It’s true: fuzzy pop trio Earthquake Party! doesn’t have the flashiest origin story. Yes, they are yet another one of those bands that started in a living room as an excuse to dick around and have fun. Yes, for the past three years, they’ve been hopping from basement show to local venue to basement show in their hometown scene in Boston for the past three years, juggling retail gigs and serving jobs to get by. And yes, the only release they have available to fans is a three-song EP only available on cassette and via Bandcamp.
But sometimes that’s all you need.
This year, they embarked on their first tour, a nine-date stint spanning between Boston and Chicago (there they’d been cold-called by bookers at the Empty Bottle). While guitarist Justin Lally claims the band “barely broke even” over the short jaunt, it did the trick. Returning to Boston, he and keyboardist Mallory Hestand quit their day jobs and battened down the Earthquake Party! hatches.
But do they have the commitment it’ll take to make their band a full-time gig? The Voice met up with them when they swung into town for two nights last week, their first time back in the city since their first tour back in the spring. They’re New York natives by no stretch of the imaginatio; Hestand spent a year living and working in Williamsburg before retreating back to Boston, while Lally seems positively bewildered by the city. But even out-of-towners have a favorite NYC food joint—Los Hermanos, a taqueria nestled inside a tortilleria deep into Bushwick. Sound of the City met the band on the eve of Fashion Week to discuss the dos and don’ts of operating in a small scene, relying on the goodwill of fans with recording studios, and the benefits of biding your time as a band.
Tell me your origin story. How did you three meet?
Mallory Hestand: We actually worked together, all three of us, in retail, at the Urban Outfitters on Newbury Street—[sarcasm] a blast. Truly. A blast. So much of a blast that we needed to distract ourselves. And Justin and I had talked about music a little bit. It worked out really well because one day, he texted me and said, “Hey, do you know that band The Vaselines?” and I said, “Of course, they’re awesome,” and he asked, “Do you want to start a band like the Vaselines?” and I was like, “Yeah!” We started out without a drummer; our first show was at the Beachcomber [bar] in Quincy, just the two of us. We just had a tambourine.
Justin Lally: Before that, we didn’t even have a keyboard. We had an acoustic [at Mallory’s apartment] and she’d play [the piano tool on] her MacBook, and that’s how we wrote our first three songs.
M: It was awful!
J: Then we decided to have a party and a show at Mallory’s and invited some friends and had this other band that had a drum set play with us. J-Raff came by and his band [at the time] the Wonderful Spells were still on hiatus, and he asked us if we had a drummer. We said no.
M: And then he asked us, “Do you… want a drummer?”
J: So we counted it off, and it actually sounded better than I thought it was going to!
And how did you settle on the name Earthquake Party!?
J: I thought it up randomly. People came to our shows and told me about the Upright Citizens’ Brigade skit [of the same name], but I’ve never seen it. We also started playing like four months before the earthquake hit Haiti [in January 2010], and had to take some time off from playing shows just because of our name. We’ve played as Milkshake Party too, though!
Earthquake Party!, “Pretty Little Hand”
So you just kicked off your second tour last week.
M: Yep, Tuesday at Middlesex, with Love of Everything and our friends [local Boston trio] Pretty and Nice.
J: It was funny—a cricket got stuck in the rafters of [the club]. We [first] noticed it when we were loading in, then [at the show] when we would end a song, and the crowd would die down, you could hear it chirping.
M: It was so loud, too! Now it has its own Twitter page.
Of course it does. It seems like Boston scene has been pretty good to you.
J: I’ve only actually lived here the past four years, since we’ve been in this band and been accepted into [the scene]… there aren’t as many venues you can play, so a lot of the same bands all play the same venues, and then there’s the Two-Week Rule, so you can’t play two [venues within the same two weeks] because it’ll affect your draw—
Wait, what is the Two-Week Rule?
J: It’s an unwritten rule that [for example] you can’t book a show at Great Scott and then book a show at T.T. [the Bear’s Place] for a week later, because then [the venues] won’t book you anymore, because they think the other show will affect the turnout. Bands who book too many shows can get blacklisted.
Is that a universal thing?
J: It’s a rule for any city with a limited number of venues, yeah. [Editor’s note: Sources in booking say the “two-week rule” is not a thing in New York City.] But it’s not a one-and-done thing. We’ve definitely played two shows [within two weeks of each other]; it depends on the promoter. You can say, “We have this other show already booked, it’s on the other side of the city. It’s up to you.” Sometimes they’ll say, “No, we’ll pass on that, but we’ll set you up with something else.” We didn’t know [about the rule] when we started, but we picked it up pretty quickly. There have been new bands that will try at first to play, like, three shows a week, and then all of a sudden, whoops! Now they don’t get booked anymore.
So less is more, then.
M: Yeah, you don’t want to oversaturate people.
J: You have to pick your shows carefully. But at the same time, and I can’t speak for ten years ago, or even five years ago, but right now there are so many amazing DIY spots that are putting on shows all the time, and you can do as many of those as you want. Promoters aren’t going to find out about [basement shows]. And there are bands who do play, like, four times a week. The band Honey Bunnies, I see their names on bills six times a week! That scene is amazing.
Is it easy to transition, then, from that scene to the tours you’ve been developing?
J: We just bought our van this year, and we went on our first tour in February—it was only nine days, but it was the most fun I’ve had, ever… it’s definitely very different, everywhere, though.
M: We haven’t really been doing the touring thing for too long, so it’s hard to say.
J: The first time around, we probably could’ve been smarter on tour, but we still pretty much broke even. We came back pretty broke, but this time we’re a lot smarter. We know some people, got some guarantees upfront… It’s going pretty well so far.
Earthquake Party!, “Fast Girl, Slow Boy”
Would you say that getting a slot at Pop Montreal this month is the biggest break that’s come your way so far?
M: Absolutely. It’s a huge, official festival, and I’ve only ever heard really good things about Montreal. The venue, Les 3 Minots, is right on the main street, so we’re really lucky to get to be in the middle of it all. Justin’s roommate [Michael Caulo] helps us book shows and he was the one who really pushed for this one.
J: At first, the correspondence seemed nice but they didn’t seem super-psyched about it, for like a month or two… but then all of a sudden we got an email that said, “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to Pop Montreal!” We really thought they were just, kinda… you know, “That’s nice, but really, fuck off.”
So what’s your plan of attack now?
J: The best stuff has been happening to us in the past couple months. More people are paying attention than [they ever have]. I quit my job because I want this to be my main focus. It wasn’t when I was working 60 hours a week—you can’t be creative after a day like that. So now, we’re full-bore. I feel like this is our time—we can’t sit on it; we have to get out there.
Why did you decide that this was the time to do it?
M: I quit my job after the first tour [earlier this year] because when we got back, I decided that this was what I wanted to do. I don’t want to work in retail anymore. I’m going to get stuck if I stay. There’s a lot of security in a biweekly paycheck; you can count on it. But I was like, I don’t really care about security at this point. I want to do this. So I put in my three weeks… but then Bobby Burg [of Earthquake Party! tour-mates Love of Everything] asked me to roadie for them a week later, so I was like, “Okay!” and I gave up [even] the three-week notice and left. It’s definitely easier to focus when your emotional and physical energy isn’t being totally drained by something you’re not looking forward to, for the future and otherwise.
I’d imagine it’s easier to visualize what you want, too.
M: Especially when you’re so poor! It’s a big motivator.
J: It has definitely taken us places. Now, we just got a bunch of recording [time] at this amazing studio, Mad Oak, because some people really liked us and wanted to record us. It’s this thousand-dollar-a-day studio, with like $10,000 worth of guitar amps at one time.
M: We got really lucky with that, because our friend Ian—we used to work together at a piano shop—fixed a Rhodes for them and in exchange, they gave him a day of studio time, and he gave it to us.
J: A lot of people have been really into it, asking what they can do to help. And that’s what made us think that this was the time to do it.
Have you gotten to the point where people are writing about you without your asking them to?
J: Yeah, there’ve been some. Being misquoted is great. We did a thing with Interview magazine, and we did it over the phone. We were talking about our new songs, and I said that they weren’t as “drone-y,” that they were a little more sparse, but I mumble, and I talk fast. Then in print, he wrote, they’re not as “drum-y.” I was like, “Nooo! I didn’t say that.”
You say you’ve been recording, but so far you only have one release, your three-song “cassingle” vs. Pizza.
J: The [new] songs have all been ready to go for a while; we’re trying to figure out what way we want them to come out. We really want it to come out on vinyl; they’re meant to be [heard] that way. It’s just expensive, so we’ve been biding our time. We just recorded [again] two weeks ago, at Mad Oak, and it’s all completely us, no overdubs, straight to tape, all at once. We also used a half-inch tape machine, straight to cassette, so it’s first-generation analog, never touched digital.
Is the all-analog thing a point of pride for you?
J: I went to school for sound production. It just sounds better. You get analog distortion, it sounds cool. You get digital clipping, it’s the worst thing in the world. It is a point of pride; I really like it, and I think a lot of people do too. It’s not just a retro thing, I just like how it sounds—it’s more expensive, to buy tape, but everything I love is analog.
Don’t you think the analog thing makes it harder to put out new material, especially when you’re such a young band?
J: I tend to write songs in spurts and bunches. I don’t want to force a full-length. I think if I write a couple songs—two or three or four or five—they fit really nicely together, and I don’t know how well they would sit next to the others. I might be nitpicking it, but I like the idea of having our first couple releases have very concentrated feelings. You can tell where they come from, and you can change [as a band] without people thinking, “This [new] album is wildly all over the place!” You can switch around without getting pigeonholed into [an image]. It’s a little easier.
Does releasing records so infrequently make it hard to connect with fans outside the Boston scene?
J: It hasn’t yet.
M: We’re lucky to have those few write-ups about our live show out there. It takes some digging to find the ones that get to the full experience of it, but we’ve been riding on our live show. People ask us why we don’t record, because they want to hear more. That’s why we quit our jobs—we are going to try to do more.
J: It’ll only go up from here. There’s a lot more coming up, very soon.
So now what?
J: I’m just really excited to not be working, to be able to go into full songwriting mode when we get back from tour. This band has always just been about fun; Mallory and I just wanted to hang out every day, and music was a byproduct of that. I’m not going to say I’ll live in Boston forever—it’s not my favorite place I’ve ever been—but I see no reason to leave the closely knit best friends I have there. It’ll happen someday, but right now, I don’t have a couple best friends. I have 40.
Earthquake Party play Shea Stadium with Mannequin Pussy and the Brabazons on October 5.