It’s a Monday afternoon and Taylor Swift has just stood up for the little guys, penning a letter to Apple that resulted in the tech giant changing its tune and deciding to pay all artists during the initial three-month free run of its new streaming music service. But for the four members of Los Angeles’ Northern American, who just released their debut album, Modern Phenomena, on June 2, Swift’s stand holds little meaning.
“We don’t ever seem to make any money,” says singer/guitarist Nate Paul, sitting with the whole band outside a Los Feliz coffee shop. “Most everything we do is for free. We all have Spotify and pay for that, and I think it is great. It’s a place to be heard. Streaming is a conduit for being heard.”
“It’s hard to really empathize if you are a small artist and not really standing to make any money from it all,” adds keyboardist Shane Alch. “I understand if you are going to lose out on millions of dollars from streaming, but coming from a smaller artist that isn’t standing to make money, it is just all about the exposure. Just buy tickets to our show and we are happy.”
Northern American began back in a high school in the high desert, where Paul and Alch were friends. The introduction to bassist Augusto Vega and drummer Bruno Calenda came through friends of friends, and the relocation to Los Angeles seemed like a logical next step, once Paul's parents kicked him out of the house after discovering he had turned his bedroom into a music studio.
Fortune favored the band when Mick Scholefield of U.K. label Heist or Hit Records heard their 2013 debut EP. Scholefield flew from England to see Northern American perform and was impressed enough to pay for the recording of Modern Phenomena through his label, enlisting producer Raymond Richards (Local Natives’ Gorilla Manor) to record it.
“We wanted to make a record that was listenable for our first album,” Paul says. “We have a lot of weirder stuff, but for our first full-length, we wanted to make a pill that was easier to swallow. We already have more songs written, but we’re trying to see everything as a big picture.”
An easier pill to swallow it may be, but that doesn’t mean Modern Phenomena is without personality or a stamp that makes Northern American unique from its Los Angeles peers. “It’s been tough in Los Angeles because we don’t really fit into a scene,” Paul says. “All of our friends that are in other L.A. bands, we have relationships with them and will go to their parties and hang out, but we aren’t a part of their musical scene. We have our own thing going on, and that’s kind of how we want it.”
Rather than seeking support from a built-in network of other local bands, Northern American looks up to acts that came before them, noting artists that have shown a commitment to change and evolution. David Bowie and Radiohead, in particular, stand out for them as inspirations.
“We strive to change constantly,” Calenda says, “and show whoever we are at a particular moment through our music. It keeps it fun for us.”
“To play different characters throughout our career is our goal,” Paul adds.
A big part of their current character is having strong roots in psychedelic rock. The song “Elysian,” which the band cites as particularly capturing the spirit of whole album, finds psych elements creeping onto a canvas of countrified dream-pop, becoming a water-color swirl of influences and genres. On this track especially, Northern American attains its desire to be unclassifiable.
“A lot of our music has elements of psychedelia without having to be classified as psychedelic,” Alch says. “I like that we can elaborate on that and not have to be pigeon-holed as something ‘trippy’ or whatever."
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“That end of 'Elysian' is always the moment that catches with our live audiences, too,” Paul adds. Angelenos will have a chance to witness this for themselves soon, as the band has dates at the Viper Room on July 9 and the Hotel Cafe on July 25. But until then, just getting anyone to listen to Modern Phenomena — even on Apple Music — counts as a battle won for Northern American.