Adam Traub was zoning out in high school when he stumbled upon a first-person account of a fiery blaze that tore through Rome in 64 AD. It left much of the great empire in ashes and was rumored to have been set by Emperor Nero himself.
“It was right around the time that Bush was first sending troops into Iraq,” recalls Traub, who now fronts Oceanside's The Burning of Rome. “I saw a lot of parallels. I just held onto the name from there.”
In those days, at the peak of the blink-182 era, Traub played in a pop-punk band called Nobody's Hero. Arista Records asked the teens to record a demo. It sounds like a dream come true, but Traub, now 23, felt anxious.
“I hated that band. We were playing songs that I wrote when I was 13 or 14 years old, all about girls. Teenyboppers would come to our shows. I wanted to be like these guys”—pointing to his Black Flag T-shirt—“so I quit, right when we were starting to get big.”
Traub launched The Burning of Rome as a recording project, an opportunity to indulge his love of old-school punk and metal, while also exploring a more experimental, synth-heavy sound (think Man Man and The Arcade Fire coated in a weird Goth sheen). He and a few friends started interpreting the songs live, and the project gained momentum. After a few lineup changes, Traub found his perfect motley crew—five core members and the occasional hanger-on. Earlier this year, The Burning of Rome released Death-Pop, which was nominated for Best Alternative Album at the 2008 San Diego Music Awards.
On a recent weeknight, drummer Lee Williams waited for his bandmates at Speakeasy Studios, a practice / recording joint he owns with his brother. Tucked into a former storage area of an Oceanside truck service shop, the space stays hidden behind a locked door that reads “Employee Lounge,” but, inside, it's a musician's wet dream—from the curved bar to the spacious back rooms crammed with gear, vintage beer signs, nudie oil paintings, skulls and religious paraphernalia lining the walls.
Traub arrives before long, his arms full with nun costumes and a flag that reads, “Don't Give Up the Ship.”
“We're playing on Pearl Harbor Day,” Traub explains. The outfits, on the other hand, are just for the hell of it.
Traub is precociously smart and witty, the kind of guy who's got creativity practically seeping from his pores (he writes the lyrics and music and also creates all the band's artwork). Spending most of his time in his home studio, Traub doesn't have a day job, which gives him unlimited tinkering time. So how does he get by? “Mom,” he admits in a drawn-out, only slightly embarrassed falsetto.
“She's our No. 1 fan,” adds Williams.
The Burning of Rome has the makings of something bigger, but, Traub says, “it's tough right now. The market is so oversaturated with bands that a label won't even look at you until you've made a name for yourself. They need to see you with dollar signs in their eyes.”
For now, they rely on regular gigging, grassroots marketing (“We go to random spots and pick people who look like they'd like us and give them a CD,” says Williams) and just plain having fun. When guitarist Joe Aguilar shows up, the three talk about their latest exploits, including October's Exotic Erotic Ball in San Francisco, where otherwise normal people go to get super-freaky.
For the San Francisco gig, the entire band dressed as Romans, replete with soldier helmets. They were paid a hefty sum and a special bonus: huge stacks of porn, which they later threw from their hotel window as a former Rock of Love (the Bret Michaels dating show on VH1) contestant looked on.
It all sounds pretty crazy, perhaps like Rome before the fall, but the bandmates laugh at this suggestion. “There will be more antics to come,” promises Traub. “We're in the gluttony stage right now. Next comes the orgies.”
The Burning of Rome play with War Stories, Long Live Logos and Two Guns on Sunday, Dec. 7, at The Casbah. www.myspace.com/theburningofrome