Young the Giant Are OC's Next Great Band
With each step down the gravelly path of a secluded Malibu Canyon road, Young the Giant look more like a wayward, ragtag tribe than the Next Great Orange County Band. They walk in lockstep down a one-lane sliver of pavement in the summer heat, beset on all sides by thickets of shrubs and lush palm trees guarding a rustic, millionaire's enclave of ranch-style mansions and vine-covered Tony Montana estates. Tom Petty lives just down the road, they're told. The unified rhythm of pebbles crunching under five pairs of shoes—ranging from electric-blue cross-trainers to vintage rancher boots—defies the sidelong glances from sunburnt yard men and WASP-y Malibu-ites drifting by in luxury cars.
Truthfully, though, they're doing quite well for a scruffy, tight-knit band of early twentysomethings. Standing shoulder to shoulder, sweating in fitted jeans and lazy-day clothes, the conversation about finding a house of their own is going a lot differently from how it probably would have a year ago.
"It's gotta be somewhere where we can have a studio, a place to jam, and we all gotta have a room," says drummer Francois Comtois, who says he hasn't had a solid space of his own in almost two years. Initially, a spacious house in Encino is on the table. At $10,000 per month, their collective budget is a little high for the average college-aged kid. But bassist Payam Doostzadeh isn't really jazzed on the area. After all, it's Encino.
"We need to try to figure this out before we leave for tour," says guitarist Eric Cannata, 22.
"No, we have to figure it out," Doostzadeh says urgently through his thick, jet-black beard. For all of them, the prospect of moving back in with their parents in their native Irvine is a very real possibility. Not that they have anything against their hometown—they still visit every chance they get—but who really wants to do that after stunning the MTV Video Music Awards with a bravura-laden performance, playing major festivals and selling out theaters multiple times per week all over the country?
On their way down to a beachside photo shoot, crackly banter flows back and forth amid a swirl of judicious decisions about houses and world traveling. The dream for most OC-bred bands on tour is to get their name out, but it's one grabbed by only a precious few. Yet Young the Giant have a secret weapon guiding them toward the rarified heights of No Doubt, Thrice, Social Distortion and the other giants of OC rock—the unlikely trump card of naiveté.
Years after hatching as a garage band in the doldrums of the OC music scene, their goal of charting their own sonic path regardless of other bands around them remains a constant. And while it sounds like a trope from a thousand band interviews, Young the Giant's members say there's a direct correlation between their platinum-level success and the times they made decisions based on the audacious ignorance of youth. All of the early risks they took—leaving prestigious colleges to pursue music full-time, abandoning their previous band name at the height of their local popularity, releasing their debut indie-rock album on a well-known heavy-metal label—could've derailed most groups. But learning to ignore scoffs from fans or head-scratching scenesters allowed the band to succeed in spite of themselves.
"I have recordings of old phone conversations we had with our managers," vocalist Sameer Gadhia says, his black hair tucked under a tilted Lakers cap. "Stuff like 'You guys are gonna have to just get used to slaving it on the road, and we might not get anything for a long time—you guys might be playing to no one for years, and that's probably the way it's gonna be.' And its funny: Things have worked out the way we naively thought they would. And that's been the identity and the idea of the band for a long time."
The boys outgrew every stage OC could throw at them, and they play their biggest headlining gig to date on Sunday: a sold-out show at the Pacific Amphitheatre at the OC Fair that'll bring in nearly 13,000 fans. But as most huge bands will tell you, this kind of thing rarely happens overnight. As they prepare for their homecoming gig and a sophomore follow-up to their chart-topping, eponymous debut, Young the Giant face the age-old test of any up-and-coming band—how long can they make this ride last?
And at what point do they finally, truly leave us?
* * *
Inside the cramped garage of guitarist Jacob Tilley's childhood home, he and fellow Irvine High band geek Gadhia started the Jakes in 2004, a diversion as haphazard as their name choice. It was just an acronym of all the members' first names put together (Jacob Tilley, Adam Farmer, Kevin Massoudi, Ehson Hashemian and Sameer Gadhia). Tilley and the band carved out a small jam space amidst a jungle of surfboards, bikes and random crap to make room for their tiny amps.
"In high school, it really was just something to get away from all the extracurricular activities and homework," says Tilley in his mottled English accent (after he moved from the U.K. in elementary school, Irvine kids made him the token Brit since as long as he can remember). The sound, a barrage of fast, trebly guitar and melodic, angst-ridden dance rock—à la Arctic Monkeys and early Jimmy Eat World—bounced off the garage door as the band practiced with different rosters.
Early tracks, featuring Gadhia's emotive, trembling vocals, are a relatively similar (though obviously cruder) predecessor to their sound these days. It clashed with the Irvine music scene post-Thrice and Rage Against the Machine—two bands with locally bred members who ushered in widespread appreciation for aggressive music after their national breakouts. Gadhia and some of the other band members admit to being swept up in short-lived stints in such bands, though the Jakes were never of that ilk.
"We'd go to Heritage Park Community Center and watch all these bands play. A lot of our identity, at least for Jake and me, was tied to that," Gadhia says. "We spent a long time trying to figure out what our voice was and trying to do something a little different than what was happening at that time."
Though they may have stuck out by going their own way in their mid-teens, one thing the then-Jakes picked up early was gigging in the bar scene instead of sticking to backyard parties and city-approved community centers. Years before they'd be legal, the 16- and 17-year-olds were forced to wait in the cold to play venues such as Detroit Bar and LA's the Roxy and the Viper Room, allowed in only long enough to do a set before being tossed the hell out for being underage. But such indignities paid off—Ben Adelson, a freshman music business major at USC, took an interest in the band after seeing them at an LA gig. At one point, the teenagers found themselves huddled in Adelson's dorm room, where he'd talked to them about getting serious and being their manager—but what Cannata remembers most from that meeting was the opportunity for the band to collectively down a 12-pack of beer and half a bottle of cheap booze without getting carded or worrying about their parents.
"At least I made it to the bathroom when I threw up," Cannata, the youngest of the group, says, laughing. "Everyone else threw up all over his place."
Despite the damage done to his dorm room, Adelson eventually got the band to agree. Under Adelson and longtime co-manager Drew Simmons, the Jakes played relentlessly in LA and Orange County, raising their profile through local battles of the bands, a stint onstage at Disneyland's Tomorrowland Terrace and an award for Best High School Band at the 2007 OC Music Awards. In a growing circle of local acts that included the Union Line, Delta Spirit, Yellow Red Sparks and Local Natives (then Cavil at Rest), the Jakes were the wide-eyed youngsters everyone liked but never thought would amount to much. It didn't help that the Jakes had a rotating cast of members: drummer Jason Burger left for a career as a freelance musician, replaced by Comtois on drums. Cannata joined as a guitarist the same day, and shortly after that, longtime friend Doostzadeh joined as bassist. The new members bonded over the fact they used to make fun of the Jakes in their early days and intended for this to be a temporary thing.
Gadhia left for college at Stanford, and Tilley went to UC Santa Cruz, but the two would rejoin the band every couple of weeks to play shows and rehearse. This lineup wrote a number of new songs in 2008, including the melodic "Cough Syrup"—a song the band ultimately released on their debut album as Young the Giant.
Suddenly, "Cough Syrup" became a hit after the release of their EP Shake My Hand and landed them airplay on KROQ-FM 106.7's Locals Only roster. They were now faced with the possibility of being a successful, national touring band. By now, Cannata, Comtois and Doostzadeh were beginning college as well; it was clear there would have to be a decision between a music career or the life of studied suburbia.
For Sameer's father, Tushar, the idea of his son leaving a place such as Stanford was not acceptable. He remembers sitting down with the boys and their parents for a four-hour meeting to discuss what route the band would be taking. The parents relented by the end, reaching a compromise that each son would take an academic deferment.
"As parents, we were all torn," Tushar says. "I grew up in India, and where I come from, things are looked at differently when it comes to education. I also realize that when someone has a passion and a dream, [you don't] stop them. [Sameer] singlehandedly convinced me and the rest of the parents in that room so that by the end of the meeting, I switched my opinion and said he had my blessings."
* * *
The tide crashes gently behind the band as they pose on a stretch of Malibu shore on a crystal-clear afternoon. As waves break and saltwater laps at their feet, a photographer lies on the sand, snapping frames. Occasionally, their eyes wander as bikini girls with golden legs and people in the water stare at the photo shoot. A pair of college-aged chicks walking back to their beach house do a double take, looking over their shoulders.
"My sister saw them at her college a few years ago," one whispers to the other. "Holy crap. Yep, that's them."
It's not odd for the band to get recognized anymore. In the past couple of years, a path of stepping stones—winning a band contest to open for Kings of Leon in Chicago, stints at South By Southwest, performing at the KROQ Weenie Roast—have raised their burgeoning profile. And there was their 2010 debut, hailed by the likes of Blink-182's Mark Hoppus and Morrissey for its glimmering, textured indie pop, fueled by tightly wound instrumentation and Gadhia's lofty, Bollywood-inflected vocals.
But in 2009, when they were living in Newport Beach in a cramped bungalow, a far different scenario stood before them. Following the success of Shake My Hand and loads of touring, the band had labels courting them, the strangest of which was Roadrunner Records, built on a foundation of growling bands such as Slipknot, Nickelback and DragonForce. The Jakes didn't know why Roadrunner would be interested—but it was offering a solid contract, unlike other, hipper labels who were promising everything but offering little.
"It was a risk," Gadhia admits. "They came to us and said, 'Listen, we don't want to impede what you guys are doing. We realize our limitations, and we want to grow with you and make this a learning experience for both of us.'"
Before a contract could be signed, keyboardist Ehson Hashemian decided to respectfully depart from the group; the band released a letter to their fans via MySpace stating that he bowed out because of differences in opinion about the path the Jakes were taking.
With a new record deal and a new album on the horizon came a new name: Young the Giant. The name change came at the height of the band's early popularity and confused almost everyone who wasn't in the band. "We chose that name because we were really naive and we had no idea," Gadhia said. "We had all these high hopes of what this could be. The first record, who knows? We could be touring the world."
Roadrunner stuck by its promise, bringing in nine-time Grammy-winning producer Joe Chiccarelli, whose résumé included serving as a producer or engineer on records for Beck, Elton John, U2, Jack White, Tori Amos, Frank Zappa and more. The band worked every day for weeks to perfect the songs before presenting them to their new producer.
Polite and mild-mannered in interviews, Chiccarelli is also known in the industry as a tireless taskmaster. As part of his regimen, he would spend hours with the band, dissecting every part of every song, drilling them dozens of times in a row as he perched in a loft space in their new—and cramped—Hollywood apartment, listening to the tracks ad nauseam. He soon moved the band to the Sunset Sound studios—hallowed ground where the Doors and Led Zeppelin once recorded.
"You walk into these walls, and you feel so unprepared and so terrified," Comtois recalls. He'd worked especially hard to perfect his chops as a drummer, having at one time been a bassist. Inside the multimillion-dollar den of sound, the newly renamed band let their sweat flow and beards grow under Chicarrelli's brutal live-recording routine.
They would commit their songs to muscle memory, continuing to play sections of each track ritualistically until Chiccarelli was satisfied. It's a practice that, to this day, allows them to, well, not have to practice much.
The tightness of the band is only a slight representation of how tight they've become as a group—not only united under a career, but also as people who actually like one another. Inside their temporary Malibu home (owned by Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger), the band are tracking demos; they've transformed Einziger's private movie theater into a plush, Eastern-inspired bunkhouse surrounded by tour luggage, a mess of random instruments and Shiva statues. Since moving from Irvine, they've spent nearly every waking hour with one another for the past three years, living together, playing together, touring together. Even now, when each member could easily afford to live on his own—something most touring bands can't wait to do—they still choose to stay together and move into yet another house for the process of recording their sophomore album, due out in 2013.
The other byproduct of their closeness, both at home and on tour, is the ability to roll with the punches, whether it's technical difficulties, personal squabbles or being stuck in a blizzard. In May 2010, driving through the frozen Sierra Nevada mountains while on tour with Minus the Bear, the band hit a brutal snowstorm that caused road closures. With no way to get to the Reno, Nevada, show on time, they decided to turn the van around and roll on to the next city. Making the best of a bad situation, they took a little detour as they came down the mountain.They saw a huge open field carved by a deep, freshly melted stream and decided to get some swimming in, freezing temperatures be damned.
"That's the kind of mindset we've been in," Comtois says. "If it's not going to work out and there's nothing you can do about it, don't worry about it, and something good can come of it."
"Plus, there was a double rainbow," Cannata chimes in. Payam promptly digs up a picture of the guys in a dead sprint toward the water, a faded double arch of color looming in the background.
* * *
On the night of Aug. 28, 2011, Young the Giant sat backstage at the MTV Video Music Awards preparing to go in front of a worldwide audience for what they believed was a brief, obligatory appearance. Days earlier, after finishing a tour in Indonesia, their management told them MTV wanted the group to play "My Body" for the show. Now in the States and walking up to the stage to perform, they ran into Jay-Z and Kanye West in the most stereotypical of scenarios—in the middle of toasting each other with glasses of Crystal. "Just as we were walking," says Gadhia, "they're like, 'Cheers!'"
Staring out into the Nokia Theater's sea of bright lights, flailing arms and a glowing catwalk, the band switched on their amps, allowing Doostzadeh's bass to amble in time with Comtois' rumbling drums to open their lofty anthem. They could barely hear themselves over the frenzied roar of the crowd, and Gadhia eventually launched himself into a trusting, crucifix-style stage dive. This cliché of rock-god antics was saved by the track, punctuated by spritely guitar and a rising chorus universal in its call for personal strength in the face of struggle: "My body tells me no/But I won't quit, 'cause I want more."
Since then, tour stories surrounding the song keep popping up. Cannata remembers a young disabled boy rolling up to them at a meet-and-greet backstage in Tampa. An invalid for most of his life, the told Cannata about how he listened to "My Body" every day before school to get him going. The song is used by multiple organizations dealing with disabilities and other charities. Just the other day, they a heard a story that a doctor in a maternity ward played the song for a mother about to give birth on an operating table.
It's the kind of flash-in-the-pan pop magic the band would be wasting their time trying to duplicate—they know this. So they continue huddling inside Einziger's wood-paneled studio with a flotsam of guitars, drums and electronic gadgets, jamming on new ideas and playing scratch demos from their three weeks in paradise. Each song flaunts shiny new ribbons of sonic influence, lush keyboard textures that float in and out, a wash of siren-sounding omnichord effects, even Motown-style piano, all tucked into their already recognizable sound—there are already eight new tracks. They're growing up and have learned adding new sounds is akin to an artist painting.
"I feel that a lot of bands go in [the other] way," Cannata says. "They have this ADD record with everything going at the same time, with no room to breathe ,and over the next couple of records, they start taking stuff out. And that's some of the times we really like in music. The times when nothing's going on."
Part of the appeal of this OC Fair gig, aside from selling out the same venue where the band saw acts such as Beck perform just a couple of years ago, is the opportunity to share some new material, opening another chapter of their sound in front of a hometown crowd, some that may remember them as snot-nosed teens playing to an empty room in a dive bar and handing out EPs. But it's also a matter of actual love: The bulk of the guys' friends and family still live in Irvine. They still support the place that raised them, playing a charity gig at the Observatory earlier this year to raise money for the Irvine Public School District and its scholastic music programs.
A few weeks ago, Gadhia remembers getting a call from his dad, asking if he'd attend his sister's high-school-graduation party at a banquet hall in Orange County; it was on the same day the band were scheduled to play the San Francisco Oyster Festival, more than 400 miles north. There was no way he could get out of it. As the family gathered to celebrate his sister's achievement, Gadhia magically managed to show up, on time no less, after boarding a private jet half an hour or so after jumping offstage.
Naturally, his bandmates were there with him. They split the cost of the crazy, last-minute ride back to OC. Like any pack of wayward tribesmen, they make it a point to return home together.
"Everything we do, every aspect of our lives is intertwined," Doostzadeh says. "A lot of people have their friends, their family and their colleagues. We're everything all together at the same time."
This article appeared in print as "Homeward Bound: Irvine's Young the Giant are becoming OC's Next Great Band—but they're not ready to leave us just yet."
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