It's so great to hear you say y'all."
After a whirlwind West Coast tour, Taylor Guarisco and his bandmates in GIVERS have re-entered the South, and their welcome mat is a round of press calls the day their anticipated debut album officially drops. But the Lafayette band is miles from home and in Dallas, Texas, for what should be a landmark, all-day celebration. Instead, the members of GIVERS (caps theirs) are quietly toasting In Light, released that morning. The band won't be among hundreds of hometown friends and fans in Lafayette, or downtown New Orleans, headlining an album release party as the guests of honor. Instead, they're headlining a show at The Loft in Dallas with tourmates Caddywhompus, the New Orleans-via-Houston duo. Though only a few hours away from Louisiana, home is nowhere in sight just yet. The Dallas gig follows endless touring, and in a few days the band heads to Tennessee to play the Bonnaroo music festival on June 10. On June 13, GIVERS makes its national television debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Up next: a globetrotting tour schedule jumping from New York to London, Portugal, Norway, Australia and New Zealand.
Vocalist and percussionist Tiffany Lamson and vocalist and guitarist Guarisco are huddled by a phone, a little road weary, exhausted and trying to digest that GIVERS, their band of a few twenty-something close friends from Lafayette, will sell thousands of records within a week to fans around the globe — boosted by the same label that saw potential in Mumford & Sons and Phoenix and made those bands international names and Grammy winners.
"We don't even understand it yet," Lamson says. "We've never had a record come out before. We've never felt this feeling. The aftershock will come later."
GIVERS the band is a relative newcomer in Lafayette's thriving music scene, south Louisiana's longtime Cajun folk and zydeco home base. Lafayette's youthful explosion of rock bands like Brass Bed join Feufollet, Pine Leaf Boys and Lost Bayou Ramblers, young bands evolving contemporary Cajun music in the south Louisiana musical landscape.
"Most of everyone in the band, we all grew up going to festivals, hearing Cajun music and zydeco here and there. It was always the music of the older folks, you know? It was never our music growing up," Lamson says. "It's that way for a lot of bands these days in Lafayette. We all grew up thinking, 'That's old people music.' ... Once we all got a little older, we all started opening — I opened up to Cajun music, zydeco music, just from being asked to play in a Cajun band. It's a thing that's happened in Lafayette in the last five, 10 years, this resurgence of Cajun and zydeco music, where now there's a lot of young people playing it and infusing it with modern energy and modern influence. It's something we've all opened up to eventually down the road, and now we've all embraced it and are proud of it."
GIVERS are veterans of several Cajun, zydeco and jazz outfits, whether as fixtures or bit players. A better point of reference for GIVERS, they say, is Festival International de Louisiane, Lafayette's annual answer to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Traditional folk, Cajun and Creole music from the deep bayou share stages with "world music" from Francophone countries around the globe — those sounds partially inform GIVERS' warm, sun-freckled island pop. The band's recent twilight performance at that festival was a kind of homecoming, a closing party that's a love letter from the band to its home.
That sound came naturally, they say, after jam sessions beginning in 2005, when Guarisco and Lamson met before both headed to the University of New Orleans — weeks before they'd retreat home following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. In that downtime, the two started playing music. "It was us becoming best friends, and just playing music," Lamson says. "It was very natural."
Guarisco also invited drummer Kirby Campbell, bassist Josh LeBlanc and keyboardists Will Henderson and Nick Stephan. With no songs written or set lists in mind, the unnamed band hopped on a last-minute slot after another group dropped off a local bill — and improvised the entire set. It worked well enough that they were invited back. "We got another call that said, 'You should do that again.' So we called everybody and ended up doing it again," Lamson says. "A lot of the songs on the record are from the ideas born those nights."
They performed again, and again, but they needed a name. The group went through their iTunes libraries looking for interesting song titles — Guarisco picked a Lucky Dragons song called "Givers." "It just stood out as, 'OK, that could be a candidate.' It ended up being one of the top two. So we went with it, and it felt pretty good," he says. "But now, almost three years later, it's like a name we've grown into. We picked a name that looked cool, now it's like this thing that's become part of our ethos."
After the newly christened GIVERS performed at Baton Rouge's stalwart music hall Spanish Moon, booking agent Aaron Scruggs gave the band what would become one the "major accidents that became very fruitful occurrences," Guarisco says. For their Baton Rouge show, Brooklyn's offbeat pop band Dirty Projectors had a rare opening slot — Scruggs gave it to GIVERS. Dirty Projectors were so impressed they asked the band to open for the remainder of their tour. Rock band Ra Ra Riot caught wind of them and booked the band for its 2010 tour.
"To see people that actually come to our shows — and we've never even been to some of these places — and see them dance and know the words, it's been really mind blowing," Lamson says. The band also has been embraced by celebrity fans (Green Lantern star Ryan Reynolds says he's "obsessed"), and by the end of 2010, the momentum and buzz landed the band a record deal. In Light (which premiered on National Public Radio's high-profile First Listen series, with the entire album posted on npr.org for listeners to stream), recorded last year, gathers material over those years of improvised, loose sessions and whirlwind touring, from early EP singles "Ceiling of Plankton" to standout track and fan favorite "Up Up Up." "It's been our baby, in the womb for a year," Guarisco says. "We get to finally see it out and about in the world."
On the way to Bonnaroo, the band's trailer broke down in Little Rock, Ark., and the band missed a day of press and promotion. They made it, just barely. In the audience were fans like Win Butler, the lead vocalist and songwriter of Arcade Fire, along with various booking agents and music industry suits and, of course, hundreds of fans. When asked, "How many of you are from Louisiana?," hundreds of hands shot up.
"It was like, all of a sudden I want to be from Louisiana," says Daniel Glass, a music industry giant whose Glassnote Entertainment Group signed GIVERS last year. "It was one of those moments, this bond: 'Whatever you are, we are.' ... They were accepted in the club."
Glass has made or helped boost the careers of dozens of artists, from Billy Idol and the Pretenders to Erykah Badu and D'Angelo, and he delivered late-career rebirths from Steve Earle and the late Warren Zevon. In 2007, Glass founded Glassnote, an independent label (named by Rolling Stone as the "best indie label in 2011") with only a handful of artists on its roster — including Grammy-winning buzz bands Phoenix and Mumford & Sons. Last year, GIVERS joined the lineup, after Glass discovered the band at Austin City Limits, a gig he would've missed if he didn't run the mile from his train to the venue.
"I was mesmerized by the performance, the physicality. It was a visceral moment for me," he says, calling from New York, steps from 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where GIVERS just wrapped rehearsals for their national TV debut on Late Night. "I don't fall in love a lot. The only time this happened to me was when I walked into a brasserie in Paris and I met Phoenix."
Unlike GIVERS' previous releases, which were self-produced and offered free or cheaply on the Internet, In Light is a studio-polished monster. For its fiercely bright production, the band hooked up with maestro Ben Allen, who helmed Animal Collective's pop-crossover breakthrough Merriweather Post Pavilion, a favorite on dozens of publications' "best of" lists in 2009. That album gave the critically acclaimed experimental outfit a glossy pop makeover, with the single "My Girls" as that summer's de facto jam.
In Light's first three tracks — opener "Up Up Up," followed by "Meantime" and "Saw You First," with its Arcade Fire-sized charge retreating to the band's blissed out grooves — are childlike bursts of unabashed joy. Guarisco lays down crunchy, bass-packed riffs, some reaching stadium-sized heights, between squiggly, tropical pop guitars, bass and acoustic instruments, from flutes to ukulele. Lamson's smoky, acrobatic voice gets a starring turn on "Ripe," but her and Guarisco's playful harmonies share most of the album's vocal work.
Reviews have been mostly positive — though some say the band is "impossibly optimistic," which leaves Guarisco scratching his head.
"The happiness we express in these songs, in life, is happiness we find within ourselves," he says. "And in my opinion it takes years, looking at yourself, realizing you don't look stupid, calling out these insecurities we've grown up without really looking at, and really just purging those. It takes work. It's not just like, 'Yeah, we choose to be happy.' We chose to look at everything we don't like about ourselves and see that's all bullshit."
Glass says the early reception is good — the album's getting heavy radio rotation in Australia, Canada and the U.K., as well as in New York, Minneapolis and Seattle. But Glass says he's not sure if GIVERS will share the same meteoric fame as Phoenix and Mumford & Sons. The band's success hinges on its infectious live performance — the one that convinced Dirty Projectors, Glass and thousands others.
"Our marketing plan is one line: Get people out to see them live. There's no tricks," Glass says. Live, Lamson's shoulder-length hair swings wildly as she pounds a xylophone, cymbals and drums. Guarisco pounces across the stage, and the rest of the band bobs heads and sinks into every note — all while wearing constant, ear-to-ear grins.
"You feel good after meeting them. There's something about them," Glass says. "Phoenix makes you feel cool. Mumford makes you feel loved. This band, you feel good. There's a glow about them. And when they leave you, you get upset."
Late Night's musical director discovered the band at Emo's in Austin, Texas, and booked them that night. (Glass says GIVERS opening for Late Night house band The Roots in Virginia a month earlier couldn't have hurt, either.) During rehearsals for their TV debut, the band, surrounded by Saturday Night Live producers and studio engineers, got off to a rough start. They were nervous, intimidated.
By the third take, they nailed it. "They knew what they were doing. They were definite," Glass says. "They weren't asking the engineer their opinion; they were telling him, 'This is how we sound.'
"The great ones know who they are. They know what to do," he says. "The others are jerks." Guarisco says the band is firm in its mission statement: serving others, and staying positive.
"If I ever find myself complaining about my life, you know, I'd have to remind myself my job is to sing songs and talk to people," Guarisco says. "Saying that, we complain about that shit. ... There will be sadness, and I have many things in my life I can choose to be sad about. There are things I can think about that can bring me down ... (but) to sing songs is my job. I remind myself that when I start getting too worked up."