Cobra Starship's Ryland Blackinton talks Calvin Harris, Parliament Funkadelic and the best pop songs of 2011
We learned something new about Ryland Blackinton, the guitarist for Cobra Starship, when we talked to him recently about the group's upcoming slot at the 93.3-FLZ Jingle Ball on Sunday at the St. Pete Times Forum: The dude jammed with Parliament Funkadelic during his college days at Florida State.
"I was totally, totally intimidated,” Blackinton said by phone from New York City. “I was a junior in college, doing all these house parties with Jerome Rodgers, Michael Hampton, Steve Boyd, George’s sons, all his backup singers, all his dancers. We’d do these crazy house parties like in PCU. It was awesome."
A bit of that funk flavor lives on in Cobra Starship. Just listen to their current smash hit You Make Me Feel... — right after the first chorus, you get a taste of Blackinton’s disco-boogie licks. “A little Nile Rodgers guitar,” he said. “I love clean guitar tones now. I’m not so big into distortion. Hopefully we’ll have more like that.”
Cobra Starship has battled the perception of being a joke band for years, ever since their first single, the surprise soundtrack hit Snakes On A Plane (Bring It), and later Good Girls Go Bad, a duet with Gossip Girl actress Leighton Meester. But You Make Me Feel... is their biggest hit to date, proving the New Jersey quintet might have Maroon 5-like staying power.
On Sunday, Cobra Starship will perform at the 93.3-FLZ Jingle Ball at the St. Pete Times Forum, alongside hitmakers like Pitbull, David Guetta and The Script. Recently we talked to Blackinton about the current state of pop music, and his band’s role in it -- as well as the controversy about similarities between You Make Me Feel... and Calvin Harris' I'm Not Alone.
I saw you performing at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. What was that like?
Oh, man, it was totally cool. This year has been filled with a lot of these pop TV performances. The Macy’s parade in particular, that’s just something from my childhood. That was a staple in the holiday season. To be a part of that whole thing was really cool. So cool, it was cold. We froze our asses off.
It must be a very weird place to perform. How do you prepare for it?
The funny thing is, it’s all to a track, so you literally can’t perform. Somebody told me that years ago, Tony Bennett totally goofed up the lyrics or something, so now they make everybody do it canned. So there was no preparation on that side of things. I even wore my winter gloves while I played the guitar, because I thought everybody was sure we weren’t actually playing. But a lot of people were confused by that.
To perform at an event like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, you have to be willing to subjugate your rock-star, cool-kid ego a little bit. Is that a trade-off you were prepared for when you joined Cobra Starship?
I signed that away a long time ago. I don’t think any of us are that caught up in worrying about being cool kids when it comes to stuff like that. We get so much enjoyment out of the range of different things we get to do that we don’t get too caught up in that. My friends still know I’m cool. And my mom. That’s all that matters.
Your mom got a shout-out on Live with Kelly the other day.
Yeah, she’s still reeling from it. She’s getting text messages from people coming out of the woodwork. I told her to leave ’em in the woodwork.
Not too long ago, I spoke to a class of sixth graders, and in trying to explain what I do for a living, I told them I was going to interview Cobra Starship. Some of them knew who you were, but then when I told them you were the guys who sing You Make Me Feel..., all of them knew that song almost immediately. Do you find your fan base is getting younger?
I think they’re getting younger and older. I just think it’s widening in general. Because everybody hears pop radio. I mean, even people that will tell you they don’t like pop radio, like my supercool friends who live in Bushwick in a basement. If you hum a few bars of it, they know it, because nowadays, that stuff is inescapable. And also, I find that there’s this contingent of older people that run to our music. That’s awesome.
You’ve also toured with Justin Bieber. When you have fans in middle school, does that change your approach to your job?
I noticed that I got a lot of Justin’s followers (on Twitter) on this last tour, and at first, I was a little more hesitant with some of the stuff I was tweeting. But I like to think that’s why they’re following us, or that’s what they like about us. Obviously, you have to consider that young kids, there’s certain stuff they can’t relate to, but at the same time, we can’t hide the fact that we can sometimes be a little bit crude. Hopefully that will just endear those people to us.
When you go into the studio to record a song like You Make Me Feel..., which must have sounded like an almost guaranteed hit right from the start, are you already thinking about who’s going to embrace it, how it’s going to be marketed, where you’re going to perform it, all that stuff?
That doesn’t come too much into play when you’re actually creating the song. But yeah, we take those things into consideration later. A trick we use in the studio is, we work on a song, we stand back from it as a band, and look at it and say, “Can we picture ourselves on stage playing this?” Because really, the proof is in the pudding. If you feel uncomfortable picturing yourself in front of X number of people every night for two months, is that gonna bum you out? That’s usually a pretty good way to make a decision. If you can picture yourself doing it, then it’s a go.
What’s Cobra Starship’s approach to collaborating with folks? Because you’ve mixed it up with some really interesting artists —Leighton Meester, Mac Miller, B.o.B., Ted Leo.
For some of them, it’s just been people that we’ve been fans of. Like the Mac Miller track, with Stargate — being able to collaborate with people like that was afforded to us by having Good Girls two years ago. Early on we did collaborations because we liked them. I think there’s something cool when you take two separate artists and put them together — you can usually create something that neither of them has done individually, and I think fundamentally that’s how a new idea is created.
Being in a legitimately big crossover band, is there anything that you miss about being in an indie band or a rock band?
Tough to say. Not totally. I like the trajectory that the band has taken these last few years. We never set out to change the world, musically. We were never like, “Oh, we want to make this really small, under-the-radar private music that only people in our neighborhood like.” While we do have interests like that, that’s not what this band is about. We wanted to tour as much as we could, collaborate with as many people as we could, make as much music as we could. We wanted everyone to hear it.
You’re coming to town for the 93.3-FLZ Jingle Ball, which is one of these big year-end radio concerts. Since this is a year-end, looking-back kind of thing, what were your favorite songs of 2011?
Everything that Calvin Harris did this year. I didn’t love Bounce, the Kelis one, but Flashback, Feel So Close and most recently the Rihanna track We Found Love. I think his production is awesome. I really loved that Estelle with Rick Ross (Break My Heart). It’s kind of like a disco hip-hop track; that production is incredible. I really loved this song called Fantasy by a French artist called Breakbot. I thought the new Justice record, even though a lot of people were confused by the direction of it, those are some great, great songs on that album. Similarly, this Sebastian record, Total, blew my mind, as far as production is concerned.
In the very beginning I guess we were. But no. I don’t say no comment, but I don’t really have anything clever to say about it, either. I think the songs occupy some of the same production stuff, but you know, the intention was never to be like that song. That’ll hold up in court, right? “I can neither confirm nor de-confirm these comments,” is my official answer.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*