By Jack Spencer
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By Rob van Alstyne
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The guys in Taj Raj don't exactly look like Palmer's regulars. Singer Ben Burwell has a five o'clock shadow, wears a stocking cap and a bright yellow thrift-store sweater, and flashes three large turquoise rings whenever he takes a drag on his cigarette or a drink from his tallboy. But these five guys are right at home relaxing on the back patio, where the woozy sounds of a fiddle and kick drum drift out from the bar courtesy of Drew Peterson's band. Not only have Taj Raj played here before, but they even played their first show opening for Peterson.
Likewise, the band's music—a mix, at root, of pop-punk and country—doesn't sound quite like what that description brings to mind, its slick layers of guitars and vocal harmonies providing a unique contrast with rootsy accents and tear-in-yer-beer sentiments.
So it's not such a stretch to learn that the band, who got their name from a character in the novel Shantaram, started under circumstances that fall somewhere short of "rock star" on the scale of band beginnings. "We went to law prom together," Burwell recalls, referring to drummer Jake Wallenius. They both go to law school at St. Thomas. "And we wound up jamming afterward, trying to do a cover of Outfield."
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Artists like Tom Petty and Steve Miller have been major influences—"As far as solid pop-rock songs go, they really nailed it," says Burwell—but a bunch of jangly folk-rockers or space cowboys these guys ain't. On Your Thief, their first record, the country side of things serves as a motif as much as anything (even if there are a pair of crossed revolvers on the album cover). Whether it's a countrified drawl here or a Nashville guitar fill there, such flourishes help color hook-heavy cuts like "Turn You Bad" or "18 Wheels" without needing to prop them up.
Burwell's voice, with its big, flexible range, gives Taj Raj a lot of its muscle, country or otherwise. It's fitting, then, that he studied voice training in college, spending a lot of time in areas as far afield as opera. "That [training] doesn't have a direct influence, but it helped out writing harmonies," he says. "When I listen to recordings from back in the day—like when I was in my late teens, early 20s—going through those six years of training really freed my voice up."
Nonetheless, the band's roots in pop-punk and emo are plenty noticeable, especially on a slower ballad such as "Wild Screaming Bullet." "It's grown on me," lead guitarist Chris O'Hal says of the song. He last played in a band that he says was similar to Refused, but is happier now in a group that's "not just rolling around drunk." "At first it had all these handclaps; it sounded like a boy band. I was like, 'I like it until the boy-band part comes in. What the hell is this?'" he laughs.
"There were seven-part harmonies on that song," adds bassist Derek Ritchison, shaking his head.
The band members have been working on the album for over a year, virtually since they started playing together, in what they describe as a "guerilla-style" approach. They recorded in basements and on borrowed equipment, unable to offer up much more than beer in return, with one friend who works at a guitar store even lending them some Rickenbackers and hollow-bodies to record with. "The method was more a matter of resources. It didn't have anything to do with choice," Ritchison says. Keys player Jake Pavek didn't even join until after everything else had been finished, and his Rhodes contributions are admittedly something of an afterthought. In the process, the band think the album may have shifted away from some of the live energy and rootsier vibe. "Spending so much time in the studio with layers of guitars, it probably made it more rock 'n' roll than we originally intended," admits Ritchison. "It's hard to mimic the same feel when you're recording for over a year."
Now that they're working on translating those results to the stage, the members of Taj Raj say they've been focusing on fleshing out the live harmonies. Perhaps that will help recapture some of that energy, or add more of a ramshackle feel that could help take things to a new level. Either way, they're apparently further along than the band expected to get in the first place.
"My dream was to have a hipster drummer summer," quips Wallenius, feigning disappointment. "I'd be in a band for the summer and shuffle beat at the bars I'd go drink at, and maybe get drink tickets. [Now] I'll have to rethink it."
TAJ RAJ play a CD-release party with the 4onthefloor, the American North, and Chris Shotliff and the Hardest Part on FRIDAY, JUNE 3, at the TURF CLUB; 651.647.0486