Anthem Monthly

With a peculiar flair for honesty and emotional confession, Rob Christensen takes standard guitar-oriented rock tunes and infuses his own sense of personal isolation and familiar anxiety into the straight-ahead rhythms. Kind of like a Tom Petty listening to the MC5 on his Walkman while strolling through Eureka on a Sunday night, Christensen keeps the energy moving without it ever getting beyond his humble control. With the spirit of the Replacements moving through simple keyboard programming and basic catchy guitar riffs, Smile Slightly may not sound like it was produced in a big studio, but that's half its charm. The other half comes from an ability to look inside and see that all the swirling chaos is just a diversion from the deeper thoughts about life, love, drinking, sadness, and poetic relief.

Demo Universe

If I didn't know better, I'd think Smile Slightly was a new Book Of Kills record, so close are Christensen's voice and songwriting style to the illustrious and obscure Jim Shelley. Christensen is a smidge more conservative than BOK, but no less passionate and eloquent. "This House" is a deeply personal tale of a broken home: "I remember us playing when I was three/And then they took him away from me/From that day on I was an only child/Afraid to take chances, afraid to run wild." Equally moving is the hard-rocking epic "Cracked," in which our anti-hero declares: "I'm stupid / I'm a worthless piece of life." Such sentiments never come off as maudlin, only heartfelt. Recorded in 1994, Smile Slightly was followed in 1997 by The Truth Hurts, a more tender but no less powerful set. Grab both, you won't be disappointed.

Gajoob

This self-produced project by Rob Christensen offers a solid collection of tracks in a straightforward, lean guitar rock'n'roll fashion. Smile Slightly has a number of outstanding songs and Christensen's gift for simple hooks makes this album an easy one to immediately get into and enjoy even more for its upfront energy. Christensen will remind many project band fans of Jim Shelley, as their vocal honesty is quite similar. This artist is another to watch and it's fantastic to see all these artists making classic material available to a newfound, appreciative audience on CD.

Smile Slightly promo material

Rob Christensen was born In 1967 and raised in and around Eureka, California. Upon graduation from high school in 1985, Christensen enlisted in the U.S. Navy. It was there that he began writing and playing guitar in an effort to escape the everyday aggravations of military life. Following his discharge in 1989, Christensen returned to the peace and quiet of Northern California, where he still lives. There he continued to write and began to experiment with home recording. In 1992 Christensen formed a three-piece band, the Orphans, that performed locally several times over a period of seven months. After some downtime and inactivity Christensen dissolved the band in May 1993. Christensen's latest cassette, Smile Slightly, has been called "Solitary rock and roll from a lonely bedroom." He played all of the instruments and recorded it by himself In his bedroom. It’s twelve affecting songs deal with the comfort and frustration of being alone, the inability to form solid relationships, and the inevitability of death. Christensen penned eleven of the twelve songs on Smile Slightly. The remaining song, "Blue Blue Sky," was written by Justin Brown, a veteran of several Northern California bands. The following Interview was conducted by Michael Karo in October, 1994. 

 

Michael Karo: How did this new cassette of yours, Smile Slightly, come about? 

 

Rob Christensen: I was trying to get the Orphans back together at the beginning of 1993, and I wanted to try to do a tape with them. Something to sell at gigs. I was figuring out how to record the band and I wanted Brian (Williams, bass) and Aaron (Filbey, drums) to learn the songs and contribute. As the band was falling apart Aaron told me that if I kept doing demos by myself in my bedroom I would end up like one of those isolationist home recording guys. The more I thought about it the more the idea appealed to me. (laughs) 

 

MK: How long did the tape take from start to finish? 

 

RC: The earliest stuff that's on the tape was recorded in March of 1993, and the last stuff was done in August 1994. So that's a good year and a half. There were some songs where I had a hard time getting to tape what I heard in my head. I did twenty-four takes of "This House." "So She Said" was hard. "Blue Blue Sky" was hard. "For Kurt Cobain" and "These Days" were pretty easy. 

 

MK: Where does the title “Smile Slightly” come from? That’s also the title of the instrumental. 

 

RC: The phrase "Smile Slightly" popped into my head about a third of the way into the project, so it became the working title. The instrumental was the last song on the tape to get a title, even though it was one of the first things I wrote. When this project was winding down I knew that I needed a name for the instrumental, so I thought I'd just go with the title of the tape. 

 

MK: This is definitely your most varied cassette. you’ve got some, I would say, folk-rock. You've got a song that reminds me of Blood On The Tracks-era Dylan, "Forever." You've got "Slammin' B." And you've got "For Kurt Cobain (8 Apr 94)." Do you want to talk about what it's about? 

 

RC: I guess it's obviously about Kurt Cobain. A lot of people were profoundly affected by his suicide. You're hearing of all kinds of songs coming out of it now. I wrote "For Kurt Cobain" while watching the MTV news coverage the day his body was discovered. The song just came out. it was a gut reaction. I was trying to picture how he felt at the time. The verses were my reaction to It and the choruses were how I thought he felt. The whole thing was written and recorded to sound like a Nirvana song. 

 

MK: Did you record that quickly? 

 

RC: It was pretty quick, yeah. The drums were the hardest part, because what can you do to sound like Dave Grohl? But it was easy to record because it was just one guitar, bass, and drums. Not a lot of overdubbing. 

 

MK: Did you feel that you had to get that song done in a hurry? 

 

RC: I want to get everything done in a hurry. It just doesn't always work out that way (laughs). But no, I didn’t feel I had to finish the song quickly for Kurt or anything. I just wanted to do it right. 

 

MK: Were most of the songs written before you stated recording? 

 

RC: Not really. "This House" had been kicking around for awhile; it didn’t have finished lyrics. I guess I wrote "Forever" a while ago. The rest were written during the recording. When you have a way to record in your house it's probably natural to record the songs as you write them. When you write something you want to hear how it sounds finished. I can't just write a batch of twelve songs and then go record them. I suppose I could, but I don't. 

 

MK: Why did something like "So She Said" take so long? What was wrong with it? 

 

RC: Well, when you're working by yourself... 

 

MK: Are you too critical? 

 

RC: I don't think I'm too critical, because I want it to sound as good as possible. But when you work by yourself there's no one around saying "This is lousy," or "Why don’t you try this?" With that song I’d been experimenting with various small things. I changed the tempo, changed the bassline, added the keyboard solo, changed an electric guitar part, etc. Also, with a 4-track you've got technical limitations. When you bounce tracks you have to make sure all of your eq’s and levels are set right, and sometimes that's not easy. 

 

MK: We listened to one of your first tapes recently, and although you weren’t totally cringing at it, you were sort of laughing. You’ve said that you want to re-do some of your early songs, and I think that's a good idea because you can bring more to the songs now. You know your way around your recording equipment now. Do you want to add tracks, say go to eight- or sixteen-track? 

 

RC: Oh yeah, if I could afford it. A lot of the songs on this tape have twelve or thirteen instruments or parts on them. If I didn't have to condense those down to four tracks it would be easier. 

 

MK: Some home recordists who have more tracks seem to put everything including the kitchen sink in. Do you think that would be an easy trap to fall into? 

 

RC: If I had more tracks I don't think I would over-load them. I'd probably add little production touches. I'd like to try stereo drums. I've always used mono. Different songs require different production. I think "This House" needed prominent backup vocals. "So She Said" needed several things going on. On the other hand, I didn't add a bunch of stuff to "Alone," "KC," or "Sleep With Me." I didn't feel that those songs needed anything extra. 

 

MK: What’s "Sleep With Me" about? 

 

RC: It's about somebody who's going to die, who’s ready to die, who has faith in God, or whatever, and is relieved to be getting off of the planet. "'You can't sleep with me" is sort of a metaphor for "I don't have to put up with this crap any more." Of course, it can be taken on a more literal level. 

 

MK: That seems like a character song, sort of like "Cracked" to me. 

 

RC: Yeah. Although "Cracked" does have some personal lines, i.e. "I'm drinking rage and getting fat." It's a very vicious song. I had to tell myself that the line, "My fist flies right through your face" was about hitting a picture on the wall; that It wasn't actually about me beating up on someone or condoning domestic violence. 

 

MK: "Slammin' B." is a track that I think will surprise people who’ve heard your previous tapes. It's very different. 

 

RC: (laughing) Well, I wanted to try a rap track. I never intended to actually rap on it, but I wanted to do something derivative of rap. Obviously I failed. But I did like it enough to put it on the finished tape. 

 

MK: You did the cover drawing. Is that a medium you like working in? 

 

RC: I'd like to do more drawing. I'd like to try painting. I'd like to do more of a lot of things... 

 

MK: You’re going to send this tape out to independent labels. What do you think about indies being distributed by major labels? 

 

RC: If it gets music to the public I’m in favor of major label distribution, as long as the artist doesn't lose creative control. Indies serve several functions. You can develop yourself on a small label and then, if it's appropriate, you can go to a larger one. 

 

MK: Is your goal to get signed? You can always do your own cassettes and sell them in the mail. 

 

RC: I guess my goal is to be able to make a living off of music. That doesn't mean I'm trying to get rich. I want to be able to support myself without having to work a day job. I'd like to be able to tour with a band. I'd like to be able to spend more time on music. But I am enjoying what I'm doing. if I have to keep recording in my bedroom and giving cassettes to a few friends, that's fine.