Young the Giant: Avoiding the Sophomore Slump

Music Features Young the Giant
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Sameer Gadhia knew all about the dreaded phenomenon known as the sophomore slump—how a fledgling artist, after leaving the nest with a high-flying debut disc, can plummet Icarus-like to the ground on their hastily conceived follow-up. So he mapped out a brilliant plan for his SoCal combo Young the Giant, which had soared via its eponymous debut and a couple of addictive alterna-hits, “Cough Syrup” and “My Body.” The band would isolate itself for several months, as far away from distractions—and human contact—as possible and put nose to grave-minded grindstone to studiously compose new music.

Things didn’t work out that way, exactly.

Even with producer Justin Meidal-Johnsen (of Air/Beck/Nine Inch Nails renown) on board, and two desolate locations secured—a reportedly haunted house on Mt. Washington, above East L.A., and an off-the-beaten path mansion 40 minutes away from any kind of urban life in Palos Verdes, Calif.—Gadhia and his bandmates (co-guitarists Eric Cannata and Jacob Tilley, bassist Payam Doostzadeh and Francois Comtois on drums) got so serious about the project, they disappeared straight down the proverbial rabbit hole and wound up in something of a paralytic stasis.

Young the Giant’s second effort was just released, and its title hints at how the band reasoned its way out of debilitating bouts of overthinking and writer’s block: Mind over Matter. It didn’t help, of course, that the Mt. Washington location was reportedly haunted—heavy objects inexplicably crashed to the floor, a cold chill always hovered in the air and the ghostly speaking voice of a Japanese woman manifested on tape while they were recording a demo of an ectoplasmic ballad called “Camera.” But they liked the eerie effect so much, they left it in the final mix as an outro.

With the Palos Verdes hideout, where they spent 10 months, the members were initially overjoyed. But not for long. “We thought we’d found a good spot, because it was most definitely the most palatial of the places we’d ever gotten,” recalls Gadhia. “It was very surreal, and it felt like a strange porno vacation.” He coughs. “Uhh, not to say we were doing porn. But all of us come from middle-class families—my parents came to America with nothing—so I think there was some guilt put forth on me a little bit, like ‘This house is so ridiculous! What am I doing here?’ And we were really trying to get away from all that stuff.”

The concept had been clear at the outset. “We wanted to take time, mentally, and really, really work,” says the frontman, who emerged from the sessions with a voice even more seasoned and whiskey-flavored. “So it was this thing that became a very serious endeavor. And I think it’s something that’s very important—to take your art and craft seriously. But at a certain point, we were becoming way too philosophical about the stuff that we wanted to get done, instead of actually doing it. And then we finally started to realize that it was this crazy expectation that we had made into this full-fledged monster.” What began as a positive creative force turned into a somber burden that crackled with negativity.

But Tilley and Gadhia had formed the group as The Jakes when they were just kids back in 2004. And—after a few personnel changes and a moniker switch to Young the Giant—they remained close friends, a glue that held the band together as it experienced surreal honors like being touted by Morrissey as one of his favorite new groups, watching “Cough Syrup” get covered on Glee and the release of a Remix EP, featuring tweaks of its work by Ra Ra Riot, Two Door Cinema Club and others. And YTG had always admired Radiohead, an outfit Gadhia openly admits to being “victims and culprits of taking things too seriously.”

So the group didn’t completely panic when the writer’s block hit. But it was certainly disconcerting. Like lightning in a bottle, they would have captured the initial spark of a song, Gadhia sighs. “But then we’d just go down this hole with the composition. We’d start off with something really pure and good, but then we’d get so sick of it at the end, because we’d spend hours and hours, trying to make it something else, instead of just letting it be itself.”

Lyrics—Gadhia’s department as vocalist—were something else entirely. He’d sit alone in his room for so long, ballpoint pen in hand, he’d suddenly look down to see nothing but an ink-blotted indentation on the blank sheet of paper where words should have been. “I hadn’t written a thing—I’d just been waiting. And waiting,” he recalls of the session nadir. “And if I did think of something, I’d immediately say ‘No, this isn’t good. This won’t fit into a normal track on a record.’ And when it comes down to a specific nebulous art form—which can be music sometimes—there is no word count, there is no limit.” He laughs. “I mean, obviously, you don’t want to write a 30-minute song. But there is this general idea of ‘anything goes’.”

The first time YTG reined itself in and got back on aesthetic track was the “Mind over Matter” cut itself. At 4:05, it’s the perfect length, and filled with bright carnival-iridescent guitars buttressing Gadhia’s blunt invitation to “Taste my disaster/ It’s heavy on my tongue.” Its structure is so pop-savvy, it could ascend the rock, R&B and adult contemporary charts, simultaneously. “There’s an idea of playfulness in that song, but there’s still this sadness in the lyrics,” the singer explains. “But the instruments that we dealt with for it, as well as the compositional element, were exactly the way we wanted to do things. It was the first track to get us out of our slump.”

After the short instrumental intro of “Slow Dive,” the album opens with the exotic, Far Eastern feel of “Anagram,” sinks into the sweet metal sludge of “It’s About Time,” then bounds into the classic New Wave froth of “Crystallized,” “Daydreamer,” and the rabble-rousing punk-pop anthem “In My Home,” with Gadhia’s devout declaration in the chorus: “I know I was born for this/ Every night I dreamt of it/ In my home.” How did Young the Giant emerge with such a cohesive effort? By consciously distancing himself when he got too close to the material, says Gadhia. “We practiced strange, weird techniques—we’d practice listening to the music outside of our own ears, and it worked. I’d do this meditation process and just sit for a while and listen to the song with fresh ears, and try and figure out exactly what was necessary. And one easy way to do that is to share it and play it live.”

And ultimately, Mind over Matter became what every new group hopes to achieve with its second album—a jinx-busting, hook-heavy collection that revels in its idiosyncratic sound while it also comments on its own genesis. “And I think the struggles that we had to create this material wasn’t just our own story, but a story that most people can relate to,” Gadhia summarizes. “I think most people have these doubts, regardless of how strong or weak they are. Doubts about how they could end up being the very thing that will eventually destroy them.

“Because there are not too many external things out there that can really cause you so much emotional anguish as the things that you do to yourself.”