By Alexandra Jones
Up in the urban-rustic wilds of Fishtown, Rob Garcia and Sarah Everton – AKA Reading Rainbow – make some of Philadelphia’s best-loved new music out of the basement studio of their cozy home. Their songs reflect the band’s city-dwelling lives in urgent tempos and thick swaths of distortion while their lyrics express an almost worshipful attitude towards nature and animals. And live, it’s fucking great to dance to.
Whether they mean to or not, Reading Rainbow might just be the perfect ambassadors to rep the best of Philadelphia’s music scene at South By Southwest: They’re loud but not vapid, instinctual but aesthetically driven. And they’ve got a complicated relationship to their adoptive city.
The duo have made Philly their home for the past three years, but their musical history goes back further. Garcia and Everton met while Garcia was working on a mechanical engineering degree in Virginia. Before Reading Rainbow, they played with a drummer in another project with a screamier, more frenetic sound.
“We had a song called “Fuck You, Old Man, You’re Not My Father,'” Garcia remembers. “That was the lyrics to the song.”
“That was one of the better ones,” Everton says.
Right before their first out-of-town shows, however, their drummer dropped out – so the now-duo made the style of their new band fit their skill set. Everton stepped in to fill the role with Reading Rainbow’s familiar percussive setup: Snare, floor tom, and a lone cymbal complementing Garcia’s melodic, distorted guitar styles.
“[The aesthetic is] kind of the idea of kids growing up in the forest, kinda like wild children,” Garcia says. “Sarah didn’t even know how to play the drums before that…That’s how we developed the drumming style, because that was what was available.”
“The idea of using a bass drum pedal was too intense to me,” Everton says. “I couldn’t even comprehend doing that at the time.” Though she doesn’t want to change her current stage setup, she’s been practicing full kit – and even doing hand exercises. “That’s one of my New Year’s resolutions, to beef up my wrists,” she says. “It sounds really gross.”
No worries, though: Everton’s simplified, bang-bang style propels Garcia’s rich, distorted-in-a-pretty-way layers of sound. “[We’re working with] guitar, lots of reverb, and organs,” Garcia explains. “The aesthetic now is really almost a wall of sound, but a minimal wall of sound where it’s really heavy, drony guitars and keyboards and then really pretty vocal harmonies and melodies. That’s kinda what I like. But keeping it really simple.”
But the words, as fuzzed-out as they sometimes sound, are quite complex: The lyrics on their first LP, Mystical Participation, range from aspirational, almost Transcendentalist images of overworked, spiritually downtrodden people looking to shed the dehumanizing city lifestyle by returning to the forests; to mini-myths that pay tribute to wild animals and elements of nature; to short, insulated musings on attaining peace with oneself or with another.
As Garcia explains it, the album title based on a time “before there was established religion. People would go into the forest and have their own crazy religious experiences…it just came together.”
The Mystical Participation LP was co-released by Philadelphia vinyl labels Single Girl Married Girl and Slipshod Mucus Kiss. “The record [was] all done locally, [with] really nice people,” Garcia says. The band also put out a split 7″ with Roanoke, Virginia’s Eternal Summers (who will also be performing at SXSW). Zoo Music (the San Diego-based label run by members of Dum Dum Girls and Crocodiles) just released RR’s “Restless” 7″ late last year. Everton, an artist, has produced the new age spooky-trippy covers and inserts of their discs.
Despite blowing up with a tour last year, an LP, hometown shows at spots like The Ox and Kung Fu Necktie, and a smattering of 7 inches, Garcia holds down an engineering day job and Everton is a graduate student in art.
“[Rob] feels like if he doesn’t do anything creative during the day, he wastes this whole day at work,” Everton says. “So when he comes home, even if he’s tired, he has to make something. It makes me feel like an asshole, [because] all I do is hang out and make stuff.”
But the duo (and yeah, they’re a married couple; no big deal) can always find time in between day-to-day stuff and playing shows to create. “The songwriting is pretty collaborative,” Garcia says. “We always write the lyrics together.”
“Rob does do the majority of everything, because I don’t know what I’m doing,” Everton says with a laugh. (It goes without saying that anyone who hears the energy in her performance on Mystical Participation will realize she’s being modest.) “I’m trying. Eventually I know I’ll feel comfortable writing songs.”
Right now, Garcia and Everton are at work on new songs for an EP and a few 7 inches. They’ll travel to Virginia to record with friends in March, before SXSW. After that, the duo’s next big deal is another full-length.
“We’re going to have a song called ‘Prism Eyes,'” he says, referencing a flyer featuring Everton’s drawing of a bear skull with gems for eyes that she produced for an art show of the same name. “There’s going to be a really good punk song. There’s going to be super-majestic other songs. It’s going to be good.”
The early-spring trip down to Austin is a first for Reading Rainbow, and while they’re pretty psyched, they also have a healthy perspective on the hype.
“It’s cool to be accepted,” Everton says, “but you apparently don’t have to be accepted to play a shit-ton of showcases.”