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Grouplove’s Ryan Rabin Is Living Out His Rock ‘n’ Roll Dreams

The son of a South African Jew who was the former guitarist for Yes, Grouplove’s drummer and in-house producer has hit his stride as the band embarks on a world tour for its third studio album, ‘Big Mess’

Daniela Tijerina
November 07, 2016
Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Coachella
Ryan Rabin of Grouplove performs onstage at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, California, April 13, 2012. Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Coachella
Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Coachella
Ryan Rabin of Grouplove performs onstage at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, California, April 13, 2012. Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Coachella

The sunlight coming in through the windows of a spacious, 10th-floor corner office at Atlantic Records kept Ryan Rabin perky, and allowed me to see his hazel eyes and a spot of silver hair amid his short black curls, tucked away above his right ear. Underneath his embroidered “Dream Team” cap, Rabin, Grouplove’s 31-year-old drummer and in-house producer, was already sporting a five-o’clock shadow; it was only noon.

On September 9, the day Grouplove’s third studio album dropped, Rabin and his bandmates woke up at 4 a.m. for a sound check at The Today Show—this following a performance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert the night before—and were preparing to perform three other back-to-back shows that same day across New York City. It turned out, this was just a warm-up: Soon, the feel-good pop-rockers would embark on a 29-city North American tour (and a stint in Europe), performing their insightful and equally infectious new record Big Mess. Over the weekend, both of Grouplove’s New York shows sold out.

Trevor Rabin (L) Ryan Rabin at the ASCAP Film & Television Music Awards in Beverly Hills, California, June 28, 2012 (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Trevor Rabin (L) Ryan Rabin at the ASCAP Film & Television Music Awards in Beverly Hills, California, June 28, 2012 (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

When we met in early autumn, Rabin was wearing a navy T-shirt and black jeans, yellow socks (one inside-out), a black-banded watch with an MTV logo on the face, and a gold chain peaking through his collar: This Los Angeles native was appropriately dressed for a hot day in New York. However, in a sense, Rabin’s journey didn’t begin in New York or L.A., but in Johannesburg, South Africa, which is where his musical lineage begins. As a permanent reminder of his roots, Rabin has a tattoo of the South African flag on his right wrist.

Rabin’s father, Trevor Rabin (shortened from Rabinowitz), is former guitarist for the legendary progressive rock group Yes. Trevor’s paternal grandfather was Jewish and a Lithuanian cantor, and his father, Godfrey, was a jazz musician. Trevor grew up in an observant home and his mother converted to Judaism. He married his high school sweetheart Shelley May in 1978, and, with his solo career in flux, they moved from London to California in 1981 and eventually had a son. It’s in L.A. that Trevor became a guitarist for Yes, and in 1983, he penned “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (apparently on the toilet), which became a legendary opening track off the band’s eleventh album, 90215.

Ryan Rabin recalls growing up in “a super hippie-reformed” congregation in L.A., led by a rabbi who “fancied himself a very serious musician.” He would, said Rabin, bust out his guitar at any given time. These memories are almost comical to Rabin, who said he doesn’t consider himself religious at all. “[My rabbi] would make up some melodies that I didn’t know existed in some Torah readings and I was like, ‘Really that kind of sounds more like a folky, kind of, Bob Dylan vibe.” Somehow, I imagine that these early introductions to music, from both his father, with whom he toured with as a young boy, and his eclectic rabbi, have come to shape Rabin’s musical identity.

* * *

Before they were Grouplove, enjoying fruit platters on tour, four of the band’s five members—Rabin, Hannah Hooper (lead vocals), Christian Zucconi (lead guitar, vocals), and Andrew Wessen (guitar)—met at a commune run by Wessen’s brother in Greece. (Bassist Daniel Gleason joined the group later). In 2010, while studying abroad in Prague, Rabin and then-girlfriend, Kyly Zakheim (they married earlier this year in South Africa), flew to Crete for a week and met Hannah and Christian, who had been living at the commune all summer.

Later that year, Rabin invited them to his parent’s home in L.A. to visit. They became fast friends through late night jam sessions but never had any intention of taking it further than that. Using hand-me-down production equipment and instruments in his parent’s garage-turned-home studio, they unknowingly recorded what would become the first Grouplove songs. A few months later their manager, Nicky Berger, heard the recordings and put it in the right hands. “We did something special without even realizing it,” said Rabin.

In 2011, Grouplove released their first studio album, produced by Rabin, called Never Trust A Happy Song. The debut received mixed reviews and ultimately pinned them as a “happy-go-lucky” band singing sun-kissed music. However, despite the surface-level criticism, two singles from the album (“Colours” and “Tongue Tied” experienced commercial success. The world’s first introduction to Grouplove, “Colours,” a hypnotizing rock number, was featured in advertisements for both Apple and Coca-Cola followed by a rendition of the song on Fox’s hit show, Glee. Two years later, after touring the world and making their rounds on the festival circuit, including a spot in the Coachella line-up, Grouplove dropped their second album, Spreading Rumours. This album peaked at #21 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Back at Atlantic Studios, Wessen was signing copies of Big Mess on vinyl. As he stacked the records, the Venice Beach native shook his long, sun-bleached hair in protest: Rabin had begun discussing the genesis of their musical collaboration, which, apparently, signaled impending embarrassment. In high school, around the age of 16, Rabin and Wessen played in a band together at local venues on L.A.’s once acclaimed sunset strip , called The Anthem—a name that, when uttered, for what seems to be the first time in a long time, caused the both of them to cringe in unison.

“You’re killing us—don’t tell her, Ryan,” Wessen demanded.

Rabin and Co. rockin’ out at Forecastle Festival, Louisville, Kentucky, July 15, 2016.
Rabin and Co. rockin’ out at Forecastle Festival, Louisville, Kentucky, July 15, 2016.

“We had one [song] called, ‘Burn Into Ash,’ ” Rabin bashfully recalled. “We also had a song called ‘Be The One,’ ” which Rabin vaguely remembered as a love song.

After an admittedly juvenile go at pop-punk with Wessen, Rabin formed a new band on his own while studying music business at the University of Southern California. This time, according to Rabin, the band had an equally awful name (The Outline), but he had made a more prominent attempt at making a name for himself in the industry. “We thought this was going to be our big break,” said Rabin. Before they knew it, The Outline was signed to Capitol records, giving four students from San Diego State and USC the chance to live out a rock dream.

Or so they thought.

Rabin and his band mates toured in a van, without a crew, over the course of four, painstaking years to non-existent crowds. They were eventually dropped from the label. But, Rabin’s next musical pursuit was just around the corner—or, well, around the globe, waiting for him at a commune in Crete.

* * *

A few years before Grouplove formed, when Rabin was 19, he and two friends, Ben Berger (the brother of Grouplove’s manager) and Ryan McMahon, started a production project called Captain Cuts. Together, the trio write, produce, and perform with artists like American Authors, Walk The Moon, and Halsey, to name a few. This year alone they’ve already picked up two Billboard Music Awards for their work on Walk The Moon’s single “Shut up and Dance.” Before this, they pitched songs to Disney Channel stars like Miley Cyrus.

Grouplove. (Facebook)
Grouplove. (Facebook)

Although still producing mostly pop music, Rabin has come a long way from writing teeny-bopper hits (fellow drummer Tré Cool of Green Day is fan of his). His latest production credit is on Grouplove’s very own Big Mess, an eight-month-long endeavor. And even though listeners will still find upbeat tempos and catchy hooks, they’ll also find depth. This album is the result of what Rabin describes as finding controlled inspiration in total chaos. Of the album’s first single, “Welcome To Your Life,” Rabin said, “I actually thought of the chorus in the shower while Hannah was in labor with Willa.” (Hooper, who sports pink hair, and Zucconi, who has blue hair, welcomed a baby girl about a year ago; they’ve all come a long way since Greece.)

With other song titles like “Enlighten Me” and “Do You Love Someone,” Grouplove and Rabin are just trying to make sense of the world around them as they grapple with rising fame, blossoming love, and raising a child in this “big mess.”

In tracks like “Standing in the Sun,” Grouplove acknowledges the doubts they’ve faced in lines like, God says it’s kind of hard to believe him, but redeem their faith on later tracks like “Heart of Mine,” where they affirm: In my life, talkin’ bout all the time, everything feels so right.

After two albums, where the band expressed that they had thought they had it all figured it out, or were trying to figure it out, Big Mess arrives as their happy ending. It’s one that reinforces their identity as a perky indie-band but what this album also does, all at once, is shatter that mold by admitting they haven’t figured it out yet but that it’s going to be OK anyways: The lesson of my life is to never comprehend it, explains Zucconi on “Enlighten Me.”

* * *

Six years later, it’s the day of Grouplove’s third album release and they’re about to play an acoustic show atop a bench in New York’s Washington Square Park. They had announced the show to fans via social media the night before. It was a 90-degree September afternoon and Rabin, now wearing a fresh Simpsons-illustrated Knicks T-shirt, said he’s wasn’t tired. But that might just be the heat making him delirious.

Three songs into their short but sweet set at the park, Hooper and Rabin conduct a poll to decide on a final song. Standing next to Rabin and Wessen, I made an attempt at an Anthem reunion and suggest to the pair that they play “Burn Into Ash.”

Grouplove performing in Washington Square Park, September 9, 2016. (Facebook)
Grouplove performing in Washington Square Park, September 9, 2016. (Facebook)

“You’re the worst,” Rabin joked.

“This is all your fault,” Wessen, turning around trying not to laugh, uttered to Rabin.

Instead, the crowd decided on a song called, “Shark Attack,” an infectious pop anthem off their sophomore album, Spreading Rumours. With no time for an encore, one by one, Grouplove hopped off the bench and disappear en route to their next show at Rough Trade Records.

At their third and final show of the day, at Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg, a sign on the wall warned it’s unlawful to hold more than 280 occupants in the venue. But by the feel of it, the warm, beer-drenched space was over capacity. In more ways than one it was starting to very closely resemble Rabin’s bar mitzvah, which Rabin said was the “best party ever.”

The coming-of-age celebration—which was “Club Ryan” themed and took place at a restaurant above the Santa Monica Museum of Flying—also involved bright neon lights, loud music, and dancing teenagers. Baby’s All Right had become Club Ryan 2.0. There was just one small difference. “Ryan’s in his panties!” shouted Hooper, who was fully clothed in a metallic bodysuit.

And she was right. Rabin had stripped down to a pair of bright blue briefs. Seated center stage at his drum kit, he was drenched in sweat, wagging his tongue and whipping his hair back and forth. Song after song, Rabin maintained this same energy and the audience, who were singing—no, shouting—the lyrics to Grouplove classics and even to songs released that same day, fed off of it feverishly. With every beat that Rabin slammed down, the audience banged their heads forward in approval.

“Everyone thinks we’re this happy band from California but we’re really just trying to be optimistic in a world that’s hard,” said Hooper to the crowd. “And if that means we’re fucking happy then I guess we are.”

Even from the back of the venue, you could see Rabin’s grin reflecting against a flashing green light. Rabin couldn’t be having more fun than he is now. He probably wouldn’t sleep that night, but who needs sleep when you’re living out your dreams.

Daniela is a journalist based in Brooklyn, originally from Texas. You can follow her on Instagram if you like.

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