Cobra Starship Takes Off
Written by Chrissy Mauck
While in Orlando, Fla., to play a show at The Social this summer, Cobra Starship bassist Alex Suarez took a stroll around his former stomping grounds, pausing in astonishment outside of the Independent Bar when he heard their popular radio hit, “Good Girls Go Bad,” blaring from the back patio.
|Left to right: Alex Suarez, Nate Novarro, Gabe Saporta,
Ryland Blackinton and Victoria Asher
Photo Credit: Matthew Salacuse
“That was particularly special because that was a club I used to go dancing at all the time when I lived there,” shares Suarez. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh they are playing that sh*t right now, that’s crazy.’ I couldn’t believe it. It’s nuts.”
That ‘sh*t,’ as he affectionately refers to is the first single off their third studio album Hot Mess, which debuted in May on the KIIS-FM airwaves during Ryan Seacrest’s show, quickly reached #7 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
“We were probably the last ones to hear it on the radio because we live in New York and we don’t drive that much, and so we never really get to listen to the radio,” Suarez says. “We kept getting all of these texts and tweets from people about it, and then finally we were driving to a practice space one day and were all in the car together stuck in traffic and we caught it on Q100 in New York and it was awesome. It’s pretty
Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester added her star power to the Kara DioGuardi and Kevin Rudolf co-written song, lending her vocals on the track and appearing in the music video.
“I’ve got to be honest with you, I’ve never even see Gossip Girl so when we went to do the video shoot, I had no idea who she was or what she looked like,” tells Suarez. “Gabe (Saporta) was like a massive Gossip Girl fan and we were in the studio working on the first batch of songs when they told us they needed to interrupt our session because they had this girl from Gossip Girl coming in to record some stuff. Gabe was like, ‘Hey you can let her come in only if she sings on our album.’ So sure enough, it happened.”
Shot in late June, the music video takes place in an underground speakeasy with access granted only by ordering a specific sandwich at the upstairs deli. Spoiler alert! Meester turns out be an undercover agent operating a sting. The music video earned two MTV Video Music Award nominations, Best Pop Video and Best Direction, pitting Cobra Starship in both categories with the likes of Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Britney Spears.
“That is pretty, pretty surreal,” says Suarez. “We’ve never even really been invited to the VMAs before, we usually snuck in. If you hang outside long enough talking to people, they’ll usually let you in.”
True story, although Cobra Starship ended up performing “Snakes on a Plane” (which aired solely online) during Fall Out Boys’ Fantasy Suite Party at the 2007 VMAs in Las Vegas, they never actually received an official invite to the show.
“We didn’t go last year, and then we get nominated for two VMAs this year, which is insane,” says Suarez. “When we found out, we were like holy sh*t, that’s insane. We go online and see who we were up against—three artists who also happen to be up for Best Female. It was crazy to see our name on the roster with them.”
Crazy as it may feel now, the band sought stardom as they put together this latest album, which debuted at #4 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
After taking only two months while on tour to write ¡Viva La Cobra!—a well received sophomore album produced by Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump—Cobra Starship planned to keep the momentum going by writing the songs for their third full-length album also while touring. Then during a break in between tours, they hit the studio in New York and recorded about ten tracks.
“We got a mix of the songs and we were like, ‘Yeah, they came out exactly how we thought they’d come out,’ but we felt like we could do so much better than that,” Suarez recalls. “It was kind of rushed; some of the songs made it on the record for sure, but the whole thing collectively, we were like, ‘If we do this, it’s just going to be a run of the mill album, how can we take this to the next level?’”
Their solution? Remove any distractions by isolating themselves in a rented cabin smack in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains for a two-week marathon songwriting session in January 2009.
“We went up there, and were like, ‘Let’s work,’” says Suarez. “We all had space so you didn’t have to always sit there with everybody together to work on stuff, but it was good to have everyone in the same house to get feedback when you needed it, and to really explore all of our ideas. We felt like with the first batch of songs that we didn’t get to explore enough ideas and that we had just got stuck with the first take on everything. So we took the songs we had recorded back in New York and explored all the different routes we could go and how we could make each one of them its best, and then also came up with new material.”
Two of Suarez’s personal favorites came to being up in the mountains — the heavily ‘80s influenced “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Nice Guys Finish Last,” a tune that Suarez describes as a “swing vibe meets womanizer.”
And so far as Fender News can tell during a 90-minute long phone conversation, Suarez every bit fits the “nice guy” bill.
Sure, with his trendy side-swept bangs hairstyle, flannel shirts and skinny Tripp dark jeans from New York City’s Trash and Vaudeville, he’s the picture-perfect looking hip rock star. But he’s got a long list of interests/strange fetishes that keep him just as down to earth as the rest of us.
From the confines of his coffin-like tour bus bunk, the 6-foot-2 Suarez confesses his extreme fear of being alone in the pitch-dark, and how porcelain and/or talking dolls completely terrify him. Once while staying at keytarist Victoria Asher’s parents’ house in Malibu, Calif., Suarez even departed his posh ocean-view guest room in deference to a doll.
“I took this doll out of the room and put it in another room, but then my imagination definitely took control,” recalls Suarez. “I was thinking to myself, ‘That thing is possessed and is going to get pissed off that I moved it and come kill me in my sleep.’ I mean, could you imagine if you take it out and then you wake up and it’s back in the room again? I would probably just die. So I brought it back in and I left the room instead.”
And the fact that for many weeks Urkel of Family Matters was plastered as his Twitter wallpaper says a lot too.
“Who doesn’t like Urkel?” he asks. “Right, come on, you used to love that show!”
|“You will probably think I’m just a
huge nerd,” says Suarez when asked
about his Fender Custom Purple
Sparkle Jaguar® Bass. “Dinosaur Jr.’s
J Mascis has this signature Jazzmaster®
basically got a bass to replicate it,
which is actually one of a kind. It’s
pretty geeky. Ryland had the J Mascis
guitar and I was like, ‘Dude, that’s
sweet.’ I fell in love with it an decided I
should get a bass just like it. So I have a
one-of-a-kind J Mascis bass and Ryland
and I have matching gear, which I think
is always sweet.”
Oh, and he’s still trying to live down a throwing up incident that occurred during a summer screening of District 9.
“I get motion sickness so easily,” he explains. “I can’t watch home videos. It will make me puke if I do because of the way the camera goes around. I couldn’t make it past the first 20 minutes of District 9 because they follow this character around like it’s a documentary and it has that handheld effect. I was trying to hold it out so not everybody would make fun of me, but I got so sick I literally had to go to the bathroom and puke. It wasn’t the goriness of the movie; I can handle all of that stuff.”
Although he started playing the guitar as a 13-year old (hair metal bands like Iron Maiden, Metallica, Slaughter, Poison and Kiss were the rage at the time) and began touring at age 18 with screamo band Kite Flying Society, as a high school senior, Suarez banked on a future as a chef.
His interest in the kitchen took root his freshman year when he had the choice between registering for either Food Production or Sewing. He chose the former and became instantly hooked, sticking with it all four years of high school.
“I got an award when I graduated high school because I was the first in my high school’s history—it was a young school—I was probably like the 11th graduating class to ever complete all four levels of Food Production,” shares Suarez. “I’m probably still the only dummy who completed all four levels of Food Production.”
Proving he’s not such a dummy after all, Suarez capitalized on the school’s work program, which allowed students to work in their chosen field in exchange for class credit. Since Suarez had already decided to attend the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach, Fla., he found qualifying work his senior year at The Roll-up Grille.
“I didn’t particularly like going to high school that much, and so as soon as I found out about the program I got hired doing prep work,” he says. “I took four classes in the morning, left at 11:20 a.m. and worked from noon to 3 p.m. every day while my friends were still in school. I had weekends and nights off, I got paid for it and I got all of my credits. It was great.”
As planned, he attended culinary school, also working a side job at a yacht club.
“I did a lot of butchering at the yacht club, and I thought it was really fun and I was excited about learning as much as possible,” says Suarez. “It wasn’t quite as intense as I was hoping it was going to be. I thought I was going to get big, huge things to quarter so that I could learn about fabricating and taking all of the cuts out. Unfortunately, I ended up just making a lot of ground beef, which is disgusting.”
So yeah, he can handle the gore.
Post-culinary school, he continued his ground beef making at a Whole Foods before starting a catering business with a few friends in Orlando, Fla. Thyme to Dine specialized in wine and food pairings.
“It was doing insanely well,” says Suarez. “Unfortunately it was very short-lived, only 10 or 11 months before things went south with one of our partners.”
Suarez eventually left Orlando for Boca Raton, Fla., after agreeing to open a restaurant backed by his father and some of his business associates. With things taking a little longer to materialize than expected, Suarez experienced a jump the shark moment.
“I didn’t like South Florida that much and I was like, ‘You know what, if I start a restaurant down here, it’s pretty much the end of my life,’ and I was only like 23 or 24 at the time,” he says. “I started thinking that if I opened this restaurant, I was going to have to work 90-hour weeks until I finally retired and I didn’t want to do it there. Seriously, it got a little dark for a second.”
So he backed out of the restaurant, decided to move to Brooklyn, N.Y., and took a job as a cashier at Whole Foods to save up enough money for his relocation. Two months later he transferred to a Whole Foods in Manhattan, delivering groceries in the city for another nine months.
Cue Cobra Starship guitarist Ryland Blackinton, a former skateboarding pal and Mister Deli Jewish Delicatessen co-worker from back in Florida. Blackinton reached out to Suarez over MySpace in August 2005, discovering that they lived just a few minutes apart from each other in Brooklyn. After catching up over lunch and learning that each was writing some music, the duo formed This is Ivy League, an indie pop/folk band that often draws comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel.
“It’s really hard to describe our sound,” says Suarez. “Our influences are definitely bands like Camera Obscura, Peter Bjorn and John, Belle & Sebastian. We try to go for this indie pop thing and then we have some bossa-nova songs. We also try to hit the Kings of Convenience angle because we are really into that band as well. We got into this jazz twist by trying to make it pop still in the end.”
Just as This is Ivy League started to take flight, Suarez and Blackinton were presented with a contrasting opportunity from Suarez’s upstairs neighbor.
“He was the drummer for Midtown, which was Gabe’s former band, and he told us about Gabe’s side project and that he was looking for some guys to join the band. We ended up jamming with Gabe and playing some of his new songs, and then joined in by 2006 and started touring right off the bat.”
Although Cobra Starship has toured virtually non-stop over the last three years—covering the United States, Japan, Australia and the U.K.—Suarez and Blackinton still found the time to release their first full-length This Is Ivy League self-titled album in April 2008.
Given Cobra Starship’s massive summer success, their six-week tour hiatus in early fall was jam-packed with radio interviews, photo and video shoots, leaving little time for Suarez to even think about This Is Ivy League.
Not that he’s complaining.
“I thought I was going to be working in restaurants the rest of my life,” Suarez says. “I’ve always played music, but I never really thought about it being my primary career choice. It’s pretty insane that I’m in this touring band and that things have taken off like they have.”
Cobra Starship’s catapult to rising stardom with Hot Mess is ironic considering the concept behind its title and cover artwork.
“Let me give you an example of what a hot mess is,” says Suarez. “It’s like six in the morning and you are walking outside and leaving a club and there’s an attractive girl looking really trashed puking on the sidewalk. It’s like, ‘Alright, there it is right there. She partied too hard; she’s paying for it in the street. She’s got a run in her gold lamé American Apparel Leggings and there it is, a hot mess.’”
While Cobra Starship is reveling in their rising success, Suarez humbly remembers that we’ve all been there.
“We’ve all had our best and our worst,” he says. “I remember being in Florida at this club where my friend was the promoter and I ended up getting wasted. It was so hot that I went outside for some fresh air, puked and then passed out on the curb for like 40 minutes. I was literally on the sidewalk, and I’m sure people walked over me wondering, ‘What the f**k happened to this guy?’ I’m sure everybody was like, ‘I wish I was that guy.’”
Well, maybe not then, but they sure are probably now.
Catch Cobra Starship on tour this fall with Boys Like Girls.
Sometimes you just can’t fit all the interesting tidbits that come up in an interview into a story. So here’s some more juicy tidbits from Suarez.