants to put money into what you’re doing.”

But what exactly the 5-piece band is doing and how they are doing it is like trying to describe the “what” and “how” of the Moonwalk: You’re not sure. You just know it is awesome.

Reviewers use a lot of “-ic” words. Frantic, manic, spastic. They talk about layering. And they most certainly use the term “synth.”

The sound is relentlessly catchy, Pixie Stick hyper, Pavement-ish ,and cerebraly charming — a veritable Neverland Ranch of rock ‘n’ roll where visitors may find a sort of stick-in-your-head lurchability akin to Franz Ferdinand, a conservatory-esque, orchestral sophistication to the arrangements ala Vampire Weekend, and vague, occasional pangs that I swear twang of Built To Spill … which was more than enough to have Spin gushing over the band’s 2008 Bonnaroo set as the sort of thing that makes “a late night worthwhile” and Rolling Stone saying it made Royal Bangs their “new favorite rockers.”

But it’s the dedication to ’70s pop combined with whatever continental electronica Schaefer soaked up during a recent yearlong stay in France (“That’s what the publicist wrote,” he laughs, “I just went there to study and drink a lot of wine and eat good food.”) that has “Let it Beep” sharing a European label with groups like Yo La Tengo and Arcade Fire and pushing the band’s buzz to a fevered, breakthrough pitch.

Just don’t tell that to Schaeffer. He is disowning success like it is Billie Jean’s son.

“There hasn’t really been, like, one really big thing I guess,” he says. “Except the fact that now we’re starting to have people come out that already know the new songs [the new album came out Sept. 15]. … [T]hey’re coming out to see us, not just the other bands. … Honestly, our biggest achievement is that just this last month we all paid our rent from being in a band.”

But despite the sincere just-let-me-rock humility, you know he knows. You know he can feel it. There are publicists now. Things are happening. Good things. He can hear the song …

Royal Bangs! Heed the words of the once and future King of Pop:

‘Keep on with The Force, Don’t Stop … Don’t stop ‘till you get enough …’

About Jeremy Henderson

Jeremy Henderson is the editor of The War Eagle Reader and co-host of Rich and Jeremy in the Mornings on Wings 94.3 FM in Auburn. Follow him on Twitter: @wareaglereader / @jerthoughts / @RichandJeremy

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