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.
By Mark Rozeman
For even the most successful of musicians, there remain few experiences in their careers more satisfying than the days when they were jamming with their high-school buddies in a small garage, struggling to get through a song on tempo and having a grand old time doing it.
It’s this sort of pure dynamic that—after nearly 15 years of being a professional musician—guitarist and singer-songwriter Tyler Burkum sought to return to with his latest band, Leagues. Only whereas the aforementioned, theoretical garage band consists of amateur rock wannabes, Leagues boasts three music veterans at the top of their respective fields.
“In a lot of ways, I feel like it took me 15 years of playing music to actually just get to do what I want to do,” Burkum explains.
Plucked from a dishwashing job at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn., at the age of 17, Burkum became a guitarist for the Christian rock band Audio Adrenaline in 1997. After close to decade of touring and recording (with a few Grammy wins along the way) the band went on hiatus in 2007. Burkum spent the next few years playing with the likes of John Mayer, Keane, Lenny Kravitz and Sheryl Crow. He even recorded a full-length solo record in 2008.
His most significant job, however, would prove to be playing with singer-songwriter Mat Kearney. It was here that he met Kearney’s drummer Jeremy Lutito. While on tour, the two discussed collaborating together on a future project. As luck would have it, Burkum’s bassist friend Mike Simmons had also been in talks with singer-songwriter Thad Cockrell about putting a group together. After months of sporadic jamming, the band officially completed their first composition: “Haunted,” a jaunty, mournful earworm about “the one that got away.”
In late 2010, the four came together and begin playing shows in Nashville under the name Leagues. A self-titled EP followed in 2011.
Though Simmons would ultimately leave the band to be with his family, Burkum, Lutito and Cockrell were determined to stick to this new venture. Not that it was easy from a logistic standpoint, with Burkum living in Minnesota, Cockrell in North Carolina and Lutito in Tennessee. Still, after years of either working solo or as a “gun for hire,” the idea of having their own band was an opportunity they all wanted to experience.
“You can carry the weight together,” Burkum explains. “That’s the really awesome thing about a band. When you see someplace where you’re really weak, it’s where other guys’ strengths are.”
More than anything, Burkum makes a point to reiterate the band’s philosophy—make music out of hope rather than fear.
“Being like, ‘no, I’m too old, I don’t want to be in a band, I don’t want to start a band’— that’s a really haggard thing to say,” he says. “Rather than saying ‘bands don’t work’ and just thinking about the statistics, we were like, ‘man, let’s be in a band! Let’s go out and have fun!’”
After two years of being a band, the group finally came together to record their first LP, titled You Belong Here. Though the album was completed in 2012, the band decided to put the release date off until 2013 when they would all be able to properly promote it.
Judging from the critical consensus, including positive write-ups in MTV and Esquire, the resulting album was worth the wait. Displaying a penchant for memorable, anthemic lyricism, Leagues eschews a more polished, radio-friendly production in favor of a sound that mixes dirty guitar tones with catchy, indie-pop harmonies.
According to Burkum, the band’s sound wasn’t’ so much a plan as it was the result of each member bringing a different musical sensibility to the table and seeing what they could all agree upon as well as a simple case of “gut instinct.”
“In my opinion, for it to be a Leagues song, all we have to do is agree. And it’s going to sound a little different and be a little different than anything any one one us would do [on our own]. If what we’re making excites us all, then that to me is a good sign.”
While the positive feedback that has greeted both Leagues’ music and live shows seems more than enough to prove the acuteness of the group’s gut instinct, Burkum says he has one test he uses for measuring the quality of a song: his young children.
“That’s how I really gauge if something’s cool,” he says. “Some of the coolest music they take their shirts off and they dance across the floor. You play them a U2 song or you play them an AC/DC song and their shirts are off
I got really excited when I played [You Belong Here opening track] “Spotlight” and my kids tore their shirts and they were jumping on the couch playing air guitar
I was like, ‘we did it! We did it!’ They don’t know what’s cool, they just know what has energy and a hope in it.”
Feature by Ryan Bort, Photos by Dan Krauss
Zach Yudin might be the consummate Californian. He surfs. He’s laid back. He eats Mexican food. He idolizes the Beach Boys. With close-cropped, beach blond hair and soft blue eyes, he’d blend right into the pages of RVCA’s fall catalog. He currently lives in Santa Monica, but is also well-versed in NorCal culture after growing up an hour outside of San Francisco in Davis.
When we first speak, he’s just deplaned in his hometown, ready to meet up with his family and drive out to Lake Tahoe for a much-needed between-tour vacation. His band, Cayucas, just wrapped up their first headlining trip around the U.S. a few weeks earlier, but so far the “time off” has been filled with various band-related appearances and errands, such as shopping for a new tour van to replace the rental they’ve been using since hitting the road in April to support their debut album, Bigfoot. After decompressing in Tahoe for five days, Cayucas will shoot Bigfoot’s fourth music video for “Will ‘The Thrill,’” the title a reference to former San Francisco Giant player Will Clark, one of Yudin’s favorites growing up. “It involves a wolf man,” is all he can tell me about the video. After the shoot, Cayucas will hit the road for another three months.
Los Angeles and the Bay Area are the principal purveyors of modern Californian culture, but it’s between these two poles where the state exists at its most elemental. From the majestic cliffs of Big Sur to the sleepy beach towns lining Highway 1, Central California is essentially indifferent to big-market paradigm shifts or ephemeral trends. No one is in a hurry, and time rarely passes with urgency greater than that of the morning tide. Yudin has lived this life, too, as a student at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where there weren’t any deadlines to meet, appearances to make or oversized van prices to compare. Instead, his time was spent going to the beach, surfing and exploring the coast.
One excursion led Yudin up the 1 to Cayucos, a quaint oceanside community about half of an hour north of San Luis Obispo. “It literally hasn’t changed in 40 years,” Yudin says. “You can buy ice cream for a quarter.” Even though he only visited it once, the town’s anachronistic charm and idyllic mid-century surf aesthetic resonated with Yudin. “I thought it’d be cool to write a song about that town,” he remembers.
Yudin describes himself as a “late bloomer,” musically. One of four children, he grew up singing in choirs, but didn’t try his hand at songwriting until he was almost out of college, first putting together simple songs he describes as sounding like “bad Postal Service.” After graduating, he lived and worked in Japan for a year, where he became interested in non-vocal electronic music, experimenting with tones, beats and vinyl sampling.
Though it might be hard to discern from Bigfoot, which is relatively uniform in tone and texture, Yudin is inclined to draw from a wider range of styles than most. The group he might revere most after the Beach Boys is Daft Punk, and he’s said that the French electronic duo would be his dream collaborators. “I think a lot of songwriters or musicians sort of stick to the same style throughout their career,” he says, “but I find myself constantly changing genres that I’m interested in.”
After returning from Japan, Yudin settled in Santa Monica, where he continued to experiment with three separate musical projects. Each project was an effort to strike the right balance between the electronic sensibilities he developed in Japan and his more traditional songwriting instincts, the ones that had initially yielded the “bad Postal Service” material. “I was trying to write almost mainstream-type songs,” he says. “I also did a little chillwave thing where I wrote five chillwave songs when that was kind of popular.”
For one of Yudin’s projects, Oregon Bike Trails, he started a Bandcamp and posted three songs of catchy, lo-fi indie pop. The first OBT song he wrote was “Deep Sea Diver,” which appears on Bigfoot as “Deep Sea,” and the second was “High School Lover,” a bare but catchy tale of unrequited middle-school love that Yudin still cites as his favorite song that he’s written. “After I wrote those first two songs I had this idea of nostalgia in my mind,” he says. “I think the theme of [Bigfoot] is just nostalgic moments from my life, and because the music I was writing was kind of vintage, it just sort of made sense.”
Yudin wasn’t the only one who thought it made sense. After sending his song out into the magical ether of the Internet, it was only a matter of days before blogs, managers and other interested parties started reaching out. ”[The songs] got passed around really quickly,” remembers Yudin. “I never even sent my music to one person. I wasn’t even into blogging and I didn’t even know who these blogs were that were reaching out to me, but it just kind of happened like that.”
Yudin spent most of 2011 and 2012 riding the gentle wave of buzz that came after the Oregon Bike Trails Bandcamp page took off. He gave interviews and had his songs posted to a number of smaller blogs, many that still retained the WordPress logo as their avatar. He garnered interest from managers and agents like Tom Windish of the Windish Agency, who currently books Cayucas, and played some rudimentary solo shows.
Eventually he formed a band, which included his twin brother Ben on bass, and released “High School Lover” as a 7” single on Father/Daughter Records. The B-side was “Cayucas,” his unintentionally misspelled homage to the surf town of the same name that had left such a strong impression during his days in San Luis Obispo.
In 2012, a manager who had worked with Yudin early on sent a few of Oregon Bike Trails’ tracks to Chris Swanson, the head of Secretly Canadian, home to Jens Lekman, The War on Drugs and Yeasayer among others. Swanson liked what he heard and a deal was struck, but the label suggested a name change. After all, how could a band that’s so distinctly Californian be named after another state? Cayucas was suggested and agreed upon, and the song title of the same name was changed to the town’s correct spelling, with an “o” replacing the second “a.” In addition to being more concise, the new name was a more representative icon of the band’s sound and nostalgic sentiments. Oregon Bike Trails held nostalgic significance to Yudin alone—it was a nod to the trails he and his brother rode while on vacation as children—but the town of Cayucos is nostalgia, and, more importantly, it is California, and specifically the vintage version of California that lies at the heart of Yudin’s music.
With a new name, full band and shiny new record deal with one of the most venerable indie labels in the game, all that was left was the small task of recording an album. Because of Yudin’s relative absence of technical know-how and lack of familiarity with working in a studio setting, finding the right producer was crucial. Enter Richard Swift, the multi-instrumentalist known for his work as a solo artist, member of The Shins and producer for artists like Damien Jurado and The Mynabirds. He was also someone who had long been associated with Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar, the most recent product of which was his work behind the boards on Foxygen’s breakout album from earlier this year, We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic. Secretly Canadian was hoping Swift’s own magic touch would help Cayucas achieve similar success. The songs were there; they just needed to be fashioned into something easier for a large audience get behind than Yudin’s home recordings.
“I had known his music,” Yudin says of Swift. “I actually saw him play live in 2004 or something, so I knew of him. To me he was sort of a Jon Brion-type person who was a really good musician and wrote these Beatles-esque songs, and I knew he was super talented just from that one show I had seen. Once I was on the label and when we were talking about a producer, his name came up and it just made a lot of sense. It was a no-brainer.”
Yudin’s stripped down songs weren’t as hard to rein in as Foxygen’s chaotic and wildly overdubbed material, but they were still rudimentary, lo-fi recordings. So the task at hand was to apply polish and charm while still retaining the laid-back quaintness that helped make them so attractive in the first place. Yudin traveled with Swift to the producer’s studio in Oregon, with Yudin’s brother Ben joining them later. The objective was simple: finish one song per day.
“It came really easy,” remembers Yudin. “We’d start around noon and be mostly done by five or six, and from six to eight maybe we’d tweak it a little bit. He sort of mixed on the fly and at the end of the day the songs would be mostly finished. In my headspace they were mostly finished, but we never actually went back to the songs at the end. I thought we’d always go back and tweak it, but he was just like, ‘No dude, they’re good. We don’t need to go back.’”
The result was a pristine eight-song collection of indie-pop gems. Some, like lead single “High School Lover,” “Deep Sea Diver” and “Cayucos,” were among the first songs Yudin wrote as Oregon Bike Trails, while others were written closer to the recording session, with Swift helping with the final arrangements in Oregon. Regardless of when they were written, all of the songs on Bigfoot are defined by the same glinting, California-in-the-summer nostalgia that seems to seep directly out of the album’s first track, “Cayucos,” and the town that inspired it. Just like much of the Central California coast, the album seems to lie suspended in an unassailable amber essence of summer. There’s a modern sheen and the album is certainly a product of a present-day indie aesthetic, but its sentiments are timeless.
Bigfoot’s buoyant tone is the product of lilting guitar lines, delicate chimes and dings, occasional chanting and yelping vocal harmonies and other vaguely tribal drum patterns and instrumentation. Most important, though, is Yudin’s friendly, former-choir-boy voice and the imagery his lyrics evoke. He doesn’t approach his topics obliquely, instead simply remembering the nostalgic event he’s addressing and listing his associations, those things from that past that stick in your mind as mental totems of more innocent and blissful times. A certain kind of car, a girl on the back of a bicycle, that true-to-scale Michael Jordan poster on a wall—it all transports listeners to another time and place, and because of how friendly Yudin’s voice is, it’s hard not to feel good about all that’s past—even if regret is involved.
The most apparent example of this and the album’s clear standout track is “High School Lover,” the type of song the term “radio-friendly” was coined for. What began as a instrumentally sparse Oregon Bike Trails track was transformed into a driving, fully realized single based on an early teenage interest of Yudin’s who he regrets not pursuing with more enthusiasm. Like much of Bigfoot, “High School Lover” is a wistful remembrance. In another context it might sound mournful, but Yudin’s delivery is so full of energy and optimism that it’s hard to feel anything but fondness and appreciation that we were ever so innocent.
The first time a listener hears “High School Lover,” it might remind them of Beck. Then they might listen to the rest of Bigfoot and think about how it sounds a lot like Vampire Weekend, a comparison that is undeniable, from the upbeat African influence to the occasional upper-middle class reference. Whether it’s Beck or Vampire Weekend or Tennis or any other group, in the wake of Bigfoot’s release Cayucas has, to some, been a band defined more by the bands it sounds like rather than as something original.
Some critics have taken issue with this, even dismissing Cayucas’ music because of it. Not surprisingly, Yudin is indifferent, viewing critical nitpicking the way a surfer might view a mayoral race. He mentions how Cayucas’ fan base is wide enough for particular reviews not to matter all that much, but he does express lament how some music fans will abide by the opinions of certain outlets as if they’re gospel. “There are so many opinions, but I think it’s sort of sad how a big blog or a big publication can sort of post something and then everyone believes that, whether it’s true or not.”
Yudin admires and was heavily influenced by Vampire Weekend and Beck, but at its core Cayucas’ music is inspired by the golden coasts of the Golden State in the ‘50s and ‘60s. For the myriad styles and eras of music he is indebted to, Yudin keeps the Beach Boys as the “focal band” for Cayucas. Outside of Bigfoot’s sheer California-ness, traces of Brian Wiilson and company are harder to pick up on than those of the band’s more modern influences, but if listened to closely it’s clear that the Beach Boys serve as the armature Cayucas’ music, present in the form of seamless melodies, cooing vocal harmonies and the soft, inviting texture of Yudin’s voice.
Another bit of the ‘60s Yudin cites as an influence are a number of “Sounds of the Decade”-type compilations. Admitting this might be perceived as gauche in certain indie circles. Best-of compilations are for the uninitiated; no true audiophile would need someone else to curate their music for them. But part of Yudin’s charm is that he didn’t emerge from within indie circles, and even though he’s now an active participant, he doesn’t hold any pretensions about what he’s doing. “In the last few years I’ve gone from not knowing anything about the indie world to knowing everything about it,” Yudin admits. “I was a fan of indie bands, but I never knew about this whole world. I never read Pitchfork. I listened to Panda Bear but never understood that he was an indie superstar or anything like that.”
Yudin is now fully immersed in the indie world he was largely oblivious to when he first started writing songs toward the end of his time in San Luis Obispo. Even when relaxing at Lake Tahoe with his family, Cayucas will at least partially be on his mind—he’s thinking about bringing a ukelele so that he can film a how-to video about how to play a song from Bigfoot on his iPhone. A few years removed from making lazy day trips around Central California, Yudin is embracing the lighter aspects of having an album out—like filming videos—and not letting the menial tasks—like shopping for a new tour van—weigh him down. “It’s very stressful, but this has all been kind of a dream of mine,” he says. “I’m basically living a dream come true.”
What will come next for Cayucas remains to be seen. Yudin has been kicking around new ideas since Bigfoot was released, but he’s not yet sure exactly what form his next album will take. “I’ve basically been thinking about song ideas and now I’m starting to put those ideas down. I think it’s going to be…I think it will feel like Cayucas songs.”
It’s all he needs to say for the purest possible image of his home state to come to mind.