Members: Thad Cockrell, Tyler Burkum, Jeremy Lutito
Hometown: Nashville, Tenn.
Album: You Belong Here
For Fans Of: My Morning Jacket, Phosphorescent
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.”