L'Rain's Taja Cheek and Ben Chapoteau-Katz on Hockey, Vacations, Radiohead, and the Mysterious Allure of the Saxophone

L'Rain's Taja Cheek and Ben Chapoteau-Katz on Hockey, Vacations, Radiohead, and the Mysterious Allure of the Saxophone
Photo by Tonje Thilesen

This is a free post from Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers also get a Baker's Dozen playlist every week with music I've been listening to, along with some thoughts around it.

L'Rain's Taja Cheek joins the newsletter two-timers club today; if you're a real one, you already read my interview with her last year. This time around, her bandmate and cohabitant Ben Chapoteau-Katz joined us for a spirited and fun conversation as their dog Icon (great dog name) occasionally chimed in. We talked shortly after the release of L'Rain's astounding new album I Killed Your Dog, Taja and her band are on a real run obviously and they show no signs of stopping:

Tell me about your experience putting this latest record together.
Usually, we're just in New York and L.A., but this time we went to Florida, which was a big difference. We recorded in places that we hadn't recorded in before. That was really good for us. We also spent some time not recording, which was very good for us. [Laughs] We got to hang out with some manatees. The studio can be a very intense environment for me—all my triggers get triggered there. So it's nice that we could also just be friends. [Laughs] Because, at the end of the day, we are friends, so it was nice to get to hang out, eat food, and enjoy nature, which is not something we've really done before.
Ben: That's the most different thing between the last two records. Let's say you're in New York—we hop on the train, get to the studio, we're in there for 11 or 12 hours, we go home, sleep, and do the same thing for ten days in a row because we have to use all the days while [bandmate Andrew Lappin] is here. We did some days at our friend's studio in New Paltz and the studio in Gainesville, and in the latter we were walking a mile to the studio every day. We got to actually be outside and see the passage of time. You get more space—you're not just like, "Home studio, home studio, home studio," which gets a little oppressive after a while. In New Paltz, our friend's studio—which isn't exactly a farm—
Taja: It's not not a farm, though. [Laughs]
Ben: It's definitely not a farm, though. It's just a house with a lot of land in upstate New York. It was nice out, so if Taja wanted to record vocals, I could be outside on a hammock writing a saxophone or keyboard part. It gave us time and space that we don't generally have if we're in L.A., where we get picked up by Lappin, stay in the studio for 12 hours, and go home. We had room to breathe.

As a New Yorker, I feel a palpable sensation coming back to the city after leaving for a bit. I feel very positive! Even if I've been upstate for a few days, I'm like, "I missed this place." I know people who don't feel that way, though. How do you two feel when you return to the city after a trip somewhere else?
Honestly, a lot of times, even after tour, it feels like I never left. I just slip back into my life.
Ben: "This is the same."
Taja: Everything is the same. You get zipped into a time portal where everything is weird—you're on tour time, studio time, which is like a different plane of existence, and then you go back and everything's exactly the same.
Ben: Also, tour isn't real. It's not real life. You're not actually "in" wherever you're at. You're at a hotel, and you're backstage at the venue, and then you're in the venue, and then you leave. Except for the off days you get, you're not really experiencing those places. You're mostly just in the van. Unless you have a couple of off days in a row, you never feel like you're experiencing a city.

What does a vacation look like for touring musicians?
Well, I took my first-ever vacation last year.
Ben: It was because we were in a van, somewhere—
Taja: We'd been in the van a lot.
Ben: It was cold.
Taja: Was that the Euro tour?
Ben: No, it was the Animal Collective tour. We were in Wisconsin or something, going from gig to gig, and I was uncomfortable while doing two tours. I was flying to do other shows for someone else on the off days of that tour.
Taja: You did the Moses Sumney tour and the L'Rain tour at the same time, basically.
Ben: I'm glad that I did it, because I know I can do it now, but I didn't have any off days for five weeks. At a certain point, I was like, "I need a fuckin' vacation." I just bought tickets to Aruba. I just fuckin' did it. I didn't look up hotel prices, I didn't look up how expensive Aruba was. I was just like, "This is a place that I've heard of that seems to be the opposite of where I am now." So I just did it. "Fuck it, I have miles." I looked up the prices, and then I was like, "I cannot afford Aruba." So I got a refund and I went to the DR. To me, that's what it looks like. We did nothing but sit on the beach.
Taja: It was pretty awesome, honestly. I almost drowned in the ocean twice and it was so worth it. I just really wanted to be in the ocean.
Ben: I was trying to teach her how to swim and I did a bad job.
Taja: I think I'm just afraid of water. But it was a step in the right direction.

Tell me about how your creative relationship came about.
Are we doing the whole story?
Taja: I can do it, and you can chime in when I'm wrong.
Ben: OK.
Taja: So there's a short version and a long version. I'll give you the medium-long version. I was working at PS1, and Solange was rehearsing there because we were friends with her manager at the time, and also the people doing sound for her were our regular sound people, and they couldn't rehearse at the Guggenheim for her Red Bull show, where their show was, because of logistical stuff. I somehow got very involved in the rehearsals, and they were rehearsing right under us while the museum was open. I knew every break, every cue. The Red Bull people were working out of my office. So there were 40 horn players—is that right?
Ben: There were about 25.
Taja: It felt like a lot. My friend Starchild was leading them, and they just appeared one day overnight. I wasn't expecting it. They were roaming around the museum while it was open, and they had horns with them—it was crazy.
Ben: Have you ever been to MoMa PS1?

Oh yeah.
So we were rehearsing in the vestibule between the courtyard and the museum, which is insane. For me, it was where we were told to go. But I didn't realize the museum was open, which made it crazier. Taja came down and was like, "What the fuck are you guys doing here?"
Taja: Well, because you guys kept moving places. I'd kick them out of one place, they'd go to another, and then I'd kick them out of there. There were people there! I was like, "You're my friends, but I can't." I'm kicking them out of the third place, and Ben just looks at me—I didn't know him at all—and he said, "Do you play the bass?" I was really mean. I was like, "Get out of my face. You have to go." He was like, "But wait, you play with my mutual friend James Tillman!" And I was like, "How do you know that? Get out of here." Then I reached out to James, and I was like, I'm looking for a sax player, who should I talk to?" And he was like, "Ben Katz!" So I was like, "Oh. I guess I'll go meet up with him."
Ben: So that was the first time we met. James recommended me, and Taja asked me to write something for a live show, but I misunderstood it and she sent me the self-titled L'Rain record—I thought she wanted me to write something that went on the record. I wrote some really involved, crazy thing. You still have it, right?
Taja: I still have it.
Ben: I was like, "This is so cool. I'm gonna write something really cool that goes along with this." It was just way too much. Taja didn't really like it and didn't use it. But I just really loved the record, and I was like, "Hey, do you need anybody for a live show? I play saxophone but I also play keyboards and synths." She was like, "I really do need somebody for synths," and I was like, "OK, cool." I didn't own or play synthesizers, I lied. So I went and bought my first one a couple of days before rehearsal and tried to figure it out. I got to rehearsal and Taja asked me to do really simple—to change the cutoff on one of the patches I was using—and I had no idea what she was talking about. It's the number one thing with subtractive synthesis! The cutoff knob! You're cutting off frequencies. It's the whole basis of subtractive synthesis, and I didn't know what that was. She was chill about it, but I didn't realize how much power I had over sound and the sonic palette of what I was doing. I grew up playing saxophone and clarinet, and if you want to change your sound on the saxophone, you have to buy a new mouthpiece that will cost you hundreds of dollars, maybe change your reed, and practice long tones for weeks to get a slight timbral difference in your sound. Taja turned a knob, and the sound changed immediately, and that was it for me. I was like, "Oh, I like that." Now I'm a big synth nerd.

Ben, I watched the video of Radiohead's "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" that you posted a few years ago.
Oh, God.
Taja: [Laughs]

There's been a few covers of it over the years, Lianne La Havas did a great one a few years ago too. It's one of my favorite Radiohead songs, and it seems like it keeps drawing people in 15 years later. Why do you think that is?
For me, it was gear-related and COVID-related. I love that song. I feel comfortable saying In Rainbows is my favorite Radiohead record.

It was lockdown time, and a new feature was released for the MIDI keyboard I was using that added an arpeggiator function to all eight tracks. The keyboard I use is more of an eight-track sequencer. So I was like, "Let's see how far I can take this. What's a song that has a lot of arpeggios?" "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi"! There's also a clip of it sounding unprocessed that Taja took of me vocoding, because it's hilarious. But I love that song. I like things that don't stop and start again. There's some good Radiohead examples of that. "Let Down," they've got the 5 going on over the 4 all the time. A lot of times, if you are cutting up slices on Ableton and you have a block you want to put down, and you just want to do it twice, you're going to stop and start in the same place. I like how it feels more cyclical—like it never stops growing—if you do those groups of 3's or 5's on something else. It'll repeat eventually, but not on beat 1. Every 60 beats, it'll line up, and that might not be on beat 1. It'll be a different version. So that's why I like that song. [Laughs]

One thing I've always associated with L'Rain records is woodwinds, especially the saxophone. Tell me about how those sounds play into the music as a whole.
You know, that's true. I feel like Lappin and I made a decision before the first record—because neither of us play the saxophone and I didn't even know Ben existed at that point—where we were kind of like...the saxophone can be the nerdiest instrument ever, but it can also be really expressive, and we were both drawn to that aspect of it. It's funny because we're not jazz musicians, so why did we start including the saxophone? It's weird. In the early days, I would just write out these parts on keyboard or hum them to the person we were working with in the studio. I'd be like, "Play this line like you're '80s Michael Brecker." We'd throw time periods and saxophonists at him, and he'd get it. But it is weird! We just liked the saxophone but we also thought it was nerdy and dumb. But it's also very cool.
Ben: It's also nerdy and dumb.
Taja: It's also nerdy and dumb!

I've always thought the saxophone was really cool. I don't even know why, but that's how I felt as a teenager even.
I feel you. I felt fascination, and also horror. [Laughs] What do you think, Ben? Why is the saxophone on these records?
Ben: The saxophone has the ability to be really fuckin' goofy. Any '80s pop song that has the saxophone on it sounds so fuckin' silly and insane. But there's also a lineage of some of the greatest artists of all time using the saxophone as their medium. It's got a lot of range, and that's before you start using it with effects. There's probably seven or eight sounds on the record that are saxophone that you don't think are saxophone, because it'll be a clip of me playing that was stretched out and tuned down, or ran fully wet through something. It just sounds like a sound effect, but it's a sax. We do that a lot, beyond what is clearly a saxophone. Which, on this record, what is clearly a saxophone? What's on this record?
Taja: I don't know, what is on this record? We spent so much time listening to it, and now I'm like, "What does it sound like?" The most obvious example of a saxophone not being a saxophone on this record, to me, is "Clumsy." There's really low notes. That was a really cool moment. I was completely out of the studio and had to run an errand, and I came back and Ben recorded that, and I was like, "That's so awesome."
Ben: There's some stuff on "New Year's UnResolution" that's not clearly a saxophone.
Taja: That saxophone was highly contested.
Ben: On "Our Funeral," there's some regular-ass saxophone.
Taja: I'm having an existential crisis now.
Ben: I think it works because there's a human element to it. There's breathing.
Taja: You hear the clack of the keys.
Ben: It's tactile. You take that and write through something, and it still sounds human even after you run it through a bunch of shit that masks what it really is. That's how it gets in there. Who knows how we're gonna use saxophone on the next record. I barely play the saxophone without effects now—pretty much never, unless I'm doing a wedding gig. Every once in a while I'll do wedding gigs, and I have to play clean sax for those. Otherwise, I have a whole rig now. I'm never playing non-effected saxophone.

Photo by Tonje Thilesen

What are your side hustles-slash-full-time jobs right now? What's the day-to-day like outside of L'Rain?
It's kind of funny. For a while, I felt like music was my side hustle. Some people grow up and go, "I'm gonna be a musician, and this is how it's gonna happen for me, and I'm gonna do whatever I can to support that." But I never thought it would be possible for me to be a musician, so I've been nurturing my curatorial career for years. Now I'm in this weird position where they're both existing, and I'm trying to figure out how they coexist. They coexist quite nicely right now, which is nice. That has not been the case for me the rest of my life, so this is new for me. I'm trying to figure out how to do some independent curatorial projects, and I'm working on some bigger projects that will be a thing soon. I'm in a transitional moment still, in a good way. A lot of times, it's, "You can either have a career or be in music," but I don't think that's actually true. I think it's cool when musicians embrace other parts of their life. Ben has so many serious hobbies, and I think that's cool. You also have a job.
Ben: She's talking about how I watch sports.
Taja: It's not that! I don't know, maybe it's mostly that. But you went through a poker phase, too.
Ben: I'm a degenerate. When I was 17, I had a 97% ROI on Poker Stars. Out of every 100 people, when I put in a dollar, I get the most back. I was playing six to eight tables at the same time—making snap decisions, looking at my cards, looking at the pot. I thought I was gonna pay my way through college doing that, and then they outlawed it.
Taja: To be clear, this is not his job.
Ben: I'm an A&R specialist, I work with reeds and saxophonists and clarinetists. I can do it from the road, which is great—it's very vital. The side lives she's talking about is mostly that I play poker, watch sports, and DFS stuff.
Taja: I think there's more.
Ben: There's synths. I don't know a lot of people where I can be like, "Hey man, let's go hang out and talk about synthesizers, and also who are you playing on Draft Kings tonight?"
Taja: Geologist [from Animal Collective]! He knows a lot of stats.
Ben: Geologist is my hockey friend. There's a hockey version of Wordle called Gordle—they could've come up with a better name. Every day we send each other our Gordle score. He's a Flyers fan and I'm an Islanders fan, and we're in the same division, so we don't have super beef as far as hockey goes, but our teams don't really like each other. But we keep it amicable in the chat.

You're the second person who's mentioned Brian's hidden sports acumen to me. I've interviewed him, like, five times now, and it's never come up.
He used to write for Sports Illustrated! If you look up "Brian Weitz Sports Illustrated," there are five or six articles on there.

This is a regionally specific thing to say, but I do feel like there's been a lot of exciting music in the city the last few years. I saw MIKE and Slauson Malone earlier this year, and seeing the audience react to both performances felt very exciting. Tell me about music in the city as it stands now. How do you view the community and how could music stand to grow here?
I love that. All the time everyone's like, "New York City's dead, nothing's happening here." That's not true at all. Jasper's a good friend of ours—he's in town and we need to see him. He's partially an L.A. guy, but I think of him as a New York guy. I love MIKE, too. My music is so different than his, but every time I see him we can talk about things. There's actually a lot of cross-pollination happening between genres and scenes, which is really cool.
Ben: We actually just ran into him at the Slauson Malone show at Bowery Ballroom.
Taja: Maybe I'm biased because we do a lot of house shows, but it does feel like there's a lot of DIY and house venues around again, which is really awesome. There is a lot going on, as well as a lot of people leaving because it's really hard to be here. But it does feel like it's cool to be here in a lot of ways. The people here could use the same thing musicians everywhere else could use, which is a total overhaul of the industry—a way for artists to make money, instead of constantly losing money. I'm always like, "Why is it like this?" [Laughs]

Taja, the last time we talked for the newsletter we talked about what needs to change for touring. It feels like musicians are more open right now when it comes to talking about the lows of musicians. Why do you think that is?
I think things have gotten really bad. I also think that there's a lot of inspiration from other sectors of life, where there were so many musicians seeing what was happening with the writer's strike and thinking, "Why can't we do that?" Thinking about what conditions make it impossible to do stuff like that, and what we could do instead. In general, labor issues are bubbling up everywhere, and musicians are seeing that and finding ways to mobilize a little bit better. I'm still trying to make this tour support fund. I'm working with a nonprofit to make it happen and trying to find sponsors, and hopefully it's a conversation that will be had in a lot of other sectors of life. I think we're seeing the fallout from that big tour conversation that was happening, where all these musicians that people think of successful were like, "Actually, this isn't sustainable for us." Now that people have had the time to digest that conversation, now we're seeing the fallout from that come to fruition. That's why some of the Live Nation stuff happened too. I think it'll get even more urgent in the next year. I hope.

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Jamie Larson