A couple of years back, a young band started making waves in Philadelphia. There were many different stories surrounding these young kids from central Pennsylvania, but a couple themes remained the same: the thunderous live shows, the direct songwriting, and also the fact that they were only teenagers. The Districts were a band “ahead of their years,” as everyone would always say. Now, with the release of their new record Popular Manipulations, the band has grown into their persona and the stories have grown with them.
Since releasing their last record, 2015’s A Flourish and a Spoil, The Districts have seen worldwide success and opportunity. They’ve played major festivals, famously taking to the main stage just before The Rolling Stones at one of them. Audiences fixate on the band’s ability to conjure discreet emotion and raw vulnerability, and Popular Manipulations continues to add to their story. It’s a “bigger” record; it just FEELS bigger in it sounds, aspiration, and in the themes that frontman Rob Grote is tackling this time around.
The band (made up of Grote, guitarist Pat Cassidy, drummer Braden Lawrence, and bassist Connor Jacobus) utilizes sounds this time around that hadn’t been part of the Districts vocabulary until now. Synthesizers, drum filters, vocal effects; The Districts aren’t 16 anymore, and you can hear it. The record’s maturity echoes through the band’s ability to deliver on songs such as the roaring “Violet” and the driving “Rattling Of The Heart.” The story of the Districts is ever-growing, and Popular Manipulations is the next exciting chapter.
I got a chance to talk with Grote on the phone the other day, while the band was traveling to through those familiar mountains of central Pennsylvania. We spoke about their fantastic new record and the work that went into making it happen, along with how their band has evolved on the stage and off, in the past couple years. The band headlines this Friday’s Free at Noon concert at WXPN, and you can RSVP to the show here.
The Key: To start this thing off, how’s it been? Where are you guys right now?
Rob Grote: We are on our way to Pittsburgh for a night off because we play Columbus, Ohio, tomorrow, so we are headed that direction. We’ve been out for a little bit, but we had two weeks off before that. Before that we were over on the West coast.
TK: You guys just did Lollapalooza and Osheaga, right? How were those?
RG: The were awesome. We played Lolla a couple years ago so it was great to do that again. And Osheaga was amazing. Montreal was really cool, but we didn’t get to hang out in the city this time like we have before.
TK: Do you guys enjoy playing festivals? Or do you prefer playing smaller gigs?
RG: We definitely like playing festivals. We did so many after the last record that we got burnt out, but we enjoy doing them again. So it was a temporary feeling.
TK: So you guys are playing Union Transfer on Friday, for the record release, how are you feeling about that that?
RG: Good! Definitely excited to play a Philly show in general, and we’re super psyched for the record release. It’s been a while since we’ve played a a Philly show. Spirit of the Beehive and Abi Reimold are both amazing, so it should be fun.
TK: So what’s it like playing in Philly verses not playing in Philly? I’m sure you guys come back and the response is awesome.
RG: It’s definitely fun to play shows anywhere. People are generally enthusiastic in most places, but playing in Philly is always a special thing.
TK: Let’s talk Popular Manipulations; how long have you guys been working on it?
RG: So once [A Flourish and a Spoil] came out, we went straight on tour for so long. Towards the end of touring I started writing between shows here and there. Once we were actually done touring, we started writing as hard as we could. During that time, some of that material never left the stage or the demos from my room, and some of the songs ended up being a finished recording.
TK: Was it different this time around? What was your mindset going into this compared to the last record?
RG: With the last record we were trying to capture what we were doing live, but with this one we were really trying to push ourselves with the songwriting.
TK: Could you talk a little about the songwriting process? Writing the songs yourself verses with the rest of the band?
RG: Well each song is different. There are songs that I work on my own first and there’s some that don’t get anywhere. Its different for every song. Some get very far, and some start with everyone there, but most of them are demoed out with the basic version. And we refine other elements of the song and then bring them to the final recording.
TK: With these new songs, it sounds like you kind of shed the whole folk thing. While there’s still elements of that, I feel like you guys are growing away from that. Could you talk about your influences going this record compared to the past ones?
RG: Over time in general, our tastes in music have always been expanding and changing, so it wasn’t like when we started this record it immediately changed. We’ve just been listening to different stuff in general. You have to think too, when we put the last record out, we recorded it eight months before we put it out and then we toured for a year on it. Then we worked on this for a year, and it was finished in February. So in that amount of time we’ve gone through a bunch of changes musically. We’ve been listening to stuff thats unusual to us and different than what we listened to growing up. We’ve always listened to music that’s all over the board, like folk and punk and electronic things. It was more of just a conscious decision to expand ourselves creatively. I don’t think it was a purposeful shedding of things from before. Theres always been some elements of folk in our music, especially on Telephone that we made when we were 16 years old. But other than that, folk hasn’t been much of an emphasis for us. Not that we’re opposed to it, we have songs where its just acoustic guitar and singing. We were just trying to make a creatively made record.
TK: How was the recording process for this one?
RG: So we did the last record and some of this one with John Congleton, and the rest we did by ourselves and with our friend Keith from Pine Barons. He was engineering for about seven of the songs at the Headroom and John mixed everything. We definitely wrote a lot longer and recorded longer. With the last album we did a 9 day session and bashed it out, but with this one we did a week with John in California and then we came back and did a couple days here and there, so it was more spread out than the last one.
TK: The production on Popular Manipulations sounds a lot bigger; you guys are using tones, such as keyboards and filtered drums, that you haven’t used in the past. Could you talk a little about that?
RG: All of that was us trying to expand our sonic palette, and it’s something we’ve always had interest in. With the last record we didn’t have a ton of gear so we just used what we owned at the time. With the new one we were trying to change things and expand it while at the same time keep it in the same vocabulary. To use a limited number of sounds that fit together really well. We did the basic tracks live and then filled it out with other stuff.
TK: Was it your goal to make a bigger sound record? Or was that not the intent?
RG: I don’t think we approached it thinking, “let’s try to make this bigger,” but we wanted to have more layers and have more working within everything. Which translates into it being bigger, so yeah.
TK: Could you talk about some of the themes behind the record? How they relate to the title and your interpretation of them?
RG: Yeah, a lot of the songs are about interpersonal relationships and how people use each other for their own gain and make sense of each other. It’s also how grappling with who you are in the world and how you relate to other people and how people relate to each other and can be usable in disastrous ways. With a lot of the songs, we are trying to approach these ideas impressionistically so it’s not supposed to be completely direct and in ways that its acknowledging them but also not taking them too seriously. I feel like most of the songs don’t pass too much judgement on any of the ideas they are talking about. Every song is about a lot of things, but at the root of it is how people relate to each other in strange ways and use each other in strange ways, good and bad. Also just trying to create more feelings with the songs than specifics. I mean there are specifics in there that could be figured out but we’re trying to make sure the song has a feeling to it.
TK: I feel like you guys are doing more visual art as well this time around. You just put out two music videos that you guys haven’t really done in the past. Could you talk about how using the visual aspect adds to the music?
RG: Yeah, it’s definitely something we always wanted to do before but we didn’t really have the opportunities or the time. It’s always something we’ve really appreciated, how music and visuals interact with each other. People hear a song differently depending on what they’re looking at. It’s cool to explore and you can either expand meanings of a song or push back against them.
TK: So these new songs, how are they feeling to play them out along with the older ones?
RG: It’s definitely fun to be playing these songs live. Our older songs have always drastically changed over time, I think we are playing them in a way to make everything fit together, you know? Braden has a keyboard at the drums now that he’s playing, and we’ve been adding new guitar tones and vocal effects that we haven’t done in the past.
TK: So you guys have a night off tonight, then what’s next?
RG: We’re actually opening for My Morning Jacket tomorrow in Ohio, then the record release in Philly on Friday, and we’re playing with them again on Saturday night.
TK: Are you guys gonna hang out with Jim James?
RG: We’ll see! I don’t know, hopefully.
TK: Someone told me a story once that when My Morning Jacket was opening for Bob Dylan, they couldn’t even meet him.
RG: That makes sense. Bob Dylan is just on his own level. We’ve wanted to open for them for a while now, so we’re excited.
TK: What are your plans going forward after the release, short term and long term?
RG: We’re doing the rest of the East coast this month and then we’re going to Europe the next month, then there’s more stuff in October. We’re actually helping with being a backing band for Daniel Johnston, so we’re really excited about that. Then we’re doing more us shows in the fall and into next year, just doing it up!
TK: Any other Philly gigs after that?
RG: I’m sure next year we’ll be back. I mean when we have time off we’re always doing musical things in Philly, so i’m sure we’ll be doing stuff in other capacities, but hopefully more Districts shows as well.
The Districts new record, Popular Manipulations, is out now on Fat Possum Records; listen to it below. The band plays WXPN’s Free at NOon concert on Friday, August 18th. RSVP to the show here.