If it hadn’t been for Mark Zuckerberg’s invention, better known as Facebook, and a chance meeting at the Open Mic L. J. Fox, I probably wouldn’t have stumbled upon these guys. Rooftop Runners, as they call themselves, are a band that has caught my attention from the first beat. Producing the kind of unique music that instantly grabs you, it’s very likely that you’ll play the songs over and over again as each one become what the Germans refer to as an ear worm. A lovely affliction.
At the core of this formation are Benedikt and Tobias MacIsaac, half-German, Canadian-born implants to Berlin with degrees in – and this is fairly unusual among musicians – dance. And what is difficult to believe, they’ve only really been focused on playing music for the last couple of years.
Not to say this transition was easy. Loads of midnight oil had been burnt as they wrote material, learning, experimenting, recording and rehearsing. Every possible effort went into creating the kind of music they want to be making and that they can, and should, be proud of.
I met up with Tobias, Benedikt and producer Martin J. Fiedler at the Klangbild Studios in the midst of post-production for their upcoming debut LP.
You have a musical background going way back but more in dance. Why did you make a shift towards making music?
Benedikt: Well, we grew up dancing and singing, so we were being musically trained (from a young age). […] When we were both around 14, 15 we went to the National Ballet School of Canada, and so then our training focused more on dance for, like, four years – hardcore. It was a strong art school, so we had choir lessons and we would get piano lessons here and there, and that’s when we actually started to write our own music, during High school. […] Then I went to university to study choreography and Toby went to Hamburg to the Hamburg Ballet School to train. Later he started working in Magdeburg while I was working as a choreographer and dancer in Holland.
(At some point) I kind of said, “Okay, enough of this.” We were writing our own material and Toby had a band in Magdeburg. I came to Magdeburg and I said, “Hey man, Berlin is fucking awesome. Let’s move to Berlin. Let’s get out of here,” and he was, like, “You’re right. I’m tired of this.” I felt like this was time for change, and we really wanted to pursue music.
We also see this as a kind of an open platform. We’re excited about video, and we’re excited about making very interesting performances. We’d like that the audience is broader, and, I mean, basically, we’re just madly in love with music.
How do you feel living in Berlin has actually enriched your music?
Tobias: I think, definitely, because we were here – Berlin’s very open, so it definitely gives you a place to experiment – we took risks here that maybe we would not have taken anywhere else. I’m not sure, but I think there was a –
– but why would you say that you probably would have not taken risks?
Tobias: Berlin just feels like an open place, and also, I guess, electronic (music) has had a bit of an effect on us too. I think if we did the same thing, but we would have moved to Vancouver instead, I think our sound would sound a lot different. There’s a darkness to Berlin that has totally influenced our music. And the experimental aspect too, I think it totally has influenced our music and us.
Let’s talk about the Open Mic L. J. Fox. How has it helped you develop your sound?
Tobias: When we first moved here we weren’t really sure how the business worked, how to work together or anything, so we started with just two acoustic guitars. We kind of wanted to find an outlet, so we played a few open mics. But then we found ourselves at Madame Claude, where there is always an audience, and it definitely is part of this underground anti-folk sort of scene. Heiko who runs it invited us in, and we got our first show there, and then we met Kitty (Solaris), and we got our first show at Schokoladen. It was a place to experiment. You could go there with new material and completely fuck it up and fail. It was a nice place.
Like a test ground?
Tobias: Yeah definitely, like a test ground. There was a lot of really fun moments there.
One of the critics said, “Big things are coming.” How does that make you feel?
Benedikt: I think it feels kind of good. We’ve been here in Berlin for two years now, and when we came we had no idea what we were doing. I mean we didn’t know how to get a gig, we didn’t know how to write songs together, how to get a show, how to record, nothing. We would just be kind of failing off and on for two years in a culture that we’re not necessarily fully integrated in. Toby didn’t mention that a big influence on our music is actually this kind of feeling of alienation. I get the feeling in Berlin, that there’s a strong sense of community, but at the same time everyone seems to be in their own kind of bubble, like, if you go to Berghain. Last weekend we were just amazed that a thousand people can be dancing there, but no one was dancing with each other. I feel like Berghain is a kind of a cultural stamp of what Berlin is. People really like to hang out together, but while hanging out they like to be in their own kind of zone.
Tobias: That can be hard.
Benedikt: With that feeling we have, when we get that kind of outside feedback, we feel like we’re doing something right. Because our network here is quite small, we can’t really believe how things will really go. It’s more kind of just –
Tobias: – nice encouragement.
Benedikt: Yeah, I guess it’s just kind of… it’s nice encouragement, but we would like that to happen.
What do you want to happen?
Tobias: Honestly? I don’t want to have to book anymore. [laughs]
[…] For me, honestly, it would be nice if the record got out there and that we had a team which was supportive, and it worked so that could take a little bit off the indie hustle away. […] There is definitely a business side to promoting yourself, getting a website, video, booking, etc.. It would be nice for all this stuff to still, be totally present, also in the creative process, but not having to handle all this stuff ourselves.
How is it to work as brothers? Does it make it easier or more difficult?
What’s the easy part?
Tobias: I don’t think Benny is going to ever screw me. [laughs] There’s a bond, if you’re brothers, that you can never, I think, achieve with anyone else, which can be a really great thing but also can get in the way at some points. Why is there so many sibling acts? Because they stick with each other in the long run, and I think if you’re a musical act you kind of need that in to stick together for a longer period of time. If I might have worked with someone (else) maybe it might be easier to walk away at one point, instead of toughing it out.
Benedikt: In history, with family or with brothers, there are bands where you see – like, in Kings of Leon, or the Allman brothers or something – that they have this kind of loyalty to each other. When shit hits the fan they still duke it out. And there is that insane honesty. I’ve known Toby since the day he was around. We’re two years apart, not even, and we’ve been playing music together, we danced together, we were in school together, we had a maximum two years away from each other, and we’re living together right now to save money, so we’re insanely close, so a lot of the time –
– some would say that’s working in hard conditions.
Benedikt: We have a crazy fucked up marriage right now. It’s super crazy right now. It’s intense. We’re touring together, we’re writing together, we’re making a record together, we’re living together and we know what the other is thinking, what he’s gonna do. And the benefits of that, musically, is that we’re just on it. We connect really quickly to each other, vocal harmonies are on, and artistically, we can write songs together. Some people are, like, “What? How do you do that?” I’ll write something and he’ll put lyrics in it and he’ll add something. It goes back and forth quite naturally. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship.
[…] And also, because we’re family, there’s no weird social pleasantries that you have to abide by. You can just go, “Hey man, wake the fuck up. We need to book these shows.” If you have a fight with a family member, it’s like the fight happens and then it kind of just disappears. […] It just kind of happens, and then you have an argument, and then you get over it.
What experiences from your dance years do you apply to music making?
Benedikt: I think that sound and the body are completely intertwined. I mean, when we listen to music you get, like, a body reaction, so as dance artists our awareness of our body actually feeds back onto our music, especially when we’re playing live. I’m always really interested in how music is affecting the body, and I’d like to actually investigate that more. Also in videos, I’m just really interested in a somatic experience, like, when you have a body experience.
[…] I think, also, cos I have a contemporary dance background I’m not afraid to go outside of the boundaries at all, and I’m expecting to always push things sonically. I think the next thing we’re gonna do is… we’re listening to a lot of experimental classical music and minimalism, and we’ve been just improvising for hours and trying different ways to improvise together and create improvisational structures, cos I did that in dance a lot. We’re actually evolving a lot as musicians because of the amount of training we had in dance. We kind of wanna match that. We wanna be able to have that improvisational freedom and create kind of unconventional ways of creating sonic landscapes.
Tobias: I think it really – especially, Benny’s contemporary dance background and him being a choreographer – influenced how we write material together, in that, it isn’t one person who plays guitar and writes the lyrics. There are different ways of creating work, and I think every song we’ve created differently. Even, just in the way we write lyrics, there are so many different ways you can write them. While you’re writing the song you can trance out and just listen to the music again and again, you can get together in a space and feed of each other, you can go in the studio and read off a poem. And I think that’s really influenced how we create and perform. I think there’s a different way of going at it. I think if I went to music school, that would have influenced how I approach music making. I would have been probably more, like, “Okay, I’m going to write a song now, and this is how I’m gonna play guitar.” But maybe, because we had a different education we go at everything from, maybe you could say, a different angle.
To sum up you’re going to be a band that continues to evolve.
Tobias: Definitely! I don’t want to make the same album again.
Benedikt: It’s not that we get bored very easily, but we’re always curious. We’re always curious. And those are the people we like to work with… people who are curious and have a high sense of craftsmanship.
There will be two opportunities to see Rooftop Runners play live in the upcoming month:
– at the Bunny Suit launch show at Gruner Salon on April 13th;
– at the Junction Bar on April 23rd with support from The Great Escape.
Interview and photos: Olga Baczynska