Young the Giant talks success, touring, VMAs

One year ago, most people had never heard of the indie band Young the Giant. But now the boys from Irvine, Calif., have performed at the VMAs, “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and even had their single, “Cough Syrup,” featured on Glee.

The group is hitting South Florida on their sold-out headlining tour Sunday at Culture Room. The Miami Hurricane got a chance to speak to drummer and vocalist Francois Comtois about their recent success, changing their name from The Jakes and their “In the Open Session” videos.

The Miami Hurricane: You guys are on your first major headlining tour. What’s it been like?

Francois Comtois: Technically speaking it’s the second headling tour, but the first one was almost not worth mentioning. It was really fun and it was great for us, but we were playing in 200-capacity rooms. I remember the biggest one we played was 1,500 in Portland and that was really, really crazy. Like biggest by a huge margin. So this is the first time that we’re doing a real headlining tour with production and people helping us out. We’ve gotten a lot of support in a lot of cities with radio and stuff, and so we’re showing up to these venues that are a lot bigger than what we’ve ever been used to playing by ourselves.

TMH: So what has the change been like?

FC: It’s been cool because a lot of them are older type of venues, like more historical theatres so you show up and you kind of get your breath taken away by how gorgeous some of these places are. And then you realize you get to play this, and then on top of that it’s a sold-out crowd. It’s just been so exciting like every day is another really cool surprise, just walking into some of these places that we’ve heard about for a really long time, like the Wiltern in Los Angeles. They’re just a really great level of anticipating leading up to it and we were all so excited and it turned out to be everything we could have hoped for.

TMH: You guys have almost completely sold out your shows. How has that been for you?

FC: It’s kind of out of nowehere. We’ve done a bunch of opening tours and done the smaller headlining tour and then a couple festivals, which I think were our first taste of showing up and we knew that there were going to be a lot of people there. Now you go out and the kind of dread you feel sometimes when you haven’t seen the ticket count and are worried that people won’t show up has been replaced by absolute elation. Everytime we wake up, we know that we’re playing to a packed room and it takes away that kind of lingering question, “Will people show up, will people enjoy it?” I think you naturally end up having a better time when you’re in a room full of people. So a lot of the time a lot of the work is already done for us when you have a packed room because people are already looking to have a good time.

TMH: You guys have really taken off in the last year or so. Have you seen it changing from being known in Irvine to now people everywhere knowing you?

FC: Sometimes you’re walking through an airport and carrying a lot of gear. And the five of us, we’re not exactly inconspicuous so people usually will ask, “Oh, are you in a band?” and for such a long time it was, “Yeah, we’re in this band called Young the Giant,” and it was like, “Oh, cool.” But they had no idea who we were, but were always really nice about it. But now the reaction is very different. When people see us, maybe they don’t recognize our faces, but when they ask, we see a lot more recognition. It’s really interesting to see that in places where we haven’t spent a huge amount of time playing in, it kind of took off really quickly. We sort of worked at it for a while, so as far as our head space was concerned we were in a good place to deal with that. But once it started to pick up it was very, very quickly.

TMH: When do you think it really started to pick up? You were on the MTV Video Music Awards – was that the point?

FC: I think that that’s the closest thing we’ve gotten to a big break really. It’s much more difficult nowadays to get that type of opportunity. Back in the ’80s, ’90s and even the early 2000s, if you got signed, chances were you would do well. You had the support behind you, people were still buying music so you could make a career out of the music and it wasn’t as unsure, I think. Nowadays you really need something really big to secure that kind of job. So when the VMAs happened it was really sort of an overnight thing where people wold start recognizing us and coming up and saying, “Oh you did such a good job at the VMAs.” I remember one time we were walking in a Walmart in the Midwest and someone recognized us. It started to happen more and more often. And then as far as our social media presence, on Facebook and stuff, we saw this explosion of likes and people just commenting all over the place that they had seen us. And it did translate to bodies actually showing up to shows which was the most exciting part for us because really what we live on on a day-to-day basis is, “Are people going to come to the shows?” So I guess it’s gotta be the VMAs.

TMH: I’m crazy about the “In the Open Session” videos. They’re gorgeous videos and the sound is incredible. What was the inspiration behind these?

FC: It was kind of a bunch of things. It was a collaboration that we started with a good friend Alex Shahmiri. He’s a great photographer and really good with video and was sort of our tour manager/friend/photographer/videographer for a while when we were still doing a very DIY phase of touring. He’s all over blogs, he checks everything out. He always got new music or these cool little videos. And so he became aquainted with La Blogotheque, which they do a very similar to “In the Open.” The first one I saw was “Nantes” by Beirut. Blogotheque is a bunch of guys in Paris and they kind of do something similar to that. They did one in a bathroom with Grizzly Bear. Beirut was the first one that I saw, and it was so cool how it pushed the mix on the listener. It was really rich and such a great experience. You could actually see it and listen to it at the same time, which was obviously very different that listening to a studio. We loved that idea. I remember we were driving back from Utah through the salt flats and looking around at this super alien world. And we just thought how striking this was, so let’s stop the van, pull over, take some stuff out of the trailer and see if we can record a couple of songs. And that’s actually how “I Got” turned out, and it was the first one we ever did. It got such a great reaction. Once we put that online we realized we kind of had something. What we wanted to hold onto was something more attached to nature. And as time went by we got more comfortable and better at performing these things live. It’s great because you actually get to boil the song down to it’s truest form, which is supoosed to be basically a melody and some rhythms. It’s been really fun for us and we hope to continue to do them as we write music.

TMH: You just put out “West Virigina” a couple of months ago as an open session, but it isn’t on your last album. Are you going to be putting out a track for that?

FC: We don’t know. It’s a possibility that that’ll show up on the next record. We have a demo version of that but it never really got past that phase. It’s a song that we really enjoying singing and kind of being able to play. It doesn’t necessarily translate as well to a live situation. You kind of have to pick those songs to go on a record. Which ones are we OK to leave on as an acoustic track that won’t necessarily come up in a set? It’s definitely a possibility. At this point we’re just writing as much as possible and trying to take stock of all the things we’ve written up until now, as large a body of work to pick from for the next record.

TMH: So you’re writing already for the next record?

FC: Yeah, I think right now this is probably the last big tour we’re going to do for this record and that’s wrapping up around May. But we took three months off between touring with Incubus and with this tour and we lived all together in this place in Los Angeles and just wrote as much as we possibly could so we’d be prepared for when it came time for something like pre-production and recording and all that. Right now the idea is basically to let this wind down, see if we can do some writing on the road and then just really start to focus come early fall-summer on writing and then just getting straight into pre-production mode and see what we can come up with.

TMH: You guys used to be The Jakes and you had a couple changes in band members along the way. How was that different than now as Young the Giant?

FC: Basically the way we see it is that we’ve only really been taking it seriously since this full incarnation has been together. Before that, it was just a fun hobby that we all did in high school and playing in those bands. So as far as we’re concerned it is a different band than what The Jakes was, which was the name of the original band as it started in like 2004.

TMH: Why were they called The Jakes? Did Jacob Tilley [the guitarist] lose a bet?

FC: No, but he might tell you he did. He hated having his name being the same name, but in fact it was an acronym for the original five names of the band – Jake, Adam, Kevin, Ehson and Samir. I think a week after they came up with the name, two of the members switched out so it didn’t work anymore but for some reason they stuck with it. So it was a joke, and it was still the name when I joined and we were trying to do things totally differently so it was really strange for us. And that’s why we ended up changing the name because no one felt any sort of ownership for that name so it was starting to be weird, like we were writing music for someone else’s band.

TMH: How did you come up with Young the Giant?

FC: Young the Giant came with a good two months of us banging our head against the wall. Anytime we had a name we thought we liked we’d have a huge downpour of negative criticism from everyone, friends and management, the label didn’t like it. It got to this point that we were so frustrated, eventually I think Samir, it kind of popped out of his mouth, “Young the Giant.” And then, “Yeah, I like that. Let’s tell everyone else to go f*** off and do it.” Basically that’s kinda what it was and what we ended up liking was that it was something spontaneous that we could all get behind. As far as any real meaning or context apart from that, there’s really not all that much.

TMH: So what are the plans for the rest of the year?

FC: This tour is going through April, a few days off and then a shorter second leg, mostly college tours actually. Then we’re going to be in Europe for a little bit and then it’s going to slow down, some festivals here and there and basically trying to move into a place again together and writing.

TMH: You’ve done this before, living together and writing?

FC: We took time off from school when I was a junior, the other guys were sophomores. So when we left school we were broke and wanted to try to do this seriously so it made sense for us to try and live together. And we were in that state of mind that it was totally cool to live with a bunch of dudes because that’s what everyone we knew was doing and we kind of just stuck to it. It’s easier to write when we’re together and for one thing it’s less expensive as you can kind of pull resources. It does really help; it can be whatever time of night, you don’t have to actually get dressed and drive to your buddy’s house and try to record. You can get everyone there together and try to flow on whatever idea comes out of it. As long as we can continue to do it, we like to. And then eventually we’ll find a time when we’ll see its time to go our separate ways and have bedrooms and stuff but for now we’re pretty happy with our arrangement for at least a little while longer.

TMH: In Fort Lauderdale, you’re playing at Culture Room, which isn’t too large. Between small venues and huge ones, what do you, as a band, like better?

FC: It just depends on what our mindset is on that particular day. Like when we’re in Los Angeles and our parents are coming and we have all our friends and family, we like to show them, “This is what we’re doing with our lives. It’s totally worth it,” and there’s definitely a lot of cool stuff that comes with being a small venue like that. Sometimes its fun to go back to what we knew for such a long time and playing those clubs.