The Washington Post
grabs the pen, paper and the tissues
ROB STOKES Show: Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. at Studio Ga Ga, 2218 18th St. NW. $5.
Ask Rob Stokes how he learned to write such topsy-turvy, achy-breaky love songs, and he’ll explain how he got his start in an acid-jazz troupe that once landed a gig playing fusion inside a Pittsburgh grocery store. After that, things got weird. Stokes moved to the District for college and into a Foggy Bottom group house, where he could host psychedelic jam sessions (he’d play the drums) and throw DIY rap shows (he’d befriend the rappers and, before long, was producing their tracks).
All of these musical adventures quietly saturate “Live at the Heartbreak Hotel,” an album of fluid, polyglot pop spiked with splashes of “Tropicalia, bossa [nova], blues, punk and nowave,” the 25-year-old says. But, Stokes says, he never set out to make genre-punch. He’s more interested in mood, and he cultivates it by inviting his collaborators to score the little vignettes that pop into his head.
“I’ll tell my keyboard player something like, ‘Yo, all right, you just got dumped the weekend before your buddy’s wedding, so you’re going stag, and it’s 1979, you’re in Santa Barbara near the beach,’ ” Stokes says. “‘You stumble into a bar, and they have a piano there. What do you play?’ ”
It isn’t hard for Stokes to conjure these imaginary scenes, because “there’s heartbreak in everything,” he says, flashing an incongruously enthusiastic smile. For Stokes, a busted heart feels like . . . what, exactly? “Mysterious,” he says. “Strange.” So the fundamental thing he’s trying to communicate is that heartache feels weird? “Yeah, definitely,” he says. In music, “strangeness is the tightest thing.”