text: Michael Raine | photography: Peter Kulak
“I mean, who goes to the bar with a gun?” asks a bemused Daniel Marin recalling an eventful evening in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“That totally ruined our night,” chimes in Jesus Apodaca.
“Yeah, I would say the gun ruined our night,” Marin deadpans in response, adding, “‘You guys are messing with a proper villain’ I think was the guy’s quote and everyone just starting laughing.”
Well, at least they’re able to find the humor in the unpredictable challenges of life on the road. Gun-wielding drunken lunatics aside, things are looking pretty good these days for Texas five-piece The Royalty. Their sophomore album, Lovers, was recently released to rave reviews from the likes of NPR and Alternative Press. Even MTV heaped praise on them, saying The Royalty sound like “Amy Winehouse went on holiday with Vampire Weekend”. Their instantly familiar sound – which blends retro soul and pop with indie rock and punk – has also been featured on shows on MTV and the Spike TV, and they’re garnering interests from a number of other networks and shows.
Formed in 2005 in the border town of El Paso, The Royalty consist of singer Nicole Boudreau, guitarist Jesus Apodaca, keyboardist Daniel Marin, bassist Will Daugherty, and drummer Joel Quintana.
“Me and Will were in bands together when we were young, and me and Dan have been in bands together since I was 12 and he was 16,” explains Apodaca. “Through the music scene here we met Joel and we’d known him for a while. We were starting this band and we needed a singer and one of my good friends happened to know Nicole and he said, “Hey, Nicole sings, do you guys want to try her out?” We loved her voice and asked her to join and we’ve been together ever since.”
Boudreau, who studied voice in college, recalls, “I felt really nervous because I always felt like a choir nerd and they were like the cool guys and I was like, I’m not cool enough.”
“It turns out she’s a lot cooler than any of us,” notes Apodaca.
With a shared love of punk and ‘60s soul music, The Royalty began crafting their sound, playing shows around El Paso, and immersing themselves in the city’s music scene. “Because we’re sort of isolated out there in El Paso, people really have to sacrifice to get their music out. So I think there’s this common work ethic that El Paso bands have,” says Boudreau.
After constant gigging, an EP in 2008, and a full-length, self-produced debut in 2010, the band’s hard work paid off last November when they signed to Chicago-label Victory Records. The band’s softer, retro-pop sound makes their signing an experiment of sorts for Victory, a label more commonly associated with hard rock and metal. But, as the band sees it, being a first for a label has its advantages. “They’re pushing so hard because it’s something that’s new and creative and when you’re a new idea for someone, it’s like you’re a new frontier,” explains Boudreau.
Victory sent the band to Los Angeles to record with producer Cameron Webb, best known for his work with Motorhead, Pennywise, and Social Distortion. “He is not only very creative, but he is also a great communicator,” says Boudreau of Cameron. “He is able to put music into words, which not a lot of people can do. So sometimes I felt like the way he was so honest, he knew how to keep the creative flow going when it was starting to wane. It was almost like we had band group therapy.”
“And he had some incredible stories about Motorhead,” adds Apodaca.
The album’s combination of pop hooks, reverb, and Boudreau’s soulful voice make almost impossible for the group to escape comparisons to artists, new and old, like Amy Winehouse, Best Coast, The Ronettes, and Phil Spector.
“It’s flattering,” says Marin of the comparisons. “We’re happy to be in the company of those artists so we’re definitely not going to try and take a stand and say we’re not influenced by them. But we certainly still try to do our own thing.”
“It’s a terrible idea to read YouTube comments,” says Boudreau wearily, “but I was reading through them and one of them said ‘This is just a Florence and the Machine rip-off.’ Obviously I know of Florence and the Machine because they’re huge but the only song I know of them is the Dog Days of Summer [sic] one because it was big. But it is so weird that people say you’re just ripping them off so-and-so. I honestly don’t listen to it.”
The comparisons, warranted or not, are usually due to Boudreau’s voice, which does at times bear a striking resemblance to Amy Winehouse, particularly on the Lovers standout track, “How I Like ‘Em”.
“I was raised in church and was a singer in church and kind of had the gospel thing going on early and that has come in to play a lot later with soul,” explains Boudreau. “I was what they call a coloratura in college, which is a very high opera way of singing. Doing the runs in those actually taught me agility better than anything else. It’s opera and you wouldn’t think an opera influence would influence a soul singer but it has helped.”
Oh yes, those pre-label days of school and jobs. These aren’t five college dropouts or McDonald’s burger flippers. When they signed to Victory and began recording Lovers, the members of The Royalty gave up solid careers to pursue music full-time.
Marin was a television news anchor and reporter, Daugherty was a teacher and so was Apodaca, who taught middle school orchestra.
Best of all, Quintana was an electrical engineer who tested rockets (rockets!) for a government contractor working on the Patriot missile defence systems. When he quit his job to go on tour, Quintana decided to pick up the slack by completing his Ph.D. “That was the dumbest idea,” he notes dryly. Now he’s popping anti-nausea pills so he can study in the back of the tour van.
“I was the only that had a Peter Pan complex,” jokes Boudreau. “I worked at a coffee shop so the transition had been a relief. Like, ‘Oh thank God, my life’s not going to waste!”
And it certainly doesn’t look like it will. In the midst of an American tour to promote the new album, the band is already thinking about the future. “We’re going to try and get an album out every year or year and half and be as prolific with our music as possible,” says Apodaca.
But it would be a mistake to think The Royalty are following any master plan or model. “I don’t want to say anybody from the ‘70s. I don’t want to be The Black Keys, even though I love all these bands. I don’t want to be anybody. I want our career to take the path that it’s going to take and not model it after anybody else,” says Apodaca.
“Man,” Quintana adds, “I just want a drum tech.”
And judging from the early buzz, a drum tech certainly seems doable in the near future.