When a Teen Family Band Grows Up
What would happen if Hanson were good? Echosmith, easily pegged as a teen, sibling pop band, is too Zen—and good—to knock.
When it comes to so-called popular music, the family-as-band is a known entity. A shtick. Where country celebrates relatives who rock—think the Alvin Brothers—the contrived corny-cute legacy of the Hansons and Partridge Families in pop’s spectrum loom overhead, making it nearly impossible for musically inclined kin to avoid comparison and pigeonholing, no matter how talented they may be. Thus it’s even harder for those individual musicians—often still just teenagers—to grow, shed that sibling stigma, and stand on their own feet artistically. These bands are often relegated to the footnotes of one hit wonder lists, doomed by a formula they never meant to follow.
Echosmith ain’t gonna go out like that.
You’ve definitely heard Echosmith’s twice-platinum single, “Cool Kids,” off their 2013 record Talking Dreams. With spaced-out vocals over ethereal synth pop ambiance coupled with a positive message and über-catchy hooks, it was destined for out-of-the-box pop stardom. It also catapulted Echosmith, made up of Sierota siblings Noah, 19, on bass and backing vocals, Jamie, 21, on guitar and backing vocals, Graham, 16, on drums, and Sydney, 17, lead vocals and keys, into immediate international prominence.
That was last summer, and, after a whirlwind making the mandatory rounds of radio stations, late-night TV, music festivals, and wherever else to showcase their musical acumen, the band is now finally entrenched in their first true headlining tour, playing sold out theaters across the country.
But things are changing again.
Where their shows had previously skewed heavily toward the tween and teen set, attracted by the message and slick beat behind “Cool Kids,” now that they’ve released a few more singles the demographics are growing. A recent show in Boston, at the hallowed and notoriously scuzzy Paradise Rock Club, was billed as all ages, and the kids were definitely present, but so were throngs of college-aged and older scenester types, drinking beer and unabashedly singing along to every word.
“We’ve always looked up to Kings of Leon, cool family bands, more than a Hanson or some other cliché,” Jamie tells me via phone from New York, walking back to his hotel post-Seth Myers sound check. “We never advertise it, we never want it to feel gimmicky or anything.”
Eschewing the bubble gum preconceptions, Echosmith takes their inspiration from New Wave and other ’80s staples.
“One of my earliest music moments was sitting in a car and listening to So by Peter Gabriel with my dad,” he explains. “And I’m hearing all these layers, and how on the song “Mercy Street,” his low octave, I had never heard anything like that before. That kind of music and that era always caught my ear.”
With the Internet’s ease-of-access Jamie et al quickly dug deeper, slowly building a solid, broad frame of reference and inspiration, including “getting really into the Talking Heads, and Noah is a big Smiths fan.” It didn’t hurt that their father, who goes by Jeffrey David and moonlights as their manager and sound guy, is an acclaimed musician, producer, and songwriter. Growing up around him instilled a sense of musicianship and work ethic early in the Sierotas.
The sound is big, but so are the hooks and harmonies.
“Everything is very melody-focused. We want it to stand out and not clutter too much. A lot of three-part harmonies, ’cause we’re all singers, and, well, we love Fleetwood Mac.”
With the flat-out touring and promo schedule of a chart-topping act, there isn’t much time for creating, no matter how laid back your recording regimen.
“We’re getting into more of a routine with things, thinking, ‘Oh, maybe it’s time to start writing again.’ As the year goes on we’ll start finding more inspiration…”
And that’s where some of the advantages of being a family and not just a loose collective of musically aligned associates comes to the forefront: a built-in, automatic comfort with each other in the studio.
“We’re very collaborative, we don’t want it to be just one person’s story,” Jamie posited. “We’ll switch around instruments. Like, I might come up with a bass part, and Sydney might come up with a guitar part. Sometime not knowing how to do something is inspiring, you have this like beginner’s luck. I’ll do something wrong and it will turn out cool.”
Of course, that familiarity can manifest itself in other, less creative, ways, too.
“If we think an idea sucks when we’re writing a song, it’s, ‘I don’t like that!’” he says, laughing. “There’s no getting to know each other. There’s a lot that we don’t have to deal with, but at the same time we can be too real with each other too, if there is such a thing.”
One interesting thing comes up while discussing their recording and writing methods: turns out their mega-hit almost didn’t happen.
“We never expected ‘Cool Kids’ to be a single,” Jamie says, sounding a little incredulous. “For it to end up being double platinum was a big surprise. That song, when we were recording it, we’d be like, ‘Wait, this isn’t totally working,’ and having to tweak little things lyrically or musically. It’s funny that’s the song we weren’t sure about, and now it’s the song everyone is going nuts over.”
So things are looking good, family band or no. As they get older, and new opportunities occur—Sydney just signed a modeling contract, and Jamie is now married—it can be hard to hold onto the dreams they had as children, no matter how prosperous they were at the time.
When asked what he saw in his, and the band’s, future, Jamie’s analysis, especially for a 21-year-old burgeoning rock star, was beyond down-to-earth.
“I’m sure all of us will do something on the side, or something outside of Echosmith at different points,” he mused. “But in the end we’re a family, and it’s something that we’ll always come back to. You know, I don’t know how things will be in 10 or 20 years. We’re all going through some different life spaces and figuring out how that works every day, and it’s an adjustment. But you learn. Everybody in life keeps going through different things. New things are happening every day.”
And the family-band flame out? Every rule has its exceptions. Just look, as Jamie cited, at Kings of Leon. Or HAIM. Or Oasis. Okay, maybe not that last one.