Fucked Up & Dirty: The Districts Look Back on Their Big-League Year
Photo by Ryan Farber
The last time the Districts played back-to-back shows at one venue, they'd barely left their small-town backyard. "We did two nights around Christmas in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is like twenty minutes from where we grew up," says Robby Grote, frontman for the soulful, experimental indie-rock quartet, who cut their teeth in Lititz (population: 9,000). "This is on a much bigger scale."
He's referring to their two-night stint at the Music Hall of Williamsburg — a major height-notch on the bedroom wall of the band's career. The dates cap off a year of massive growth, both in audience draw and sonic scope, for the barely twentysomethings. After forming in 2009 as a vehicle for suburban angst, Grote and company built momentum via thunderous shows in nearby Philadelphia and their scrappy, self-released 2012 LP, Telephone. Fat Possum, the venerable label and onetime home to rock luminaries such as Modest Mouse and the Black Keys, snatched up the band for their 2014 self-titled EP and this year's A Flourish and a Spoil long-player.
Their first deep-dive into the recording studio, first collaboration with a high-profile producer (John Congleton, whose credits include work with Sleater-Kinney, Erykah Badu, the Mountain Goats, St. Vincent, and more), and first time making music with a legit audience, Spoil is their true hype barometer. It's the sound of the Districts bombarded by the tools of their trade, advancing beyond their soulful garage-rock roots in real time. Tracks like "Sing the Song" find the band fumbling hypnotically through psychedelic arrangements, utilizing flourishes (widescreen effects) and spoils (keyboards) alike. And throughout, Grote, barely old enough to play rock clubs, distances his current incarnation from his former self — the kid dreaming of a life beyond high school.
The best illustration of this maturation is the jagged "Hounds," which captures the uncertainty of being half-adult/half-boy. "The summer before we recorded, we were all in a really weird place," he says. "Six people lived in a three-bedroom apartment, which was super intense. Also our guitar player had just left the band, so it was a really weird summer. And that song is about this general, pervading sense of anxiety that I think all of us were going through. The structure idea just came out of that, too — just making it sound like a weird, off-kilter thing, because that's the feeling we were trying to capture."
But even if Spoil marks a turning point toward professionalism — being better equipped to "capture the sounds in their heads" — the recording process was filled with unexpected complications. "We showed up at the studio, and they just didn't have any gear," Grote says. "We thought they were going to have all this gear. They'd just recently reopened and had nothing. They had a piano that was out of tune, and it made it onto 'Sing the Song.' They had one or two guitar amps. We'd flown there, so we didn't have any amps with us. We rented a keyboard, but other than that, everything was winging it. But that was kind of fun, too — there was a lot of trying to make the sounds we wanted to hear but having to be really creative because we didn't just have any instrument around."
They discovered paths around those creative roadblocks with Congleton, who impressed the band with his stacked résumé and ability to pair the expansive with the "fucked-up and dirty."
"I think most of our fears were about a producer coming in, cleaning it up, trying to make it good for radio, and having a record that sounds too nice and perfect," Grote says. "Because that's not what any of the records we love are like. We love things that have mistakes and sound crazy and weird. John's good at doing both: making it a much higher production level but also making stuff fucked-up and crazy."
The band has started tinkering with songs for their next LP as they wind down their current tour. All the while, Grote's savoring every second of this risky career path — the life of avoiding college and a normal job to pack rock clubs.
"[The risk] definitely crosses our minds," he says. "But even there, I think music would be what we're doing, but something else would be interfering. There'd be some other bullshit we'd have to deal with during the day. You think about it and wonder about it when you're really exhausted and you've had the longest three weeks. Then you think about all the fucking awesome stuff you did during those three weeks on tour. We get to do what we love and make the music we want to make, so it's a perfect scenario. We can't worry too much."
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