NME Radar: Breakout

The Backseat Lovers: life-affirming alt-rock meant for the world stage

The US rockers are hitting their stride after making waves – and a new army of fans – at their raucous live shows

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

It might be a grey Tuesday evening in London, but just south of the river, something special is happening. 300 eager punters are crammed into Omeara to catch Utah four-piece The Backseat Lovers, filling the tightly-packed space with the sort of raucous energy you might find at a wild festival show or headline set 10 times the size of this. Lyrics are bellowed at the tops of lungs, ecstatic cheers regularly break out and one lucky punter is even plucked from the crowd to join the band on-stage for a rendition of their 2018 belter ‘Out Of Tune’.

This triumphant show marked a rare chance for fans to catch The Backseat Lovers in an intimate, as their next scheduled show in the capital is a considerable will see them play at the 2300-capacity O2 Forum Kentish Town in March. “I personally love playing intimate venues like [Omeara], so it was really exciting to be able to do that again in London,” bassist KJ Ward tells NME a few weeks on from the gig. “Our first tour was basements of houses and smaller clubs, so it’s very nostalgic to go back to [our] roots and play a venue like that.” Drummer Juice Welch agrees: “We all kind of prefer it – just so we can get to know the fans a little more.”

The band – who are rounded out by frontman Joshua Harmon and guitarist Jonas Swanson – are speaking to NME from their respective homes in Salt Lake City the day before their second album ‘Waiting To Spill’ dropped late last month. While their 2019 debut ‘When We Were Friends’ saw the band build a name for themselves for their slick brand of indie-meets-surf rock (runaway hit ‘Kilby Girl’ has racked up over 186 million streams on Spotify alone), its follow-up adopts an altogether grander feel. The noodling riffs and rich arrangements are bigger than ever, while a sprinkling of weirder, experimental moments (take the glitchy opening to the chugging ‘Growing/Dying’) means that the album has more sounds in common with the likes of Radiohead, Wilco and Beck (it’s perhaps no coincidence that Beck’s producer David Greenbaum worked on the record).

When the band were working on ‘When We Were Friends’, songwriting was more of a necessity: after all, they needed songs to fill their setlist. But now, after years spent touring and the strange shared experience that comes with being in a buzzy band, The Backseat Lovers are closer than ever. “It’s been such a formative time [making the new album],” Harmon says honestly, before later adding: “We couldn’t have done it without each other.”

With further UK and Ireland tour dates planned for March in support of ‘Waiting To Spill’, The Backseat Lovers look set for even bigger things in 2023. The band spoke to NME about the making of their new record, being in the audience for Joni Mitchell’s legendary recent return to the Newport Folk Festival, and what it’s like to be on the road with Jack White.

What did you learn about yourselves when making ‘Waiting To Spill’?

KJ Ward: “One big thing that I noticed that we learned within our dynamic is how to communicate with each other and listen to each other while working on things together. I think we got really good at voicing our opinions and understanding our other bandmates’ opinions. At the end of the day, it seemed like we always had in mind we’re gonna do whatever was best for the song. We were all working towards something, even if there were little conflicts. That was a big step as a band that came along with this album.”

Juice Welch: “In term of the band for me, I really think we grew together as people. As a group collectively, we strengthened the bond between us, and that continually happens. But this was such a long process: writing this album took a few years and we were growing as people through those three years. I think we’re stronger as a group now.”

The song ‘Follow The Sound’ saw you experiment with different objects to make sounds in the studio. What was the weirdest thing you tried to turn into an instrument?

Jonas Swanson: “There was one section of the song where Juice was closing a book into a mic to get a percussion sound. That was really fun.”

Joshua Harmon: “I don’t think that’s the weirdest [song]! We got pretty weird. The most ambitiously weird one would be ‘Silhouette’: there’s a transition between ‘Silhouette’ and ‘Close Your Eyes’, and we wanted to find a way to naturally change the key between the two songs. So we had the idea of using the Doppler effect, like when a car goes past you and the pitch shifts down: it’s basically about one note. We recorded ‘Silhouette’ and we made a droney note, like a bed of sound at the end of the song. Then we got this big speaker and blared it out the side of a car, and we had a pair of microphones – one pointing towards the car where it was coming from and one pointing away from it – and just flew past super-fast, and it ended up actually working!”

“It was an honour to go on the road with Jack White” – KJ Ward

You played some shows with Jack White earlier this year. What was that like as an experience?

KJ: “It was crazy: it was one of the coolest things that I’ve been a part of. Growing up I was a huge Jack White fan, so it was an honour to be able to go on the road with him. It was really inspiring watching him play, and how they would improvise so many things throughout the set.”

Jonas: “It was cool to see how much he changed up the show every night, and that definitely encouraged us to do that more. I think [White’s show] just got better each time we saw it!”

You also played at a load of festivals this summer – any special memories from that run?

KJ: “We got to see Joni Mitchell play at Newport Folk Festival, and it was one of the most emotional shows I’ve ever experienced. It was really, really special.”

Joshua: “It was so special. I think we played on the first day, so we had a good amount of time to just hang out and do nothing for the rest of the weekend. You hear little rumours about ‘somebody’s coming’, ‘is it Joni?’. And then when you hear somebody on the microphone say ‘Joni’s coming out!” and the explosion of that feeling, it felt very timeless. It felt like a moment of musical history.”

The Backseat Lovers
Credit: Press

A number of your songs have racked up millions of streams on Spotify. What does that mean to you?

KJ: “Yeah, it’s weird. We see people when we tour and our fans, but it was interesting seeing [the Spotify streaming] numbers on your phone going up. It’s very surreal.”

You’re also now playing shows in bigger venues than ever – have any of you grasped just how popular The Backseat Lovers have become in recent years?

Jonas: “I think so, yeah. It’s still surprising, though: every time we play in a new place and people are there, we’re super-surprised.”

At Omeara, people were singing along so loudly that we couldn’t even hear you! What’s that like to experience on-stage?

Joshua: “It’s a very beautiful thing. It’s kind of hard to put into words.”

Juice: “It’s just fun to be in one space as a group and be collectively in the moment, and having a good time all together.”

The Backseat Lovers’ new album ‘Waiting To Spill’ is out now

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