Two weeks before the release of their sophomore effort, Mind Over Matter, the members of Young the Giant were in need of a vacation. For the past year, the Irvine natives have been carefully crafting the follow-up to their self-titled debut, which was a surprise hit, spawning two Gold singles in "My Body" and "Cough Syrup," both of which can still be heard regularly on rock radio more than three years after their release.
Two and a half years, four houses and six tours later, the band are overdue for some relaxation. The pressure Young the Giant put on themselves was greater than any pushing by their label, Fueled By Ramen, especially with the leeway granted them after having a hit record. They hunkered down in a house in Rancho Palos Verdes, 45 minutes away from any potential distraction, and worked with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Tegan and Sara, Paramore, M83), who has also played with Nine Inch Nails and Beck, to get the songs to a place where all five members would be not only satisfied, but also proud of the end result.
"Working with [Meldal-Johnsen] was freeing; he taught us to soak in what we do without judgment, unapologetically," singer Sameer Gadhia says. "Our first record with Joe Chiccarelli was more of a 101 on being a recording artist. This time was taking some of what we learned and fondly throwing it out the window."
This doesn't mean there weren't some problems along the way. The group suffered a case of writer's block, something that can afflict and harm even the most seasoned outfit. They also developed an Axl Rose-like obsession, poring over the tiniest of details in every song. But after hundreds of hours of mixing, Young the Giant played the final mix to a select group of friends and contemporaries, who collectively gave the band a thumbs-up.
"What we did realize, however, is that this time, relinquishing the music to the public has been harder than the last go around," Gadhia says. "The music, for all of us, is emotional, open, and puts us at a strange level of vulnerability, more so than the last record. It was finally saying, 'Yes, Young the Giant can put out a song like that; we can be who we are.'"
For the first record, Gadhia's lyrics were composed by subconscious word association—he'd fit certain words together until they formed something like a completed jigsaw puzzle. But the themes he tackled for Mind Over Matter were much more complicated.
"Lyrically, the idea of self-doubt and how one can grow, learn, diminish, dilute from these abstract concepts we create for ourselves finally constructed the thesis of the record," he says. "The word paralysis is used several times throughout many different songs on the record and always has a different connotation. Sometimes, it is restive and meditative; sometimes, it is literally paralyzing. And other times it just is."
The beauty of living and recording in the same place is that when they had a tough day, they could stop, kick back and suck down a few beers. But when a great idea popped up, things could come together in as fast as 15 minutes, and those hours of struggling would be in Young the Giant's rearview mirror.
If fans are expecting more of the same sonically, then they may be surprised. Influenced by musicians ranging from Radiohead to D'Angelo, with a bit of David Bowie and the Talking Heads sprinkled in, Mind Over Matter is a step forward for the band. "This record was a lot of experimentation, but also of reconnection, getting back to who we are without all the cache that comes with it," Gadhia says. "The most freeing and scariest thing about life is our independence and how the choices we make directly affect everything around us."
Originally known to many in Orange County as the Jakes, the transformation to Young the Giant was made when the band signed with hard-rock label Roadrunner in 2009. They've since split with Roadrunner and moved to Fueled By Ramen, best-known for its association with the emo-pop movement of the mid-2000s. Both labels are part of the same group, so the transition wasn't as difficult as outsiders would think. "We chose Fueled By Ramen, in the end, because of its raw motivation and passion," Gadhia says. "Sure, the roster doesn't exactly fit, but we've never been too worried about that, now have we?"
Over the summer, Young the Giant played a number of major festivals, including Outside Lands in San Francisco. At each show, they played a few new songs, allowing the band, who pride themselves on giving a strong live performance, a setting to experiment and feel out what the songs needed before putting the finishing touches on Mind Over Matter.
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But that title isn't just a catchy name for the band. It encapsulates their frame of mind and attitude during the arduous recording process. "The title track was the first song we wrote after the writer's block," Gadhia says. "It captures the solipsism of youth, that power of naiveté conquering all, which fits the idea of Young the Giant—and the roots of this band."
So far, the response has been positive. The album's first single, "It's About Time," hit No. 8 on U.S. alt-rock radio charts.
For a newer band, having early success can be a blessing and a curse. Young the Giant are no different. But what has been most important to the band is their growth as recording artists. Despite the difficult moments while trying to delicately balance their continued mainstream success with a sound that remains true to the band, Gadhia is proud of Mind Over Matter.
"There will always be things you wished you 'woulda, shoulda, coulda,'" he says, "but now, after some space from the record, we feel happy, satisfied, and ready to tackle all that is and isn't to come."