The past few months have been a season of change for The Strongest Proof, culminating in the release of the band’s brief but potent second Post Punk album, Robot Eats a Steak. Guitarist Tony Roth sheared his mop of curls to a boot camp cut, frontman Matt Tomlinson moved from guitar to bass and bassist Rob Stanley moved to Oklahoma.
“I’m the same,” quips drummer Tony Bryant over breakfast at Newport’s Pepper Pod.
With Stanley’s departure (for “personal reasons,” says Roth), The Strongest Proof has downsized to a three-piece, necessitating the rearrangement of the material that had been created and executed by a four-piece. The trio briefly flirted with the idea of replacing Stanley but quickly realized that their greatest strength has been their bond of friendship, which predates The Strongest Proof’s formation five years ago.
The Proof’s members had played in a number of local bands (including Lucy, Feasts of Merit, Humans Bow Down and Outside the Pale, among others) but made the decision to band together at a 2003 Grandaddy show at the Southgate House.
“We were like, ‘We’ve been hanging out for a long time, we all play music, we’ve been trying to get something going, we all have equal tastes and like minds, let’s just commit to a day and do it,’ ” Roth says. “Nothing happens if you just talk about things. We picked a day and went from there.”
Starting with Friday night dinner jams, the fledgling band quickly progressed from aimless basement jams to finished songs. The Strongest Proof was launched.
“While stuff was cooking upstairs, we’d go down to the basement and jam around,” says Tomlinson, who also plays bass with Caterpillar Tracks. “Eventually, the pieces turned into songs, the songs turned into shows, the shows turned into albums.”
The same ties that brought The Strongest Proof together as a band led them to their label affiliation with Jerry Dirr’s Phratry Records. In fact, Roth’s wife Robyn eventually became Dirr’s bassist/vocalist in Knife the Symphony.
“We’ve known Jerry for a long time,” Bryant says.
“Back in ’94 when I was in a band, he played in a band called 14, so he’s been a friend of ours for a long time. When he asked us to be on the label, we didn’t even have to think about it.”
“We’re a community, we all work together and we’ve got one person who’s willing to take the reins and go through the effort of organizing it and putting it all together,” Roth says. “It’s like our collective brand. Hopefully it represents people that are true to each other and believe in what they’re doing. We’re all in this together.”
The Strongest Proof’s debut for Phratry, 2006’s One Percent, was essentially a sonic snapshot of the band in its early phase which was released after The Proof had been around for three years. The band takes full responsibility for the lag time.
“We kind of drug our feet on it,” Roth says. “We had the majority of it recorded, and we had so many things going on it just took a back seat.”
“All the tracks were laid down, it just took forever to get the vocals,” Tomlinson says. “I had bad run of sinus infections for about a year straight. Whenever I was ready, the guys who were recording it for us weren’t, and whenever they were available, I would be sick that weekend. It was hard to get the timing right.”
The biggest problem with the gap was the fact that the songs The Proof had documented early in their existence had evolved greatly by the time One Percent was released. To avoid that scenario with their sophomore album, the band was determined to work out their new material on stage first and then take it to the studio.
“We took the songs on the road and played them a lot at home and really tweaked them out to where they were really comfortable and fun to play,” Tomlinson says. “When we laid them down, it went down really smooth. The longest time spent was mastering and mixing it all.”
Other than Stanley’s obvious absence, Robot Eats a Steak is an accurate rendering of The Strongest Proof in the present tense. A powerful set of seven songs that bristles with the viscerally channeled chaos of Fugazi and the menacing passion of The Afghan Whigs, Robot Eats a Steak (recorded at Candyland with Mike Montgomery) further establishes The Proof as a bold Post Punk presence in the scene.
Roth, Tomlinson and Bryant have seamlessly transitioned The Strongest Proof to a three-piece, finding economical new methods of replicating their quartet arrangements. The biggest factor in their success in this regard is their aforementioned friendship.
“For us, one of the most important things about playing together is focusing on our personal friendships,” Roth says. “So we can go on tour, but we’ve found a way to spend time with each other and reconnect. It really does transfer into the music.”
By way of example, Tomlinson points to a recent weekend retreat that the trio enjoyed when they opened their work and personal schedules for some out of town dates that didn’t materialize.
“Instead of going out of town and playing three or four nights in a row, we went hiking and camping,” he says. “It was still spending time with each other and getting a good drive in. Instead of band tour, it was band camp.”
“It was still band tour, it was just spelled t-o-r-e,” Bryant says.
“Yes,” concurs Tomlinson, “the band was tore.”
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