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Touring with Anti-Flag pays off for Tabula Rasa

Saturday, June 28, 2003

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

Within 15 minutes of meeting Andrew Grossmann and Rob Spagiare at Mr. Roboto Project, the first time the members of Tabula Rasa would practice together, drummer Jeff Kopanic knew he'd found what he was looking for.

The members of Tabula Rasa, from left, are Justin Campbell, Andrew Grossmann, Jeff Kopanic and Rob Spagiare. (Missy Wright)

"We didn't really have to sit down and say, you know, 'What kind of songs do you guys want to play?' or 'How do we want to sound?'" Kopanic says. "We all just started playing, and it was what we all had in our minds."

That was September 2000.

These days, the members of Tabula Rasa -- Spagiare on vocals and guitar; Grossmann on guitar; Kopanic and bassist Justin Campbell -- are on the road with Anti-Flag playing their songs to an average of 1,000 kids a night in support of their first full-length release, "The Role of Smith," produced by their hero, J. Robbins of Jawbox, and released on A-F Records.

A-F helped them bring in Robbins (now of Burning Airlines), and the band was thrilled.

"Unfortunately," Kopanic says, "we didn't have a whole ton of time with J. He was really just tracking what we were laying down. But he was definitely an inspiration. Like, wow, this is great. We love this guy, and we get to play our songs for him. So he definitely had us playing the best that we probably could have played. And he did help a lot with the vocals."

It was a Robbins suggestion, for instance, that led to the most intense Spagiare performance on an album marked by intense Spagiare performances -- the screaming at the end of "There Is a Fine Line Between Genius and Insanity."

As Kopanic recalls, "He told Rob, 'Just go in there and be Brando.' "

The album is also marked by instrumental passages that hit like math-rock in songs that otherwise don't sound a bit like any math-rock band you've ever heard.

"I guess we're not a math-rock band," Kopanic says, "but we definitely like playing that stuff and having fun, changing stuff up a little bit. We like to kind of throw things off a little bit so that someone listens to it and they get all confused like 'Aahh! What's going on?!' It's more fun to play stuff like that. And it can be tighter when you have some changes that aren't just straightforward 4/4 rocking."

Before signing to A-F, they got some national exposure last year when Deep Elm chose Tabula Rasa's "The Effects That Try" to open a compilation called "Me Against the World: The Emo Diaries Chapter 7."

Not that they would call it emo.

As Kopanic recalls the events that led to their appearance on the "Emo" compilation, "We just recorded seven songs to be a demo, and then sent it out to every label we could think of. ... So it wasn't like we were feverlishy like, 'Oh man, we've gotta try to get on "The Emo Diaries.' " They asked us to do it, and we said 'No' at first because the song we gave them, we would only be allowed to use on that comp and couldn't release it anywhere for two years. And we really liked the song. So we were like, 'I don't know. I think we want it to be on our EP so we're just gonna hold off.' And then all of our friends were like, 'Dude, you guys should be on that!' "

The hookup with the local label came after playing a show in Philadelphia with Whatever It Takes, an A-F band that also features Anti-Flag's Chris #2.

"We were just talking to him," Kopanic says. "And he was like, 'So, what are you guys up to?' And that was right when we had songs for a full length, and we had no plans for who was gonna put it out for us, but we knew that we wanted to record. So he was just like 'Well, before you do a record with anybody else, you should send it to us and come over and talk.' "

He's glad they talked.

"Right now," he says, "we're driving from a show we played with Anti-Flag that was sold out with 1,100 people and we're driving to another one that's probably going to be about the same."

He laughs, then says, "I can't really complain about that."

The show tonight at Mr. Small's in Millvale -- and the tour in general -- finds Tabula Rasa and Anti-Flag sharing the bill with A Static Lullaby, Darkest Hour and the Vacancy (another local band with a new release, "EP," on A-F Records). The rocking begins at 6. Ttickets are $10; 800-594-TIXX or 412-821-4447.

Ed Masley can be reached at emasley@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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