When we touch base with Sameer Gadhia, frontman for Southern California alt-rock upstarts Young the Giant, he and his bandmates are in the Netherlands, en route to the college town of Groningen for interviews in advance of their sophomore LP, Mind Over Matter, out January 21st on Fueled by Ramen. The press gauntlet is the first step of their re-immersion into an album that consumed the bandmembers for months, and things are only going to get more intense: a massive North American tour begins February 4th in Ventura, California.
Even though YTG has been in existence for less than five years, Gadhia is already intimate with the cyclical inevitabilities of life on the road and in studios, but as the singer explains it, when it came time to record the follow-up to its self-titled 2010 hit debut album (which featured the breakout single “My Body”), the quintet maintained camaraderie by living and recording together, and gained perspective by admiring the templates of personal heroes like Beck and Radiohead. Especially on lead single “It’s About Time,” you can hear the latter’s influence throughout Mind Over Matter, though elsewhere on the album the music has a Red Hot Chili Peppers-esque muscularity undergirding Gadhia’s slinky vocal charisma.
While navigating intermittent breaks in cell service, Gadhia discussed the strangeness of fame, managing expectations and drawing inspiration from writer’s block.
You’ve said this record helped you get back to who you are as a band. So, who are you?
We’re a pure example of a democracy at work. It was important to reconnect to our roots in terms of how we started playing music together and how it is that we considered our music. Sometimes you can think about higher things and the social implications of what you’re doing, but at the end of the day, just being and existing as a group together, getting in a room and jamming for hours: I think that’s really what we are.
And not every band is or needs to be U2.
Not even that type of impact. Just being able to say, looking back at music history, that we did something a little bit different, or we want to. That’s our end goal, to be those bands that we looked up to and still look up to, those bands that take it and veer the direction in a different way.
So who are those artists who still inspire you?
Beck is one of those [who’s] always evolving. And anything that Nigel Godrich does with Air and Radiohead is one of the band’s biggest influences in terms of why we do it. We’re most definitely a very different band [than the aforementioned bands], but some things we take to heart.
How do you take inspiration from an artist without aping their sound?
It takes finding your voice. When we first started playing music in garages, it would take us sitting down and saying, “Hey, what is it that we want to play? What is it that we all find ourselves listening to?” That’s the very initial stage. That happened a year or two before the first record. But for us, the first record was still a discovery of that voice. With this second record, we’ve discovered that voice to a certain extent and we’ve just been trying to push the boundaries and get out of our comfort zone and broaden that voice as much as we can.
Are you comfortable knowing that there may still be room to grow?
Oh, definitely. For us, and musicians in general, if they feel like they’ve hit the pinnacle of what their intent is, then it’s time to start thinking about other professions. Immediately after creating this record, there were so many things that we learned from the process that we’ll take into the studio next time or that we’ll use on the road. It takes bands many years to finally hone in on their intent. It’s like writing a book: You think you know what you want to write about it, and then afterwards it becomes something completely different. For a lot of fans and music listeners and lovers, those are the types of records that are most interesting, because they can sense this discovery for the band.
Were you going for a theme on Mind Over Matter, and, if so, did you achieve it?
The idea of Mind Over Matter could be many different things, but for us it was a little mantra of trying to get past these certain obstacles that one makes three-dimensional, but which are actually a figment of our own imagination. The record was trying to objectively see that. It wasn’t trying to take a stance on it and say “all obstacles are bad,” or “all obstacles need to be surpassed.” There’s a constant motif of paralysis throughout the record, and the idea that that could mean different things. There can be this gentle numbness, like a warm feeling. There could be a negative feeling, like not being able to move because you find yourself in this continuous rut. And then there’s just, objectively, paralysis — this thing that exists and is there for anyone. We took the record almost too seriously and found ourselves in a minor writer’s block. For us, it was finally realizing the obstacle we had created for ourselves was preventing us from getting anywhere. That became the concept for the record: The obstacles one creates for themselves are the only things that can really destroy you.
Was there a desire to write songs most people could relate to?
I think so. On the last record, honestly, the lyrics were kind of an afterthought. I’ve always gone at it in a melodic way. In the beginning, it was kind of a word-association thing. This time was a little bit different. I’d literally sit down, pen to paper, and write drafts and drafts. I think some of the smartest writing is writing that can be understood at a lot of different levels. There’s stuff that’s very surface and can be simple love songs or a story that makes very cohesive sense, and there can be undertones that convey deeper meaning. I want to be able to inject some sort of style, but I also come at it lyrically from loving to read books and fiction. I don’t really find myself going toward poetry very much, because you can get lost in the style.
You guys initially gained buzz in clubs and at events like SXSW. How did you get the most out of those opportunities?
It was playing anything and everything possible. The first time we went to SXSW, we weren’t signed. We weren’t even an official SXSW band. We just went there and tried to play things. I think that honestly helped. We find ourselves in a very techno-centric landscape where it’s very easy to go online and meet amazing bands and hear about amazing bands, but there’s still something really powerful about going to a show and really understanding what that band is about. And that’s what we do. People don’t quite get us on listening to a record, but if they see us live, it’s where everything comes in full context.
Morrissey gushed over the band via one of his fan sites and you played at the 2011 MTV VMAs, but is there a moment that you can point to as being a real breakthrough?
It was a bunch of things that all happened to hit at the right time. But I think the hit right after the VMAs, because it’s probably our biggest TV appearance to date. Having played so many live shows and being, to a certain extent, an underground band, we were kind of the underdogs at that point. We always consider ourselves to be the odd-fitting people. But I feel like everything happened at that moment, and it was potentially what broke through, but at the end of the day I’m still not sure. It’s a pretty surreal experience.