James Baker Lucas, aka the musician known as Rroland, says he’s had innumerable past lives — some of which, he says, were quite tragic. But Rroland’s most jarring memory doesn’t come from his past-life regression as a World War II soldier or an agrarian matriarch in Greece. More likely it was an attempt in this life, circa 1976, to introduce his hippie collective to the music of the Ramones via his cover band, Little Pinto and the Rearend Collisions. “We had a really big commune, with a general store and a place where we’d can food,” he says. “What we’d do was just show up and start playing, and people would storm in and say, ‘You can’t play that kind of music here!’ It was guerrilla performances — we’d set up and play and get shut down. Guess it was too angry or something.”
Those garage-punk days down on the farm may be long gone, but Lucas’ knack for annoying hippies and going against the grain remains the same. He may not come off like a self-described “fanboy” whose dearest wish has come true, but it has: He’s been taken under the wing of his favorite artist, eccentric Scottish electro-pop bon vivant Momus, who signed Rroland to his American Patchwork label. A synth fanatic so obsessive that his pseudonym is synonymous with his favorite instrument, the Roland SH3A, the Bay Area musician is finally finding an audience.
It’s obvious why Rroland’s self-made album, Reflections on a Past Life as Played on the Roland Synthesizer, caught Momus’ ear. The album’s fifteen pieces are composed and performed entirely on the SH3A, with a raw, off-kilter abandon that summons the ethereal experimentalism of prog rock knob-twiddlers of the late ’60s and the synth-symphonies of Wendy Carlos. The latter is of course a Momus favorite, and the transsexual composer was unfortunately also the plaintiff in a legal battle against him after he wrote a song about her that she didn’t like on his album The Little Red Songbook. To cover his legal expenses, he sparked a $1,000-a-song project, offering to write ditties about people for money (thirty people responded, including artist Jeff Koons).
Rroland’s approach is equally unconventional, with music whirring and buzzing like a video game run amok, gobbling notes to a score that melds baroque, Chinese, and folk music. “Shining Chariot,” from Reflections, has a menacing melody that bounces along above a bed of rhythm straight out of Ms. Pac-Man, while “The River” whirls about in an almost dancey drum ‘n’ bass tempo.
At a recent show at the Fillmore, Rroland attempted to replicate live the music on his record with hand-drawn 81/2-by-14-inch images of his synthesizer that diagram which position each knob and fader should take. On a Roland synth, it’s hard to replicate the exact sounds, faders, and filters every time a song is played. “It’s the kind of instrument where you shape the sounds with envelopes and filters,” he says. “So you never really get the same sound every time.” He figures it out in his own weird little way by using his charts. But the antidigital, antisequencing songwriter also embraces his instrument’s sense of spontaneity. “I feel like happy accidents are really a good thing. It’s part of the experiment, and it’s also what makes it fun.”
The Roland keyboard dominates his bedroom-slash-studio, sprawling out against a wall lined with egg cartons. Sitting in his kitchen with fluffy dark cats whipping by his legs, Rroland fingers a dossier of information on his music — he seems more prepared for a job interview than a feature profile. The 47-year-old San Francisco native’s current incarnation is that of a wine purchaser and father of two adult children by day and synth-scientist and Momus superfan by night. Soft-spoken and nondescript in a monochromatic brown plaid shirt and slacks, the balding, bearded Lucas is a dead ringer for comedian Chris Elliott, yet with a gentler, more bruised look in his eyes.
His story mirrors that of many other Northern California denizens who came of age in the ’60s. Cycling through reincarnations in more ways than one, Rroland has reinvented himself numerous times. An archetypal Boomer, he hitchhiked across the country, then went back to the land and toiled in a commune, made jewelry, and tried to carve out a living far from the well-trod path of his parents’ generation. It’s a story so familiar that today it almost seems like a folktale — the old saw “What a long, strange trip it’s been …” seems to fit this songwriter just as well as it does Jerry Garcia or Jerry Brown. Rroland’s journey, however, dead-ends in his room, where he spends much of his time experimenting with his synth, much like any garden-variety ’90s bedroom rocker. Think of him as some kind of weird bridge between lifetimes or generations, with one foot planted in the counterculture ’60s and the other in an indie ’90s.
“I think a lot of people of my generation came to a crossroads,” he muses. “Like, ‘Am I going to sell insurance, or try however I can to continue being different?’ I’ve always been rebellious. I like to keep challenging myself and pushing myself, because that makes me a more creative person; it pushes me to the dark places in my personality that this album came out of.”
Growing up in the Marina District, Lucas’ love of music blossomed early on: He wrote his first song at four and his parents dubbed him “Gerald McBoing Boing,” after the Dr. Seuss character, for his human beatbox talents. At eighteen, the budding musician — who had taught guitar at the Blue Bear music school and studied briefly at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music — up and hitchhiked to Tennessee to join a commune devoted to vegetarianism and nonviolence. There he married, had his first child, and learned the meaning of backbreaking labor. As a farmer, he hand-harvested quarter-mile-long rows of turnip greens, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and soybeans. The commune made its own flour, tofu, and soymilk, and sold its greens in nearby black neighborhoods. “People would say, ‘Yeah! The hippies are here!'” he laughs.
But the head of the commune was not simpatico. Not only did the leader, an ex-Marine, shut down the proto-punk performances — instead promoting his own bad Southern rock band — but he had “a nice house and good food, and we were struggling,” Lucas says. “When we had a loaf of bread and margarine, it was like, ‘Whoopee! Let’s party.’ He had freezerfuls of stuff.” Lucas got out in ’77.
Back in the Bay Area, Lucas drove a produce truck, studied computer operations at night school, and played at Mabuhay Gardens as the leader of the power-pop band Jimmy Baker. After the ’89 earthquake, he moved to Mendocino to make decoupage jewelry, before going to work as a vineyard manager.
While working among the grapes, Lucas put out a now-unavailable ’97 LP, Substantial Reports of Airplay, on his own Castle Robertson label, along with several late-’90s EPs featuring songs such as “Cortez,” which he describes as a stark folk tale of an urban cop, and “Sebastien Hein,” which he says got some airplay on KALX. But though Lucas grew more fascinated with his Roland (as house music DJs around the world were equally drawn to the analog instrument’s wall-shaking bass notes), he still barely made a blip on the radar on the Bay Area music scene.
That started to change when Lucas got into the work of Momus in the mid-’90s. He began haunting Momus message groups and started pressing his music on the songwriter, including the 1999 EP, Momusissus, a tribute to his idol.
Most people would probably recoil at this intense attention, branding Lucas stalker material, but true to his embrace of all things oddball, Momus invited the songwriter onstage to do a human beatbox routine during his Little Red Songbook tour. He also asked for more music. “Your stuff consistently intrigues me,” he wrote in a letter to Lucas. “I get lots of demos these days, but very few that really have some quality of originality and creative weirdness, for want of a better description.” After giving Momus some of the songs that would make up Reflections on a Past Life, Lucas proceeded to crank out the rest of the album in March 2001, with Momus producing and giving Lucas his Rroland stage name.
“A lot of people said the music was weird and they couldn’t get into it,” recalls Lucas, “but [Momus] locked into it right away.”
The oddities of the Roland synth and Rroland’s quirk-filled past-life regressions were equal players in the making of Reflections. “I’m a New Age skeptic, but I just decided to go ahead and try regression therapy,” he says. There were things regarding himself that he wanted to know more about, like “my relationship with my ex-wife and my children and my parents and my own sense of who I am, and understanding my androgynous tendencies,” he says with a laugh.
One regression a few years ago found him swimming in a river as a WWII soldier as rockets fired overhead — a “memory” that led to his songs “The Frozen River,” “The Swim,” “Dripping Wet,” and “The Song of the Foot.” In another, Lucas was a Stone-Age lothario whose wife died from grief, leading him to impale himself out of shame. “It’s hard for me even to talk about it,” he says now. “When I was doing ‘The First Suicide,’ I was doubled over when I was composing because it was so hard just to remember the pain. After I came out of that trance, I said, ‘Now I know why I’ve had chronic stomach problems my whole life.'”
Since the release of Reflections, he has moved on, charting a course away from the past and working on a series of pieces on subatomic physics, a project that promises to be less harrowing.
“That experience was so intense for me that I had to express it, and so really I did the whole thing just for my own pleasure,” he says now, as disarmingly open about the bizarre side-trips his life has taken as he is about his worship of all things Momus. “I didn’t even think anybody would like it. I thought, well, this is really strange, odd, but I’m just going to go ahead and do it because I like listening to strange, odd music.”
And Lucas won’t let his past come between him and the experience of sharing the stage with the artists closer to his children’s ages than his own, when he appears on the West Coast portion of the American Patchwork tour.
“Personally, I feel sagelike, because I’ve had a bunch of experiences,” he says, “but I want to come out as young and fresh as my music is.”