More than 2,200 bands play Austin’s SXSW festival each year, so it takes something pretty special to cut through the margarita fuzz and stand out from the melee. Last year, four unassuming teenagers from the tiny town of Lititz, Pennsylvania managed it. Anyone who witnessed The Districts’ incendiary live show came away raving about their fully formed rock’n’roll epics, and in particular fresh-faced lead singer Rob Grote, whose voice sounded like it belonged to a man who’d been headlining festivals since Woodstock.
Nine months on, The Districts find themselves in London after a year spent spreading their gospel around the world. Their reputation as the band who conquered SXSW could have weighed heavy, but they shrug off the idea that they’ve felt under pressure to live up to the hype. “When you’re playing a show you’re in you own little world,” shrugs Grote. “We don’t think about anything else.”
“Yeah, it’s like, once you’re up there onstage, what can really go wrong?” adds drummer Braden Lawrence. “Apart from technical shit, but we’ve been doing this for a while…”
That’s the real secret to the rise of The Districts – like a lot of bands, their overnight success has been a long time coming. Although they’re still all only 19 or 20, Grote, Lawrence and bassist Connor Jacobus have been playing together for five years. New guitarist Pat Cassidy recently replaced Mark Larson when he went back to college.
For a time, their youth threatened to define them. When a live version of their song ‘Funeral Beds’ went viral on Reddit, it was headlined “They’re still in high school”, as if that’s all they had to offer. In truth, their music was already good enough to stand up against anyone’s. “We didn’t want that to be a gimmick,” says Grote. “We didn’t want to be known as ‘that young band’. When we were still in high school it was more of a big deal, but now we’re just paying rent just like everybody else. In the States, sometimes we have to leave venues when we’re done playing because we’re not old enough to drink, but it’s not too much of an issue.”
While the band’s music channels the rich history of Americana, from Neil Young to Kings Of Leon, their attitude to putting out music has been pure punk DIY. They released 13-track album ‘Telephone’ themselves last February before signing with indie label Fat Possum. In recent years the label has released music by the likes of Fat White Family and Wavves, but it was co-founded by Matthew Johnson in the early ’90s as an outlet for largely forgotten blues musicians. “Matthew was probably about our age when he first started going out and talking to those old blues guys and trying to pull off all this crazy shit,” says Grote, “so I guess we have a similar music mentality.”
Fat Possum flew them to Seedy Underbelly Studio in Minnesota in September to record their album. “We arrived about midnight and the airline had lost our guitars,” recalls Grote. “Then the taxi driver didn’t have GPS, so we got completely lost. When we finally found our hotel, the only person there was a crazy-eyed lady eating MoonPie and making weird noises. It creeped us the fuck out!”
Fortunately they had the guiding hand of John Congleton, fresh from producing last year’s NME Album Of The Year, St Vincent’s ‘St Vincent’, to get things moving again. The resulting 10-track LP, ‘A Flourish And A Spoil’, is due out in February and proves that while you can take the band out of smalltown Pennsylvania, you can’t take that small town out of the band. On ‘Suburban Smell’, for example, Grote sings about a “party at the rich basements”. They’re a band of outsiders, and Grote explains that that song was inspired by a specific incident: “There was this one time at a ball game where a bunch of kids were taking the piss out of a mentally challenged kid, making him dance. A video of it was posted online and I got into a big internet fight with a bunch of people because I said ‘you guys are fucked up’.”
The band will play London’s legendary 100 Club for an NME Awards Show with Austin, Texas on Tuesday, February 3, and they’re itching to let the world hear what they’ve been working on. “I just hope other people understand it,” says Grote. “Even if it’s only two people, just as long as someone does!”
The Districts are one of NME’s artists to watch in 2015. Read this week’s magazine and NME.com throughout the week for more interviews with the most exciting new acts this year.