Remember that one time when Summer People made a music video and we had something to say about it? Well, I hung with the band pre-“Cry” video debut, and tagged along for some live shows. Nobody was crying this time.
In 2008, Justin Mann started a band, Summer People. He sang and played guitar alongside Brandon Musa and Graham Feltham. After a revolving lineup and the band’s first album, Good People, in 2010, the seven piece rock band downsized to five. As Summer People released their third album in April 2013, the band tallied out to Alex Craver (vocals), Brandon Musa (bass), Graham Feltham (guitar), Jesse Lafian (drums) and Pete Ives (guitar).
DAY 1 6:30 PM: Everything was a blur like the grey skies and warm weather that blend together before rainfall. I’m in Astoria, Queens for the first time and the air is clearer than Manhattan. Maybe people’s souls are cleaner the farther you get away from the city too.
I meet Jesse and Pete at Pete’s Queens apartment before embarking on the four hour road trip upstate, for Summer People’s weekend release tour for their newest album, Burn the Germs.
Pete sets out to navigate the Subaru while Jesse, Pete’s guitar and I pack on top of each other, seatbelt-less in the back seat. No one talks beyond the small stuff. Ghostface Killah and Upstate New York jazz stations break the silence.
Pete says we’re going to “meet the others,” and shakes his hand in that hang-loose manner native to Hawaiian surfers. We’re headed north on an uncongested freeway I thought nonexistent in this state. We leave honking, road-rage and strange stares to New York City. After a few miles, the sun sets, and the only emblems of an active community – neon storefronts and highway exit signs – dissipate with the sun. Brutal rainfall breaks up the night and pounds the windowpane.
Hours pass and the rain calms. I notice upstate’s short quiet blocks, some lined with small bars disguised as homes. They exude an endless, tranquil summer. Streets are full of cigarette smokers who never worry about the time stogies take to burn because the sun is on their side. In lieu of emotionless Manhattan power brunches and hotel rooftop lounging, up here it seems people live for meeting new people in familiar places, good times and even better music.
DAY 2: Summer People’s first show of the tour is in downtown Ithaca at Angry Mom Records, the basement of a bookstore-cafe. Their set is at 4:00 P.M. and its 2:20, a.k.a margarita time. Inside the margarita restaurant, the band meets collectively for the first time this tour. I sit somewhere between them all not asking questions, hoping to elicit an authentic experience, pressure free.
We sip margaritas and the band fuels with food while my notepad-less memory catches bits of conversations. Amps, set up times and praise about the restaurant’s salsa is all I get in. We linger a little longer, finalize the ends of loose discussions before the band gets their gear together. We pack in another car, off to the backdoor of Angry Mom’s.
Before Summer People’s set, I’m fine-tuning my Panasonic HMC 150 lighting when a power chord jolts my lower intestine with a growl. “Well I burn all night just to smoke all day. I don’t mind working, but I’d rather play.” Alex, Summer People’s vocalist was just seated across from me an hour ago, quiet, eating tortilla chips with that really good salsa from Viva Taqueria in the Ithaca Commons. Now he screams these lyrics in a strained chant, compulsive like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis.
After 10 songs and 20 minutes, the set ends. Short, fast and hard. Maybe something like sex with Iggy Pop. There is no leader when Summer People play. They all extract the extra energy between the vinyl lined aisles, behind the register, around the short stacked staircase and throw it back at themselves, at their music. Perfect arranged chaos.
Its been said in a few reviews. The Cramps, The Cramps, that’s Summer People’s sound. The Cramps or even Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. The unexpected riffs, the steady and low baseline, the strained vocals and eccentric drums, I get it. But I’m thinking of Hüsker Dü’s “Statues” rawness too and I can’t give Summer People over to one idol. There is no one influencer. I respect the band’s originality and don’t ask for a list.
Summer People’s next show is another hour north in Binghamton, NY. I’ve been in a haze catching up on new names, set lists and inside jokes since I arrived, so I wedge myself into the closest car like a loyal groupie. Alex is in the back seat with the amp and I. His voice from the Angry Mom show still haunts me, loud and abrasive. I sit back and wonder where all his energy goes when the mic is gone.
After some dead, quiet minutes, Brandon the bassist turns around to talk about cinema criticism and his film blog. Our conversation turns to the death of punk and the rise of indie bands without heart, without crazy. I think of Summer People and if their crazy switch is simultaneous with guitar amps and microphone power.
As a rock band with punk tendencies, Summer People’s natural habitat should be wild, reckless and loud like their music. I hop in and out of their sedan cars and veggie-oil fueled van, traveling between small suburban towns, and I only think of pescetarians and raw foodists.
They seem like other underground musicians I know in New York: Journalism, Kuf Knotz, Lil Kids. Eclectic sound creators pushing the curriculum of their respective genres. But as New York natives, Summer People’s authenticity spills through the core of their music as an innate boredom and disgust with growing up in a state infamous with talent and opportunity. Their rage, released in lyrics and music come from somewhere, but I guess not personality. I don’t see any signs in hand gestures, wheel steering, or verbal sentence structure. Maybe the band’s offstage reservations have something to do with their girlfriends or wife and three month old baby.
The sun finally shrinks as we pull alongside the curb afront a narrow bar, The Beagle Pub. Beagles are small and cute and this place looks intimate so I guess the name fits.
I’ve standardized New York bars because the bartenders and slightly more than tipsy middle aged customers smile at me as I walk in and their friendliness is off-putting. I’m carrying Brandon’s bass so maybe they think me a bandmate. We’re three hours early for the show’s setup so I pace the venue and avoid the bar in an awkward attempt at professionalism. I keep up small talk, moving from band member to band member, so they don’t think me a bad journalist.
Batista, who also played earlier at Angry Mom’s (Upstate New York has an intimate music scene), plays and ends a set so the Summer People boys and I gear up. The band’s photographer, Tim Hunt, warns me not to stand in front of the crowd. I migrate to the far right corner, facing Brandon’s back while he plays to the amp. The crowd pulses like dirty hyenas. I elbow the moshers in the ribs and push their faces out of my way while I try to film a steady, one-handed video.
I keep getting shoved into Brandon but his back is facing the crowd so there’s not too much damage. My camera hits the stem of his bass. He seems pissed but maybe its the adrenaline. After the fifth video camera to bass head run-in, there’s no room for apologies. I face-shove whoever is shoving me. They get the point and back off.
Eight songs into the set, the band members switch instruments and positions like musical chairs, for their song “94 Chapin”. Alex is now on the drums, Brandon on vocals, Jesse on bass, Pete and Graham on guitars. I’m transfixed in the set rearrangement when Brandon attempts a crowd surf and gets shoved headfirst into a plasterboard ceiling tile and keeps singing.
A few indecipherable lyrics later, Summer People’s set ends and they disperse into a scattered crowd. I try and find a place to fit in, an empty bar stool or free table. Strangers gather, the prodding enquirers all ask if I’m in a band.
More stranger initiated conversations follow and revolve around music, like there’s no other outlet but learning to craft and play sounds.
Alex and Graham are the only two Summer People I spot during some post-show reporting. Some stranger I meet at the bar ends up being Hunter Davidson, the producer of Summer Peoples’ latest album and he offers his home for the band and I to sleep. We pile into the veggie-oil van and steer off into the street.
DAY 3: A blinding sun and Pete announce its daylight. The whole crew: band members, girlfriends and tag-alongs, head to breakfast before the road trip to Brooklyn Bowl for Summer People’s last show this tour.
At the diner, we hunt for a table, 10 hungover and hungry 20-somethings. The waitress doesn’t know what to do with us because the place is full and everyone in our group looks from out of town, but I’m the only one. After a few cigarettes, we seat ourselves inside. I think the diner’s entire menu adds up to about one prix-fixe at Benoit in the Upper West Side.
We’ve split into two booths. Brandon, Jesse, his girlfriend and I in one, and everyone else in the other. The coffee is shitty but a certain caffeine source so I slip the black tar without a desire to refill. We’re all pretty quiet, maybe reminiscing on the night before. I start searching again for some vestige of anger and passion from last night’s set. I don’t see anything in our conversations over $3.50 coffee, eggs and homefries.
Between every sip of black tar coffee and each bite of over-hard egg I retreat back to Alex’s voice, how it grabbed the back of my neck, intended to kill like ram’s horns. The hold never let go, but merged psyches to the point where I thought I understood the band’s motives and beliefs with each screeching vocal inflection.
I feel the sincerity and dedication in every Summer People song. The lyrics or what song is played doesn’t matter. The chord strokes, the riffs, tamborine shakes and snare pounding morph into untold emotions.
I want to tell the band what they’ve told their audience the last two shows, “Open your mouth, let me see what you got in there…You sing to the sun till’ your song is at its end.”
During shows, Summer People give themselves over to a crowd of many who will never speak to the band past the standard “good job” and “first round’s on me, buddy.” They still riot with their audience like symbiosis. They touch, feel and pull out whatever the crowd feels, string it in the air and let it flow like an endless ribbon. They don’t let go until the end of the set. No room for lazy ear canals, unprepared for abrasion. Cell to cell, the band infiltrates the body with each sound wave. Pete and Graham’s power chords, Brandon’s soul strumming bassline, Jesse’s ceaseless drum beating, all combine with Alex’s vocal antics. They spell out a slow, steady feeling of unity and anonymity, roused through cryptic music notes.
I still can’t figure out the passion source.
We finish breakfast and divy up the bill and travel arrangements. I ride in the veggie-oil van with the band.
We head back to Brooklyn and the jazz of Miles Davis’ smooth times helps the traffic flow. Graham is moving to Oakland soon, to be with his girlfriend and try out another life. This tour is his last with the band. Brandon’s brother Justin is replacing him. It seems like Graham will be missed but no one confesses this aloud.
Alex is my road trip seat neighbor again. We both try and start multiple conversations. I try and ask a few questions without the awkward journalistic insincerity.
Alex only likes to play in one group at one time to fully devote to one project. “Most musicians spread themselves thin within multiple bands, trying to succeed, catch a break with whoever they can,” he says.
I look around the van without drawing too much attention and it feels like those old family trips to L.A., like I’m stuck in the back with my brothers again. Graham and I smoke a joint and I fall asleep until we arrive in Brooklyn. It’s the band’s last gig of the tour and I don’t want to leave the veggie-oil van, or this musician life.
New York City is just how we left it, busy, crowded and unforgiving.
The venue portion of Brooklyn Bowl is half filled with a young crowd, half empty from those unwilling to approach the stage and get caught witihn Summer People’s sound waves. While I film the show nobody moshes. I have free range to move so there is no one to blame for a shaky video. The set finishes to a decent applause. I begin questioning my feelings for Summer People’s music from the crowd’s lukewarm response, but think back to the conversation Brandon and I had during the drive to Binghamton. Maybe all this Williamsburg indie clouded Brooklyn’s memory of New York punk.
I wait for Alex as he climbs off stage and he says something about my camera being bigger than me and I bring up the lack of crowd hostility. We walk to the bar and I order an $8 dollar gin and tonic. It’s not $2 like in Binghamton. The high price reminds me I am back in this great city of expensive drinks and cheap experiences. I just hope all the money goes to bartenders who spend the rest of their time playing music, releasing pent up emotions they can’t set free elsewhere.
*8/2/13 update: I attended Summer People’s show at Union Pool in Brooklyn, NY, featuring the new guitarist Justin Musa. The thrill was just the same.