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The Districts: Hitting Together.

March 5, 2014

TheDistrictsKH03Text by Nikki Volpicelli. Images by Kate Harrold.

Rob Grote leads The Districts by hissing passion from his mouth. The word “vocal” doesn’t seem to do that sound justice. It’s more raw, the wrenched feelings making the noise sound feral, like the raccoons that haunt the backyard of the North Philly apartment he shares with the rest of the band.

The guys – Grote, along with Mark Larson (guitar), Connor Jacobson (bass) and Braden Lawrence (drums) – moved from Lititz, Pa. to Philly earlier this year after releasing their first full-length record, Telephone. That was recorded and put out while they were still students at Warwick High School.

The apartment they share near Temple University campus features a steady line of Beatles records running behind their couch as wall art.

They don’t go to the university, unlike most of those who live nearby in frat houses, student housing units and dorm quarters. They started at Temple last fall but quickly gave up heaving book bags to focus on lugging guitars and drum kits and other gear to venues.

Now, they perform alongside acts that are well past college age. The Districts play for audiences often taken aback by their youth, considering the group’s vintage sound and Grote’s grumbly, mature voice – and the fact that in November, The  Districts signed to Fat Possum, the same label that’s home to the Black Keys, Dinosaur Jr., T. Rex and The Walkmen.

“It’s not the craziest I’ve ever heard but we’ve gained some momentum,” Grote says about the Districts’ rapid ascent. “I guess things have been moving decently since 9th grade. I just kind of want to see what happens. I don’t think we would’ve balanced both [college and recording].”

The other guys nod in agreement. They nod in agreement most of the time, like when they agreed to put aside some individual musical influences (including the Dave Matthews Band) to form one unit of pulsing, wrecking ball of ballad-y river rock. This is a group of guys that write, practice, perform, record, live, eat, sleep, drive and see shows together. The Districts is a “group” in every way you dissect the word.

“I think it’s the kind of band,” says producer Bill Moriarty, “that if you take one member out and try to add another, it wouldn’t work perfectly. They’re playing along together all the time. It’s a sloppy band but they’re tight as a unit.”

Moriarty, owner of Waking Studio, recently added The Districts to his roster, which already includes Dr. Dog, Man Man and The Lawsuits. He’s recording and working on the “scaffolding” that will be the outfit’s second full-length record.

The world these guys live in might seem unorthodox, an alternative to a predictable post-teenage life. Each member will always have a unique camaraderie in their shared experience. Being in this band seems to have created a union without any visible cracks, a defense from some of the more trivial stuff that’s affected many breaking artists who lacked that same netting.

Moriarty calls it always “hitting together.” And while the group relies on Grote’s lyrics to drive what it is that they do with their individual instruments, it’s not with an iron fist. It’s instinctual. One leader is just one leader, it’s not going to be the ‘thing’ without all of its parts. If you take one member out, it wouldn’t work perfectly.

“Mark and I are very into guitar solos,” Grote says, emphasizing the word “very.”

“I was really into being a rockstar,” laughs Mark Larson. “So I was really into Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page, all those big solo guitarists.”

According to Grote, The Districts write enough dueling guitar parts to satiate the both of ’em.

A Districts song has a sickness, the kind that leaves you in cold sweats. Vocals brim with passion, in-your-face aggression. The temperature dips and swells hyper-purposefully. Pixie-like. Rabid, tense, a flirting line between human and animal.

No one in the group is older than 21 but each member’s musical integrity runs laps around their lifelines, which is most obvious when they play live. Moriarty, the one man who’s not in the band but is still present throughout the recording process, considers it “compelling.”

“You can tell they mean it,” he says. “There’s gonna be a lot of people seeing it and turning to their friends like, ‘Whoa, did you just see that?’ That can only grow to more people seeing them live.”

Proof might be in the HotBox Studios session the group recorded early in 2012. The Philly-based studio lets artists perform one song live before they mix and master it. Each session is filmed and posted on to the studio’s YouTube page.

The Districts performed a striking execution of “Funeral Beds” off Telephone. That video put the group on the map. Former HotBox producer Greg Fernandez texted Grote to tell him the video made it to the front page of Reddit, a website that calls itself the “front page of the Internet.”

“I didn’t even know what Reddit was,” Grote admits with a laugh.

The video has received more than 300,000 views to date. Huffington Post Teen published it too and it was included once more on Reddit, sparking another spike in viewership. But views and videos are not what really counts to the guys.

“There’s not the same connection as playing in front of actual people,” Grote reasons, “which feels more real than a YouTube video. You’re actually experiencing it. You see these people in real life.”

This group is not phased by the strange world of Internet sensation. The Districts are still just a group of friends who took a blood oath in 9th grade to stick together as a band so they could perform a show at a coffeehouse somewhere in Lancaster one weekend.

TheDistrictsKH04Outside of their home, the guys stand in the corner by the backyard fence. To their left is a graffiti mural depicting the cover art of Daniel Johnston’s Hi, How Are You? album. This is the work Johnston dubbed The Unfinished Album back in 1983, a few short years before a manic episode on a small airplane caused the once under-the-radar songwriter to think he was Casper the Friendly Ghost. Johnston threw the keys out of the window and crashed the plane to the ground. Surprisingly, he survived.

In any case, The Districts bandmates all stand too close for comfort to the trees, where those raucous raccoons like to come in and out of, taunting the roommates only to scurry back up into the branches to hide.

Tyler Oliveri, one of two roommates not in the band, walks into the yard at the perfect time. The “perfect time” is seconds after two college-aged guys finished furiously blinking the lights from their second-story window and dancing frantically, putting on a show for the guys in the backyard.

Grote mentions that the neighbors have been acting strange tonight and Oliveri takes it as a cue to remove his shirt and prepare to fight the raccoons. He heads toward the corner of the ring.

Hurriedly, hilariously, Grote explains he was talking about the human neighbors in the second story window, who were also shirtless. Frat bro stuff. Not racoon stuff.

A moment can show a lot about a group of humans. This one tells a lot about The Districts’ members relationship with their world. In between a childish, fantastical musician’s dream and a scary, dangerous, wild unknown is where they sit, together.

As they sit, they laugh nervously but happily. They wait for the next thing to come their way.

Because here they are,  navigating the stuff that young people navigate while also navigating the stuff that most musicians, whatever their age, are yearning for.

And they must be good folks if they’ve got people in their corner, willing to fight wild, North Philly raccoons bare-chested for their honor.

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