The car horns blaring around Charlie Waller are loud, so loud they stop our conversation. Waller is walking in downtown San Francisco on a Friday night. I'm in Madison interviewing him by phone.
"I'm standing in the middle of the street," says Waller, perfectly composed. "I guess they want me to move over to the pavement."
It's a suspenseful scene that's only happening in Waller's mind - later, he admits he has no idea why the car horns are blaring. The lead vocalist and songwriter for the Tavistock, England indie-pop band the Rumble Strips is like that. He'll take happenstance, real events and turn them into gripping, personal fantasies.
One day, he imagined how different his ride home from school would be if only his bike were a motorcycle. He wouldn't be moving so slow. He'd be looking good. He'd be chased by hundreds of girls. He wouldn't be sad anymore. He'd be wild and free.
Waller wrapped a melody around that drama as he dreamed it during a 30-minute commute from school to home. Now, "Motorcycle" is one of the Rumble Strips most popular songs.
"I don't usually write songs that fast," says Waller. "I got on my bike and started tracking, and when I arrived home, the song was done."
Musically, the Rumble Strips sound out Waller's fiction in beautifully compatible ways. The racing guitar lines of "Motorcycle" are a pounding heart biking up a dirt hill. The horns signal arrival at an imaginary place. They join the melody just as Waller's fantasies begin to unfold.
The members of this quintet have been friends since childhood. They started the Rumble Strips four years ago, naming the band after those raised and grooved highway strips that make your car vibrate when you run over them. The purpose of real, and musical, rumble strips is to warn you to pay attention and prepare to stop.
The Rumble Strips' debut album was released on a major label, Universal, in 2007. The band is currently in the middle of its first U.S. tour.
Horn parts are a staple of Rumble Strips songs, recalling '80s British ska-pop bands like Madness. But the Rumble Strips aren't technically ska, as Waller is quick to point out. "The horns are sort of ska-esque, but we never use an off-beat," he says. "What we do is rock 'n' roll."