Rob Laufer has been quite a busy guy since his last album, 2010’s Excruciating Bliss, working as a producer, sideman, and songwriter-for-hire, as well as being the music director of the fabled Wild Honey Orchestra for the ongoing series of all-star benefit concerts in Los Angeles. Time, however, isn’t the sole reason behind his recording hiatus. “I forgot how to finish songs,” Laufer admits, “and at a certain point it started to bother me.”
Several factors helped to push Laufer back into the songwriting groove. There was the serendipity ofBon Iver’s debut album popping up on his iPod’s shuffle. He says listening to the simple beauty of this “abstract, overcast” music unlocked a “this is how to write a song” revelation for him. The other main impetus was the death of Tom Petty. The first songs Laufer wrote for The Floating World happened just after Petty passed away. While re-listening to Petty’s music, he was struck by the songs’ economy and unfussiness. The message he took away was: “Just write the goddamn song!”
And write he did! The Los Angeles native populates The Floating World with ten gorgeous tracks that slip from lush bedroom pop to jaunty rock ’n’ roll to wistful power folk. Thoughtful but never over-thought, the songs offer snapshots of romance and relationships but they hold, in Laufer’s words, “no concrete situations, no stories, and no timelines.”
With this set of tunes, Laufer says he is “swinging at the cosmos in a tongue-in-cheek way.” In fact, he nearly named the album after the track “Space and Time,” a song that praises the existence of, well, space and time. Not Einstein’s spacetime, he quickly clarifies, but “good old space-and-time, like the night sky and the hands on my clock,” for providing us the means to connect with one another.
“Highway Machine,” one of Laufer’s favorite Floating World tracks, travels a similar path, exploring a man’s ride into a foreboding future with only the unknown road ahead, the radio to sing with, and, perhaps, a riding companion. “All we’ve got is each other and the radio,” Laufer explains. The song also nicely exemplifies how Laufer balances an often-ominous sense of life’s uncertainties with humor, heart and some nimble wordplay. The darkly comic “Hippie Love,” a Wilburys-like folk-rock romp, delivers a satiric look at the song’s rather hapless teen lovers, but it reveals an empathy for them too. The rollicking, organ-fueled rocker “Bolt of Blue” also projects a cockeyed optimism as it celebrates the mundanities of life, and underscoring Laufer’s belief of not taking things for granted.
Laufer, after doing earlier albums on his own, was eager to record with other musicians. This grand plan, however, changed once he started demoing songs in the recording room in his new house. Everything went so smoothly and he was so excited about how the songs sounded that he just kept going on his own. “I couldn’t stop the process,” Laufer shares. “I was having too much fun and feeling such elation that it was embarrassing.” Laufer also cites the percussion sound of mid-period Cat Stevens, the twee coolness of Donovan and the soulful blend of country and rock on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass as factoring into the collection’s warm sound.
The Floating World builds upon the Laufer’s much-admired earlier solo outings. His self-produced debut Swimming Lesson earned praise from Audio magazine for sounding “like a lavishly produced studio job.” That self-release led to him signing with the Warner Brothers imprint Discovery, where he put out Wonderwood; Billboard called every track on that effort “a winner” and Mojo declared Laufer the “great lost artist” of the Power Pop era. Powerpopaholic heralded Laufer’s “uncanny melodic nature” on 2006’s The Iron Age while Excruciating Bliss provoked admiration from indierockcafe.com for his “penchant for creating memorable songs.”
Any question about why Laufer has released only a handful of albums is answered with one look at the length and breadth of his work as a musician, songwriter and producer. He recorded with The Pixies’Frank Black, Welsh songstress Katell Keineg, and Fiona Apple (that’s his guitar on her Grammy-winning single “Criminal”) and produced CDs for Melissa Ferrick, Dirk Hamilton, and OK Go. Laufer’s songs have appeared in TV shows (Scrubs, Felicity, Melrose Place), movies (In the Land of Blood and Honey, Ramona and Beezus, and Baby Mama), and ads (the award-winning HP “Frames” commercial and a series of Sears ads with Johnny Cash, Shawn Colvin and B.B. Kingperforming his songs). He even appeared as a member of the Wrecking Crew band in the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy.
Laufer’s most visible role probably is as music director/band leader for the star-studded Wild Honey Orchestra tribute concerts, an on-going L.A.-based benefit series that raises funds for the Autism Think Tank. Describing these shows as “blindingly cool” and “a ridiculously joyful party,” Laufer confides that he just feels very grateful to have been asked to lead the Wild Honey Orchestra. “All I did was say ‘yes,’” he says modestly. This year’s event, a tribute to The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society album, featured over 50 musicians and singers including The Cars’ Elliot Easton, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Blondie’s Clem Burke, Blur’s Graham Coxon, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, and Rachel Haden and Anna Waronker from That Dog. Prior years presented tributes toBuffalo Springfield, The Band, The Beach Boys and three different Beatles salutes (The White Album, Revolver and Abbey Road, and Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).
Laufer has had a singular connection with the Beatles over the years. His first major gig was portraying George Harrison in the stage musical Beatlemania! In 1999, Sir George Martin asked him to sing “A Day in the Life” at a Hollywood Bowl Beatles tribute, whose cast also included the Bangles, Crowing Crows’ Adam Durtiz, and Andy Summer and Stewart Copeland from the Police. Laufer then played a key part in Cheap Trick’s 2007 “Sgt. Pepper at 40” concert at the Hollywood Bowland in Las Vegas (the latter released on DVD and CD). The band was familiar with him because singerRobin Zander recorded Laufer’s tune “Reactionary Girl” on his first solo album. Laufer returned to the Bowl in 2010 to sing “Something” and “Across the Universe” in “A Beatles Celebration.” AlthoughTodd Rundgren topped the show’s bill, the Huffington Post’s Bill Swadley raved that “the night belonged to” Laufer and his fellow guest vocalist Bettye LaVette. A couple years later came the three Wild Honey Beatles tributes, which have only added to Laufer’s Beatles bona fides.
While Laufer has enjoyed the time spent playing other people’s music, he is thrilled with now being able to share The Floating World with the rest of the world.
“Nine years between records is a heckuva long time” he says. “I’m glad the muse recognized me. She seems cool with me now.”
In demand for his acclaimed work away from center stage, Laufer delivers his first full-length CD in nine years on August 23, 2019.
The Big Takeover premiered the video for “Hippie Love” here
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