The Districts: No Guarantees

Music Features The Districts
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Members: Rob Grote, Connor Jacobus, Braden Lawrence, Pat Cassidy
Hometown: Lititz, Pa.
Current Release: The Districts
For Fans Of: Deer Tick, The Lumineers, Alabama Shakes

I was driving on some winding backroads in Central Pennsylvania when I first heard The Districts. The jangly intro of their powerhouse single “Rocking Chair” lured me in, but Rob Grote’s rugged vocals sealed the deal.

“I’m sittin’ in the rocking chair by the side of the house,” Grote sings before the rest of the band—guitarist Mark Larson, bassist Connor Jacobus and drummer Braden Lawrence—kicks into full gear. The guitars are pulsing, the drums are driving and the vocals are fueled by passion—Grote’s voice is one that sounds so damn familiar but somehow maintains a fresh, unrestrained edge. “If I drink some more, well, I think I might drown/Slip into silence as my heart it burns out/I’ll find the devil inside me and I’ll nail him back down,” he sings as the band fades during the chorus, easily the song’s most jarring moment. After almost four minutes, the DJ informed listeners they just heard The Districts, so I scrambled for paper and a pen and swerved into the other lane.

It’s fitting then that a few months later Grote gets distracted by my voice. “Oh, shit, I just missed a turn, sorry,” he says. Grote and the band are just arriving to the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Ky., where they’ll share the bill with the likes of Sharon Van Etten, Gary Clark Jr. and The Replacements. They’ve been hot on the festival circuit, traveled to Europe for a show and will even get to showcase their talent at the Austin City Limits Music Festival come October. Sure, The Districts are buried beneath more established acts on those lineups, but that doesn’t seem to matter because they’re young and enjoying the ride.

“We’re probably more stubborn and more naive as well,” Grote says, looking at the other side of the equation. “But at the same time, it’s kind of a good thing. I feel like it can help keep things kind of pure in a way.”

The band formed in 2009 while the members were still attending high school in the rural town of Lititz, Pa.—the outskirts of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where quaint is favored over fantastical and the music scene isn’t exactly thriving. Somehow, honing their skills in relative cultural seclusion just worked for the quartet.

“We weren’t near Philadelphia or Pittsburgh,” Grote explains. “And they are more cultural places, so I guess there was more of a desire for culture because of that. Our town’s pretty conservative. There was more of a desire to do something different. But also there wasn’t as much of a preconceived notion of what’s cool in music…we just figured out what we liked instead.”

Grote touches on a variety of topics when we speak, like how the band had two self-released efforts—2011’s Kitchen Songs and 2013’s Telephone—before dropping their superb self-titled EP, which is a mix of re-released tracks and new tunes. But I can’t get over how well-spoken he is for a 19-year-old. More importantly, I can’t figure out where those vocals come from—the self-taught singer sounds like a hungrier, more frantic version of Wesley Schultz of The Lumineers. That’s really where those comparisons end, though—The Districts were making music well before The Lumineers’ critically acclaimed self-titled debut swept the airwaves, and they cite acts like Titus Andronicus and Tom Waits as influences. On “Funeral Beds; a re-release from Telephone, Grote’s vocal work completely steals the spotlight. He breathes life and emotion into simple lines like “Oh my Savannah, did it have to be so hard?” and “ ‘Cause these plains they took my baby and I’m gonna take her to the funeral beds to lay.” Spine-tingling moment No. 2.

I bring up their big opening gig at the 7,000-seat Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, N.J., where the band will warm up the stage for Band of Horses and Beck at the end of July. It’s part of the XPoNential Music Festival, sponsored by the Philly public radio station WXPN, which introduced me to the band months earlier. It’s a homecoming of sorts (the band lives in Philadelphia), but it’ll be a bittersweet show. Once it’s over, guitarist Mark Larson will be leaving the group. Days before the interview, a band statement announced that Larson would be heading off to college. To most outsiders, it’s a puzzling decision, trading in a rock band just as it’s on its way up for school work and a class schedule. But remember, this isn’t a typical decision for a 20-year-old to have to make. And Larson assures me it wasn’t easy.

“It definitely wasn’t an overnight decision,” he says. “The band was always fun, but as time went on, something was just pulling me in a different direction.” It’s not like Larson, who is the oldest of the four, rushed into anything either. After graduating high school a year before the rest of the band, Larson forewent college and worked different jobs as he continued his involvement with The Districts. A year later, the four members moved to Philadelphia together before getting signed to Fat Possum Records and releasing their EP. If anything, this decision has been a few years in the making.

“It was a really hard thing to bring up,” Larson says about telling the band about his plans. “It was kind of out of nowhere. In the months leading up to telling them, the other guys could kind of tell that I was leaning toward this decision. I was constantly back-and-forth between ‘These are my best friends and I don’t want to hurt them, but I have to listen to what I want to do.’”

“It was definitely quite a bummer, but at the same time, we’ve been friends for a long time,” Grote, who also had to make a similar decision after high school, says. “While it sucks to not be playing with our best friend who we started the band with, you just have to do what makes you happy.” The band will continue on with guitarist Pat Cassidy taking over for Larson. Grote says the group has been self-producing some material around Philadelphia in addition to working with different producers. Their new record will most likely be finished this fall with a 2015 release date to follow.

There’s some rustling on the other end of the phone line. Grote and the band are getting ready to unload their gear at Forecastle. There’s no sign of nerves or anxiousness in the singer’s voice as showtime approaches. After all, it’s just music being played amongst friends—the exact mindset that got them there in the first place.

“Obviously the ideal thing is to be able to play music and do it for a living or whatever, but I don’t know if there was a point…even now it doesn’t feel like anything is guaranteed,” Grote says. “We’re just going to keep going while it feels like it’s working.”