Northern National caught the attention of label execs at SXSW, but the labels had a few requests.Sean Berry
In less than a year, Northern National have amassed a considerable online following and received the support of major media companies. It seems that the alternative pop-rock band have picked up their audience almost everywhere — except their hometown, Dallas.
While Northern National are a regular act at music festivals and an opener at the House of Blues, the band says they have a harder time breaking into the local indie scene because they're perceived as too commercial. One of their songs is on rotation on KXT, Coca Cola has put them on a playlist and they performed at Facebook's studio — all before ever playing a single Deep Ellum bar together.
"You get burned out," singer Michael Rossi says. "I think every musician has the thought, 'I don't want to be in the city anymore. I want to do bigger and better things.' And there's a lot of camaraderie here, and we lost sight of that. You get intimidated by the talent here."
Rossi and keyboardist Michael Kanne have been playing together for the last five years. After destroying all online evidence of their previous life as a folk-rock band, and trading in their hired guns for permanent members, they re-assembled the band to include guitarist Andrew Supulski, drummer Anthony Comas and bassist Dylan Greene.
The group's overall charm falls somewhere between a boy band and a young Rolling Stones. "We have a college ... female fan base," Kanne says, to which the group laughs. Northern National have methodically visited sororities in every city they visit, offering to play a few songs at chapter meetings, made up of hundreds of young women.
"We try to go the Sunday before the show, and hit up four or five sororities," Kanne explains, "and we are guaranteed to have that fan base come out, and the girls drag their boyfriends to the show."
The band's business brain is well-developed, and they each have unique skills that benefit the group, as their day jobs show. Supulski works with instruments, Kanne in social media and branding; Comas is a catering manager, Rossi a web designer and Greene a financial adviser.
Northern National originally releasedtheir first single, "Love is Fire,"in spring 2015, with a party at the Reunion Tower. But they didn't like how it turned out, so they redid the song, and re-released it last May. In its first week, the track had 2,000 streams on Spotify.
"And then overnight it went to 25,000 streams, for no reason," Kanne says. Rossi called Kanne after the sudden spike in listeners. "I was like, 'Dude, did you pay for something?'" he recalls. Kanne replied, "Dude, I don't think you can."
Spotify had promoted the song by adding it to their Discover Weekly feature. Today it has over 450,000 streams. Their next single, "The New Age," released at the end of July, has been streamed 90,000 times so far. Last August, the group went to Los Angeles for a week's worth of meetings. They'd been invited by VEVO, which premiered the song's video, to play an acoustic set for its own staff. During that trip they performed on a radio show, and did a livestream performance from the Facebook headquarters' studio.
For their "Love is Fire" video they hired 25 blonde models, as the video's storyline called for look-alikes of the lead actress. The band's casting call wasn't well-received on social media. "They called us Nazis," they say, recalling comments like, "You're in for the Aryan race."
"I personally prefer brunettes," Comas quips.
But it was their lack of a local following, not this internet controversy, which turned off L.A. management. "[In the meetings] they said, 'You need a story, and your city's first. We look at whether your city is behind you or not,'" Kanne says.
The group was afraid that their sound differed too much from the music coming out of Dallas. "We are accidentally commercial," Comas says.
Their new single, "Money Blind," is the first they've written collectively. They recorded it as part of their new EP, The New Age, with Brooklyn-based producer Dan Stringer, who they say is producing Lauryn Hill's latest album. They flew him into Dallas for five days so they could record in a Carrollton studio.
"The cool sounds bring you in, but the lyrics are what keeps you listening," Stringer says of the album. He was most impressed by the band's tenacity. "Many new bands think that with the internet and social media, all you have to do is post a good song and everything will take care of itself, but that is rarely the case. These guys aren't leaving that up to chance. They are definitely one of the hardest working bands I've seen in the studio and out."
The album is undeniably radio-friendly, on par with Imagine Dragons and Cold War Kids. Rossi's lyrics have the clarity of a forlorn Michael Bublé, set against a faintly blues-flavored rock backdrop, blessed and cursed by their high production levels. The band is often told they sound like something out of the mid-2000s, which, in any case, distinguishes them from their peers.
"It's more in line with our live show, where we're more rock 'n' roll," Kanne says. Supulski agrees: "We do a tight show, but it's not super rehearsed. We show a lot more vulnerability."
Last month, the band played three showcases at SXSW. They normally wear all black for shows, but on the one night that they didn't, representatives of a label happened to show up. They received a subsequent email stating that while they'd loved their sound, they believed Kanne and Rossi needed to get in better shape. And that they should've been wearing all black.
"And then she goes, 'Rossi is looking like Rob Thomas in album one' ... When he's chubby and dorky," Kanne says. "'He needs to be looking like Rob Thomas, album two.'" Rossi protests: "Chubby, yeah, but dorky? Come on." Apparently the email concluded, "Also, your guitarist is fucking hot," in reference to Supulski. "I wore black," Comas points out.
They've indulged in a few cigarettes and are well into their fifth or sixth drink when the manager of the bar where we're chatting approaches the group. She's overheard their conversation about being in a band. She invites them to play a gig at the bar, even though she has no idea what they sound like, and they're not even wearing all black.
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Eva Raggio is the Dallas Observer's music and arts editor, a job she took after several years of writing about local culture and music for the paper. Eva supports the arts by rarely asking to be put on "the list" and always replies to emails, unless the word "pimp" makes up part of the artist's name.