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Mediocre First Songs And Cutting Out The Bullshit

15 July 2015 | 4:49 pm | Simone Ubaldi

"We slowly evolved over time. We have some demos that our high school friend recorded that sound pretty bad."

Watching The Districts play, it's hard to believe they barely scrape the legal drinking age. Singer Rob Grote throws himself across the floor in violent fits and bursts, sweating what must be half his body weight over the neck of his guitar. His bandmates are just as wild, guitarist Pat Cassidy, drummer Braden Lawrence and bassist Connor Jacobus hurling limbs in all directions, playing their plaintive garage rock tunes with every available muscle.

The Districts are all the more captivating because they seem to have emerged from the womb fully-fledged, exploding out of nowhere with this dynamite stage craft. They were a buzz band at SXSW 2015 and their star has been rising ever since, an overnight success story. But like most of the fast-breaks in the music business, theirs was a long time coming.

"The songs were all pretty mediocre when we first started out."

Forming in 2009 in Lititz, Pennsylvania, home to about 10,000 people and just one high school, high school, of course, is where The Districts came together — four awkward teenagers united by a general interest in guitars. Reared on The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the band members had different niche passions. Grote listened to punk, including The Clash, Lawrence was into Metallica and Jacobus was a Tom Petty fan. They pooled their influences and started playing covers, with a few rough sketches of original material. Jacobus says their early gigs, like most early gigs, were unremarkable. "We were all pretty nervous on stage and the songs were all pretty mediocre when we first started out," he laughs. "We slowly evolved over time. We have some demos that our high school friend recorded that sound pretty bad. It's still fun to look back at them and see how we started out. It took a lot of work to get past that, but I guess it worked out."

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After a few years together, The Districts started recording, releasing two EPs and a debut album under their own steam, gradually honing their songwriting and performance skills to a razor's edge. "After [debut album] Telephone was released, around 2012, we started getting more comfortable with the songs and got more expressive on stage, not really caring what we did and doing whatever felt right on stage. When we're up there, we all get into a zone; it helps us feel the music more and get into it more."

In 2013, when The Districts were ready for it, they got their first break. A live clip went viral on Reddit — a beautiful rendition of the track Funeral Beds — and record labels started calling. The Districts signed to Fat Possum in November 2013 and made their first appearance at SXSW the following year. "It was hectic and very tiring — we had seven or eight shows — but it was definitely fun. We had three or four shows in one day, which is the most we've ever played," Jacobus remembers. They began a heavy touring schedule around the States and started to build a fan base, selling out shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Things were starting to come together. "We had one guy come up to us after the show and tell us he'd seen us four or five times, that was really cool," Jacobus remembers. Meanwhile, when they were home, the band practiced diligently, "Trying to write new songs as much as possible, trying to crank out as many as we could."

"When we're up there, we all get into a zone; it helps us feel the music more and get into it more."

Late in 2013, the band went into the studio with producer John Congleton, whose long list of credits includes Modest Mouse, Earl Sweatshirt and a Grammy Award-winning album for St Vincent. It was The Districts' first experience with a professional producer and it lifted their game yet again. "John helped us look at the songs more objectively and imagine how the audience would perceive them. He helped us to make the songs more impactful and hard-hitting than they would usually have been. Being more objective about the music helped us to cut out a lot of the bullshit. The biggest thing we were worried about was what kind of guy he was, as a producer. We know that there are a lot of producers who are just really controlling, who take too much control. John seemed to be down with doing whatever we wanted; he just helped us clear the songs up and polish them."

When The Districts returned to SXSW in 2015, they had a slick second album to promote and over five years' experience as a band. With label muscle behind them and that seemingly out-of-nowhere powerhouse stage presence, The Districts caught a SXSW wave that's carried them around the country and now overseas. Fresh from a killer performance at Glastonbury, they're heading over for their first antipodean tour, major success just a matter of time.