>> It goes without saying that pursuing a career as a musician is no easy task. Staying true to yourself and your fans on top of maintaining some sort of hype can be overwhelming, and not every band is meant to last. Brooklyn-based rockers The Energy definitely break that mold through channeling the true spirit of rock 'n' roll. The group has been together for nearly a decade and they're gearing up to release their 5th studio album, titled When We Were Young, later this year. A lot has changed since the band first formed and things haven't always been simple, but these four musicians are determined to keep making the music they truly care about.
>> Guitarist Ian VanderMeulen recently shared the band's history as well as his thoughts on how things have shifted in the industry while the group has been active. Read about their New York roots, the significance behind When We Were Young, and goals for the future below.
How did The Energy come together? What led to pursuing music as more than a hobby?
The band indeed started as a cover band roughly ten years ago, but quickly turned to writing originals, recording records, and touring to promote them, the real bread and butter of any original band. So the band was already a pretty serious project—much more than a hobby—before I joined, about eight years ago. I had come from a conservatory background but had also been writing a lot of music that fit stylistically with what the guys had been doing—guitar-driven, commercially viable rock but with depth, with soul. When I joined, the fit was glove tight, personally and musically. We shared a diverse set of musical tastes, from classic acts like Led Zeppelin and U2 to the grunge era to more contemporary stuff. And we also shared a seriousness about what we were doing—a desire to “make it” in a pretty fickle industry while also remaining dedicated to the artistry of what we do. I think that led to a lot of experimentation on Realize Your Sin, my first album with the band, and more self-consciously commercial approach on Streets of In-Between, the album that came after. It feels in many ways like we’ve come full circle on When We Were Young—the songs are heavier and more experimental again, but still catchy.
How would you describe your local music scene? Do you think being based in Brooklyn has influenced your sound and style?
The music scene in Brooklyn is incredibly diverse, but indie rock and hip-hop are probably two that come to most peoples’ minds when they think of the borough. I think the indie rock scene in Brooklyn is internally quite diverse, and we take maybe an “older school” approach, really relying on a core guitar-bass-drums setup, with very little in the way of synthesizer or special effects. We also have our own fist pump to the hip-hop scene by having the up-and-coming MC Kid G4shi on the new album. That collaboration grew fairly naturally out of having him sit in on a couple of our big headline shows. Beyond that, though, historically Brooklyn has more of a “working class” reputation, and I think that’s been an subtle influence too. Our approach has always been centered on performing—hitting the road, playing shows, and connecting with fans directly. At our peak we’ve done 100 shows a year. And when we’re not out on the road we’re always writing, always working on our craft. So I’d like to think we embody that Brooklyn work ethic. But I moved to Queens about a year ago, so we’ll see, I hope that doesn’t change!
What major changes have you experienced in the industry throughout your near decade as a band?
The music scene has certainly changed a lot, in both global and local senses. One of the big local changes a while back that hit really close to home was the Knitting Factory’s move from the West Village out to Brooklyn. You might think we’d be psyched, as a Brooklyn based band. But the Manhattan location was really the New York venue where The Energy grew the most, both before and immediately after I joined. Selling out that room became an important stepping-stone to headlining bigger New York venues like Gramercy, Highline Ballroom, and Irving Plaza. So it was kind of a shock when it closed. Social media has of course been huge as well. We’ve also certainly followed the shift away from MySpace—which used to be a huge part of our media game—toward more emphasis on Facebook and now SoundCloud as ways to connect with fans.
How have those changes influenced the way you operate as a group?
Although we certainly continue to play sort of traditional club shows, we have tried to mix things up with more DIY kinds of productions as well. One thing we’ve done a lot of is smaller acoustic shows, sometimes in an art gallery or similar space, with catering and cash bar that we organize. It brings us closer our most loyal fans and it’s also a contrast to the bigger electric shows—which we also love—so it stretches us as musicians and performers. We’ve also done some private parties. Obviously, seeking out these kinds of opportunities often requires making connections beyond the normal or established “music industry” networks, which is perhaps another way the industry has changed. Even our headline club shows we often put together the entire bill, and choose the other acts not just based on style or genre but who we like working with. That more personalized approach may seem counterintuitive in such a social media-driven age, but maybe that’s just how we stay rebellious!
How did you do things differently with your upcoming album, When We Were Young? What made writing and recording this release stand out for you?
As I said, the finished product feels like we’ve come full circle, and I think a lot of that has to do with the process. The songs were written and recorded over a longer period of time than on the previous two albums, so I think there was more opportunity to polish them, or even test them out live during our shows. We’ve always been independent, never on a record label, but I think in the past we’ve operated like we were—deadlines, get the product finished, out the door, etc. It really is rewarding to take our time with a project like this. Looking back, its amazing how cohesive this group of songs turned out, and I think that’s a result of sort of finding “our sound,” even though it’s still someone eclectic. In that sense it’s interesting that we decided to call the album When We Were Young—and feature pictures of our younger selves in the album artwork—even though the album feels like our most “mature” effort yet.
What is the main goal with this new album? What do you hope listeners will get from these tunes?
This is not just hyperbole—there really is something for everyone on this album. Unless you just don’t like rock n’ roll, which is your own problem. A bunch of the songs are just heavy—big guitars, big choruses. I think “California Sun” is the only time we’ve ever had a “shout” chorus with a bunch of people in the studio all singing. I also get to wail a bit more—longer solos and more of them. So that’s fun. The title track starts out all smoky and mysterious but the chorus is just bursting with heat. I remember I wasn’t crazy about Adam’s lyrics when we first wrote the song, and then when he sang it in the studio they were totally different and just hit me right in the gut. It’s really kind of a desperate plea for a more direct and honest type of relation—so incredibly personal and political at the same time. And as an antidote to all the riffage we close with “Little Man,” which is kind of Adam’s lullaby to his first-born son. Every rocker has to have one of those, don’t you agree?
What's next for The Energy?
We’ve kind of slowed down our pace during the process of recording this album, at least in terms of touring. So I think we’re eager to start playing out a more again, connecting with audiences directly, the best way we know how. We’re also hoping to snag some higher profile placements in other entertainment media—film, TV, etc. This is one aspect of our game plan that’s been a bit lacking. I think the depth and diversity of our sound is a double-edged sword in that kind of market. We have a lot of different sounding songs that would work in a variety of settings, but that also makes it more difficult to pigeonhole us—to say, “The Energy sounds like X, so let’s use them for Y.”
Is there anything else you'd like to say?
Just that we all hope the new album turns you on in some way. And if you do find yourself at an Energy show for the first time (or the many-eth time) in the coming months, don’t be a stranger. We’re all approachable dudes and love to connect with fans directly.
- Kate Russell