Special thanks to Simon Katz of Youngblood Hawke for his time and contributing behind-the-scenes photos.
Recently, I found a new band I absolutely love. If you’ve been following my recent work, you’ve likely heard me talk about them a time or two. Of course, I’m talking about Los Angeles quintet Youngblood Hawke. Quite simply, these guys write music that gets me fired up. Last year, Youngblood Hawke released its eponymous E.P., and to this day continues to ride a wave of enthusiasm on the back of breakthrough single, “We Come Running.”
When I spoke Simon Katz (founding member and multi-instrumentalist) in Houston this past January, I asked him how the band could possibly follow-up such a big hit. His response was brief, bold, and confident - “write better songs.” All too often, bands break onto the scene with a smash hit, then fizzle into obscurity. Would Youngblood Hawke travel the same road? Or, could Youngblood Hawke find that magic again?
Following months of intrigue, I finally had the opportunity to hear Youngblood Hawke’s first full-length album, “Wake Up.” Unequivocally, Youngblood Hawke shattered my expectations and left me astonished. Beginning to end, “Wake Up” is everything a great album should be. It’s dynamic yet consistent, catchy yet complex, and extremely good. After listening to the album, I had the opportunity to talk to Katz about the album, breaking it down track-by-track. Focusing on themes of hope, optimism, and pressing forward, “Wake Up” is the perfect debut for a band known for its brand of upbeat maximalist rock. Here’s why...
The album starts off with the high energy, guitar-laden “Rootless.” The song opens with the group singing in unison on top of thick drum patterns and guitar riffs dramatically building the song into an epic wall of sound. A complex song, “Rootless” highlights the unique, smooth and captivating vocals of Sam Martin.
“Rootless” was one of the band’s original tracks. In the wake of the breakup of Iglu & Hartly, Katz and Martin found themselves without a “home.” A positive attitude and an undying love for music kept them going.
According to Katz, “[Rootless] was an interesting song for us, because we had just finished the run with Iglu and Hartly. We knew the band was done. We felt rootless.” He continued, “We wrote that song as an attempt to reground ourselves. It was a song we wrote from a very personal place.”
We Come Running
Youngblood Hawke introduced itself to the world with “We Come Running.” From American Idol on FOX to radio stations around the world, “We Come Running” was everywhere. With the help of the West Los Angeles Children’s Choir, Youngblood Hawke produced a track with a ridiculously catchy hook and deliciously radiant vibe. The song is the perfect mixture of organic and electronic sounds, with inspirational lyrics to boot.
“We Come Running” came about at the perfect moment. Having just signed to Universal Republic Records, the band needed to create something big. With the ink on the contract barely dry, the band sought out to work twice as hard in hopes of satisfying expectations.
According to Katz, “‘We Come Running’ was [written] at a time when I was very optimistic. The timing was perfect.” The band knew they had something big, and it delivers.
On the third song, the album shifts direction. Although “Dreams” kicks off with a slick ambient electronic melody, it only takes eight seconds for a massive beat and bursting electronics to drop. By the verse, many of the sounds are stripped away. Immediately, its apparent that Martin’s lyrics are filled with angst, as emphasized by a very subtle distortion added to the vocal track.
With a sound that marries the darker sides of Scissor Sisters and The Killers, “Dreams” maintains the “big” Youngblood Hawke tenor, but crosses just about every genre in the process.
“The story needed a lot of weight behind it,” Katz said.
“Dreams” is about a troubled kid, who reaches a fork in the road and has the potential to go one way or another.
Katz articulates, “depending on which way you act, you can either be successful, or run away. It’s a darker song. It’s heavier.”
“Dannyboy” is spirit and vigor personified. From the moment the words “wake up” hit the speakers, it’s non-stop action from beginning to end. In fact, the vibe of the track is tremendously uplifting. The story behind the song, however, is quite melancholy. Danny McGuire, a friend of Martin and Katz from their college days, was in a bad accident.
As Katz relates, the band “played music with Danny all the time. He was such a good spirit. One day he was riding his bike home and got hit by a drunk driver. He was in a coma for a really long time.”
While Danny was in a coma, the band wrote the song “Dannyboy” and played it for him at his bedside.
“It’s part of the reason we called the album Wake Up,” Katz said. “We wrote that song for him.”
Ultimately, the band members wrote the song as a reminder to live every day to the fullest.
Katz articulates, “We wanted to write an inspirational song about who this kid was. We didn’t want to write a sad song about him. He was an upbeat guy.”
Stars (Hold On)
“Stars (Hold On)” is another one of the songs on the album that takes a turn in different direction. To write the song, the band teamed up with hip hop production duo, Da Internz and Aaron Michael Cox. The efforts with Youngblood Hawke marked Da Internz’ first soiree into indie rock. Yet, when Youngblood Hawke first entered their studio, the respected producers were confused.
According to Katz “when they were doing research, they were researching the Youngbloods, a heavy hip hop group from Baltimore.”
Despite preparing for a completely different genre of music, the group teamed together perfectly. “Stars (Hold On)” illustrates why the band has such immense potential to succeed. The band members check their respective egos at the door, and have a willingness to step outside their comfort zone to write good music. In the end, the band came out with a lush track that likens a mixture of The Verve, U2, and the Bee Gees.
“Glacier” is a definite album standout. It is the ultimate representation of Youngblood Hawke. It’s a superb composition, giving the listener everything it could possibly want from a song. A catchy hook, thoughtful lyrics, and beautiful melodies throughout, “Glacier” is the kind of song that can be enjoyed on the dance floor, or on a relaxing night at home.
As Katz puts it, “there’s a certain epicness to Glacier, especially at the end of the song. It’s something we want to leave people with too. Shake off any sort of negativity or anger and live in the moment. Push through to the next day.”
Indeed, the message and sound of “Glacier” are grandiose, but in a very good way. It’s happy and enthusiastic. But, looking at it closely, it represents something much bigger than what you hear superficially.
Of “Glacier” Katz says, “from all the different places we had been together, and all these emotions we held on to, we’re going to shake it off and start again. It’s a new day.”
“Sleepless Streets” is the shortest song on the album, and is very simplistic by Youngblood Hawke standards. Stripped of all but the basics, “Sleepless Streets” focuses on an eloquent synth-sounding pattern in the chorus and a bluesy guitar throughout the verses. The vocal performances are especially lustrous. Although short and broken down, “Sleepless Streets” is a song that will stick with you.
As it turns out, Katz and company used unique techniques to stylize the chorus for the song. The “synth” in the chorus is actually processed trumpet (as performed by the exceptionally talented Tasso Smith).
Said Katz, “Tasso is a very talented trumpeter. I try to approach it as more of a synthesizer. It’s like taking a synthesizer and making it more real.”
As for the message of the song, it’s about relationships and breakups.
“It’s an ‘I’m happy that you’re happy’ song.”
Let me be perfectly clear - “Say Say” is not only the best song on this album, but it’ll likely be the best song released by any band this year. “Say Say” is a huge song, perfect for radio, television, and film. It has an MGMT quality to it, but there is simply no way to pin down the song under an umbrella. It is the type of song that bands will try for years to create, but never succeed. If there was ever any doubt that the band could create something bigger and better than “We Come Running,” any listener will quickly put those thoughts to rest after one listen of “Say Say.”
According to Katz, “the record was basically done. I got back from tour in December and picked up some random gear along the way. I picked up this old keyboard. I was sitting in my living room thinking, ‘let me just pull this keyboard out and see what I can get out of it.’”
Katz later met up with Matt Squire to work on the track. With the deadline for the album already come and gone, Katz knew he had to get the song on the album.
“I took it back to my place and worked on it. We cut everything for it within a week.”
He continued, “The song meant a lot to us. It was not just about each other, but any relationship you’re in. We felt like something was missing from the record. A message missing from the record. ‘We’re all in this together.’”
What’s especially noticeable of the song is the increased vocal exposure of Alice Katz on the track. At one point, the song is stripped of all instrumentation and carried only by her voice. It represents one of those moments that you sit in the car and tell a friend “my favorite part of the song is coming up right... here!”
For Katz, "('Say Say') is so much about relationships. I think the girl-guy dynamic was important for the message and the feeling of this song. Sometimes you can’t tell who is leading the chorus. Sometimes Alice’s voice pops out more. Sometimes Sam’s voice pops out more.”
As the last song written and recorded for Wake Up, “Say Say” is an unbelievable cliffhanger for the next album.
“Blackbeak” kicks off with layered acoustic guitars. Fourteen seconds in, the acoustic guitars are accompanied by a fat synthesizer bass pattern. The blending of acoustic instruments, ambient sounds, and dirty bass riffs are uncommon in popular music. Youngblood Hawke has found the recipe to blend the sounds perfectly. Much like other standout Youngblood Hawke tracks, “Blackbeak” has a memorable hook that will resonate with you from first listen.
According to Katz, “‘Forever’ was the first song that we actually thought ‘this is a Youngblood Hawke song.’” It illustrates the softer side of the group, with pronounced acoustic guitars and impassioned vocals throughout the song.
Of “Forever,” Katz says “it’s kind of a love song and an anti-love song at the same time. [It’s a] love me for who I am song, but don’t try to change me kind of song.”
Live and Die
“Live and Die” is a representation of what the group went through to produce the record. Sometimes, members of the group would go for days without sleep in an effort to finish songs without losing momentum. Katz especially felt that pressure.
“I put so much of myself in the record. I wouldn’t sleep for two straight days. Part of the time I felt like I was going crazy. I felt like I was living and dying at the same time. “
At various times throughout the composition, “Live and Die” sounds like a techno song, while at others it sounds like an anthem rock track. The group does a stellar job making it flow, leaving the listener with a complex, but satisfying look into the collective soul of the group.
The album concludes with what a track that is arguably the best of the album. Although “Say Say” is a certain standout, “Last Time” has a indescribable quality and character that lends itself perfectly to mainstream and indie audiences alike. With glowing gang vocals, captivating synth and guitar progressions, and a memorable hook, “Last Time” captures the essence of everything that makes Youngblood Hawke so great.
Katz heaps loads of credit on fellow producer Matt Squire for his help on the track.
“Matt Squire is such an extra member of the band. We vibe really well. That’s why we did three tracks with him. We Come Running, Say Say, and Last Time.”
As for the “Last Time” specifically, Katz said “‘Last Time’ was the culmination of two tracks I had done. We put them together because they worked perfectly together. An organic track and an electronic track.”
“Last Time” has a fascinating meaning, focusing on a metaphorical “end of days” situation.
As Katz describes,“everyone is like ‘get ready, the big one is coming.' We thought, if something does happen, where are you going to be and who are you going to be with?”
To Katz, the answer is quite clear. “Are you going to be with people you love? Because that’s where you should be.”
Wake Up is a contender for album of the year. It’s authentic, compelling, thoughtful, fun, and refined. The band thinks outside the box in both writing and recording. A unique sound in any given song could be a recording of chains dropping in a hardware store or the melodies of nature.
Youngblood Hawke likes to take recording equipment to unusual places to capture organic noises that contribute to overall impression of the band. In one instance, Katz even recorded the sound of his dog barking, reversed it, and plugged it into a song. Such efforts illustrate perfectly how cerebral the recording process is for this talented group of musicians. Afterall, how many artists can effectively filter a dog barking into the signature sound of a hit song?
Wake Up is a sum of its parts. Each of the twelve songs are essential to the story of the album. Although each song can stand out on its own, it is the entirety that takes the listener on the complete journey of love, loss, highs, lows, and everything between. The message, however, is singular. In the words of Simon Katz, "‘Wake Up’ is an uplifting journey, a story about climbing up from the depths and rebuilding while always holding onto to hope."
Youngblood Hawke is: Sam Martin, Simon Katz, Tasso Smith, Alice Katz, and Nik Hughes.
Pick up Wake Up on April 30, 2013 and catch the band on tour now!