Hawke Is On The Right P(The members of Youngblood Hawke, from L to R: Bass player Omar Ahmed, drummer Nik Hughes, singer Sam Martin, guitarist/keyboardist Simon Katz, guitarist Tasso Smith, vocalist Alice Katz)
It’s 5:30 p.m. and I’m one of eight passengers stuffed into a rented white Ford Econoline van alongside 30 different musical instrument cases housing everything from Roland Juno keyboards to guitars to a full drum kit. The members of Youngblood Hawke have just finished their second soundcheck of the day at the South By Southwest Music Festival, but they’ve already loaded and unloaded equipment from their van five different times today. You’d think the group might be weary after doing all that work without even being able to experience the rush of performing in front of any actual fans yet and, truth be told, the van is a little quiet as the various members of their group using their 10 minutes of downtime as they shuttle between venues to text and check their Twitter feeds. But then lead singer Sam Martin starts spontaneously humming a bit of the opening bars of the band’s song “Rootless” to himself, at an almost imperceptibly low volume. Although his humming is barely audible, sending these vibes out into the universe causes an instinctual, infectious ripple in the van and, within moments, the rest of the band starts singing along in harmonious unison. Sam looks up, smiles and takes the cue. “The world is feeling warmer,” he sings while the van drives down a side street in Austin, “The path rolling to your door is a jungle / I’ll be back because I never left.” And, just like that, I begin to grasp how the familial aura of this band —made up of both friends and family members— is going to be the thing that ultimately earns them a widespread audience.
VH1 You Oughta Know artist Youngblood Hawke’s debut LP, Wake Up (in stores today, people!), is chock full of shimmery, upbeat, immensely positive tracks that will appeal to fans of acts like Passion Pit and Walk The Moon. However, in order to understand how this band —a group that played its first gig less than two years ago, mind you— got to the point where the band’s debut track, “We Come Running,” has been viewed over 1.6 million times on YouTube and selected to the anthem of an upcoming, worldwide advertising campaign by Coca-Cola, you must first get a glimpse of where they came from.
A HINT OF EARLY SUCCESS COMES WITH A “TOXIC” AFTERTASTE
Simon Katz and Sam Martin met as undergraduates at the University of Colorado at Boulder in the mid 2000s. Simon grew up in San Antonio and always felt drawn to creating music; he got his first guitar when he was 13, picked up the drums by 15, and taught himself how to play piano by the time he was 18. Sam, on the other hand, was raised in California with a passion for the movie business so strong that that he put off matriculating to college immediately after graduating from high school so he could move to San Diego to work with a film company. “My first passion was film editing and writing,” he told us. “My dream was to become a director. But one day, I woke up and thought, ’I want to experience college.’ So I went out to Boulder for film studies, and I thought I’d hone my craft.”
He quickly grew impatient with film studies, though, and realized that his true passion was storytelling. This resulted in him realigning his focus from film studies to becoming an English major, a decision that proved to be fortuitous. “I started meeting people that were really into music, like Simon, and I just got sucked in,” he explained. “The passion that I had for it just blindsided me. It still took me awhile to realize it, but I discovered that I had this thing inside of me that I wanted to share. It grew and grew, and kind of took over my life.”
Simon’s interest in pursuing music had never wavered, and he eventually minored in Music Studies. “I hate saying this, but it made me not like playing music because it was SO regimented,” he explained to me over an iced coffee. “Music was always my way to get free, and express whatever I was feeling, and I didn’t want to feel so regimented. That works for a lot of people, but for me, I’m more of an explorer. I want to go out and figure it out myself.”
Simon and Sam became fast friends and, along with fellow University of Colorado student Jarvis Anderson, soon made their way to Los Angeles, where they formed the band Iglu & Hartly in 2006. The band kicked around SoCal for a few years steadily building a fan base, ultimately resulting in a major label deal courtesy of Mercury Records. Although their party rap-rock sound —their “bass-heavy pop-rap attack” drew comparisons to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Beastie Boys— didn’t quite break into the mainstream here in the U.S., the band’s profile exploded overseas. Their single, “In This City,” rocketed into the Top 5 in England, where it was championed by NME as “the sort of joyful pop bearhug you’d lick blended strawberries off the nipples of” (whatever that means), which earned them a spot in England’s V Festival in 2008 and a slot at Coachella in 2010. Despite this apparent success, all was not well with the band.
“[Simon and I] didn’t really have our true voice, it was always off to the side,” Sam confessed. “We never got to truly express ourselves, we didn’t get to make the music that we really wanted to make. There’s something that really eats at you inside when you’re in a project and you don’t feel like it’s you.”
“March 2010 we played Coachella,” Sam explained. “10,000 people, it was insane. And then we were done 2 weeks later. We knew it was over.”
“At the end of the day, it just didn’t work out,” Sam sighed. “The relationship between [Jarvis, Simon and myself] was toxic, and life’s too short to spend time with people that make you feel bad. So Simon and I ultimately had to leave the situation, even though we had some success under our belt, it’s was just not a way to live.”
“HOW DO WE MAKE THIS THING LIKE FAMILY?”
After a project that had taken up over five years of Sam Martin and Simon Katz’s lives imploded, the two would have been forgiven if they took some time to recoup and recover. However, the pair did the exact opposite of that and, as the expression goes, simply got back on the horse. Two weeks after Iglu & Hartly called it a day, Sam and Simon started writing new tracks together. “Sam and I just locked ourselves in my studio —my 2nd bedroom studio— and just wrote and wrote and wrote as much as we possibly could,” Simon explained. “Not really for any reason, but just to get stuff out.”
“We poured out all these emotions that we had,” Sam added. “It was really a cathartic experience, our major goal was just to get this sh*t off our chest. We had just gone through something that not a lot of people experience. There was a lot of anger, and fear, and regret. But there was also this feeling that we were on the right path. We can get somewhere, there’s something happening here that’s special. That really fueled us.”
The two met up at noon and worked late into the night each and every day for months on end, penning nearly 200 songs while they tried to figure out the bedrock of what would eventually become the Youngblood Hawke sound, a few of which eventually became demo tracks. However, what they knew from the get go this time around was that as important as the music is, what would make or break this new endeavor were the people that they surrounded themselves with. “How do we make this thing like family?”, Simon verbalized. “What we learned from past experiences is the importance of having those connections. One of the most important parts of being a band is having that connection with band members that will be long lasting. How many bands do you know that last for 10 years? Not many. And we want to be that. And it’s very difficult to do that if you don’t really get along with everyone in the band.”
The first place the two turned was to Katz’s then girlfriend (and eventual wife), Alice Beretta (now Alice Katz). Alice and Simon grew up in the same town in Texas just a few minutes apart from each other, but didn’t meet each other until they were in their 20s and living in Los Angeles. “She went to private school, I went to public school,” Simon recalled. “Our grandparents knew each other, our parents had worked with each other, we lived two blocks away from each other growing up but never met. We had been running parallel together all these years.”
Despite an early experience where she was pulled from the audience and onto the stage of a Beach Boys concert (she remembers being “7 or 8”), music wasn’t something that Alice ever envisioned herself pursuing. “The two things I studied when I was younger were piano and singing,” she told me during a break in the action early during the day I spent with them. “At that point in my life, it was something that i was passionate about and loved to do, but in my wildest dreams, I couldn’t imagine this happening ever. I guess life just brought me here.”
Alice attended college at Loyola Marymount, where she racked up a 4.0 GPA, graduated at the top of her class of 1,500 students, and won the Art History Program Scholar and the College Scholar of the College of Communications and Fine Arts. She and Simon met while attending a Christmas party of mutual friends, and the two began dating. Unbeknownst to Simon for the first 10 months or so of their relationship, it turned out that Alice had quite an amazing singing voice, which he discovered when they were driving one day and she started singing along to the radio. As quickly as he could, Simon got her into the studio to see how her voice would mesh with this new material.
“The best part about it was that we were recording the whole EP, me and Sam, and I’d be like, ’This could really use a girl harmony part,'” he laughed. “And then Alice came in the room, just nailed it, and was like ’See you guys later!’ It was so instrumental to getting the sound, it really helped us develop.”
The next person to come aboard was guitarist Tasso Smith, a longtime friend of Simon’s. “Tasso and I grew up together,” Simon revealed. “We were best friends ever since we were little kids. We learned how to play music together.”
“One day, we’re at the local pool, and we bumped into each other,” Tasso explained. “I ended up staying over at his house that night. We had just started playing guitar, and he had just gotten this SICK Fender Stratocaster from his uncle. Kind of a vintage one. He was like showing me stuff from that. I played acoustic at the time. We just hit it off. He sends me songs, since that moment, when we started playing guitar together, we were in bands together. We always knew that’s where we wanted to be.”
Tasso brings a laidback, almost surfer-like vibe to the group, as well as another dimension of musical profiency. Growing up listening to a wide variety of music —he cites everything from BB King to Bob Marley to Ace of Base as early influences— his mother started him on violin lessons in elementary school, and was in a number of groups with Simon during his high school years. He and Simon went their separate ways once college rolled around, but the love of music continued to run strong through him, even as he pursued a degree in environmental biology from Texas A&M University Corpus Christi.
He was the frontman of a band called The Electric Mangroves, a band whose sound he describes as “progressive rock filtered through Texas blues,” all throughout college, an act that played gigs three times per week. (In case you’re wondering what a mangrove is, it’s a salt water tree.) Upon graduating and realizing that all of the government jobs in his chosen field of environmental biology had all but dried up, he moved to Florida to work for a real estate property development company.
“We were trying to help lease up and flip apartment communities,” Tasso explained. “I was successful at it, I had a great opportunity to make a bunch of money, but it was stupid. I didn’t want to be in Florida. Simon and Sam, after leaving Iglu & Hartley, started writing these songs and sending me demos, and I just fell in love with the songs.”
Rounding out the group was drummer Nik Hughes, whose love for music is only outweighed by his love of cardigans (shout out to Zanerobe!). “I was thinking about it, and [cardigans] have the best parts of a sweater and a jacket, you know?” he tells me over an early evening beer. “It’s comfortable like a sweater, but sometimes, it’s just annoying to put sweaters over your head. But then like a jacket, you can just put it on, but they’re not soft. Cardigans solve problems!”
Nik, like Simon and Tasso, knew from a very early age that music was his calling because it ran in his blood. His grandmother was a jazz singer who went by the stage name Jean Sawyer, singing in New York Hotels in the 1930s and 40s and even performing once alongside Nat King Cole, and his father was quite skilled on guitar and bass. However, it was a spare drum set that was lying around his suburban Virginia household that drew Nik’s attention.
Nik continued playing even after graduating from college, but realized that if he wanted to achieve his musical dreams, he had to go west. “I had some friends in LA who were doing great things. A buddy of mine from Virginia plays guitar for Pink, and another plays bass for Bush, so it was a lot easier to network through them. I got hired to play for Iglu & Hartley. I did the last year of the tour with them. Then we did Coachella together, then that band phased out. Simon & Same were my roommates on the tour. At the time, I was playing with a Disney artist. Her name was Emily Osment. She’s a sweetheart, still a good friend of mine, but that project was kind of winding down because she went to college. And so I was kind of able to keep that gig while Youngblood was percolating, and it all kind of worked out.”
“YOU MADE IT SOUND THAT BIG IN THAT LITTLE ROOM?”
With the core of the group finally intact — Simon on guitar and keys, Sam singing lead vox, Alice contributing harmony vocals and percussion, Tasso playing rhythm guitar and Nik on drums— this group of friends that felt more like family eventually became Youngblood Hawke. One of the first tracks that really clicked for the group was “Rootless,” the song that the group spontaneously sung, Almost Famous style, in the van at the beginning of this story.
“I think that song captures the feeling of why Simon and I decided to start this,” Sam told me just moments before he went on stage to perform at a VH1 Party at the W Hotel in downtown Austin. “With [Iglu & Hartly], we were touring for two years. We were away from our families and friends, which is fine –that’s what we’d die for, seeing new places and meeting new people– and what we signed up for when it’s working, but when you’re a part of something that just doesn’t feel like you, there’s a disconnection there. There’s a feeling where you’re rootless, you’re literally like just a part of this moving thing. But you’re just floating. That song’s important to us, because it was the first song where we were like, ’Exactly.’ That’s always going to be a song that’s close to our hearts, that signified the beginning of this whole project.”
“We made every possible mistake in my last experience,” Simon continued. “So all we have to do is go okay, ’What do we NOT do?’. It really does lead you down the right path in a general sense. The past experiences were very, very helpful to this project. To really establish it, and get it moving fast, and have it be really fun.”
After writing some 200 songs, the band arrived on a handful by the end of 2010 which they felt were strong enough to record. Save for the drums, the entirety of the album was recorded and produced by Simon in his second bedroom studio. “It goes to show you you can record something at home and get on Top 40 radio if you really, really focus,” Simon proudly proclaimed. “It freaks people out. ’You made it sound THAT big in THAT little room?'”
The group performed their first official show on May 5, 2011, at which time they also released their EP on Bandcamp. “After our first show, our second show was sold out, just by word of mouth,” Simon added. “We were selling out shows before we knew it.” The band quickly gained a foothold in the Silverlake music community alongside acts like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and Rocco DeLuca, and began growing an audience at the same time. Eventually, the group’s popularity in the L.A. scene led to a multi-night residency at the hipster enclave Satellite. Their shows were so well-received that the band got signed to Republic Records in October of 2011 by famed A&R man Rob Stevenson, who’s also responsible for signing mega acts like The Killers and Gotye, at which point they began working on what would eventually become Wake Up.
“THAT’S SOUTH BY. SOMETHING BREAKS, OR SOMETHING DOESN’T WORK.”
With the band’s first full-length on the way and some positive wind behind their sails, the group made their way to Austin for the 2013 South By Southwest Music Festival. Over the course of five days, the five full-time members of Youngblood Hawke —joined by bass player Omar Ahmed— would play a total of ten shows, shows that ran the gamut from high profile showcases (Rachael Ray’s party, the MTV/VH1/CMT Live In Austin gig, a Spotify House gig alongside Kendrick Lamar) and private parties (like VH1’s “HELLO AUSTIN!” party). The band, despite being signed to a major label, was responsible for breaking down and setting up their own gear for each of these shows, which is a gargantuan amount of work.
In the 12 hours that I spent shadowing them, the band moved all of their equipment —we’re talking 30-40 cases filled with musical instruments and amps— 10 different times for what amounted to be just two official gigs. South By Southwest is, however, not just a test of your physical stamina. It’s an emotional gut check, particularly for a group like YBH that needs this week to go very well to gain precious momentum heading into their album release.
“We try not to think about stuff like that, you know?” Tasso told me when I asked him if the group was feeling the weight of expectations. “All of us take this very seriously. It’s something we love to do, and it’s something that we’re able to do for a living, we realize how fortunate we are. We try to keep our heads straight and really kill it every time. We’re playing for bigger audiences this year, we have a lot more eyes on us, and as a musician, that’s what you want. You want the good parties at South By, and we got some of them.”
There were definitely a lot of eyes on them at the MTV/VH1/CMT Live In Austin party, one which did not go exactly as planned for the group. Three songs into their set, one of the amps on stage blew out, leaving Simon with no way for the audience to hear his electric guitar. “They brought a broken amp in,” he lamented. “It worked for a second, and then first chord of the song, it just died. So I just transposed everything to the keyboards, but it’s super frustrating to us. But you know, you just kind of have to laugh. That’s South By. Something breaks, or something doesn’t work.”
An unfortunate incident like this at a high-profile gig might be enough to send a lot of acts over the deep edge, but the familial spirit of Youngblood Hawke allowed the group to triumph. After about a 10 minute break while the venue replaced their fried amp, the band immediately reconnected with the teeming audience as soon as the opening chords of the band’s biggest hit to date, “We Come Running,” came blaring out of the speakers. “As soon as Nik started counting off, we were right back in it,” Tasso said proudly, and from the video evidence you can see below, the crowd was, too.
“I WANT YOU TO PUT THE RECORD ON AND NOT BE ABLE TO DO ANYTHING ELSE”
I saw Youngblood Hawke play three different shows (not including two soundchecks) during my time in Austin, and it was evident from the get go that audiences were clearly connecting with the band. Part of this has to do with the band’s massive, Wall Of Sound-esque music, which is just as ebullient as it is catchy. “Part of what’s special about our music is the way we structure vocals, the way we build the gang vocals in,” Simon answered when I asked him about what he felt was the special sauce of the Youngblood Hawke recipe, both live and on record. “That really happened from having Sam sing [on a track], and then me sing on it, then Alice sing on it, and I realized, ’Oh sh*t, this is kind of a cool Fleetwood Mac vibe to it, but new, and how can we expand on this?’ We began building the gang vocals into it, using it in certain spots of the songs, using it to make it feel big, and epic, and overwhelming and all enveloping. I want you to put the record on and not be able to do anything else. You HAVE to listen to it, you know? It’s not some background music.”
Having won over audiences at South By Southwest, not to mention nationwide over the last year while on the road supporting the likes of Keane and Passion Pit, today’s release of Wake Up will be the first full length introduction that many people have to Youngblood Hawke. It’s a project that the various members of the group have spent the majority of the past two years of their lives working on to perfect.
“Your record has to be great from start to finish,” Simon explained, appearing to (refreshingly) go against the grain of today’s single-driven music industry. “We really focused in on not having any filler, having every song have the potential to be something great. We’re very much perfectionists with everything we do. Every single song reflects something we went through during [the last two years], everything from releasing our first single and have it go through to radio, to quitting our jobs, to going through family stuff and relationship things.”
“To have people responding so positively to your stuff, it instills confidence in you,” Sam told me right before he took the stage. “Even before we started, I had a certain place that I thought our band would get to, and it’s already surpassed that tenfold. Everything that happens from this moment on, it feels like it’s a miracle. Not a lot of people get this opportunity. I’m surrounded by the coolest, most sincere, respectful people. It just feels right.”
When it comes to Youngblood Hawke’s future success, their destiny now lies in your hands, you of the record buying public. That said, after having spent some quality time with the band and getting to know how the events of their past have shaped their collective present, I can’t help but feel like the band has already succeeded purely by surviving tumultuous circumstances that would’ve driven countless others to quit. And listening to the lyrics of their song “Dreams,” the third track on Wake Up, seems to reiterate that the band feels similarly:
“We’ve been waiting on these dreams to feel real for long / Now we have ’em in our heads all we have to do is stay strong.”