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The Districts Sleep Alone (In the Van?) Tonight

Originally published in Eleven Magazine

There’s no keeping a good young band down: The Districts drummer BRADEN LAWRENCE talks St. Louis, van thieves, and the string of otherwise good fortune that brings them back to town in support of their new album, The Flourish and the Spoil.

It’s been a roller coaster year for Pennsylvania band The Districts, filled with exciting ups and downs. Unfortunately, most of those downs have taken place in St. Louis, as the band has twice fallen victim to a group of van thieves who target touring musicians. The first time, last June, their van was stolen from the lot near the City Museum, full of all their gear and belongings. Police finally recovered it twenty days later – completely empty. That was enough to give the band pause, but they gamely returned to St. Louis just months later, on October 15, to oplay Old Rock House with Temples. Drummer Braden Lawrence remembers it only too well. “The second time, they just broke in,” he says. “There was just a little hole in teh door, they swiped the GPS and a few other tings, but we had all our gear inside the venue with us. It was kind of more comical than anythign,” recounts, with wry laughter. Better than a wholesale grand theft auto, but still ntohing to comment St. Louis to their hearts.

Or so one might understandably think. When, five days after they got robbed for the second time, hip-hop artist Spose had his tour van broken into in broad daylight, right outside Pappy’s Smokehouse, he was so angry he immediately cut ties with St. Louis. The Districts, it would appear, have a little bit thicker skin.

“There’s still good people in St. Louis,” Lawrence says. What made them decide to keep St. Louis on their tour schedule after such rotten experiences? “We love it in St. Louis, honestly,” he insists amiably. “There’s a lot of great bands and we draw really well there and our friends are there. It’s kind of like a weird relationship we have with your city, but we like it a lot.”

Once you give The Districts a listen, you can hear it in their voices: these guys don’t give up easily. The band — Robby Grote on guitar and vocals, Connor Jacobus on bass, recent guitar addition Pat Cassidy, and Lawrence on drums — is making a return appearance to Off Broadway this month to celebrate their new album, A Flourish and a Spoil, on Fat Possum Records. Their heady mix of scrappy, schoolyard rock ‘n’ roll is both electric and folk, the collision of exuberant youth and a hard-lived life. Calling to mind a touch of Desert Noises or a more forthright version of The Walkmen, this hard-scrabble band knows what it takes to make some great music, pulling in heartfelt arrangements that build momentum like a steam train breaking through a brick wall.

I try to reassure them about coming back to town, letting them know that there is a small group of fans planning to sit outside their van all night. “We’ll probably hire somebody from the venue just to watch it,” he says. Given their luck, that’s the least they should do — and the least the city should do to repair its rep.

But if the boys love St. Louis, who are we to argue? If nothing else, their stolen gear has only put their names in the blogosphere even more and given people in the city a chance to catch this fresh sound. They’ve only been a band for about five years; they met in high school and are still barely legal to spend time in the bars and venues they’ve been touring for the last year. “We all grew up together,” Lawrence says. “I was in eighth grade and they were in ninth and tenth grade and we all kind of bonded over the classic rock stuff, but then kind of just got more into stuff we like now, like everything from Tom Waits to Tame Impala. We’re pretty eclectic in our music tastes.”

But even coming together took time and somehow, the band found a way to congeal quickly. “When we first started playing, we didn’t really agree on a personal music taste and then after being in a band, we kind of morphed and started agreeing on pretty much every band we liked or disliked.” Shortly thereafter, the band recorded a video of their song “Funeral Beds,” a bluesy, stomp-rock burner that quickly went viral. With so much sudden attention on their music, they realized they were at a cross- roads; keep making music or stay in college? “I think being picked up by Fat Possum was the final thing,” says Lawrence. “We were debating just ‘going for it,’ and it was up in the air for a while, but when we got the offer, we were like, we can’t just turn this down. Fat Possum is an amazing label, and we got lucky with all of our team, our agent, everybody has been incredible.”

It’s easy to hear the charisma and the magic that the label did in The Districts. In 2012, still in high school, they released the debut EP Telephone, and have been keeping fully engaged making music ever since. But early critics and reviewers have been quick to throw out their comparisons early, before they’ve even listened to the whole album. “I’m not really sure what the general public thinks of our band,” says Lawrence. “We’ve kind of maybe been confusing people I think, because the [new] album is not out yet. So we get a lot of folky things sometimes, like The Lumineers or Mumford And Sons, which we don’t really understand. And then there have been people comparing us to Pavement, which is a lot closer comparison.” He laughs. “I happen to like that band more.”

It looks like the whole world is about to catch Districts fever, as they head across the pond for an introduction to Europe before coming back for more U.S. dates. “We’re doing a three day thing,” says Lawrence.

“We leave the 31st to play Paris, Berlin and London and then come back and pretty much do two months of U.S. touring. Then we go back to Europe and that’s kind of the main album tour, but we’ll be on the road pretty much the whole year on and off, with festivals, and going back to Europe for some more festivals. It’ll be a good long year.”

Offstage, these fresh-faced kids don’t seem like they’ve got it in them to be able to rock this hard, but they do, and fervently: Grote swings his guitar and body around like he’s caught, trying to escape from an angry mob. Lawrence guides the dynam- ics of the songs’ crescendos as the others writhe around his drumset. If only more bands would’ve been this passionate in high school! This is the kind of music you want your kids to cut their teeth on.

Though the band’s move to Fat Possum hasn’t influenced their songwriting process, working with veteran producer John Congleton certainly has. Known for his work with Modest Mouse, Angel Olsen, St. Vincent, and Smog among many others, he was a sharp choice for an energized young band looking to open up realize the magni- tude of their full potential. “He’s amazing,” says Lawrence. “He’s just an amazing producer and a brilliant, awesome guy. I have tons of great things to say about John, but he just really helped us. We had the rest of the songs that are on the new album for a while, and he really helped bring them out to their full potential and sonically, he’s just that good. We only recorded it in nine days. We usually record for longer and get stuck on more things that don’t really particularly matter and just having him in the room and him kind of overseeing things really helped us keep our mind on the end goal. We’re all really proud of how the album came out.”

You can hear the band’s new strengths on full display in the recently released single “4th and Roebling.” It’s a classic sound for a modern age. You can feel it rising in your system, just before the band suspends a chord and Grote yelps out as though he’s been shot through the heart, “I ain’t the same anymore / I ain’t the same from before / You’ve gone and changed I’m sure / I’m trying to find the right words.”

While most of us might think the hardest thing about making music is making it new, making it our own, Lawrence reminds himself that the biggest success the band has achieved so far is overcom-
ing obstacles. And: that a brand new album means a brand new beginning on a much larger stage. “We’ve been a band for five years, but now it’s all about restarting,” he says. “Because when the new album comes out, it will be like the first legitimate thing we’ve done, kind of like our first real band thing. We’ve been doing a bunch of stuff, but this is kind of the big thing that we’ve been leading up to the for past five years.”

But they’re not going to sit on the sidelines and wait for indie fame to come to them. Though their brand new, much-antic- ipated first album is only just being released this month, “We have some new stuff we’re already working on,” he admits. “Not a new album, not yet per se, but just trying to keep our eyes on the future. We don’t want to
end up a one-album band. We just want to keep evolving and growing as artists.” When asked what that evolution looks like to
him, Lawrence seemed hesitant, as though maybe the band is onto something new and indescribable. “It’s hard to tell,” he hedges. “We don’t have that many new songs, maybe four or five, but they’re similar to what’s on the new album, maybe a little more refined and, like — simplified almost. But at the same time, more and more complex in how we arrange it.”

Going back to the theft in St. Louis, the band posted an open letter to the city in regards to our recent crime wave. I ask Lawrence what were the circumstances
of posting that? “When we got to Chicago, we were trying to get our door fixed and it was super early. It was kind of written out of frustration but I can’t really remember what the goal of it was. But I think it did help ‘cause the mayor Facebooked us about it saying they would hold a meeting, so in the end they could help out another band in that situation, and just letting us know how they were actually going to be proactive about the situation. Which is good, because no bands should get their shit stolen. Or anyone, for that matter!” he laughs.

“I think a lot of people responded negatively to it, but at the end of the day, I think musicians will be helped by it overall. It would suck if people couldn’t see their favorite bands.” It certainly would. But it sounds like The Districts are in it for the long haul: it’ll take a lot more than a couple of stolen vehicles to stop this train.

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