A tiny desk isn’t generally associated with musicians, but NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series brought new meaning to the phrase. Since it’s inception in 2000 the series has invited a bevy of musicians to perform behind the desk of Bob Boilen, the host of NPR’s All Songs Considered and the mastermind of the intimate concerts. In the last month alone the series hosted performances by Wilco, Ben Folds, and Jamaican roots singer Brushy One String. Last year Boilen launched the Tiny Desk Contest, which allows unsigned bands to compete for a chance to perform behind the now coveted mini-stage and four stops on NPR Music’s U.S. tour.
Participants were asked to record a video behind their own tiny desk, and the request was met with thousands of submissions from across the U.S. The winner will be announced this week, determined by a panel of judges comprised of Boilen, his co-host Robin Hilton, Black Keys front man Dan Auerbach, soulster Son Little, and members of indie act Lucius. Bands from Orange County and the surrounding area answered the Tiny Desk call, and we caught up with a handful of contestants who took time to chat about the experience and what it meant to them.
Snagging a performance on a platform like Tiny Desk could help bands crossover from local dreamers to national touring acts. Santa Ana-based trio Flying Hand altered their electro-psych rock sound for the contest, stepping out of their comfort zone and into a stripped down, backyard jam session.
“We brainstormed about what to do, since the Tiny Desk series is usually acoustic versions of songs,” bassist Andy Pedroza says. “We’re not really an acoustic band, but we tried different tracks and settled on “Roll Up.” It’s quieter, so the acoustic version came out really well. We had fun with the whole process.”
Lead vocalist and guitarist Temo Molina viewed the contest as a catalyst for the band, helping them to focus on being proactive ahead of their new release, Intervals, due out this spring. “To me, it was an opportunity to take ourselves a little more seriously, and for us to put effort into making a good video and performing it well. It was an excuse to go out and get something done, which is always a good thing.”
Anaheim punk rockers Weekend Bomb took to the streets of Santa Ana for their tiny desk submission, though that wasn’t the original plan. Bassist Chris Barrett worked as a photographer for the Orange County Music League, and made arrangements to record in the company’s office. It wasn’t until after the band carried all of their gear up to the second story space that they realized the acoustics were off. After lugging their gear back downstairs they found an alley on 3rd Street they deemed perfect for recording their submission video.
An impromptu crowd gathered behind the scenes while shooting “Hot Bowl of Nothing,” a firey ripper set to come out on the group’s forthcoming EP. Front man Geo Flores describes the contest as a learning experience for the band, and win or lose he views the process as positive.
“It’s great that we’re on the [NPR] website with so many other musicians,” Flores says. “It’s a chance for us to see new bands and for other bands to see us. We’re planning on distributing a free demo and having an EP out soon, so to get our name out there is great.”
The 2016 Tiny Desk Contest pulled in more than 6,000 submissions, and staying true to the series platform, attracted bands and solo musicians of all genres. The Ponderosa Aces brought outlaw country to the contest, and the four-piece band rollicked through their twangy track, “Play The Game” in their Long Beach rehearsal space. Their desk was made on the fly using a folding table that held a few books, an empty pot, and of course, a few beers. Fresh off a southwestern tour and a nomination for “Best Outlaw Group of The Year” by the Ameripolitan Music Awards, The Ponderosa Aces saw the contest as an opportunity to keep forging ahead.
“I’m a strong believer that anything you do for your band is beneficial,” front man Mike Maddux says. “When NPR wants to throw DIY bands a bone, it’s appreciated. Whoever wins, hopefully they use it as momentum. If it’s us, well, we haven’t been to Washington D.C. yet so we’d love to keep our streak going. It’d be the icing on the cake.”
Indie-folk act Nathan & Jessie viewed the contest was a celebration of independent artists. The Temecula duo was inspired to travel to Pasadena City Hall to record their video. Enamored by the architecture and the acoustics, they slipped into the building and cut open a cardboard box on the spot to create their tiny desk.
“Being unsigned is actually kind of blessing, in a way. You’re in control of your destiny,” singer/guitarist Jessie Smith says. “But it’s the work you put into a contest like Tiny Desk that counts, it’s an outlet for unsigned bands.”
No matter what band ultimately ends up behind the official Tiny Desk in Washington D.C., for many of these musicians, the benefit lied in the submission process. Now in it’s second year, the contest is a relatively new platform that gives bands a springboard to create new videos, and the chance to take their music to a larger audience by way of a tiny desk.
For more information on the Tiny Desk Contest visit http://tinydeskcontest.npr.org/stay-tuned/