The latest five-pieces of indie hype from LA are about to have the summer of their lives. FMS meets them in London to find out that they’ve got plenty of tunes to back it up. You’d be mad to not come along for the ride.
For more than half a century scientists posing as record company A&R men have been trying and failing to find the chemical formula for ‘cool’. They’ve come close a few times admittedly, but all too often hype is too much and the subjects disappear too soon (see Von Bondies, Datsuns and Vines). Grouplove, an indie-quintet based in Los Angeles, could be about to change all that.
Their lead single ‘Colours’ is a staccato pop gem reminiscent of a far less ugly Vampire Weekend. The rest of the band’s songs flirt around sunny folk and more abrasive grunge – bouncing through some wonderful harmonies and gutsy solos that Pavement, Pixies and co would have been proud of.
According to the band, the five of them met at an arts residency on the island of Crete – a concept that brings up big flashing warnings of cults, spaceships and naked children harvesting corn. Come to think of it, Grouplove do have a song called ‘Naked Kids’. But wiry frontman Christian Zucconi is quick to deny any cultish undertones around how they formed.
“It wasn’t anything like that,” he says, although it did have “hippy-ish elements” according to bassist Sean Gadd, who resembles a younger, thinner member of beardy popsters The Magic Numbers. Anyway, for those of us who spent our summers working, an arts residency seems to basically be summer camp for people whose voices had broken.
“Exactly,” Gadd confirms.
Former pro-surfer and guitarist Andrew Wessen, along with his brother and some others had been involved in apparently setting it up and Gadd thought it would be a good idea to go along. Like Gadd – himself a songwriter hailing from London, Zucconi explains that they took in songs they’d previously written and sat around writing together too.
“Every week we’d get together, pass the guitar around and show what we were writing,” he says.
The solo-singer – formerly of little known outfit Elope – was joined by his girlfriend Hannah Hooper, whom he’d been living with in New York. Weirdly, it’s not something they admit to during the interview or in their biography, but the chemistry is pretty evident on-stage. The insouciant redhead only started playing music in the last year, focusing before that on oil painting back in Brooklyn, having grown up in San Francisco.
“I kinda paint what’s around me,” Hooper says a bit vaguely, “I paint a lot of underwater things – natural abstraction – and when the band started I just switched mediums. I do all the artwork but I’ve just been figuring it out as I went.” On stage she plays keyboards and sings, but the band’s production is taken care of by fifth member and drummer, Ryan Rabin.
“I feel like the momma of the family in a way,” Hooper says. “I bandage them up, I harmonise – it’s a lot easier than I expect. We’re really just a tight crew.”
“Hannah makes me laugh so much,” Gadd continues, “but we do have our moments though. You can have heated moments when you have to lug out equipment after shows and when people are tired.”
“One of the biggest arguments we’ve had was about the set up on stage tonight,” Hooper adds, describing the bookshelf-sized stage the band are due to take to later in the evening in north London.
Apart from crates of equipment, the band don’t have a lot of baggage, something Zucconi puts down to how they met. “We met with no past in a way, so there’s no baggage,” he says, although the band admit they get to see each other’s the more they tour.
Meeting at the arts residency was to bring about the band name too, with daily emails that followed between them all being signed off with the salutation “group love”. Staying in touch after it ended, they eventually pooled their pennies and took a holiday to California some months later, spending time in Rabin’s LA studio at the end of their trip.
Strangely, neither Zucconi nor Hooper seem particularly upset about upping sticks from their hometown of New York to live in LA and tour. “A lot of clubs in Manhattan changed or closed and the music scene didn’t seem very warm or cohesive,” says the singer. “I’ve lived there my whole life and culturally it felt like it was sinking.”
Hooper adds: “We were both there in a time it just got more expensive. People buy these skyrocketing apartments and artists get pushed out.”
But now LA is home for all of them, including Brit-exile Gadd. “We’ve made it home,” he says, “we had a residency at the Bootleg Theatre at the start of the year and LA is very much our home. People really listen there – in a genuine way.”
Each of the band has their own influences, but they generally cross over around late ‘90s punk rock, old surf songs and the various classics that pepper musical history. Zucconi, who seems to be the principle songwriter says he didn’t start playing guitar until late in high school. “When I did I’d crank up Billy Joel, scream it out loud and jump on the sofa,” he says, “my brother got me into Nirvana and Pixies and that dynamic of loud-quiet really resonated for me.”
And these all shine through in Grouplove’s music: from the angula, staccato vocals that will recall Vampire Weekend, through to the grungey drool of Nirvana or Pixies.
On stage, despite the lack of space, they really do go for it although there are many points you wish they’d ditch the acoustic guitars (apparently the same ones they used to record the album) and replace them with electric ones, for a little bit more bite.
“I feel audiences are too self conscious these days,” Hooper says, as we discuss the fact that London audiences stand nonchalantly by and listen, while American audiences are inclined to get a bit more involved. Either way, the ritualistic crowdsurfing of days gone by seems permanently lost, and my view is it’s America’s fault. The US litigation culture has spread to Europe and crowd surfers simply sue the venues who now simply ban it from the outset. The very point of seeing Sepultura, Deftones or any decent rock band, was that you might break your ankle venturing into the pit.
“I got a bloody nose at a Primus concert,” Hooper continues. “That was a great memory! You need to get pulled into the moshpit.”
“We throw ourselves around – we’re very passionate on stage and we love getting back what we give,” Gadd adds, recalling how he’d watch bands at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire where he previously worked behind the bar, a venue they finally got to play supporting Los Campesinos.
“We played our first show in May last year and now we’re a year later and it just feels crazy,” he continues. “I think we were all musicians at a crossroads bored of playing shows to 10 people. When we met each other it was such good timing – I hate to say ‘fate’…”
“But it was,” Hooper interjects. “Meeting was the craziest things. It was great being able to say ‘I’m only being myself, it’s not a compromise’.” Grouplove are signed in the UK to Atlantic Records, the label behind previously hyped Little Boots, which is part of the Warners empire. Do the band feel at all compromised by that? “We’ve got to bankroll the dream,” she replies.
Gadd adds: “You speak to a lot of labels and just end up going with who you like and in the end we chose who we felt were best.”
As you’d expect from a band with big ideas on a big label, they enjoy a rather large sound. “Everything has to be big,” declares Zucconi, adding how they “love a nice rich full sound and Ryan’s great at layering things up.” “But we enjoy playing stuff stripped down,” says Gadd. “A good song on an acoustic guitar is a good song.”
With a bulging tour diary and a heap of festivals in the offing, Grouplove look set to be playing on dozens of big stages in the coming months. A decade on from The Strokes then, and LA seems to be having its turn as the five-piece join Magnetic Zeros, Best Coast and others on the roster of 2011’s California cool list. Maybe it’s timing, perhaps it’s fate or it could well be in their DNA.
Debut single ‘Itchin On A Photograph’ is out on June 19th.
Words: Andrew Future
Photo: Michael Robert Williams