September 11, 2011
By David Huff
Young The Giant
Not Short On Stature
JAM Magazine Interviews Francois Comtois
Guitarist Eric Cannata is celebrating his 21st birthday this particular day, only there's one problem. Young the Giant is performing in Canada, where the legal drinking age is 18. For a band that spent much of its teen years performing in every dive Orange County had to offer, somehow the knowledge you can now enter clubs and bars legally doesn't really matter any more. After all, it's hard to top being signed to a major label, and touring the world behind a hit album, before you have turned the magic age.
Young the Giant consists of Sameer Gadhia on vocals; Jacob Tilley and Cannata guitars, Payam Doostzaden bass and Francois Comtois, drums. Their self-titled debut has been racing up the charts on the strength of their hit singles, "My Body" and "Cough Syrup." They have also distinguished themselves on the stage, where their superior live performances have garnered them quite a bit of attention. At this year's MTV Awards, they even managed to talk the network into letting them invite 250 of their friends from Irvine, California to join them on stage as they performed "My Body."
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this band isn't the music they play, but the utmost respect they show their peers. There aren't too many musicians – well probably no musician actually – that would actually seek the permission of their parents to quit college and pursue music full time. These five did, and for that act of courage alone, it makes them special and unique to the world of music. Good work, dudes.
JAM: At this relatively early stage of the band's career, your first album sets the foundation for the band to build from? Afterwards you have a finite time, perhaps two more albums, to firmly establish a real sound and identity for Young the Giant. Do you understand the importance of that window of time I'm referring to?
Francois Comtois - Yes absolutely I do. All of us realize we're incredibly fortunate for one thing, to get this opportunity. Now that we are actually here, the five of us know the next two years pretty much will dictate whether or not we can make a career out of music. The pressure is there, but at the same time, we try not to put too much importance on it for fear of over thinking things. That can end up being just as bad.
JAM: In some ways, you were fortunate to grow up in Orange County. Were you all able to absorb the history of music coming out of the area and maybe incorporate that attitude into what you're doing today?
Honestly, we were all too young to really appreciate the Orange County music scene when it was at its height. None of it had anything to do with how we came together as a band, or how we approached music. Today, it's nice to say we're from Orange County because the music scene had grown slightly stagnant there. There is some real interesting stuff coming out of there right now.
JAM: The music industry I grew up observing in the ‘80s doesn't exist today. Back then the major labels ruled the day. Not anymore. Did you five seriously discuss the pros and cons of signing to a major record company?
It's interesting you say that, and here's why. The way this all came about - we were just plain lucky. Initially, I was super detrimental to sign with a major record label. At the time, we were all going to college while trying to decide whether or not to take our music career seriously. It all came to a head when our parents set conditions for us to take time off from school. First, we had to find a way to support ourselves for six months. At the end of that time, if nothing had happened with our music, we had to re-enroll back in college. The bottom line, as far as our parents were concerned, was simple. We had to get be signed by a record label or it was back to school.
JAM: The Internet has given artists more control over their careers. I honestly don't know if signing with a major is that big a deal anymore.
You make an interesting observation, but here's the reality we had to face. Record labels are still the only one's willing to risk their own capital to sign a band like us based on potential. Roadrunner made a commitment to use their considerable resources to stand behind Young the Giant. That gesture helped us make up our mind to go with them. We have seen a lot of deals are friends sign where things didn't turn out the way they wanted them to. On the surface, our signing with Roadrunner Records initially seemed like a strange fit. We were totally different from the other acts no their roster. They ended up pouring a lot of care and passion into our project. The band signed with a label that actually put their money where there mouth is. You don't often see that these days.
JAM: I read this comment by Eric Cannata and thought it was a joke. "We had a formal meeting with all of our parents and made a presentation on why we should take time off from college to do music full time." Did you all literally make a Power Point presentation to your parents to gain permission to pursue music?
Oh yeah, we had a four-hour meeting with all our parents sitting in a room. Let me tell you, they were not okay with the prospects of us not being in school. We had to address those fears and concerns. Finally, after discussing the same scenarios over and over again, we came to some compromises. They would be okay with us taking the spring semester off, thru the summer months, on one condition. If nothing was happening with the band by then, we'd all re-enroll in college for the fall. We also had to have enough money for the five of us to stand on our own two feet. Happily, we've been out of school for almost three years now.
JAM: Honestly, I am absolutely shocked that the five of you had enough respect for your parents you actually sought their permission to move forward as a band. The fact you all agreed to go back to college in case the dream didn't pan out is even more astounding.
We all have a great deal of respect for our parents. We all come out of Irvine, and that area is based around education in general. College is just something you do when you graduate from high school.
JAM: Seriously, you guys are the first band I've ever encountered where a higher education was just as important, or in this case, maybe even more so, than the music itself. Most kids consider starting a band as a way of rebelling against their parents. You all thought enough of your parents to find a common ground so you could pursue your passion. I truly commend you for the selfless act.
Like I said, this all boiled down to a matter of respect. It had come to a point where we couldn't give enough attention to school and the band at the same time. Something had to give. This group of guys had been playing together since we were in high school. Our parents had supported our music and stood behind us every step of the way. As a group, we felt they needed to be okay with our decision to pursue music full time instead of our education. My parents were totally awesome with it from the very beginning. They said if you want to take some take time off from school, we're behind you. There were a couple of holdout families in the group that needed some convincing.
JAM: When I was in college, I didn't know what direction I wanted to go in. Do I pursue a music publication, or go work in the corporate world? I finally realized I didn't want the ‘what if' scenario hanging over my head the rest of my life, so I went for my passion, the music publication. Were you all having those ‘what if' moments, and did that prompt the meeting with the parents?
Basically, yes. The thing is, school was always going to be there. The five of us knew we'd only have one shot at this; one opportunity the rest of our lives to really go for it as a band. There was a real fear in all of us that if we didn't go ahead and give our music careers an actually shot, we would regret it forever. Music is a fickle thing. You have to seize the moment, or it passes you by. I am pretty sure that argument helped sell the parents who were on the fence. Besides, school wasn't going to go anywhere. Our gut instincts told us if we didn't do this thing now, the chance wouldn't come again. We also agreed that we'd all finish our degrees at some point in the future.
JAM: Exactly what kind of degrees where you all going for?
Our singer Sameer Gadhia was going to Stanford studying human biology,), Jacob Tilley, our guitarist, was (at UC-Santa Cruz studying classical guitar. The other guitarist, Eric Cannata, wasn't quite sure which way to go. Payam Doostzadeh was at UC-San Diego studying engineering. I was at UC-Irvine studying political science and international relations.
JAM: Your generation grew up thinking, and actually believing, that if any form of entertainment was on the Internet, it's free to download, especially music and movies. Now that you actually make a living in the music industry, do you understand why there has been so much uproar over the chaos the web has caused in the entertainment industry?
You know, it would be hard for me to defend free downloading. I feel, and I'm sure everyone would agree, we'd be totally hypocritical about it because we're on the other side of the coin now. Listen, piracy affects a lot of artists. We grew up thinking free file sharing was only hurting rich movie actors and musicians. The thing is, there are regular people who don't make these millions of dollars that get hurt. That said, you have to be smarter today on how you market yourself as a band.
JAM: Reality can sometimes be a real bitch, especially when you're in the middle of it.
You've asked a very interesting question that has forced us to deal with certain realities in this business. People will always be able to get your music on the Internet for free. It's a fact of life we all know is here to stay. The trick is to turn that reality into a business opportunity.
JAM: How has the band adapted to the changes?
First off, you can't duplicate the experience of seeing a band perform live. Second, people still want to feel a physical product in their hands. Look at the resurgence of vinyl. Who would have ever thought that possible? Like you said, we all grew up with downloading being a part of our lives. In that respect, it's not like we had to adapt to a change we already knew was inevitable. From the start, what we really love to do, and what we've worked really hard at, are the live performances. If you are going to try and give yourself an edge in this whole process, a good live show is a must to have. It's a great way for people to support musicians and hopefully take some of your merchandise home with them as well.
JAM: Sameer said the band felt certain pressures not only from management, but the label itself, for a single that would help push Young the Giant's name into the public domain. There was a point while writing your debut that the band seemed stuck in neutral. Out of frustration one day, the song "My Body" is literally written in ten minutes. Did you all learn anything from that songwriting process?
Obviously there are many different ways to approach songwriting. In our case, our best music ended up being songs that came out of us naturally and quickly. Interestingly enough, the spontaneous tunes we wrote have done very well for us. The second single we're getting ready to push in the United States is "Cough Syrup." We wrote that when we were like 17 and 18 years old. It was a similar thing to "My Body." We all got together and wrote it in a span of like 30 minutes. There seems to be something with spontaneity and that energy that really brings out the creative juices in us.
JAM: You can't bottle the spark of creativity because it comes at the strangest of times.
True, and that's why you have to also take time to nurture an idea. There were a lot of tunes where we put in a lot of time arranging the song so it flowed from beginning to end. That comes with risks as well. You can start to over think the songwriting process. When that happens, you get bogged down and eventually end up hating the song. Obviously I'm speaking from experience when I say that. Certainly you can edit certain things in and out of a song to give it the feel you want. However, the danger is you add too much and the intent of the song gets lost in translation. Fortunately, I think we're getting the hang of songwriting now.
JAM: It's one thing to have label support, but it's a moot point if you don't deliver the goods. At what point when you're making the album did you separate the emotions of fear from failure from your vocabulary to a plain who cares what critics think, this is who we are?
There was a lot of compromising that had to be done on this album. We knew going in that signing to a major label, we'd have to answer to someone. There was never really that idea that if we don't do this, our lives are over as we know it. We always figured this was an amazing chance to pursue music as a living, and we were really excited to do this with one another. But, if it didn't work out, the five of us weren't going to cry over it. We'd go back to school, pursue other lives, and get together to play music when the opportunity arose.
JAM: You all knew you had college to fall back on in case this didn't work out. With that option always there, did it ease any pressure the group may have felt making this record?
If this wasn't our time to be successful musicians, then so be it. I think that philosophy sort of helped us out. It keeps you from over thinking everything. You can get into a mindset where you are frozen by fear of failure. When that emotion pops up, then songwriting pretty much becomes impossible. If you can rid yourself of that, then you are in a good place. That's exactly what we tried to do.
JAM: You mentioned the word compromise when recording the album. What middle ground did you find with your producer, label and even management?
Simple things like track listing or songs we felt should be on this record the label didn't want, didn't think should be on the album. Then there was management's point of view to consider. Even the producer we worked with, Joe Chicarelli, had an idea how he wanted the record to turn out. Fortunately, we were lucky that everyone had a similar idea on how they wanted things to turn out musically.
JAM: Years ago, I interviewed a band from your area called Sprung Monkey that put out a brilliant record called Get A Taste. It had three sure hits on it, but the album never got the break because timing wasn't on the band's side. Looking back over the last three years, do you understand how timing affects everything?
It's strange there are people who have worked their entire lives at it, and everything works for them. Then there are others who gave it their all and it just never worked out. It's not saying their music wasn't good, or they weren't good musicians, it just didn't work out. Then there are people that put out a record that hits exactly on what it has to, at that specific time, and they are an overnight success. There's no doubt we had a little bit of timing and luck on our side.
JAM: This band grew out of your first high school group, The Jakes. In a sense, this band has continued to change to this very day, which in a way is a good thing.
Actually, it is. For any type of artist that is trying to express themselves, you owe it to yourself to continue to evolve. I am happy to say that we play, and write music, much differently than we did when we were 15, 16, 17 years old. The way the pop culture changes all the time, the shelf life for succeeding in this business is very limited.
JAM: How did the songs "Texas Tea" and "Paid the Piper" ever end up on a television program?
Two years ago, we had some sort of deal with MTV that if they ever had a spot where they needed to use our music, then go for it. Another song ended up in a show on A&E. Since we weren't signed to anyone at the time, and didn't even have management, we figured the exposure couldn't hurt.
JAM: Did you use those songs as examples when you were explaining to your parents why you all felt you deserved the opportunity to suspend school?
Yes. In fact, that's when the argument started to swing in our favor. With that exposure, it was much easier to show our parents this was the right decision to make. The one event that finally made it okay with our parents occurred when the Los Angeles Lakers used our song, "My Body," in a TV and radio commercial. We are all basketball fans, so that kind of notoriety solidified things with our families. With the Lakers playing our music, it was tough for them to argue against giving us their full support.
JAM: You five are obviously very intelligent, come from very close families. I'm curious, what do your parents do?
My father was originally an electrical engineer and now he works for a bio medical company. In fact, there are a lot of engineering parents in our group. My mother is an educational aide for special needs children at the elementary school close to where we live. I was born in Montreal and moved around quite a bit as a kid. Jake and I are the only one's that aren't naturalized citizens. Jake was born in the U.K.
JAM: I'm going to go out on a limb and say when your parents green lighted your wishes to pursue music, they also insisted it been done right. That includes management, lawyers, etc.
Oh yes. Once they gave their blessing, the next step was to definitely make sure everything we needed to succeed was in place. They knew we needed a business structure, but they were fairly hands-off on what we had to do specifically. They just wanted to make sure we actually had a real plan going into this thing. They gave us the space to make our own decisions in that regard, but we also had to reassure them we were approaching this as a business.
JAM: I'm looking at the charts the other day, and see names like Minus the Bear, Cage the Elephant and Young the Giant. I thought, "Man, there are some innovative band names hitting the national stage these days."
Yeah, that is kind of funny. There are a lot of "blank the blanks" coming out nowadays. It wasn't something we did consciously. The name itself doesn't have a specific story. It sort of came out spontaneously. It's funny that there are so many bands with that kind of name structure coming out.
JAM: What's interesting about the name is it actually allows you to make any kind of music you like without being tied to any type of musical trend.
Well, that was the idea behind the name. Young the Giant was something we all felt comfortable with and could rally behind. Most of it all, like you said, it wouldn't limit us to a certain type of music.
JAM: Last time I checked, Newport Beach was an expensive place to live. And the beach couldn't have been cheap. How did you guys manage to live there?
Well, we all had jobs for a while, pretty much the duration of high school going into college. So we all had money saved up. Newport Beach is especially expensive in the summer, but they have a lot of off-season leases. You have a lot of the kids going to U.C. Irvine and other community colleges around there. In the off-season, they all live on the peninsula where Newport Beach is. Whatever we couldn't cover, our parents were good enough to help out. When we finally got signed, the label helped us pay for a rental house. But for a while, our parents helped us out a lot.
JAM: You do realize the money Roadrunner gave the band was only an interest free loan, correct?
Oh yes, absolutely. We fully understand it has to be paid back. We understood it in theory when we signed the contract.
JAM: The reason I brought that up is a lot of new bands get stupid with advance money and blow it.
We were responsible with the money.
JAM: What kind of jobs did you hold down while living and playing music in Newport Beach and high school?
Well, I was a life guard and swim instructor. Sameer was working for a community service organization; Payam did some I.T. stuff and was a bank clerk. Eric worked at a Quizno's shop.
JAM: You started out playing together in high school as The Jacks. Where did you perform in Orange County?
Actually, we played at a lot of bars early on. None of us were of drinking age, so we had to stay out of the bar until it was time to play our set. We did that for awhile. We even did the Sunset Strip thing where we played the Roxy, the Viper Room and the Troubadour on Santa Monica. As things progressed, we started going up and down the coast. Mainly though, we started out in dives and clubs that would have us.
JAM: I think bands are extremely lazy these days, and I'll tell you why. Back in the ‘70s, it was common for bands to write and record album, then do a full blown tour to support the record, in a single year. They would then repeat the process again the next year. There seems to be little spontaneity in bands today, especially with it taking them two or three years to complete a record.
I understand what you're saying. Listen, in this business, you never know what to expect. Sometimes music comes out of you, sometimes it does not. We were lucky something came out when we wrote "My Body," then again, if you start to think about it too much, well, there's been many times where we spent two weeks trying to work on one song, and ended up shelving it all together. It wasn't working out and we were getting frustrated. The best thing to do is find a pace you are comfortable working at and try to maintain that.
JAM: Was there any one song on this album you used as the building block, or foundation, to create the rest of the record?
Not really. The way we wrote the album, we came up with two or three songs at the same time, and worked at them. For instance, "My Body" was written around the same time as "Strings". This album was written in blocks really. That's probably why some of the songs sound really different on the record. We didn't really have one track to build the record off of.
JAM: Record contracts really have to address the Internet issue these days. Since you all literally grew up with it, and know it inside out, especially as musicians, was there anything specific you wanted your contract to address?
We basically wanted to maintain control over our general presence online. As you have alluded to, all of us were fairly well-versed with social networking, especially Facebook and Twitter. That really helped us get the word out about the band.
JAM: So you go from the cozy confines of Newport Beach, back to your respective homes, then you end up in W. Hollywood to write an album. That's a pretty bizarre script for any band to follow.
Actually we moved back home after Newport. We weren't in school, and the band was waiting to start writing the album. The night we first met Drew (Simmons), who would become our manager, he saw us play at the Viper Room. Afterwards we ended up driving down Sunset Boulevard. Drew wanted to meet up with Payam's cousin who ran this apartment complex that was owned by his uncle. We were just hanging out there in one of the units and thought it would be a good place to write a record. The units were really big and well-located. Besides, we figured Payam's uncle would give a good deal on it. He did, so we moved in to write the record.
JAM: Putting a band together is not an easy task. Egos and personalities are just to major issues to contend with. How was this band put together?
First off, everything is equal between all of us. During the songwriting process, anyone can say what they want about any of the parts of a song. We try to keep it constructive - there's never anything nasty to say - and that extends to how we run our operation. There are times when you are tired and exhausted, and you have a tendency to get on one another's nerves. Since we've been friends for so long, however, we know when we need to give one another some space. For the most part, since everything is kept so democratic, we don't have those really big issues that can cause a riff that would divide the band.
JAM: When you were approached about an opening in The Jakes, why did you say, "Yeah, I'll join the band?"
Well, we were all friends. I had known the keyboardist in The Jakes for a really long time. He kind of brought me into the band. At the time, I was playing more acoustic and folk like stuff. The music these guys were playing was far more upbeat and energetic. I thought I'd play a couple of shows with them and if it works out great. If not, I'll hang out with them and do something else. Seriously, at the time, I wasn't thinking that far ahead about a future, a label deal, etc. After playing with the band for a year, that's when it looked like we might be able to make something out of the group.
JAM: Was there any one specific moment where you all looked at one another and knew the dream was now a reality?
We didn't realize just how far we had come until earlier this year when we headlined a club tour. In some instances, over a thousand people came out to see us. People had actually paid money to come out and see us perform just our music. They knew the words to our songs and danced while we played. It was the first time we all realized people were actually listening to our music around the country, enjoying what they heard, and now were willing to pay money to see us perform it live. It was quite an experience. , were dancing as we played, that was the first time I ever realized there are people out there listening to us and enjoyed it so much, the were willing to pay money When our management team sat us down, and started talking about what they saw this band doing, that's when we all figured we'd done something right. They explained how they would personally proceed with us, and from that point on, our careers have been progressing nicely
JAM: What was it like getting a manager?
Drew Simmons first approached us. I think he had heard about us through some friends. At the time, we were getting a tiny little buzz in Orange County. He ended up flying out from New York and had dinner with us. Then he saw us play at this little club where we had a residency at the time. He asked us if we'd be interested in working with him and that's how we got hooked up.
JAM: What was said to convince you to sign a management deal?
He sat us down and started talking about what he saw this band doing in the future. As Drew was explaining to us how he would personally proceed with us, we figured we'd done something right for him to take this much interest in us. From that point on, our careers have been progressing nicely
JAM: Were you still The Jakes then?
Yes we were.
JAM: What forced the name change? Was it Ehson Hashemian leaving the band right before you signed to Roadrunner?
We found ourselves in an awkward transitional stage after Ehson left and we signed to Roadrunner. The Jakes began when everyone was 15 years old. We had kept the name after replacing like 60 percent of the lineup. Then we put out an EP that didn't sound like the old Jakes, yet we were still working under that name. The five of us realized this was our big shot, and if we wanted to change the name of the band, we had to do it now before this thing got too serious. The name the group settled on wasn't something we did consciously. Young the Giant just happened. The fact we haven't been lumped into any particular style of music has been a happy bi-product of our decision to change the name.
JAM: I saw a band in Dallas club called the Sleigh Bells. The music made no sense to me, but the younger kids in the audience were swaying back and forth because this was the "it" band of the moment. There's a difference between being cool in 2011 and still being thought of as cool in 2020. Does that make sense to you?
Oh yeah, we definitely know the difference. It is funny how music may look cool to people at one certain time, but later it seems stupid and silly when you look at it with some perspective. That's the risk you run when you are trying to follow the pack. You may be following something that in five or ten years is completely ridiculous. We were very conscious not to get into situations where our music emulated an already established sound. More often than not, you run into trouble when you go that route.