By day, Chris Robley is a mild-mannered worker at the trendsetting, online music outlet CD Baby. At night he sheds his inhibitions and delivers songs wherein the forces of darkness and light duel for the souls of men and women in a dark, moody style that sets him apart from your average indie rocker. Solo, or with a small backing combo he calls Fear of Heights, Robley pulls you into his tortured world view with a poetic sensibility that gives his music a depth and wisdom many young songwriters lack. In the studio, he plays almost any instrument you can imagine, and the eclectic arrangements on his second album, The Drunken Dance of Modern Man in Love, are always surprising. It followed in the gloomy footsteps of his debut, 2005's This Is The, another set that blended ambient folk, ominous pop, darkly introspective singer/songwriter fare, and psychedelic bedroom electronica to explore a landscape of desperation and anguish. In a review of the album one clever critic tagged him as the "Stephen King of indie pop."
Robley was born at Kent County Hospital, Warwick, RI, not a hot spot for music talent. An only child, he spent a lot of time alone, inventing stories and tunes to keep himself occupied in a town he characterizes as a "safe little bubble." He developed a taste for solitude and songwriting early on after a life-changing experience listening to Paul Simon's concert in Central Park, the one without Garfunkel, live on Radio One. He'd cued up a tape recorder and after waiting for weeks captured a guitar solo in "The Boy in the Bubble" that excited him more than anything else he'd ever heard. He immediately ran into the living room and told his parents he wanted a guitar. Remembering that he'd quit piano lessons after three years, they were dubious. They suggested renting a guitar, but none of the local music stores rented lefty guitars.
Robley stuck with guitar and played in the high school jazz band. He also picked up trombone to play in the concert band. He continued playing jazz guitar in college ensembles in Richmond, VA, where he had a music scholarship. When his school did away with the theory/composition focus, he switched to an English major, which may explain his poetic approach to lyric writing. As his guitar playing improved he went back to the piano and started figuring out Beatles tunes, piecing together the basics of music theory on his own. From there he began exploring Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes, organs, and synthesizers. Guitar led to banjo, mandolin, drums, and primitive electric bass.
Robley's early performing was playing guitar in various college jazz/fusion bands. He composed jazz and faux classical stuff for school and various groups he played in. The Shanghai String Quartet played one of his pieces as part of a school composition project. Behind locked doors, however, he was a secretive pop singer/songwriter who never sang in public. The first time he ever performed one of his own songs, for classmate John Stewart, he was shaking uncontrollably. The two became friends and Stewart is now drummer in the Fear of Heights and his collaborator in the Sort Ofs. The duo didn't start a "real" rock/pop band until their last year of college.
On graduation, Robley, Stewart, and the musicians they'd been playing with went on a road trip to find a place to live that was far from their hometowns. Since most were East Coasters, they liked Portland and Austin best, but early July in Austin featured 114 degree temperatures and poison oak, while in Portland it was 80 degrees and pleasantly sunny. Little did they know that the town would soon become an indie music mecca.
After landing in Portland, Robley got married and began working on his own music. He also eventually got a day job at CD Baby, where he manages the customer service department and helms the CD Baby DIY Musician Podcast (http://www.cdbabypodcast.com), a combination of interviews with bookers, promoters, managers, engineers, and artists and informal round table discussions that disseminate info and wisdom useful for the D.I.Y. musician.
In 2005 Robley cut his debut, This Is The, on a limited budget, ten tracks of moody folktronica with poignant lyrics and smooth, romantic melodies. It was recorded in four days on 16-track analog tape at Type Foundry with Adam Selzer producing and collaborating. The recordings were going to be demos, but finally morphed into an album, with most tracks laid down in one or two takes. On the album, Robley pushed the boundaries a bit, but he's free from notions about being an experimental musician. He dwells on the cusp between the fringe and mainstream pop, happy to be too strange for strict fans of modern radio and too poppy for people who love post-rock noise Drunken Dance, his second effort, was captured in two weeks on 24-track analog tape, again at Type Foundry with Adam Selzer. It's more orchestral and more organic at the same time, with a lot of quiet spaces and subtlety, an album that's diverse without being completely chaotic. Robley put down basic tracks with acoustic guitar and vocals, then quickly laid on the overdubs, most of which he'd written out and arranged in advance.
In addition to his solo career, Robley plays in a number of other Portland bands. He's the keyboardist/noise guitarist for the Imprints, a Portland rock band led by ex-Baseboard Heaters singer Rob Stroup, plays guitar/bass/keys for Norfolk & Western, Adam Selzer's epic, sepia-rock band, and keys and guitar for pop Americana outfit the Imprints. He also bangs on toy instruments with Rachel Taylor Brown's strange trio and fronts the agitprop-prog-pop band the Sort Ofs, which is a keyboard-driven, aggressive, political outfit he started years back with John Stewart. The Sort Ofs released the Anxiety on Parade album in 2006 and are planning a full album for sometime in 2008. ~ j. poet