Growing Up With Young the Giant

This story appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 

Story by E.J. Ogle | Photography by Jimmy Johnston  

“So many adults.” “Yeah, there are more older people here than I thought.”

This is the exchange I overhear between two high schoolers (a couple standing in a bear-hug embrace, speaking in the unimpressed monotone favored by teenagers). I finally find a comfortable spot in the middle-back of the floor at the Tabernacle, a popular Atlanta concert venue, on a Saturday night before rock darlings Young the Giant (YTG) take the stage. I look around and question myself, “Are there lots of adults in attendance?” I’ll grant there are post-college 20-somethings (including myself) and folks that look like the hip parents of the high schoolers in the crowd, but the venue is practically dominated by the college-and-younger age group. The energy of the night feels young. No, it feels like youth.

YTG burst into the mainstream in 2011 with the rousing singles “My Body” and “Cough Syrup,” and followed the next year with the equally popular “Apartment.” Their eponymous debut album is an energetic, earnest capsule of modern pop that melds the triumphant hooks of popular guitar rock with the questing introspection and tones of indie rock. But like most young bands — Sameer Gadhia (vocals/keyboards), Eric Cannata (guitar/keyboards), Jacob Tilley (guitar), François Comtois (drums) and Payam Doostzadeh (bass) (as pictured above) were all in their early 20s when they landed on the charts — there was a palpable sense of trying to do, trying to be, too many things at once. Maturity was now the task at hand. I wonder if YTG’s fans are ready to mature with them. Cannata spoke with me while on tour in North Carolina about making the new album and band life in general (“Touring isn’t too crazy or stressful,” he says with a chuckle. “We woke up in Charlotte [today] and went to the Discovery Center.”). After three years of playing to adoring crowds, YTG spent 2013 working on their second album: “We rented a house together and built a home studio,” Cannata explains about the band’s commitment to work nonstop.

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Unfortunately, he says, a period of writer’s block set in as the band struggled with shaping and expanding the identity they had established with their debut. For a group that prides itself on having a “totally democratic” writing process, it took some time for everybody to figure out in which direction the new album was going to point. “We tried to get out of our comfort zone,” Cannata says. Even in a behind-the-scenes YouTube video Tilley states: “(on the album) we take more risks as a unit — it’s not as safe.” Gadhia perceptively adds, “It’s good to feel uncomfortable for a bit.” Mind Over Matter’s title track was the first song written with this intention, and defines the album lyrically and sonically. The chorus declares:

And if the world don’t break I’ll be shakin’ it ’Cause I’m a young man after all And when the seasons change Will you stand by me? ’Cause I’m a young man built to fall

The rest of the tracks explicate this inner struggle to make sense of it all from a wiser, more self-aware vantage point than YTG’s first album. “A lot of songs on the album are really dark,” Gadhia says. “About being completely lost in your own head. And there are other more joyous songs.” The sounds/ textures throughout are clearer, more spacious and more rhythmic, owing to the band’s eclectic listening habits. Cannata told me the band is “really influenced by David Bowie, Talking Heads and [electronic producers] Flying Lotus and Bibio. But our collective favorite is Radiohead.”

Those influences are apparent as the band launches into their live set,their growth as musicians evident in the tightness of their playing, the interplay between each member — they are locked-in, focused, moving efficiently through the show. Only experienced bands can play with such economy but still look like they’re actually having fun on stage. During “Eros” the band drops into a moody instrumental break that makes the Tabernacle feel like a small club; “Camera” builds up from a simple gospel organ to a swooning chorus as blinding light sweeps the crowd. The breathing room in the new songs allows Gadhia’s vocals to soar, whether he’s playing keyboards or twirling in place. I certainly can’t tell that they’re “still working out the kinks of the live show and the set list,” as Cannata put it.

I am reminded of earlier that day, during an off-the-cuff photo shoot across from the Tabernacle, where the guys were mustering energy through a haze of sleepiness but remaining affable, even eager to pause for a picture with some teenage fans that crept onto the set; Doostzadeh insisted on taking multiples so the kids left with a perfect shot. The band is disarmingly nice in person, asking questions about the magazine, music writing, “The Walking Dead” — anything to deflect the spotlight. You’d never guess this unassuming bunch would be playing to a sold-out crowd of over 2,500 in a few hours. Hanging out with YTG felt like being at a graduation party for a group of very appreciative, but slightly embarrassed, college kids.

Mind Over Matter is ultimately the story of a band coming into its own. Cannata sums up the band’s feeling of achievement this way: “We’ve stayed true to how we wrote songs on the first record (but) still experimented a bit ... there’s more depth to the album, each song has its own sonic landscape.” More generally, the youthful indeterminacy of the first album was overcome by a more mature mentality on the second. This is the struggle faced by any young person entering his or her mid-20s: truly accepting their adulthood. College is ending, the real world stands before you and it’s time to get serious, but you’re still young and free.

Yeah, there are a lot of “adults” here. Fortunately YTG is writing the soundtrack for their struggle. When the high-school couple reaches that age, they’ll hear it for themselves.