This Neighbourhood

 

I’m sure there are music scenes anywhere you go.  But it’s interesting how our weird little suburban community produced all of us.”

–Ray Libby of Bad Suns

Go to even the most backwater American town and you’re bound to see teenagers making music. It may be the Baptist church choir or a horrible black metal garage band or the lonely kid recording raps in his bedroom. Even if they don’t have the resources, young people will still find a way to express themselves. Once or twice in a generation, one of those neighborhoods in one of those towns will somehow ignite and then burst into the public consciousness: East Oakland and the Hyphy movement; R.E.M and the indie explosion in Athens, Ga; The Queensbridge housing projects that gave birth to hip-hop.  

Over the past four years, just such a musical movement has emerged from the unlikeliest of locales: the anonymous, sun-drenched suburban housing developments and strip malls of Newbury Park, California, a corner of the city of Thousands Oaks in the Conejo Valley. Three bands are at the vanguard of this movement: The Neighbourhood, Hunny, and Bad Suns. This autumn, they will travel the USA together on their joint tour, The Flood Tour. Now is the perfect time to look at these bands, their common history, and the Newbury Park scene.

 

Greetings from Newbury Park

Of these three bands, The Neighbourhood is currently the most celebrated.  The band was founded in August 2011 by Jesse Rutherford, Jeremy Freedman, Zach Abels, Mikey Margot, and Bryan Sammis. After releasing a series of singles in 2012—including the 2x certified platinum “Sweater Weather”—and signing with Columbia Records, the band released their first full-length LP in April 2013, I Love You, which peaked at #25 on the US Billboard charts.  Now with new drummer Brandon Fried, and the second single from the band’s newly released LP Wiped Out! —“The Beach”—exploding up the charts, The Neighborhood seems to have eluded the sophomore jinx. The Newbury Park sound may be around for a long time.

While The Neighbourhood has great media presence, numerous hit singles and a rapidly growing fanbase, its members remain modest, if not slightly overwhelmed kids from Newbury Park.

Behind the music, Wiped Out! is a journal of the band’s startling ascent into the music industry. When they first began playing nationwide and international tours, half  the band had barely finished high school. Now, coming off the edgy but polished sound of I Love You, the band has finally hit the once-dreaded beach, letting the change of tides find its way into their music.

“It’s the idea of being in the ocean and getting crushed by a giant wave, but kind of being cleansed in the process,” says Brandon Fried, drummer for The Neighbourhood.

In an odd but convincing way, the new record reflects that aim. It has everything from lap-steel guitar to hardcore-styled breakdowns. “The aesthetic of the album kind of came from looking at ourselves like, ‘We’re a lot grungier than our earlier image suggested back when “Sweater Weather” was big.’ Now everyone just looks shittier I guess.” This new grungier sound is best heard on “The Beach,” an electronic-laden almost-indie power-ballad released just a few days ago. If it’s any sign of things to come, The Neighbourhood’s upcoming full-length release will both affirm and refreshingly depart from their proven dark-pop aesthetic.

For the new album, the band went DIY. Much of the album was recorded in the hallways of guitarist Zach Abel’s house, using low-rent MIDI recorders, microphones, and pieces of drum kits. The band did this in part as a reaction against the studio polish used for their freshman effort. More simply, they did so because it made for an easier and more spontaneous process. Brandon explains, “We said, ‘Let’s just go to Zach’s house, fuck around, and see what happens.’ It’s going to get mixed and mastered anyway.”

Wiped Out! is currently available for pre-order on iTunes. The album will see its official release on the last day of The Flood Tour, October 30th.

Suburban Glory

To understand how this nondescript suburban area on the far reaches of Greater Los Angeles suddenly produced some of the most exciting new music around, you first need to understand that ‘The Neighbourhood’ isn’t just a name, but an attitude.

The members of the three Newbury Park bands—The Neighbourhood, Hunny, and Bad Suns—along with several others, pretty much all grew up together. Many have known each other since grade school; nearly all of them attended Newbury Park High School. It is as if all the players on a local Pop Warner team made it to the NFL. Interestingly, despite their common roots and influence from older local bands like Incubus and Linkin Park, most of these musicians started with very different sounds—from power pop to death metal to forays into hip-hop—in groups like Buffalo Blackfoot and Residuals. Even today, on first listen, the three bands seem to have very different styles.

But with time, certain commonalities emerge: a powerful but delicate lead vocalist, an ear for conventional melody, a sense of suburban ennui and alienation. These are kids who thought they’d never escape suburbia—even though Los Angeles and the beach were waiting just over the Santa Monica mountains. The Neighbourhood, Hunny, and Bad Suns all appear aware of their precarious position, and wary of stardom’s indulgences and excesses. They know that it could all slip away, that they could wake up ten years from now mowing the front lawn of their stucco McMansion and working at the local bank. This knowledge casts a shadow across even their brightest songs. With such highs tapered by melodic lows, their style of rock could be broadly summarized as Indie-Noir. As the world forgets about rock-and-roll and moves into electronica, bands like The Neighbourhood, Bad Suns, and Hunny are keeping guitar-based rock alive, if only in a subverted way.

 

The Holes of My Sweater

All of these influences come together in that biggest hit of the Newbury Park sound to date: “Sweater Weather.” Best described as a tale of desperate, almost neurotic love and yearning, its combination of swinging chorus, a waltz-time bridge, and vivid imagery (not least a typically SoCal resentment of the beach), “Sweater Weather” tapped into cynical inclinations of its generation, and has remained in heavy rotation two years after it hit the charts.

The Newbury Park sound did not come together overnight. Though many of the scene’s musicians are only in their mid-twenties, they also started out very young; their current success has been a decade of hard work in the making. Brandon Fried, drummer for The Neighbourhood, recalls: “When you don’t have visitors it doesn’t seem like you’re doing much. But looking back, we were playing shows every weekend and were persistent in trying to master whatever the fuck we were trying to do musically.” The proximity of Los Angeles, just twenty miles away, was both daunting and an unmatched opportunity: “The fact that we lived in the suburbs, but could go and have access to shows in LA, turned out to be a big deal. After all, the record industry is pretty much there, so people started coming to our shows and the industry started noticing it. Then the labels started showing up, and next thing you know we were on our way.”

But the biggest reason behind the success of the sound, many band members reluctantly admit, was growing up—and separating business from friendship. “It’s almost like everyone was in their friends’ bands and over time everyone switched places until the bands were the right thing,” says Jason Yarger, lead vocalist of Hunny.

Fried adds, “People realized that instead of being in bands with your best friends, you had to go out and get real musicians. That led to a certain amount of tension. But then, once we found the right bands, we all became friends again. So it’s had a happy ending, after all.”

Class Acts

The two other Newbury Park bands on the The Flood Tour may not be as well-known as The Neighbourhood – yet – but their histories are just as long. . . and just as tied to the neighborhood.

Hunny, for example, rose from the ashes of a different group, Buffalo Blackfoot. Jason Yarger, Joey Anderson, Jake Munk and Jake Goldstein founded Hunny in 2013. After garnering attention through their live shows with Bad Suns, Hunny was signed to B3SCI Records. The band released its first EP, Pain/Ache/Loving, on August 24th of this year. Although the band has toured around the northwestern US and Canada, The Flood Tour marks Hunny’s first nationwide jaunt.       

For its first EP, Hunny took a collection of songs to veteran music producer Eric Palmquist at the studio bearing his name, and were quickly schooled. “He made us think really fucking hard about all of them,” recalls lead singer Yarger. “So we keep narrowing them down until we had five and started from scratch. We were in there everyday from 10am to 8 or 9 at night for a full month. Waking up in the morning, drinking way too much coffee, smoking way too many cigarettes and just got it all done.”

What came out of those endless sessions was Pain/Ache/Loving, a five-song EP that captures a Cure-ish, Elvis Costello vibe filtered through pop melodies and Yarger’s charismatic voice.

Now as they embark on their first major tour, Yarger knows they have something to prove. “One of the best parts of this whole tour is that we are all best friends and super buddy bands,” he says, “so at the end of the day, we are trying to show up Bad Suns and they are trying to show up The Neighbourhood.”

Bad Suns—formed in 2012 by Christo Bowman, Gavin Bennett, Miles Morris, and Ray Libby—has enjoyed even more success. It started out like any other band, practicing, making a few recordings, then re-recordings, and lining up any gigs it could get. Then one day, the band made a spontaneous decision to drop their songs off at the mighty KROQ radio in Los Angeles, half-assuming their recording would be tossed into a pile with the rest of the local aspiring bands. “We stopped by, and then the next week it was on the countdown,” recalls Ray Libby. “I guess a bunch of people heard it and liked it enough to hit us up.”

From there, Bad Suns rose rapidly. After steady touring, and their 2013 hit single, “Cardiac Arrest,” the band released its first LP, Language & Perspective, through Vagrant Records to considerable success, peaking at #14 on the US Alternative charts. Fresh off of extended recording sessions, Bad Suns is using The Flood Tour to get its name out, as well as measure reception to its new material.  

On their jump to newfound success, Ray Libby says, “It’s crazy, it feels like a fake story that I’m telling right now.”

Whereas The Neighbourhood tried to depart from studio polish, Bad Suns went there for clarity. Because Language & Perspective was recorded live, Bad Suns has now sought the precision of a traditional studio approach for its new material. “It’s not because the first one didn’t work, but because it did work,” says Libby. While not ditching that rawness entirely, the band sees creative opportunities to fully utilize the tools that a studio offers. “We can make cool stuff [live], but there is that next level of production that can only be accomplished by focusing on individual things you’re recording.”

For The Flood Tour, Bad Suns has no aims except to impress audiences and enjoy themselves. With a considerable inventory of half-finished or undecided songs, the tour allows the band to test out the new sounds before going back into the lab and finding the proper formula.

A Call from Home

Perhaps no one better represents the soul of the Newbury Park world than drummer Brandon Fried, The Neighbourhood’s newest – yet in some ways, oldest – member. Not long after I Love Yous release, the band parted ways with drummer Bryan Sammis. That’s when Fried—a high school friend and two-time former bandmate of lead singer Jesse Rutherford—got the call that changed his life. Within a few days, he went from being a film student at San Francisco State to the drummer for a band signed to Columbia records and preparing to tour the UK. Now a few years into the gig of a lifetime, Fried is still grateful for, if not shocked by, his position. “I know I’m lucky,” he told me. “I tell myself that everyday.”

But it’s not like Fried was picked from a phonebook to join The Neighbourhood. Not only is he long-time friends with Rutherford, but he has played in various bands, playing various genres of music, with the individual members of The Neighbourhood since high school. It began with Curicula—a post-punk, Circa Survive-inspired band in high school. Then it was Residuals, a moody, almost shoe-gaze brand of hardcore that was fronted by Ray Libby and Niki Vahle (now tour manager for Bad Suns). That petered out after a few years and the band members went their separate ways only to find themselves teamed together again.

“I guess we’re all just happier with each other,” says Fried.  “We know who we are – some of us have known each other since childhood – so there aren’t any surprises.  And that sure makes things easier when you want to focus on the music.”

Class Reunion

This fall, audiences at The Flood Tour will see a rather eclectic show of different musical styles from three apparently very different bands. But backstage it will basically be a class reunion, a decade after high school, for the members of The Neighbourhood, Bad Suns, and Hunny. It will also, of course, be a celebration of the Newbury Park sound, and a serious promotion for both Wiped Out! and Pain/Ache/Loving. But the times in-between performances will also be rare moments together for life-long friends.

“It feels like it’s going to be a crazy circus,” says Libby. “Like a summer camp in the fall.”

*

Newbury Park High School football currently has a record of 1-1. Denny’s and Ruby Tuesday’s are serving the same families that they have for years. From big green lawns, real estate agents plant signs for next weekend’s open houses and wave to passing cars. Things are pretty quiet. Life moves a little more slowly here. Somehow in this most pedestrian, suburban place, dominated by stucco buildings and chain restaurants, a kind of alchemy occurred which produced three of the hottest bands in the world. It could happen anywhere, and it did. A potion, equal parts ambition and desperation for an identity free from the shackles of suburbia, has ironically made these kids into representatives of the very place they wanted to escape. Why here? Why now?

Why not?

Illustrations by the author

 
Tad Malone