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That One Song

The Trillions, “For the Better”

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Behind their rock 'n' roll veneers, the four guys in the Trillions are self-professed geeks. Between analyses of song arrangements and Pete Townshend impressions, Charlie Glenn, Chris Smith, Robbie King (formerly of Prabir and the Substitutes) and Joe Ferguson (from the Awesome Few) somehow manage to sneak in references to NASA, gamma rays, statistics and electromagnetic currents. It's no surprise, then, that their update on classic pop and rock is a bit on the complex side, delivered with a striking sense of urgency. But rest assured, you won't need a scientific calculator to appreciate “For the Better.”


Style Weekly: Tell us about that one song...

Chris Smith: "For the Better" was the first song we all four worked on together.

Charlie Glenn: The bassline in this is what you should pay attention to. The bass has a really neat melody, it pretty much covers every fret.

Robbie King: It's definitely a blast to play, and challenging.

Glenn: The guitars almost support it. I wanted a more haunting guitar riff, a scary set of chords. The lyrics are a reflection about divorce in the U.S.A. and how much of it there is. I'm not saying for good or bad, but I grew up with more than half of my friends having divorced or separated parents. I think it had a pretty profound effect on everyone's actions. I'm no psychologist...

Joe Ferguson: But you can see the connections. You can see the differences.

Glenn: It's weird for me, because my parents are still together. When I say that, even now, I get chill bumps because its strange amongst my set of friends.

Smith: I'm the only one in the band who comes from a family of divorced parents. I was real young and I don't remember any of it. It's cool to hear this song because the title is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot. Parents always say, "Trust us, it's for the better." But you don't really know.

Glenn: My 4-year-old self asks, "Wasn't it better the other way?"

Smith: When Charlie showed me the song and the lyrics, they really stuck with me. Especially those three words. I mulled over it a lot. You can't really know if it was "for the better." I think I turned out okay, though.

Glenn: The chorus, which is almost hard to understand because it's really slurred out, says, "Until discontent do us part. I do."

Ferguson: It should be added to wedding vows.

Glenn: Or supplant them. It makes you scared as a kid growing up. Now I'm approaching the time when everyone around me is getting married. I think, "What are my chances? What are my odds of getting out of this alive?" As the (divorce) rates go, when I get married, the chances will probably be 75%. Not so good, so why bother? "For the Better" is about that sinking, haunting, niggling feeling.

Style: Your first press release said The Trillions would mix rock songs with classical arrangments. How has this panned out?

Glenn: No one would mistake us for being anything other than rock and roll music. But, the notes and chords in themselves and the way they're stacked is pretty unique. Most people aren't going to notice it.

Ferguson: It's cool, because you can choose your level of involvement with this music.

Glenn: On the outside, you can just rock along. If you want to dig deeper, you can tell we worked really hard on it.

Smith: It's like one of those books, when you get to the end of a paragraph, you get to choose where to go next. Choose your adventure.

Glenn: We're obviously not the first to use chord progressions and melodies that don't usually rear their heads in pop music. But that said, there are a lot of ideas that were left over from the romantic era that weren't pursued. It sort of dead-ended back then and then popular music took over. Jazz, rock and roll, and pop integrated things from that era, but we're looking to see if we can pull out some things that haven't been pulled out in awhile. I teach guitar, so I think about notes way too much.

Smith: Alot of the ideas come from Charlie and he has the foundations for all of these songs, the progressions, and the notes. What I try to do is keep that classical theme underlying. Every note that is played is played for a reason. We put it there because we wanted it there. There's nothing random about it at all. At the same time, you can listen to it and it can just be a rock and roll record.

Glenn: A lot of times you'll go to rock shows and when the guitarist plays, you get mud. The notes could be really interesting, but they're all packed into one signal that goes through an amplifier and then into your face. Alot of times the individual signals representing those notes get blended together and you hear a wash of noise. For our chords, one person will take a root, another person will take a third, another one will take a fifth. Everyone will take a piece of the chord and try to get to the next chord and the next chord, while constructing a melody. Everyone gets to play a melody, which is closer to classical arrangements. You don't have a lot of violin players or cellists playing chords.

We don't have a lot of money right now to play with really neat electronics or do crazy sonic things, but with notes we can push the envelope. We have guitars and amps. We're trying to break away from the restraints that are on pop music.

Smith: Also, with the Substitutes, we were a touring band. As a result of that, the actual act of creating music was only when we were here. We now have a lot of time to flesh songs out, and get them recorded so we can take them on the road. Now we have enough time to really take our time and be deliberate.

Glenn: Write ourselves into big holes and see if we can get out again.

King: It's a more relaxed paced too, because we all have things we do outside of music. We can work on our (song) parts on our own. If you have more time to think about it and make it your own, it feels better.

Glenn: If you've never taken a music course, you can still sing along to our songs. I like connecting complex parts with vocal melodies and lyrics that are resonant and, dare I say, catchy.

Style: Did you write songs while in The Substitutes?

Glenn: That was just Prabir. There were songs we wrote parts for, but we never wrote a lyric or verse. There's a song we'll be playing that I wrote with the Substitutes in mind, but Prabir writes a million songs. Right now, he's writing twenty in his head. He's got plenty of stuff. He never ran dry, where he'd be like "C'mon guys. What do we got?"

Style: Will you be putting out an album?

Glenn: There are a handful of songs recorded and they need some twiddling and fiddling. We're pretty low budget, so luckily some decently talented friends are chipping in and helping us record. Hopefully we'll put out an EP with that stuff and if anyone likes it, then we'll use the evidence of their appreciation to record an entire album. The material's there. We're notoriously picky about sonics and I'm surprised and happy with everything so far. My mom loves it! I'm a little disappointed, though. Rock and roll is supposed to offend your parents.

Style: What was your most embarrassing moment as a musician?

Ferguson: We put these photos up on Facebook and the first comment was my Mom saying "Oh, who's that cute, handsome drummer?!" Immediately, I had to delete it and send this email saying, "Mom, I love you more than life itself, but I have a reputation to uphold. I cannot be in a rock and roll band if my mom thinks I'm 'cute.'"

Smith: The first time I ever had a guitar solo, ever, was with the Substitutes and I totally blew it in front of everyone. In particular, Marcus Schrok from David Shultz and the Skyline, who will still to this day not let me live that down. When it happened, I just (played some noise), meanwhile Marcus was doubled over in the corner laughing.

King: Charlie's most embarrassing monent is the hot tub (at the National).

Smith: We really do apologize to Maura and Denali. We're sorry that we trashed your dressing room while you were on stage. We really do. We love you Denali.

Style: Did you deserve last year's Style Music Award for "Tightest pants in Richmond?"

Ferguson: You all did, I had no part in that.

Glenn: You know there are some newer punk bands that have some sweet leather pants. They were probably miffed about (us winning). "Man, I thought we had this one in the bag."

King: My coworker's daughter found out about it, so everyone at work found out about that award.

Style: How are you beating the Summer heat?

Ferguson: I work in a dark cold lab all day. My PhD is in nanotechnology, which is a new VCU offering. We study really, really small stuff. I basically use atoms as legos.

Smith: I've developed a really nice alcohol problem.

Glenn: I don't beat it, I join it. I'm all about the heat. Except that our practice space during the summer is the temperature of the core of the sun. The x-rays and gamma rays penetrate the few sheets of tinfoil (on the roof) and bounce around, heating to to somehwere around 2000 kelvin.

Ferguson: If you can play music in that room, you can play music anywhere.

King: I go into hibernation. I sleep alot during the summer.

Style: If you could be on the cover of any magazine, which one would it be?

Glenn: Air and Space Magazine.

King: High Times.

Ferguson: I can get us that. One of my best friends girlfriend is Miss High Times 2010, so we do have a connection with High Times. Let's milk it.

Smith: I'd say National Geographic, only because they don't put pictures on the cover of people like us. They would probably fly us to Nepal and we'd be on top of Mt. Everest.

Style: How did you come up with your synchronized light show?

King: Maybe that could get us on the front of some engineering magazine.

Glenn: We proceeded to get very drunk after a practice and I told the band about a dream I had. (In the dream) the Substitutes had a show and this punk band went on after us and they had lights and their amps glowed when they played. We were completely blown out of the water by this awesome punk band that lights up. So, (the rest of the band) was like, "Well, why shouldn't we have that?"

Smith: Then we theorized a lot.

Glenn: We started with a blog post on the internet about how to synch your Christmas lights to annoying Christmas music and took it from there. We designed our own system, that's powered directly from our instruments. It comes out of the guitars, into the pedal-board, and into the "Trillion-ator," which Robbie constructed. We'd tell you more about the technical details, but of course the patent's pending.

King: It pulls from the DC signal on our instruments. Then, it runs a separate loop from the AC current that turns the lights on and off.

Smith: It works really well, especially with a song like "For the Better." 

King: The parts are very staccato.

Smith: Since we have very deliberate songs, when we break up these big chords into smaller pieces, it works visually as well.

Glenn: Now that we have the light system working, we're like, "Where do we take it from here?" Now we're all kind of obsessed with photons.

Smith: I don't even know what photons are.

Ferguson: They're the smallest bit of light.

The Trillions will perform August 27th at Strange Matter. The show starts at 7pm and cover is $5.

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