by Alexander Laurence
The Natural History are a Williamsburg, Brooklyn-based trio
featuring Max Tepper (guitar/vocals), Julian Tepper (bass),
and Derek Vockins. Max and Julian are brothers. Max and Derek
previously played in math-rock bands before their mutual interests
began to change. Remembering the influences from their youth,
including Elvis Costello, the Kinks, the Beatles, Wire, and
XTC, they were ready to do something different. In need of
a bass player, Max's brother Julian joined the band a week
after he graduated from college.
A few short weeks later, they recorded a 3-song EP. This
record amazed and thrilled most who heard it and soon people
were lining up to see this unique band. The Natural History
performed to packed audiences, even touring the Midwest,
before they ultimately signed with the Brooklyn-based StarTime
International. This strong and ruthless indie label had
also signed the Walkmen, Brendan Benson and French Kicks.
They began recording with Greg Talenfeld at his Stonehouse
studio in Nyack, NY. The result was a five song, self-titled
EP, which was released by StarTime in July 2002. Shows with
Enon and Spoon consumed the band for the rest of the year,
and they blew away audiences and challenged the headliners.
The Natural History found time to record their proper studio
full-length, Beat Beat. Their latest, Heartbeat,
came out in
May 2003. They are touring the States all summer. Check
The Natural History will be playing:
June 13th @ maxwell's
June 14th @ mercury lounge
AL: You've been in
a few bands. Do lots of girls show up to see you?
Derek: I guess compared
to our other bands more girls show up to see The Natural
AL: Was your dad a good influence growing up? Did he support
your interest in doing music?
Max: He's a musician. He has friends who keep him in touch
with what is going on. He goes to a lot of shows. We had
a lot of instruments around the house. We had a lot of records.
All of us grew up with that.
Derek: My dad played in a bunch of rock and roll bands
in the early 1960s. There were a bunch of guitars around
the house. They were very supportive if I brought me shitty
hardcore band around home for practice. They would let us
practice till ten at night.
AL: What did your parents think when you first started
taking music lessons?
Julian: At first it was an obligation to help us. Max took
violin lessons. We had to listen to him practice every day.
I took piano lessons.
AL: Were any of you in the school band?
Derek: I did school band thing. I was all about the drumline.
I haven't seen the movie yet. But it's probably mirrors
AL: What other bands were you in?
Max: Derek and I were in another band from 1997 to 2001.
It was an on and off thing. We both moved away from New
York City for a while. It wasn't as intensive as what we
are doing now. We didn't really tour. We played shows once
a month. We took it seriously but compared to now, music
was more like a hobby.
AL: I think that there were not a lot of places to play
in New York back then. In 1997, the only place in Williamsburg
was The Charleston.
Derek: There are certainly more places to play now, which
is good. That could be more.
Max: Derek and I played
The Charleston (a dive in Brooklyn) with our old band. It
AL: What is it like being in a band with your brother?
There is a history of bands like Jesus and Mary Chain and
Oasis, and their relationship seems volatile.
Julian: No. I think that us being in a band was unexpected.
It was a last minute decision right after I graduated from
college. I guess that Max and Derek had been playing together
for a long time. They told me: "It's only the bass.
You can handle it." Max and I have a relationship that
goes back to birth. But it's very important that Derek is
the biggest one in the band.
Derek: It's very rare that we have a conflict. Maybe it
happens once a tour that I have to say something. But it's
never really that bad.
Max: Fighting helps a relationship grow.
Julian: Most bands don't fight enough. That's the problem.
AL: Did you have a bunch of songs before Julian joined
Max: We had nine songs written, none of which we still
play today. Back then, Derek and I would get together. I
would come up with an idea. We would work it out. Most bands
get it backwards. They usually play for a real long time
and then record. Now I think the best thing to do is record
first and get shows. It's important to get things rolling.
We recorded about four months after we had been playing
with each other. It came down to the wire. I was going to
play the bass parts. But Julian played with us about eight
days before we recorded the three song EP.
Derek: We don't play any of those songs anymore but it
got the ball rolling. I don't think we would be here talking
to you now if we didn't go ahead and do it. It isn't Exile
On Main Street but who gives a shit? We had something to
sell at our first shows.
AL: What did you do by the time you got to do Beat Beat.
Max: This record is a combination of us bringing ideas
and jamming stuff. It's a process of taking things apart
and putting things back together. It takes a really long
time for us to write songs. It's never as simple as here's
the song: put your parts together. Most of the songs I bring
in don't work in that way.
AL: When I heard the first album by Gang of Four, they
made it so each song had a different beat. They weren't
great musicians either.
Derek: Right. It sounds snobby but for me I like to have
something else going on. I wouldn't want to hear ten songs
done ten different ways on an album. At the same time I
wouldn't want to dazzle people with my technical wizardry.
I wouldn't want to pull off some bullshit that just isn't
going to work. As far as drums you try to think what is
going to work in here and be interesting. What if I make
things sound insanely simple? There are two songs on the
album that sound fantastic where I am barely playing. It's
just hi-hat and snare.
AL: Did you try to pursue difficult playing and technique?
Julian: It's not so much as trying as where our sensibilities
Max: It's not like we never go there. We go to those points.
We will look around at each other and it's thumbs up or
thumbs down. If there's something interesting going on,
that enough to make us go on.
AL: Some people have limited talent. But what they have
is interesting or they make their own.
Derek: I was reading about Eddie Van Halen and how he got
his guitar style. He was trying to rip off Eric Clapton
but he couldn't play that way. He started to play another
way and he got what is the Van Halen sound. What you can
do is sometimes better what someone else can do.
Max: Derek is the most proficient musician out of the three
of us. I have plans to become a better guitar player. The
music will definitely change, the better we all become as
AL: Do you want your influences to show in your music?
Derek: Maybe if we had ten records out, maybe we should
try this. We are still trying to feel our way into what
we are doing. The sound of The Natural History is still
a mystery to us.
Max: We have a sound that we want. It's instinctual. It's
not we are trying to be funky or hardcore. We don't want
to be a mix tape.
AL: Your voice sounds like Paul Weller.
Max: People say that. I don't hear it at all.
AL: Maybe people compare you two because there a certain
raspy quality in the voice. Also Weller was really into
soul music. Do you listen to that?
Max: Yeah. I listen to soul music. I don't buy it as much
as I used to. Now I listen to more rock and roll music from
all decades. But I love soul music and rhythm and blues.
I listen to Talking Heads. They are really soulful.
AL: What are your songs about?
Max: They are about relationships. They are about stuff
that I deal with every day. There are scenarios that I seem
to run into a lot. Some of the early songs are about things
that happened to me. I had stories that I turned into songs.
With the new songs, I am trying to make the lyrics less
abstract. I want to have a balance between being clear and
having the listener have something to hold on. It's doesn't
have to be "oh baby baby."
AL: I like this song "Run de Run." What is that
Max: That is about a couple I know. It's about their relationship.
It's my observation.
AL: What do you think about living in Williamsburg?
Derek: People make fun of it. At the same time it's great
that people are doing their own thing and trading off each
other. I don't think there is a Williamsburg sound. I think
that there is a lot of different bands there doing different
things. I enjoy them. It's inspiring to be there.
Max: I have lived in Williamsburg since February 2002.
I used to live in Carroll Gardens and Park Slope before
that. We have been practicing in the same spot for four
years now. I don't like living there. It's very loud and
there are rats on my block. When I lived in Carroll Gardens
it was this brownstone in an Italian neighborhood. It was
quiet and beautiful. The one good thing about Williamsburg
is that my rent is cheap. It enables me not to have to work
Julian: One thing that Williamsburg is not, is pretty.
It's rare that there is any place to sit down that isn't
overflowing with garbage or birdshit. A place like Chelsea
is very pretty.
AL: What is the set like now?
Max: We have been touring with Idlewild. We have doing
an opening set that is about 45 minutes long. It's half
songs from our EP and half the new album. For an audience
who hasn't heard us before we want to keep it pretty rocking.
When we play our own shows, we play longer and we play some
of the mid-tempo songs.
AL: What other bands have you played with?
Derek: The Walkmen, French Kicks, Brendan Benson, and The
Julian: We are friends with The Oranges Band. They are
on Lookout Records.
Max: I remember that I used to think that bands who are
friends with other bands sound like each other. When I heard
that bands who were friends with each other and they didn't
sound like each other, it blew my mind.
AL: Are you going to play again soon?
Max: We are going to do a headlining tour from the middle
of May to the middle of June. After that we are going to
go back in the studio and record another EP. After that
we will play again in the fall. By then our plans may have
change and something might come up unexpected.
AL: How should people come prepared for the next tour?
Julian: Wasted with their pants up.
AL: Why did you call
yourself The Natural History?
Max: It was two words that sounded nice together. It's
supposed to be about being a progression.
Derek: We have to invent a story. I feel like I am letting
people down. We play a lot harder and are a lot more aggressive
as a band in the live show than people anticipate. We don't
sound like Hatebreed or Slayer. People might think we are
just another StarTime band. But we work for the money. We
get up there and brake shit.