Rainer Maria may downplay its obsession with namesake poet Rilke a fascination the trio developed while attending college in Madison, Wisconsin but both band and poet have had strikingly similar careers. Each showcase palpably somber writing (although Rainer Maria was labeled "emo," while Rilke ranked as a "World War I great"), and both began their most inspired work after a lull in the creative process the former when stranded in war-ravaged France, the latter when drained by production ruts and industry expectations.
But perhaps most tellingly, Rilke's inspired emergence from post-war depression is not unlike Rainer Maria's escape from the dreaded emo epithet on its new album, Catastrophe Keeps Us Together. On this record, the band's songs take a rosier turn, with vocalist Caithlin De Marrais fronting the mic solo on every song for the first time in Rainer Maria's eleven-year history. It's difficult to determine if she's happier about freedom from pigeonholing or freedom from vocal shyness, but one thing is certain: De Marrais is far too good-humored to ever be "emo" again.
"When we first started out, we were part of Midwestern musicians like Promise Ring, Braid, Joan of Arc, Cap'n Jazz, that kind of thing," De Marrais muses via phone from Brooklyn. "Those were our peers, those people coming out of Chicago. We were in Wisconsin, and we would laugh because we were being called 'emo.' Then as the years went by and the name stuck, it seemed that it was just for lack of label. Indie rock was more appropriate, but it had just exploded into Nirvana at the time. 'Alternative' became irrelevant, just like how 'emo' is irrelevant now. It's mainstream-o, and we don't resemble those bands in any way, shape or form."
The to-be-or-not-to-be-emo debate plagued Rainer Maria from its inception. While many found it applicable to Rainer Maria's post-punk stomps and mournful lyrics, others passionately argued the irrelevancy of emo to the band's music.
"It's interesting that we've darted in and out of labels," De Marrais says. "I guess most bands aren't even lucky enough to trick the reviewers or media they usually just get locked into something. We really knew all along that it was just a matter of time before the label wore off, because it never really rang true for us. We just had to be patient."
So how would Rainer Maria ideally self-refer?
"I would classify us as indie rock," De Marrais says. "But then again, that term can mean so much. A band like LCD Soundsystem or Hot Chip, they're independent rock, just with synthesizers. The music industry has exploded, and we're being shattered with the sparks of it but really, it's all about niches. No one does it better than England. I think English bands are really great at combining all different genres and being unclassifiable."
In this way, Catastrophe Keeps Us Together succeeds. After five albums with consistently heavy percussion and male-female vocal vaulting, Rainer Maria ditches the uniform in favor of the diverse on the new disc which features the trio experimenting with everything from alt-pop to anthems to Dylan. But this evolution isn't the only musical departure for the band: This time around, Rainer Maria decided to work with two distinct producers, Malcolm Burn and Peter Katis.
"[Catastrophe] had quite a long life," De Marrais says, referring to the album's nearly two-year-long production process. "Since we had two different producers to work with, the songs would be able to stand in whatever form they ended up taking. They could be played acoustically or played as a rock band. When we got into the studio, we were able to break them down as we'd never been able to do before, and then put them back together.
"Previously, we've brought songs into the studio fully formed, but this time there were experimentations in structure. I've become more confident as a songwriter, and I feel like I've been harnessing that ability. We've grown into songs that are more accessible. We have, in subtle ways, found more of a sense of humor."
Perhaps the biggest change for Rainer Maria, however, is how De Marrais now assumes full control of the mic. While she attacks lyrics with her trademark ferocity, her vocals are noticeably more controlled. Throatiness has given way to a steady belt; her hesitant warble has found professional, spot-on resonance. Although she once shared vocals with her then-beau Kyle Fischer, she credits the vocal usurp for her increase in confidence and her bandmates' interest in improv including the guitar-effects pedals Fischer designs himself.
Fans and critics alike have responded positively to De Marrais' newly honed skills, although she takes issue with comparisons to Kelly Clarkson or Avril Lavigne, saying, "That's lazy writing! There are so many other female vocalists to be compared to; why them? I think it's just lazy when someone grabs the nearest pop-culture reference. That's doing so many other women vocalists a disservice. On the other hand, being compared to [Rilo Kiley's] Jenny Lewis is fantastic. Let's look a little further than teen idols here."
So to whom would she like to be compared? "This is going to sound really funny, but the only singer I've ever consciously wanted to imitate was Jason Pierce from Spiritualized and Spacemen 3," De Marrais admits with a laugh. "I really like the way he held out his notes. I don't sound anything like him at all, and I'm sure he'd laugh if he ever heard me say that and then heard my singing. But in terms of women, I was really lucky growing up and seeing the Go-Go's and Siouxsie and the Banshees. There were already so many women singing that there wasn't a question of having to find influences. I could identify with male and female vocalists because there was a plethora of both when my musical tastes were formed."
While her maturity has liberated her as a performer, it's her lyrical ability that fully frees De Marrais as an artist. (She playfully chides her psychologist mother for inspiring an interest in existentialism.) Happily, however, she notes that with age she's leaning toward mellower music.
"I've always looked to territory that I don't have the answers to," she explains. "I'll write about a recurring nightmare or exploring the human existence. But as I find myself getting older, I'm lightening up more and more, so in the future things may be more lyrically lighthearted."
Here De Marrais pauses, considering. "Maybe I'm saying that now and it won't be the case; maybe lyrics will always be serious for me. It's reality versus the reality that you create. Things are certainly getting more serious as we get older, but I couldn't feel more serious than I felt ten years ago. Learning to lighten up seems to be part of my life's work."