James Noble and Jonathan Cook, partners in the synthesizer duo Romania, sometimes have trouble being taken seriously. It’s not easy being a new-wave musician in the ’90s—especially when you’re not kidding.
“We don’t want to be a rehash novelty,” insists Noble. “We’re dead sincere.”
The D.C.-based duo has presided over the local resurgence of interest in ’80s music, but Romania is less about revivalism than revelation through nostalgia. Writing and playing music in the style of a bygone era, the duo reinterprets its influences just as the neo-boppers do old-school jazz and grunge bands do ’70s rock.
Then there’s the hairspray and eyeliner.
“Part of our plan was to push our image out there and draw people off of that,” explains James Noble. “Whether the music holds up, I don’t know…I guess it does.”
Noble, 23, and Cook, 25, have known each other since high school (when both had Navy parents stationed in Hawaii), but they didn’t play music together until 1991. Their disparate musical taste was partly to blame: Noble was in gothic and punk bands, while Cook did time in a ska outfit. In time, though, the pair found common ground—a shared enthusiasm for the music of the early ’80s. “Around ’87 or ’88 I had my personal renaissance where I started getting back into Japan, and things I liked previously…Duran Duran even…whatever,” explains Noble.
Romania’s debut at the Grog and Tankard was less than auspicious. “Our first show was at a heavy-metal gig that was totally misbooked,” Noble recalls. “We were expecting bottles to be thrown onstage.”
As well they might. At the time of Romania’s inception, synth bands were on the outs. In addition to being a strategy for standing out, the duo’s decision to make music only on synthesizers was a practical one. “We felt since we were only two people we should make things more believable,” Noble explains. “We were synth all the way, from top to bottom, except for vocals.” Romania’s first release, a three-song CD on their own Tektone label, is the sort of synth music that reached its zenith with the Human League, O.M.D., and Visage.
“But then it sort of dried up for us,” admits Noble of the band’s synth-only stage. “Now we have recordings where we have seven guitars going at once, two bass lines, and what might pass for real drums on occasion, but there’s still only two people.”
By the time the duo’s second self-release, Low China, came out, Romania had begun advertising its shows. It was an expensive move for a fledgling band, but one that paid off: Their fan base grew quickly, perhaps because the handsomely dressed, pasty-faced twosome reminded twentysomething audiences of the pop icons of their teen-age years.
Around this time, Noble and Cook became entrepreneurs. By staging an ’80s-music dance night at Club Heaven before its live shows, Romania created a captive audience for their new-wave-inspired tunes. Eighties night started sporadically, eventually happening monthly, biweekly and, ultimately, weekly. “Then it started to get wildly big, so we dropped the band out of it,” says Noble. “Plus, we also started to get worried that we’d be associated too heavily with the ’80s—as if we aren’t already.”
The duo’s latest CD, the guitar-driven Remodel, was recently released on Arlington’s Teenbeat Records. Though the label has an affinity for kitsch that seems at odds with Romania’s bid for high seriousness, Noble speaks highly of Teenbeat kingpin Mark Robinson, whom he compares to Malcolm McLaren and other eccentric rock promoters. “He’s very serious about all the music he puts out,” Noble notes. “It all has its place.” Still, the duo is not above fantasizing about major-label life. “Majors give you a bigger recording budget and a video budget—that’s one thing we lack with Mark, a video budget,” opines Noble. His craving for video exposure is understandable—no self-respecting devotee of Duran Duran is likely to overlook the importance of MTV.
Though Noble and Cook claim they don’t want to be too closely linked to the ’80s, they can’t resist a few sly references to their idols on Remodel. The disc’s graphics replicate the Mondrian-inspired black-and-gray bars from the cover of DuNotorious album.
The duo’s reverence, however, is strictly unilateral. Duran Duran’s John Taylor and Simon Le Bon slagged Romania’s “Planes” 7-inch in a recent issue of Alternative Press. “We can claim Duran Duran called us whitebread,” chuckles Noble. “That’s a feat.”
Cook and Noble DJ Thursdays at Club Heaven’s ’80s night and Saturdays at Poseurs. The duo performs July 23 at the Black Cat.