How Cole Rabenort Found Happiness in Giving Up
Slouched back on a worn out couch, Cole Rabenort is thinking about a love he’s had since he was 13 years old.
He thinks about his history of making music, pauses in thought, and takes another sip from his beer before carefully choosing his words: “It’s hard as fuck to come to terms with reality.”
To Rabenort, making music used to be all about where his bands were going and what success he had to show for his songwriting. But 14 years later, the 27 year old is just now learning what it all means to make music for himself.
The Fights frontman has gone for it all in the past, joining Elsinore in 2010 when the Champaign band was quickly rising with the release of Yes Yes Yes – an album who’s title track began receiving plays across television programs and ads in the months surrounding Rabenort’s decision to leave the group.
The appeal of touring and consistently playing music was originally what drew Rabenort to join Elsinore, but what looked pretty from the outside quickly lost its shimmer when he began playing with the band. In 2010, Elsinore played around 100 shows and the setlist would remain the same for most of their performances. The appeal became dry and the musician’s passion for playing music was fading.
Rabenort remembers the moment he knew he needed change.
Late in his run with the band, the guitarist was sitting in a dirty house in Iowa City with the members of Dr. Manhattan. The rest of Elsinore was asleep upstairs, as far away from everybody else in the house as they could. Rabenort and Dr. Manhattan were getting to know the people who lived in the house, having conversations, and enjoying themselves.
Rabenort specifically remembers one moment from the night. He was talking with Dr. Manhattan bassist Adam Engers when the bassist seemed to pause while telling Rabenort about something he read recently in a book about Eastern religions:
“Someone living their life with the company of friends who are on the same page and supportive, that person is so much more blessed and fulfilled because they’re sharing their experience with people they love. And they’re doing the same for their friends.” – Adam Engers
“I realized I was having none of that,” Rabenort said. “There was none of it for me. In that moment, I decided I was going to quit. That was a particular moment where I realized I was lying to myself and I was lying to the people I was trying to be friends and bandmates with, because I couldn’t relate to that beautiful thought.”
A few months later, the band played a sold-out show at the Double Door in Chicago. An event that had the other Elsinore members buzzing in the van after the show, Rabenort was left thinking, “How many people at the show really cared?”
“(Being in Elsinore) was one of the best experiences, but at the time I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Rabenort said. “I thought I wanted to be in a band that was taking itself seriously, but I learned as time went on that’s not what I wanted at all.”
Rabenort learned when you want to be in a band for your job, you have to treat it that way – something that erased the personal aspect of music for him.
“I realized I wasn’t any happier and it wasn’t a good fit for me,” he said. So Rabenort moved on.
After Rabenort left Elsinore, he immediately clicked with Nick Stine, and the groundwork for The Fights was beginning to be laid down.
Stine was also recently drawn away from the idea of playing music for a living after watching Wilco’s 2002 documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. In watching the turbulence between Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and the late Jay Bennett, Stine began to realize the things he didn’t like about what his band was doing in the studio. Together, it all left a poor taste in his mouth about the idea of making music full time.
“You convince yourself there’s this one thing that will make you satisfied,” Stine said. “’If I just do this thing, then I’ll be so happy playing music.’ But it’s never the real thing.”
Both musicians decided it was time to accept their happiness was more important than their happiness with playing music. Rabenort and Stine shed what was drawing them away from music over the past few years. For Rabenort, it was being true to songwriting he enjoyed and no longer trying to fit into a style he wasn’t excited about. For Stine, it was about simplicity in his songwriting.
The Fights’ soulfully folk-driven style is what they found at the crossroads of their new musical directions, coming together to form a genuine country sound that has taken a hold of the Champaign-Urbana music scene’s heart over the past few years.
Rabenort, Stine, and drummer Dave Pride were able to take that songwriting style and mold one of the best records to come out of CU in years in 2014’s Off Your Horse. The country record was well-received, and surprisingly so in a town fueled by shoegaze and emo bands over the past two decades.
But The Fights’ 2014 success isn’t leading the band toward unrealistic expectations or another push to elevate past the DIY scene and “making it.” What can be construed as a wasted opportunity is turning into a dream scenario for Rabenort and Stine. Because for them, where The Fights are at is where they’ve always wanted to be. They just didn’t know it.
“I feel like all along, I was just beating around the bush,” Rabenort said. “One of the first things Nick and I talked about when were starting a band were the lessons we’ve learned playing in other groups and how hard it was, and heartbreaking it is to invest yourself in something and fail at it.”
It was that question about the past that led them to finding their happiness with The Fights: Why did they fail? They failed at making it, at making music they were proud of, at getting along with their bandmates, being good friends, but most importantly at being happy.
“It usually goes back to the time where you weren’t honest anymore,” Stine said.
And that’s where The Fights find the most success: honesty.
Listen to Cole Rabenort and Nick Stine on the Ghost Track Podcast: