Last week Journalism took over the basement of a red-washed house on Green Street. That’s Journalism as in the four-man alt-rock band from Brooklyn that hit CU on one of the last legs of their micro tour. Lead singer, Kegan Zema, describes the name as an allusion to the profession, which he studied in college at the University of Maine.
“If you get bored of academia, just come hang out,” Zema said. “Do rock and roll; that’s what I did.”
This band tells stories as much in song and sound as Zema learned to do with words and a recorder. And that’s the aim – to pick at the empathy found in struggling to make it big in music – especially on the crowded streets of New York “when no one hears the words” they’re trying to sing.
“I studied journalism and got disillusioned by parts of it. But what I did like about it was that everybody had a story to tell,” Zema said in a pre-show interview in a friend’s apartment where the group would be staying that night. “I feel like it was a cool band name, and I could still be doing journalism in my parents’ eyes.”
Zema’s voice rings from the back of his throat, carrying with it just enough grit to rough out the edges of Journalism’s sound. But no one could make out the words he belted into his mic that night at the house show – if they were even lucky enough to see him around a centered cluster of pipes and vents. The levels were off, their soundboard failing to heighten his vocals up past instruments. But the band plowed through their set undeterred vibing off their own energy starting with “Passenger,” one of the more popular singles off “1324,” their three-song EP.
They’re influenced by old school rock from the ‘60s with a little post-punk of the ‘90s, but that’s not all they listen to. When conversation lulled in their red tour van speckled with various candies (from drummer Brendan Mehan’s little sister), they started singing along to bassist Nico Hedley’s Spotify. This time it was “This Is It” by Flatbush Zombies, a hip-hop group also from Brooklyn.
“You definitely slip in and out of any kind of intellectual space,” said Mehan who’s been reading pages from “The Snow Leopard,” a 1978 book travel history book, while riding in the van. He’ll go through a few pages then snap back to the reality of his own travel, slipping from hours of podcasts on things like gentrification to breakup stories or poking fun at stories of awkward encounters with celebrities – another mix of faces they encounter in New York – something relatable to anyone who’s spent some time in the City.
Their first full-length album, “Faces” dropped on March 4, via Dead Stare Records, and their aptly angular video for “Faces, I” premiered onMTV News with rave reviews. The album plays to their strengths. Strong guitar and drum riffs accentuate Zema’s lengthy atmospheric melodies. They’re daring you to dig a little deeper. Coaxing you to pay attention. Listen a little longer. If you do, you’re rewarded with gritty instrumentals that capture what it is to be influenced by old school rock and roll. There’s movement in it, a fluidity in the vocals that runs through the infectious persistence of each instrumental section. It’s an urgent anxiety – gruff and gorgeous combination for the guitar-centric rhythm to engage body and soul.
That balance beats through your body live, like standing too close to the bass just to feel alive. It stole the attention of the unsuspecting crowd for this show, turned up in a hollow basement beating out into the backyard.
There’s something good here, something moving their persistent ebb and flow that’s unique in a genre too often clouded by what makes a radio hit: catchy choruses and pop staccato beats.
“I think honesty is the key to all angles of what we’re doing,” lead guitarist Mike Greene said before their set. “I think you listen to the music, you can hear that we’re doing stuff that we want to do. It’s not like we’re doing shit a certain way because that’s what hot right now.”
That title track, “Faces, I,” is undoubtedly the best on their album. It’s a favorite of Zema’s to play live as well. It’s a jumpstart kind of song, meant to get you moving from the very first beat. Hedley prefers “Denim Jesus,” a lengthy guitar-heavy bit that jives as the last song on their set list for this house show, coaxing collective nods and scattered dancing.
“Especially on the rhythm side of things, when I first started to learn these songs and getting into them, I was thinking a lot about performing,” Hedley said. “They’re like descendant tracks from a sort of punk rock angle in the live show. So engaging with the crowd in that way has been really exciting and fun.”
Their emphasis is on live performance for now, partly because it’s the easiest way to reach a shit-ton of people. Partly because it’s cheaper than studio time, especially in New York where everything, especially price, is amplified like the flashing neon signs in Time Square or the indie-punk denim and leather catwalk streets of Brooklyn.
“I’d love to focus on it in a studio aspect doing studio magic and really focus on recordings. But recording doesn’t bring in any money. And it’s really expensive,” drummer Brendan Mehan said. “Whereas, I do love playing in front of people and making that connection, it’s also just the most practical.”
As rough and free as rock and roll seems to be, there’s a certain air of control to it. That’s what makes the difference between garage rock and a band that’s dedicated to do something more. It’s hard and exhausting, a slow and sometimes painful process.
“I do a lot more carrying heavy things than music,” Hedley said in half-sarcastic laughter before loading equipment down a narrow basement staircase in the DIY venue.
It’s hard not to get fed up. To get sick of playing the same song for years before you make it on a tour of any kind. But they’ve made it work. It’s worth it to watch about a year’s worth of planning turn into something tangible.
“That’s the other part that’s been fun, too, is since we’ve been on the road, having people transform from email addresses into real people and real places and real shows,” Zema said.
Something propels the undertow to keep a good band from sinking. It’s the same thing that pushed Journalism to play at full speed, Zema singing so forcefully the veins in his neck protruded visibly like oxygen-deprived streams from brain to heart.
“We’re fairly unpretentious about things. It makes it easier to engage with people on a real level,” Zema said. “That all kind of feeds into who you are as a person and the scene around, especially in New York.”
That real level extends to their social media channels. This is where music lives today. Before the airwaves, before the sold-out concerts and crazed fans begging for a signed graphic T, bands build a presence online.
“We’re definitely not the best at marketing ourselves,” said Hedley, the latest edition to the group after original member Owen Keiter parted ways. “But we are having fun with it, which might almost be better.”
This is a complicated ebb and flow between knowing just how far to let things go before pulling back in to the heart of what they are creating. Music as art over, “a branded sonic value, isn’t that the goal?” That takes an authenticity to the sound, the story and the band itself.
“It’s a cultivated un-cultivation,” Zema said.
And this is where it starts: In a concrete basement lit by Christmas lights, speckled with garage sale-worthy knickknacks like a stuffed dinosaur and a miniature pink and green guitar. It’s releasing talent beyond what the 20-something alt crowd could appreciate under the haze of tobacco and stale stench of spilled PBR.
A few whispers voiced what the coherent few were thinking: “These guys are too good for this scene.” And they’re right. But music like this doesn’t just happen to trickle from Madison Square Garden to radio wave popularity. It begins at the bottom, with enough ambition to aim above the basement.
Journalism’s sound is full-bodied, cultured by their own life experience in music and beyond, curating the experience of “characters” faced every day. They each have their own role – Zema the driving force, Greene the strategist, Mehan the soulful background and Hedley the connecting space between rounding out the sound as essential as the rest.