Young Lovers: Building Worlds
Photo Credit: Michelle McCausland (via Facebook)
One time, Young Lovers saved me.
Now, I don’t mean that they saved my soul, or that they saved me from choking on my brunch…but occasionally we need saving when it comes to our relationship with music. It happens every so often for me that music starts to feel a little stale, a little tired. This phenomenon has nothing to do with the actual reality of the world, it is more an irrational idea inside my own head that there’s nothing new under the indie music sun and that everything is boring. I used to worry about this feeling, but over time I’ve reasoned that it’s just something that happens to everyone with whatever it is that they love: sometimes the passion needs a jump-start to get revved back up.
When I found Young Lovers’ self-titled album, I was in one of these mild funks and it helped me break loose. It isn’t a piece of work that is in itself world-shattering, and I think that is by design. What I found in that work, at the exact moment I needed it, was a shimmering prism of mostly instrumental guitar-based rock that felt fresh, and its freshness radiated out from a core of idealism, uplift, and hope. Instead of world-ending or world-changing, Young Lovers seemed to be more concerned with world-building. That album's ability to create something shining and inspirational was infectious, and the act of engaging with it helped me to re-approach other music with rejuvenated ears and redoubled excitement. Perhaps I was wrong before…maybe, in a way, they did save my soul a little bit.
The band has just released a split 12” single with the Bay Area outfit Wander on Headless Queen Records, and they were kind enough to speak with me recently about where they began, how they relate to their scene and the larger political moment, and what it means to be who they are and to be doing what they do. I was as blown away by their self-awareness and poise as I’ve been by their music, and I think you will be too. Our conversation is below…
Let’s talk about beginnings. What is the story of Young Lovers' formation?
Josh: Young Lovers is a project that dates back to about 2011. Mikey, Ford, and I all met in high school, but we didn’t start the project until Mikey and Ford were in college and I was finishing up my junior year of high school. I reconnected with them at a local backyard music fest/animal shelter benefit concert called Meow Fest and they proposed the idea of starting a new band. I accepted, and after a few particularly incredible jam sessions at Ford’s house, Young Lovers was born.
Shortly afterwards we recruited Karen Herrera for vocals/guitar work and got to work writing the first album and played shows for a couple of years with that lineup. Karen then decided to focus on her solo project (which is fantastic by the way, listen to it here) and on finishing school, so it was back to the three of us by the time all of the first album’s songs were written.
During our time with Karen, we came across Jonny Higa while he was playing a show with his old band FoxHollow at Tribal Cafe in Echo Park. We were incredibly impressed with his songwriting and guitar work and thought he’d be a perfect fit, although at the time it didn’t look like we could fit him in the lineup. Luckily for us, the stars all aligned and just as Karen left the band, FoxHollow broke up, and we invited Jonny to be a part of Young Lovers. Thus, the current lineup was born and has stayed that way since 2014.
Since then we’ve gotten to work playing show after show in the LA/LB/OC area and have been writing our new album, as well as tweaking our demo for our official release. It’s been a long time since we first got together, but the project still feels as fresh as ever!
Your first album has a glowing aura of…sheer goodness about it that seems authentic, almost emphatically not from a place of irony or elitism – can you talk about whether that is intentional, and what your goals are in terms of making uplifting music in a culture where that can potentially be a harder sell than something darker?
Josh: It’s definitely intentional, and i’m glad you’ve picked up on it - authenticity is an extremely important part of this band’s underlying philosophy. We’re not ironic or elitist people at all, and that’s what drew us to each other in the first place. There’s a lot of art out there that mocks simplicity and authenticity, or simply uses it as a vehicle for some ulterior, more “interesting” or “cool” motive. For us, there’s nothing more interesting and profound than finding a true connection with other people, and our path to that includes keeping things unapologetically direct and honest.
You’re right - this kind of music is a harder sell, especially in these times. But i’ve noticed whenever people encounter this kind of music, they react in an overwhelmingly positive way, especially at shows. We’ve been told by people that they feel things they forgot they could feel, like there’s something profoundly pure about this music that stands out during these tumultuous times. If there was any goal associated with that, it would be to remind people of the relevance and profound value of feelings and thoughts that might seem simple and commonplace.
How have you seen your songwriting change over time? Would you point to anything outside the band that has had an influence on that?
Josh: Our songwriting has changed a lot in terms of technique, but the philosophy stays the same. We tend to focus in on specific ideas and moods, and then play accordingly. Everything tends to spring forth from that.
If we had to narrow it down, we’ve grown a lot as people and it’s affected the music in a big way. Our demo was recorded while we were in our late teens/early 20’s and has a lot more youthful innocence and romanticism to it. Our newer material is a little moodier, a little darker, but more mature overall, more developed. We’ve been through a lot as a band and as people within that time, and it’s been interesting to see how our personal methodologies have changed as a result.
On a strictly musical level, we’ve been studying music on a deeper level in school and honing our musical skills. Our newer songs take lots of inspiration from romantic/impressionist music, as well as some early 20th century art music. We’ve also thrown in some nods to alternative country, 90’s R&B, and pop music in general on the new album as well, so it’s looking to be quite interesting.
I am always curious about bands’ interpretations of the scenes they are in. Some seem to be a “reaction” to elements inside the scene, and some feel like a natural evolution out of it. I’m curious, where does Young Lovers see themselves in that context (the LA/OC guitar-rock scene)? Even if you don’t consciously approach from a certain angle, there has to be a place where you fit in on the spectrum of all the other indie bands – can you put that into words?
Young Lovers: Answering this is a little strange for us because Young Lovers has actually been around for a long time (from 2011-present), and we’ve seen the LA/OC guitar rock scene change drastically within that time. The spectrum’s shifted quite a lot stylistically, but it’s never really shifted in favor of our style of music, nor have we actively reacted to it. At the risk of sounding a little pretentious, we’ve always been stylistic outliers here in LA.
It’s hard to say whether or not Young Lovers has reacted against or evolved out of any trend in the LA/OC scene. Stylistically we happen to vibe with and have thrown very good shows with Pretend and Young Jesus, as well as our close friends Sonoda and Todavia. I suppose those bands belong to the more atmospheric, moody part of the spectrum, but I can’t say that that kind of music has a community, or that anybody set out to write based on that trend.
On a larger scale, it’s harder to find a musical community of any kind in LA specifically. A lot of our normal gathering places have shut their doors, the most notable one being Pehrspace, our band’s spiritual home. I’m certain that if Pehrspace had never existed, we wouldn’t be a band. It gave us and many others a platform to play our music in front of a receptive audience with no outside distraction, which is important for bands that lie outside of the current trends. But because a lot of those places don’t exist anymore, that community has disappeared to a large degree, or at least has been pushed further underground. We’re working to change all of that though, and build a community with benefits not only the city’s musicians, but the city as a whole.
If you could encourage everyone to listen to one band or album, old or new, what would it be?
Josh: This is tough. I think my pick at the moment would be Bill Evans’ Conversations with Myself. It’s jazz pianist Bill Evans playing around with multi-tracking in the early 60’s and making these incredibly dense, harmonically rich interpretations of jazz standards. You can hear three, sometimes four different parts weaving in and out of each other and reacting to each other’s movements. It’s technically brilliant, but it’s also incredibly meaningful as well. Each song represents a different facet of Evans himself, united by a sense of heartfelt and honest romanticism that is often hard to come by in such technically demanding music.
Ford: Honestly? E•MO•TION by Carly Rae Jepsen. Not to come off as a Carly Rae stan or anything, but that album is truly incredible. On one level, it’s a well-crafted pop album with a heavy, but tasteful 80’s pop sensibility, with the album’s front half being loaded with pop songs that are familiar in composition and lyrical theme. But then the tone shifts around the middle of the album, and the songs take on a much more personal, deeper complexion. I can honestly say that I have been where Carly Rae Jepsen had found herself in each of those songs. She captures such a personal and relatable sense of longing that has come to speak for growing number of people since the album’s release, myself being included. For that to happen in a pop album is truly staggering, and has since set the bar very high for pop music.
Mikey: Sufjan Steven’s Age of Adz is a great album if you want to go to another dimension musically and mentally. It’s heavily influenced my own composition and arrangement and motivated me to go to school for music! Age of Adz for me is a game of balance (which I love because i’m a Libra) because Sufjan uses classical composition techniques and innovative synthetic sounds to create a sound that fits the present moment.
Jonny: If I had to recommend an album right now it would have to be S/T by Young Jesus. They’re good friends of mine and they’re one of my two favorite LA bands (shout out to my other favorite, Media Jeweler). They recently just signed with Saddle Creek and S/T is their first release with them. To me, Young Jesus sounds like if the Kinsella Brothers started a band with the keyboardist from Wilco and Ira from Yo La Tengo. On S/T, there is a lot of improvising and the band really has a type of chemistry that can’t be practiced. The way they make music together is so raw and expressive and honest and this album genuinely captures the essence of that. It’s really a whirlwind of tender emotion and purgative catharsis that you definitely should check out, especially if you need to get a good cry out.
This may not be related to your music, or it may be, but as artists, what is your outlook on where we are in this cultural moment – politically, culturally, with regard to individual identity, etc?
YL: This is an incredibly interesting question, and one we’ve been collectively pondering for a long time now. We currently live in a time where personal value and social capital is derived wholly from identity, which comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.
The cool thing about a higher premium on identity is that people are starting to listen to voices they wouldn’t normally have listened to before. Take us for example. People are starting to find us interesting because we’re entirely Filipino-American, an identity historically underrepresented to the point of almost absolute obscurity. In that way, it’s been positive since people are finally starting to take an interest in what we and other Asian-American and Filipino-American artists are doing.
The not-so- cool thing about living in a society that puts so much value on identity is that it comes with an expectation that identity should be the subject of your art, or that it is the subject regardless of actual artistic intent. It gets confusing for us because Young Lovers isn’t a project that explicitly leverages our Filipino-American identity. Is it in there? Probably, but we don’t make any definitive statements about it. Don’t get us wrong, we take enormous pride in being Filipino, but our social identity just isn’t the focal point of our music.
That conflict also points to a pretty important issue regarding what we as an entire society expect from the art produced by PoC/Asian-American/Fil-Am people. Have we come to a point where we must justify our social position before we can be analyzed on a musical or artistic level? Is our social identity the sole or primary source of our value, artistically and as humans? And why don’t white people have that same expectation and restriction put on them? And what does that say about our cultural moment? I don’t have the answers to those questions, but it’s crucial that we consider them as we try to navigate these times.
All this being said, these issues put us in a very unique position to expand the idea of what being a Filipino-American (or PoC in general) is and what we’re capable of. Having a seat at the American musical table is something that’s a pipe dream for a lot of Filipino-Americans, and to be playing our specific kind of music is, to put it lightly, a cultural anomaly. There really isn’t a precedent for it. So if we (and other Fil-Am artists) do find some sort of popularity, it would be awesome to see Filipinos and Filipino-Americans be empowered enough to seek their own individual voices regardless of what the culture or society presupposes.
Can you talk about a favorite gigging experience or memory?
YL: Our favorite gigging experience and memory by far has been this past tour for our 12” split with Wander. It was our first official tour, and we couldn’t have asked for a better experience. It’s a real blessing to be able to see the country by playing music, and to see the lives of people in all different places be touched by your music. We’re incredibly lucky, and incredibly thankful to everybody who helped us out on this tour. On a personal level, it was an experience none of us in Young Lovers will ever forget. We laughed, cried, and did almost everything together for two and a half weeks, and we grew incredibly close to our brothers from the Bay, Wander, as well as our tour manager Alyx Poska of Pacific Nature. It’s truly been the best experience we’ve ever had as a band and...all of us have been profoundly changed by it.
Speaking of that split 12"…the new track "Distance//Absence" has a really interesting vibe - right away the production sounds thicker and more layered. Also there is a really savvy use of ambience for the song's latter half. Aside from it being a two-part movement, was there an artistic push to make a "statement" song here? Is this the direction you see Young Lovers going for future music?
YL: “Distance // Absence" is something of a milestone for us. We actually have a producer now and have access to nice equipment (shoutout to David Jerkovich, Danny Nogueiras, and Balboa Recording Studio!) so it’s actually sounding a lot closer to how it sounds live. Our demo was recorded ourselves on borrowed equipment on a shoestring budget and with little to no experience, so it’s nice to finally have material out that captures the essence of that live performance. It’s definitely a statement song as well. It gives a pretty good primer to how we sound these days, both in our loudest and most quiet moments. Artistically it exists in between our first album and our second album, with “Distance” being representative of our younger selves and “Absence” being representative of our older selves. In that way it absolutely is the direction we’re going for future music.
What are the plans for the rest of 2018?
YL: We plan on finally making a good recording of our demo, one with the necessary instrumentation and updated lyrics! We’re going to be hopping into the studio after our promotional tour for our 12” split with Wander and finishing that up, so expect that record to come out later this year. We’re also hard at work finishing up writing the second album, which can be considered a sequel to the first one. And we’ll be playing in and around the Los Angeles/Long Beach/Orange County area pretty regularly within that time, so make sure to catch us at any of our upcoming shows!
A wise man once wrote “what the world needs now is love…” If the sentiment was true back then, it feels like it is now even more so. There are those times when what we need is strength, when what we need is grit, when what we need is the ability to make hard choices, but in 2018 it feels like we need love more than ever. If we can break love down to its component parts of compassion, idealism, and wonder, we can use it to create a world that is better than the one we arrived in.
Doing this may not always come naturally to us, but we can always strive for it. And if we ever need a signpost, who better to help show us the way than a group of young lovers?