If our year-end lists of songs and albums were any indication, it was a great year for emerging artists. From the un-fightable, infectious pop of Haim, the ragged garage rock of Mikal Cronin, the punishing punch of a Savages track to Majical Cloudz’s reflective slow-churners, we were in for a treat in 2013 with breakout acts.
Along the way, we made plenty of discoveries in our weekly Best of What’s Next profiles, which are featured first at PASTE.COM. We’ve included our 20 favorite finds and their complete profiles (or reviews in a few cases) below for you to discover yourself. And if you’re taking a peek at this during the work day and just want to see the darn list already, we’ve got you covered—head on over to page 12 in the gallery below.
12. Diarrhea Planet
By Sean Edgar
Please stop. Stop right now, and abandon any assumptions you might have about a band that would call itself Diarrhea Planet. First, let that sink in.
We know what you’re thinking, because we’ve thought it. Numerous media outlets have thought it. A stream of declining tour managers have thought it. To a certain degree, even the very individuals in Diarrhea Planet have thought it. Yes, it may be hard to take any commercial entity seriously that would represent itself with a title that recalls the stomach flu and Taco Bell binges. But when a four-guitar garage-rock hurricane welds anthems as melodic and feral as these six gentlemen do, please ask yourself: what’s in a name?
Lead singer and guitarist Jordan Smith is certainly over the commotion. “If you see us once and ask who we are, you’ll never forget. You see a band and ask who it is, and it’s ‘Sinners or Saints’ or ‘Ashes in the Wake.’ You’ve heard so many band names like that before that you’re just not going to remember that at all. I like the fact that somebody definitely won’t forget Diarrhea Planet.”
But Smith and fellow bandmates Emmett Miller, Brent Toler, Evan Bird (all guitarists), Mike Boyle (bass) and Casey Weissbach (drums) have done much more to distinguish themselves than craft a potty-mouthed moniker. Born on the Nashville campus of music-industry incubator Belmont University, Jordan initially formed the group with friend Evan Donahue (who’s since moved on to solo projects) as a “living cartoon” full of squelching feedback. And to a certain degree, that vision came to fruition.
“Our dream was to scream over tons of feedback and make the most abrasive noises possible. Our first show ever that we played was just us playing ‘Ghost With A Boner’ and ‘Where Are You?’ and ‘Get Stimulated,’ which were three songs from our first EP. We ended up not doing what we set out to do, just writing songs that we thought were funny, but still catchy. “
The aforementioned “Ghost With A Boner” stands as a thesis statement from the band’s debut EP, Aloha, a biting lo-fi descent into sing-shout indie rock oblivion. Irreverent and blunt, the 163-second onslaught tells the story of a stranger at a party (the titular “ghost”) who finds himself obliviously stimulated in public by a new friend. “It was just amazing, because all of these people were walking through the room taking pictures of this guy on their cellphones,” Smith recalls. “It was the weirdest thing ever. I just think this dude was really drunk and didn’t realize what was going on. He was just sitting there with a super obvious, in-plain-view boner that everybody in the room knew about.”
The thing most people wouldn’t find super obvious about a band with a parent-prodding name and its tales of NSFW undergrad debauchery is that it’s deceptively good.
It’s actually very, very good.
The four axes behind Diarrhea Planet unleash a litany of virtuoso rock moves reserved for the most accomplished guitar hero. Fevered triplets, elegant arpeggios, air-tight harmonies and good-ol’-fashioned shredding belie talent that borders on savant (Emmett Miller studied Classical Guitar Performance at Belmont). The band’s motto “Shred till you’re dead, or go to hell” is not spoken in vain.
This rare combination of humor, energy and chops solidified Diarrhea Planet as the premier house-party enhancer that could turn a room full of disaffected kids into a slam-dance maelstrom where the crowd echoes every lyric back. The shows even turned destructive. “I personally have only lost one pedal, which cost me probably around $90 bucks. The thing about house parties is that we end up having to defend our gear the entire show instead of being able to focus on playing. Brent has had people knock his head off of his (cabinet) before. We all have chipped teeth at house parties as well. It is a lot of fun but most of the time you are bracing yourself for “the punishment” at a house show.”
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that DP has slowly evolved past house parties and paranormal erections to bigger venues and more thoughtful fare. New album I’m Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams not only deepens the group’s sound with lush production from Kevin McMahon (Swans, The Walkmen), but Smith infuses his tracks with a vulnerability that speaks to universal growing pains.
The album’s name was inspired by a destitute trip to the grocery store where Smith and drummer Casey Weissbach reflected on the hardships of 20-something poverty. “We had just had a hard month, and we were out and totally broke, making jokes about how we’d been so hard up for cash. I told Casey, ‘Whatever man, we’re rich beyond our wildest dreams, just not in money.’ The title came from being really poor and we were coming back from buying some really disgusting food that we both couldn’t believe we were stooping to eating. We had no money.”
Even today, Smith still works as a manager at Papa John’s, where he’s been for five years alongside Boyle and Toler. “Our boss made it clear; she said, ‘You guys have been here forever, you’re family. We’ll hold your jobs for you while you tour.’ They’ve been really cool with it.”
I’m Rich still revels in the raw bacchanal sing-along camaraderie shared by friends Titus Andronicus and Fucked Up, but there’s a new weight that accompanies the introspection. Opening track “Lite Dream” describes a summer where a blazed Smith watched the cult fantasy cartoon movie Heavy Metal daily, while follow up “Separations” doubles as both a song about long-distance relationships and complete departure from the couch-surfing shenanigans of years past. “For me in my writing, I always hid behind sarcasm and humor. If you don’t like it, you probably don’t have a sense of humor and leave it at that. In this record, I wanted to be really earnest about how I was feeling about a lot of things, and so the songs are much more serious.”
Standout track “Kids” presents the most sobering example of this new direction, with the chorus confession “I’m a sinner / I’ve got no self control / I’m just a dog / So ugly and so old.” Smith is mum on specifics, but says the track is a reflection on “the most horrible moment” of his life. “It’s a song about your circumstances forcing you to grow up. You still feel yourself fighting it because you’re not ready for that yet.”
As seen in a YouTube performance taped by Titus Andronicus lead singer Patrick Stickles at a recent Brooklyn gig, “Kids” and its surrounding material also make for a brutal live experience, funneling a cascade of distorted strings and relentless percussion into a cathartic explosion of ’80s hair-metal riffage. If there was any question whether Diarrhea Planet’s embrace of larger venues and adulthood would diminish its mythic presence, recent gigs have put all concerns to rest. “We are a band that thrives on playing live. The bigger the crowd, the more fun it is to play,” Smith explains. “So naturally we want to play for as big of crowds as possible. It would be sweet to play arenas and theaters all the time. Like Taylor Swift or something [laughs].”
The most revealing statement from Smith arrives at the tail end of our interview, though, when he candidly ends the conversation with the statement, “Thank you for caring.” It’s an unexpected sentiment for a band that built its foundation around sarcasm and flagrancy. It’s an unexpected statement from a band that wrote songs about aroused strangers and drinking beer “until the sun comes up or at least till there’s no beer.” It’s not an unexpected statement from a band that transformed a live performance prank into one of the most refreshing, talented brotherhoods in indie music.
11. Majical Cloudz
By Tyler Kane
“What’s the point in a sad song?”
It’s a rhetorical question vocalist Devon Welsh posed earlier this month on Twitter—and the Majical Cloudz frontman emphasizes this when I direct the question at him, brushing it off as simply a line from a new song he’s working on. A line he just put out there to the Internet.
“It kind of works in the context of the story of the song,” Welsh says plainly as we wrap up the interview. But as was customary for the duration of our talk, Welsh pauses, selecting his words carefully before clarifying: “My answer to the question is that I’m not entirely sure. I think that music has a lot of values, and I don’t think I could insert the values of anything like that.”
For Welsh at least, maybe the point of a sad song seems up in the air. But there’s no question to its function. To him, a sad song is a necessary release, a way to gather his emotions over time and spit them out on record. But learning to emote as delicately and precisely as he does on Impersonator, the second release from Majical Cloudz, takes time.
Majical Cloudz as a duo formed in Welsh’s time at McGill University, where he was completing a degree in religious studies. “I don’t know how much of it comes through in the music,” he says. “Studying religion is like studying people’s hopes and fears and dreams. I’m into expressing that myself in music, but I’m not sure how much it directly has to do with.”
But in creating music in his time studying those hopes, fears and dreams, Welsh found a like-minded collaborator in Montreal’s music community through a friend of a friend. Enter Matthew Otto, or as Welsh puts it simply when defining his right-hand man, “a better producer than I am. He has a better ear for the details in music that I don’t have. He complements my approach to music.”
Fast forward to 2013, and the duo has released Impersonator. The album is refreshing; an 11-track, 43-minute chunk of honesty, fear, depression, hope, acceptance, defiance and plenty of questions, all defined by the minimal, nuanced production of Otto. It’s a morose block of tracks, one that gives Morrissey a healthy dose of competition without feeling derivative or exaggerated. The frustration, the emotion is there, but Welsh is mum on the source material, instead pointing toward the more-universal, relatable art on display rather than the events that formed it.
“What inspired the album are just personal experiences that I’ve had and investigating my feelings about those things,” Welsh says. “I don’t really think it’s necessary for me to explain the backstories behind the songs. I feel like it’s not really a relevant concern. Not that I’m saying the songs are general, they’re quite specific in terms of what they’re about. But there are things I’m willing to share in public and things I’m not willing to share. Explaining in detail on what the songs are about—that feels unnecessary.”
But that’s only half of what Majical Cloudz brings to the table, the other side being Otto’s charming, sparse synths, beats and effects. And what might sound overly bare-bones in a world where Arcade Fire’s army of musicians blows out festival speakers and DJs are gravitating toward an everything-and-the-kitchen sink production philosophy, Impersonator is like breaking the surface after too long under water. And like that first breath of air, Welsh’s honesty, Otto’s careful juggling of thoughtful structure between pushing Welsh’s lofty baritone completely up-front, it’s an experience that will leave you clear-headed and revitalized after a time of personal distress. At least that’s how audiences have been perceiving the Montreal act.
Crowds are hushed when the two-piece takes the stage, and Welsh has reportedly summoned tears from audience members around the country with his straightforward, intense performances. Welsh—an unmistakable character whose Bic-short hair and white shirt/black jeans combo form an easy visual distinction to Majical Cloudz—often stares onlookers in the whites of their eyes as he leans into every syllable live. Whether it’s dedicating a song to a baby at a performance in San Diego (“It seemed special to play to a baby,” he laughs) or snarling once-docile lines from Impersonator, Welsh is striving for connection and does everything in his power to stay in the moment.
“I like to stretch before I play. It just helps me focus,” he says. “I don’t need to have my phone in my pocket while I’m playing. It seems like such a half-assed thing to be doing while you’re playing. I stretch and focus on the fact that I’m doing a performance, and it’s not casual.”
And before returning home to work on another serving of minimalist, emotive music, the duo’s hitting the road again one more time behind Impersonator. And with material that’s so emotionally dense, it’s got to be something to rehash it evening after evening in a busy 2013, right?
“It’s interesting,” Welsh reflects. “I don’t really think of it that much, but when I do, it’s definitely new to me that someone would want to get up on stage and sing songs that are really personal.
“I don’t know,” he adds with a laugh. “It seems like something that I’ll probably work out in psychotherapy years from now.”