Photo by Caitlin McCann
I hadn’t listened to The Districts before I saw them open for White Denim this March at Chicago’s Metro. Well, I tried to, but when I read that they “could give the Lumineers a run for their money,” I closed the tab without listening to their excellent self-titled EP. Not to knock the probably very nice people in The Lumineers who make very nice music, but when I’m about to see Thin Lizzy-inspired rock ’n’ roll, the last thing I want to hear is pleasantly rendered folk. Fortunately, as soon as frontman Rob Grote howled the first line of opener “Lyla”, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. This wasn’t precious folk-pop at all. It was the best opening set I’ve seen so far this year.
A four-piece, The Districts are led by singer and primary songwriter Grote. Accompanying him are bassist Conor Jacobus, guitarist Mark Larson, and drummer Braden Lawrence, all 19 or 20 years old. Less rootsy than bands like Deer Tick and less likely to break out into a guitar solo than White Denim, they make straightforward but completely compelling rock music. As performers, they’re naturals, having the confidence and stage presence of bands twice as old and twice as popular. At that White Denim show, The Districts eclipsed the headliners (who are an exceptional live band in their own right) not just in energy but in balance between being impeccably tight and wildly unhinged. Grote’s stage presence was especially enthralling. Dressed in a beanie and a Cosby sweater, he would flail around onstage, often losing his hat and bumping into the other band members, all while showing off his raspy yowl. The best song of the night was the 10-minute closer “Young Blood”, a sprawling jam that towards the end recalled Television and Built to Spill.
I bring up the Lumineers comparison to Grote, and he laughs it off. “Someone compared me to Adam Duritz from Counting Crows one time,” he says. “I mean, we both have kind of big hair.” On the phone, Grote is polite and soft-spoken, a far cry from his intense and physical live persona. He’s calling from the tour van about three hours outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, about to kick off a small summer tour with fellow Pennsylvanians Dr. Dog. “We don’t really see the Lumineers comparison. That kind of confuses people, especially when they see us live.”
Grote met the rest of the band in high school when they were all 14 and 15. He’d been playing guitar since the fifth grade while Larson switched to guitar from classical violin. “There’s a pretty broad spectrum of the things we could agree on [musically], like classic rock and blues,” Grote explains. “So that’s kind of where we started.” Growing up in Lititz, a small town in Lancaster County, PA, the quartet didn’t really have much of a music scene to dive into. “Where we grew up, there weren’t that many other bands,” says Grote. Rather, the band carved out their own niche, playing covers and house shows until they had the chops to make their first album.
In 2012, they self-released their full-length debut, Telephone, a homespun 13-track offering that, while raw, let the songs speak for themselves. Grote explains, “We had a friend who had a recording setup. He was basically putting mics on it for us and helping us mixing it — we didn’t have a concept of producing. It was more just about making a song.” One of the songs off the LP, “Funeral Beds”, which featured Dylan-inspired harmonicas and a stomping, emotionally resonant finale, turned out to be their breakout tune. After recording a live performance of the song at South Philadelphia’s HotBox Studios, the video ended up on the front page of Reddit and featured on the Huffington Post. “Funeral Beds” is an amazingly accessible and simple song, familiar but also totally fresh. On top of that, the video highlighted the band’s main asset, their resonant and passionate performances.
The buzz from that video not only attracted new fans but also the attention of record labels. After a minor bidding war, their high school graduation, and a move to Philadelphia, the band ended up choosing Mississippi-based indie label Fat Possum. “We were planning on going to college this year in Philly, so we got a house around there,” recalls Grote. “But then we started talking to Fat Possum two weeks before classes were going to start, so we pulled out of college a week before.” With a record deal in place, their high school band became a career.
“It was really when we started talking to labels where we realized that someone else can put our music out and we can pay our rent with this,” Grote explains. “It was a wakeup call.”
He adds, “It’s always been a hope, to be able to do this. It’s a pretty gradual faith, I guess. It started with playing around town and then the cities nearby and then Philly and then eventually New York.”
In January, The Districts released their Fat Possum debut, a self-titled five-song EP, which included two new tracks, the rollicking “Rocking Chair” and the jangly “Stay Open”. As an introduction to a new audience, The Districts is a perfect sampler. Grote shines on these songs, yelping and hollering his way through “Long Distance”, singing, “Long distance, slow time, is it easier?/ Aching fears corrupt my mind,” in a voice that reaches the growl of Tom Waits before all the cigarettes and booze. Larson’s guitar work is also a highlight on tracks like “Lyla”. There, he uses slide guitar to inject a warm dose of Americana. Though much is made about their young age, the band have been playing together for the last five years; they’re a cohesive unit, finely in tune with one another.
They’re also prepping a new album, which is set to include all new songs save for “Rocking Chair” and their live staple “Young Blood”. Grote explains, “We’ve been trying a bunch of different things. We’ve done some self-recording, some self-producing, doing our own engineering. We’ve also worked with some producers.” While they’ve been touring all year, The Districts think the album will come out fairly soon — late this year or early next. As far as its sound goes, Grote notes, “It’s going to be similar to our older stuff, but I think it will capture our live show a little more. It’ll definitely capture that energy better.”
While the forthcoming effort is technically The Districts’ second LP, for many it’ll be their first taste of the band. “In a way, it puts more pressure on us. There are more people expecting something from us rather than us just giving out the record to friends and throwing it online,” says Grote.
A couple days after our phone conversation, The Districts’ van was stolen in St. Louis near the city museum. Undeterred, they ended up continuing the tour via Greyhound Bus, using Dr. Dog’s gear. Though police found the van, they’re still gearless, but they’re also still keeping on. While there’s an IndieGoGo campaign to help them buy new gear, the band managed to stay on tour without having to cancel any dates.
For now, The Districts are going to keep touring and slowly finish their album. Even with the setback, they’re confident. “We want the best possible outcome for the album, so I think we have a pretty good grasp on how we want it to sound,” says Grote. Still, with their full-length label debut, they’ll have to impress. To Grote, that’s exciting. “There’s definitely more pressure in that sense, but it also opens more possibilities,” he says. “Since it is most people’s first experience with us, we can create whatever.”