From a distance, Irvine might look like a rock ‘n’ roll wasteland: a city of over a quarter million people that boasts only one regular rock venue (FivePoint Amphitheatre) and just three bands who’ve “made it” in the city’s nearly 50-year history: veteran post-hardcore heroes Thrice; defunct Christian rock band East West; and hard-to-define indie darlings Young the Giant.
But look closer – or, even better, talk to local musicians – and you’ll discover a vibrant grassroots music culture defined by do-it-yourself ethics and a play-anywhere ethos. And it’s a scene poised for wider recognition, propelled in part by its most prominent export, Young the Giant, who’ve scored a string of hits since forming (originally as The Jakes) in Irvine in 2004.
Irvine has boasted bustling, if mostly underground, post-punk and indie rock scenes, energized by the success of Thrice and Young the Giant respectively – it’s just been lacking the clubs, rehearsal facilities and high-profile recording studios to make these more visible and geographically defined. It’s all too easy for Irvine bands to simply perform in adjacent cities such as Santa Ana and Costa Mesa, or to make the relatively short trips to L.A. or San Diego. Additionally diluting the city’s reputation as a musical incubator has been the reality that many Irvine musicians – including No Doubt guitarist Tom Dumont and Rage Against the Machine’s Tim Commerford and Zach de la Rocha – have relocated to nearby cities before finding fame.
“We’d play at Heritage Park Community Center; we’d play in Turtle Rock; we’d play at essentially any community center that would allow us to play shows,” recalls Young the Giant frontman Sameer Gadhia of his band’s Irvine beginnings. “There was most definitely a lot of vigor and excitement – I think people wanted to try something different.”
Young the Giant’s status as local heroes – with hit singles including “My Body”, “Cough Syrup” and “Apartment” – is such that not only did the quintet headline FivePoint’s opening in 2017, but they also supported Gwen Stefani at two “farewell” shows for the nearby, now-demolished Irvine Meadows (also known as Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre) the previous year. Earlier this month they released their characteristically melodic and gently eclectic fourth album, Mirror Master.
“I moved to Irvine [from Canada] when I was 15,” says YtG drummer Francois Comtois. “Just meeting all these kids who were so passionate about the DIY scene and making their own records and putting on shows was something I’d never experienced anywhere else I’d lived.”
While a string of big-selling bands put Orange County on the world’s musical map in the 1990s, these tended to be from anywhere but Irvine. Fullerton punk legends Social Distortion found mainstream success at the turn of that decade, while No Doubt exploded out of Anaheim with “Just a Girl” in 1995, and Garden Grove’s The Offspring became enduring radio staples.
“Irvine was encapsulated in its own world and kind of, for better or worse, just had its own scene that was not able to really branch out,” mulls Gadhia, who worked for the city of Irvine, at its Fine Arts Center, while in high school. “Irvine in itself is entirely different from the rest of Orange County. Yes, it is a suburb and, yes, it is planned and, yes, it has this corporate sense to it, but it is also this crazy, weird social experiment in a lot of ways, because it is such a young city.”
The cultural melting pot of Irvine, which was only incorporated in 1971, proved a sound-shaping Petri dish for the fledgling Young the Giant (“Irvine in a lot of ways is a huge inspiration,” Gadhia enthuses). The city’s population has more than doubled over the past 20 years, with more than 70 languages spoken and (as of 2016) an Asian American plurality. Every member of Young the Giant is the son of immigrants – a theme they explored on 2016 third album Home of the Strange.
“Early on, at least, it was really something that we weren’t conscious of. I think that’s kind of the beauty of it – that you’re surrounded by people who come from different parts of the world, who have different traditions and cultures, and you don’t really think about it,” says Comtois. “So there were all these sort of different perspectives that had bubbled up to us through the decade that we had lived there.”
“Even just within our band, the different cultures that are represented made what we were doing more exciting,” Gadhia, whose parents came from India, explains. “It was only after leaving and going to college that I realized that there is a great deal of homogeneity, in California even. Irvine really has something going in that sense.”
While outsiders might view this young giant of a city as a place of manicured suburban materialism, both Gadhia and Comtois find an almost poetic romance in Irvine’s myriad immigrant odysseys.
“A lot of people [in Irvine] are trying to better their family’s lot in life,” says Comtois. “And there’s something very noble about that.”
“We are proud of the fact that we do come from there; that our parents moved there for better opportunities for us,” Gadhia concurs. “That’s why we are who we are.”
In a city dominated by colleges and corporations, the members of Young the Giant – which is completed by guitarist/keyboard players Jacob Tilley and Eric Cannata, and bassist Payam Doostzadeh – faced the dilemma of continuing their education towards stable careers or taking a gamble on the band. At the time of recording their debut EP, 2008’s Shake My Hand, the then-Jakes were all either in high school or attending different colleges. Original drummer Jason Burger left the band to pursue an education at Manhattan School of Music, while Gadhia and Comtois opted to put college on hold to focus on Young the Giant.
As the older of two siblings, Gadhia, who was in his second year at Stanford University at the time, faced a particularly tough decision.
“I was kind of like the guinea pig for American culture, and there was this strong sense that you should work hard and get into a good school,” he remembers. “But I knew that I’d regret it if I didn’t [pursue music]. And my parents and I most definitely did not agree, but they were at least, with this spirit of the American Dream, willing to entertain the theory and the idea.”
His bold move promptly paid off. After their music was used in high-profile TV shows, and “Cough Syrup” received airplay on L.A.’s influential KROQ radio station, Young the Giant signed to Roadrunner Records in 2009. The first single from their eponymous 2010 debut album, “My Body”, hit number five on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, in part thanks to prominent TV and festival performances.
Meanwhile, Young the Giant had outgrown Irvine’s limited music industry infrastructure at the time and moved to Los Angeles, where the band members shared a string of houses right through the writing and recording of their sophomore album, Mind over Matter, in 2014.
“All of the studios were in Hollywood, and all the showcases were in Hollywood,” says Gadhia. “We were tired of just going back and forth and commuting.”
But the move to L.A. also made Young the Giant fully appreciate the many pluses of being big-fish-in-a-smaller-pond back in Irvine.
“The limited amount of bands and competition [in Irvine] definitely helped us out. … We had a built-in audience from very early on and a really great support system,” Comtois considers. “We moved up to Los Angeles and all of a sudden we were sort of flailing and there’s just about a million bands any given Friday night that you could go see.”
Young the Giant persisted and prevailed, though, continuing to hit the charts in North America and Europe, while touring with the likes of Incubus and Neon Trees, earning the endorsement of indie godfather Morrissey, and even being profiled on CNN. Throughout, the band has stayed true to its approach of musical and lyrical authenticity trumping pre-conceived quests for commercial success.
Following Home of the Strange’s more externalized exploration of immigrant history and American identity, the thematically-related Mirror Master is a more inward-looking search for our place in the world through analysis of self-perception.
“I think this record has a strong tie to what Home of the Strange is,” says Gadhia. “Realizing that you need to be okay with the many versions of yourself, who you are, to understand the world at large; to understand America at large.”
“A big theme that we were exploring [with Mirror Master] is that it’s okay to feel sad, depressed or down – y’know, that’s part of the human condition,” said Comtois. “If everyone sort of acknowledges that … it makes it a little bit easier for everyone.”
While YtG stuck with Home of the Strange producer Alex Salibian for Mirror Master, they also did some recording sessions with TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, which proved significant.
“He really challenged us to be more direct and to find a balance between sort of the poetic and up-for-interpretation lyrics that we’ve tended to work with and also just be as direct as possible, so that when someone listens to, y’know, a verse they know exactly what you’re talking about,” says Comtois.
The resulting album is a pensive yet optimistic journey rich in atmosphere and texture that – with the exception of rousing first single “Simplify” and the title track – ostensibly appears far removed from the effervescent energy of YtG’s early singles. Yet repeated listens reveal all of the band’s sonic charms fully intact, if not subtly expanding, albeit in admirably restrained form.
“We give all of ourselves to [our music] and every record is a snapshot of who we are as a band at that given time,” says Gadhia. “And I think that through-line of really caring about what we do and working hard and not just falling on our laurels … of trying to search for something else … has been a continuous line in our music.”
As with all Young the Giant releases, the wonderfully nuanced instrumentation on Mirror Master remains strictly in service to the songs, lyrics and Gadhia’s slinky yet masterfully controlled, falsetto-capped timbre.
“We have an amazing singer in Sameer, so there’s always that thread that runs through all the songs,” says Comtois. “And that in itself allows us to sort of take bigger chances, stylistically, because he is such a force, and it gives a really strong sense of identity to the songs.”
As Young the Giant ponders its next moves, as a band and as individuals, they hope to continue to inspire and encourage a new generation of Irvine musicians.
“Maybe [they] see that, hey, these guys were my age, wearing the same shoes, and were able to sort of make a life out of this,” says Comtois. “And sometimes that’s all it takes: to see that someone already did it, and that gives you the confidence.”
Indeed, Gadhia hints at his band possibly having a more tangible impact on the Irvine music scene to which they feel they owe so much.
“For us, Irvine really does feel like coming home, and we will make sure that that’s a thing,” he says. “We’re also trying to figure out … how we can give back to the music scene and trying to figure out, in the future, hopefully having something that’s a more solid enterprise there that we can perform at and other people can perform at as well.”
Gadhia’s adamant that there’s much more to Irvine and its musical culture than most non-residents realize, and that the city just needs a stage – literal or metaphorical – upon which to share itself with the world.
“I hope that comes in the form of a music festival or another venue, or just being able to have a stronger presence and a narrative that kind of binds all these young musicians, and maybe some sort of mentorship,” he concludes. “There’s not much help that needs to be done – it’s just about sharing it with the rest of the world.”