A Q&A with Raccoon Fighter’s Sean Gavigan and Gabe Wilhelm

Originally, each member of indie rock trio Raccoon Fighter hailed from the same small, South Jersey town; however, only two of the members Sean Gavigan (vocalist, guitar) and Zac Ciancaglini (drums) met while as students and have been playing music together for years, including a different iteration of Raccoon Fighter which split up shortly after both Ciancaglini and Gavgan moved to New York. Ironically, despite the fact that Gabe Wilhelm (bass) also hailed from the same, small South Jersey town, the duo of Gavigan and Ciancaglini met Wilhelm after they had moved to New York. 

The newly formed and now Brooklyn-based trio went to the studio to write and record the material that comprised the Liars Feet EP and Terrified EP which were released last year to critical praise across both local and regional sections of the blogosphere, thanks in a part to a sound that owes a great debt to the blues, 60s garage rock, psychedelica, and to a high energy live set. (I’ve caught them live, during their CD release show at Cake Shop, and it was among one of the better sets I caught in October.)

ZIL, Raccoon Fighter’s debut full-length album not only cements the band’s reputation for a sound that’s both decidedly and refreshingly straightforward in an age of sneering irony and preening, pretentious bullshit, it has also put the trio out on the national stage as a band that you should be paying attention to. In fact, the album’s first three singles “Santa Tereza,” “Wolf at Your Window” and “My Ticket”  have been praised by the likes of several large, nationally known blogs including USA Today’s Pop Candy, FilterBrooklyn Vegan, and others. 

I had a chance to speak to Raccoon Fighter’s Sean Gavigan and Gabe Wilhelm via email before their Brooklyn Bowl set tonight about the band’s new album; and they offered some revealing and very honest insight into their creative process – and how they have to shut down their perfectionist tendencies; how New York has naturally influenced them; and the rather hilarious and kind of surreal fashion they came up with their name, and more. 

Check it out below.  

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WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know that it was the only thing you wanted to do?

Sean Gavigan: I listened to a bunch of records and started playing my dad’s beat up guitar I found in the attic when I was 15. I had a few friends who seemed to know what they were doing so I mostly learned from them. I still don’t know if it’s the ONLY thing I want to do, but I can’t see myself stopping anytime soon. 

Gabe Wilhelm: A lot of musicians in my family, so I grew up with it. It’s not the only thing I want to do, but it is my favorite thing to do.  

WRH: How did the band meet? When did you know that you had to create with each other? How did you come up with your name? (There’s a funny story about the last question. I was with a friend and mentioned your band name and for a brief moment she got visibly upset and said “but why would anyone want to fight a raccoon?”)

SG: Well, we’re all from the same small farm town in South Jersey. Zac [Ciancaglini] and I met a while back and started playing music together in high school, but the funny thing is we didn’t meet Gabe until after we moved to NYC. I think things really clicked when we were making the Liars Feet EP (our first recording with Gabe). We came up with the band name for a not so serious (at the time) recording project. We met this guy at one of our shows while we were playing under an alias and he told us he was having problems with a raccoon that was tearing up his mom’s garden. He shot and killed that raccoon, and we named our band after him. Not sure who was the fighter in that story, but my heart goes out to the raccoon.           

GW: Oh no! Tell her the name implies a fighter FOR raccoons, not a fighter OF raccoons!  

WRH: According to the press notes, you guys are originally from South Jersey and then you did what a lot of bands have done lately – relocate to Brooklyn. What inspired the move? And has the move inspired your work to date?

SG: I think we originally moved to New York because we wanted to work in recording studios. The original band line-up Zac and I put together dissipated shortly after since everyone lived in either Philly or NJ. New York is exciting and full of creativity. You’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind to not gain inspiration from the city and the people who create here.            

GW: As for the inspiration New York has had, so many of the bands here are so damn good. Naturally it makes you want and even need to keep improving. And it’s so expensive and difficult to live here that it sort of makes you keep your eyes on the prize.

WRH: Who are your influences? 

SG: The Kinks, the Cramps, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Stooges.

GW: The list is so long, and constantly changing, but I bet you can guess who...the Guess Who.

WRH: Who are you listening to right now?

SG: Hot Tuna

WRH: How would you describe your sound?

SG: It’s the music playing on the radio in a villain’s Cutlass Supreme as he drives down the New Mexican road with your girlfriend in tow.           

GW: Like when a bug hits your windshield and you turn on the wiper to clean it, and of course you can never remember to replace that one shitty wiper so it just streaks all the way across the glass. But the shape and color of the smudge ends up looking like a rainbow so you leave it there because it looks cool. 

WRH: The material both sonically and lyrically seems to owe a great debt to 60s garage rock. It’s raw and gritty while possessing a great deal of nuance – at times, it seems slightly psychedelic. Was this intentional?         

SG: Yes.          

GW: It was intentional in the sense that we like that kind of music and can’t help but be influenced by it. Things turn out sounding best when you think “Let’s do this thing here and see if we like it” as opposed to “Let’s do this thing here because so-and-so does that.”

WRH: Since the release of the album, the band has quickly gained quite a bit of attention, especially across the blogosphere – to the point that you’ve become blogosphere darlings. Hey, not a bad thing right? So how does it feel to have your album be received so positively and so quickly? There has been this long running joke, which on a certain level has a deep truth to it – the blogosphere loves you until they hate you, and it’s usually around the second or third album. Do you fear that could happen to you? 

SG:  Being a blogosphere darling is certainly can’t hurt. I’ve been told there’s no such thing as bad press. No matter what you do there will always be people who hate you. 

WRH: At times lyrically, the material on the album seems to come from a personal place. What is the inspiration for the album’s lyrical content?

GW: I can only speak for myself on this one, because lyrics are kind of a personal thing I think, and a difficult process to explain. But most of the time it’s kind of a subconscious thing. You start with something that sounds good aesthetically with the music, then flesh it out from there without over thinking it. I don’t really know what the song is “about” until way after it’s done, usually. Then one day I’m listening to it, or thinking about it and I think, “Oh, so that’s what I meant.” And if all goes well, it turns out it wasn’t about something dumb.

How does the songwriting process work for you guys? Did you go into the studio with a complete song or did you have a basic idea that was fleshed out once you got to the studio? When do you know that you have a finished song?

SG: This past time around we were as prepared as we could be. We demo’d and re-arranged and re-demo’d about 30 songs before we chose the ones we wanted to put on the record. I don’t think the songs are ever finished personally. Every time I go back and listen to something we’ve done in the past I always hear things we could have done differently. You can spend an eternity re-arranging songs, I think you just get to a place where you’re satisfied and move on.            

GW:  We wrote about 30 songs during the summer and chiseled the list down to the best 12 or 13, but only had enough money to record 10. It’s hard to tell when a song is finished, because your instinct is to continue to improve them. You have to take a breather and look around to make sure you’re not too far down the perfectionist rabbit hole. I’m usually of the mind to say “Ok, first take done. Anything wrong? No? Let’s move on. NOW!” Because I know how easy it is for me to get stuck in a spiral. 

What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves? 

SG: Win the lotto and sue Spotify.         

GW: Don’t pick “Raccoon Fighter.” That name’s taken.