I’m going for the drugged-out look because we’re a pop band.”
Tiffany Lamson is leaning against a door frame in Dockside Studio’s control room looking wan and disaffected as she and the rest of GIVERS pose for photos. She’s playing, but not entirely. Rebecca Nicholson of The Guardian wrote of the band’s debut, In Light, “It’s so relentlessly upbeat, cheerful and full of life that you start to wonder whether they’ve been created by evil pharmaceutical manufacturers to promote the idea that heavy sedative use is not such a bad thing at all.” Jon Young at Spin wrote, “Giddy is the default mode on the breezy debut by this Lafayette, Louisiana quintet. Everything sparkles—bubbly beats, luminous guitars and synths, and most of all, the exuberant voices of Taylor Guarisco and Tiffany Lamson (who apparently have unfettered access to happy meds).” In OffBeat’s review, I wrote, “The album leads with ‘Up! Up! Up!’ How much more up can you get?” All that focus on a band’s effervescence would make anybody self-conscious.
The fact that the band’s songs are as pop as they are is a surprise to them. According to Taylor Guarisco, “We’ve embraced the influence of pop music in our music, but that’s a thing that just happened.” It’s not something that is intrinsic in the band members’ musical DNA; before GIVERS, they played free jazz, funk, zydeco, punk, worship music, country and more. “The reason we made these songs so poppy is it’s something we’ve never ever done before,” Guarisco says. “We ended up exploring pop music and African influence and doo wop, and anything that came to us. Whatever we haven’t got used to—let’s do that.”
After a few Nico-esque frames, Lamson slips back to more engaged poses for the photo shoot, flanked by members of the band.
“People take positivity in our music and turn it into something cheap.”
“We’re a family that is okay with not getting along all the time because we’re human,” Guarisco says.
“It’s not real unless you do fight,” bassist Josh LeBlanc says.
“This music’s full of joy because that’s what we were feeling at the time,” Guarisco adds.
GIVERS are one of two area bands playing in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Big Leagues in 2011, the other being Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue. Both have people with money behind them betting that they can reach mass audiences—Verve/Forecast for Shorty and Glassnote Records for GIVERS. Glassnote isn’t as big as the major labels, but it’s an international boutique label with clout. It’s currently six acts strong, but when GIVERS signed, it only had two others—Phoenix and Mumford and Sons. The overlap in Shorty and GIVERS’ schedules reveals how bands are promoted today. Both have been featured on NPR, where both did Tiny Desk Concerts, and NPR’s All Songs Considered website streamed In Light before the album was available. Both have done late night television—GIVERS appeared on The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon the week In Light was released—and both have kept ridiculous touring schedules in America and abroad. When asked how many days they’ve been on the road since the album was released, keyboard player Nick Stephan says, “How many days have we not been on tour? That’s easier to calculate.”
Both bands are finding out what playing in the big leagues means in a time when sales are down and the Internet is changing the way people consume music. As Brave New World as it all sounds, band members say the vision of cigar-chomping record execs making it rain isn’t as outmoded as you might think.
“There are people out there offering bags of money,” Guarisco says. “But you have to be careful about what’s in the bag.”
“Snakes,” Lamson adds half-seriously.
“That’s right. Money and snakes,” Guarisco continues. The whole band is sitting around a table a hundred or so yards from the Vermilion Bayou at Dockside Studios, and they often finish each others’ sentences.
“Whenever people mention that we were signed to a label, there’s this weird undercurrent that comes with any reference to that as if when we signed, we had this huge briefcase full of cash that we all walked away with,” he says. “You don’t want a suitcase full of money because you’ll have to pay it back one day.”
“Everybody thinks that when you sign, the ray of sunshine hits your face and everything is golden,” Lamson says.
That starts the band riffing on metaphors that explain the impact and adjustments that accompany signing to a label, cracking each other up. They don’t so much settle on anything as Lamson asserts: “You’re driving fast to the destination but it’s a little uncomfortable.”
These days, a label doesn’t only mean that there’s a bankroll behind you. If it’s a good label, it means there’s a little stroke on your side that gives you a valuable leg up. One thing that South by Southwest has shown in recent years is that there are more people than ever forming quality bands; the problem is how to make them profitable. A label with a proven track record gets taken seriously in places that matter, such as NPR and television shows, and has established relationships that are invaluable. At the least, it gives a band an infrastructure that takes care of business on a scale that smaller labels aspire to.
“We are supported by this group of people in New York who dedicate every waking hour of their day to their bands, and we’re one of their bands,” Guarisco says. “It’s awesome. It’s this team that’s really great at getting our songs to people all over the world, which is what you want your record label to do these days. But it did not deliver a suitcase full of money. It paid for some of the cost of what we invested in the album ourselves.”
Being on Glassnote means they tour constantly, but they don’t tour in luxury. They ride in a 15-passenger van, and there’s nothing glamorous about it. The van developed the habit of starting itself up, even after it had been turned off and the keys removed from the ignition. One night in San Diego, Guarisco and manager Aaron Scruggs had to stay with the van for more than an hour-and-a-half waiting for “the fucking van to go to bed,” in Guarisco’s words.
Like Shorty, GIVERS are making fans the old school way: in concert, one audience at a time. “The Givers’ bridges and choruses are often nothing more than the catchiest of harmonized shouts conjoining female and male vocalists Tif Lamson and Taylor Guarisco,” Liberty Kohn wrote for PopMatters.com. “These shouts, accompanied by a rhythm section that often drops into funk doubletime, give one a feeling of ascendance, not submergence. Try as you might to disappear into darkness or slumber, The Givers will pull you toward the surface, the music revives your limbs, their energy and humor revive your mind.”
“It would be an impossible feat for even the most dedicated nihilist to keep from smiling after catching a live show from the Lafayette, Louisiana band, Givers,” wrote Molly Wardlaw for MTVIggy.com. “Listening to the joyous sounds of this eclectic quintet could easily work as immersion therapy for the world-weary soul.”
Guarisco can’t wait to show off Dockside Studio in Maurice, outside of Lafayette. A sliding glass door in the studio makes it possible to open a sliding exterior door and let the band see the sunshine while it records. It’s hard to imagine that that was a selling point for Dr. John, Leon Russell and Bobby Charles, all of whom recorded there, but you could see it mattering to GIVERS. Upstairs there are rooms for the band members to sleep in, including one that Lamson says is haunted. Over the course of the afternoon, a friend shows up with bare, muddy feet—the result of docking his boat to a tree and stepping out into the bayou before coming ashore. When a barge laden with gravel passes, Lamson runs down to the bank to get the captain to honk his horn.
GIVERS are as much a product of their place as Trombone Shorty, and you can hear Festival International in their music the same way you hear Jazz Fest in Shorty’s. “That festival is sacred to us because it’s exposed us to so many different international musics,” Lamson says, and the Vampire Weekend that some critics hear in In Light is more accurately sourced back to the festival. At the same time, they’re unmistakably indie rock fans. Animal Collective producer Ben Allen took the tracks the band recorded at Dockside and produced In Light. When the band needs energy during the photo shoot, they put on Little Dragon. Lamson’s enthusiastic about the new Feist and Bon Iver. When asked about the coolest thing they’ve done, Guarisco says, “Open for Dirty Projectors,” as LeBlanc wisecracks, “I knew you were going to go there.”
Opening for Dirty Projectors in Baton Rouge was GIVERS’ break, but it was more than that for Guarisco. The Dirty Projectors liked GIVERS enough to take them on tour, but it was the realization of a dream for Guarisco.
“Dirty Projectors were my obsession for so many years,” he says. “Religiously studying this guy Dave Longstreth’s every move, every album, every song, every video on YouTube, and then getting to tour with them. As much as I’d like to say, ‘I imagined that and manifested it,’ I honestly can’t say that I did. When we recorded our first EP at [drummer] Kirby Campbell’s apartment, I remember getting our EP printed and thinking, ‘If I ever met Dave Longstreth in a parking lot, I would not give him these songs because I don’t think they’re of a high enough quality to give to my hero.’ That EP ended up in his hands, and he ended up approving us to go on tour with them.”
In the three years the band has been together, it’s had a number of similarly unlikely moments—the sorts of things that are more likely to happen when you reach a mass audience.
“I love seeing people type to us, ‘Went for morning jog listening to GIVERS,’” Lamson says. “I can’t imagine that. I jog to Tool.”
“Some guy Sunday night at the tUnE-yArDs show asked me if I was in GIVERS,” Guarisco says. “He said, ‘I was just in this trip to Nepal, and I was in these mountains. We endured two avalanches and a really intense snowstorm, and your album got me through that apocalypse.’ I was blown away.”
Keyboard player Nick Stephan has a similar story: “We were in Ohio and this guy tells us that his partner was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and he’s spent two years taking care of his partner. He was there with his brother and sister-in-law and was all smiles the whole time. The rest of his party said, ‘You guys don’t understand; that’s the first time he smiled in two years.’”
“That’s the real review,” Guarisco says.
“The music that emotionally touches me the most is the music I need right then,” Lamson says. “I’ve been almost scarily obsessed with the new Bon Iver album. That’s what I needed. Hopefully people will get that from our music.”
Stories like those and Lamson’s reaction highlight a curious paradox. GIVERS are mature enough to be very centered and wise. Their values are sorted out and emphasize growth. There’s no “the” in GIVERS, Lamson explains, because they aren’t the only people in the world who give. No one in the band is playing his or her first instrument—in itself fascinating. Guarisco explains this in an email, writing, “The instrumentation of this band is sort of a reflection of all of us doing our best to reinvent our musical selves/everyday selves in every way we can.”
At the same time, they’re young enough to say growthful things like that with absolute certainty, but rock ‘n’ roll has always given young people permission. Oasis’ Gallagher brothers had already picked fights with half of rock’s royalty when they were around the same age as GIVERS. The Beatles lasted 10 years, and John Lennon was 29 when they broke up. Mick Jagger was 25 when the Rolling Stones recorded Beggars Banquet. Brian Wilson was 24 when Pet Sounds was released, and Jim Morrison’s career and life was over at 27. All said plenty of things that average people would never say, and while GIVERS aren’t the Beatles or the Stones, they’re entitled to the same license.
Besides, they’ve earned the right to be themselves. The band started hot and made an impression right away. At New Orleans’ first Foburg festival in 2010, they were scheduled to play after all the other participating venues on Frenchmen Street had finished for fear that the buzz on the band would cause other rooms to empty. They made an EP that successfully launched them in their drummer’s house, and they do have sane priorities. Guarisco likes Dockside because of its natural beauty and the way it allows them to focus. Cell service dies 10 or so yards inside the front gates, making it possible to put distractions aside.
Besides, despite how serious GIVERS can sound, they’re having fun. They’re ripping Stephan for how long it has taken him to grow his hipster beard. When LeBlanc’s trying to remember something he wanted to add, Lamson starts tossing out facts just to mess with him. “All mosquitos that bite are female; did you know that?” she asks. Everybody’s amused by Guarisco’s inability to sleep when he’s supposed to and near-narcolepsy when he’s not.
They’re also enjoying the adventure. They spent much of August in the UK, where they played to audiences that already knew their songs. “I never thought I’d be there this soon,” Lamson says.
“Being in a band doesn’t always mean that you’re with people you’re awesome friends with,” Stephan says. “It’s like we’re on vacation, then we get to set up and play music we enjoy playing.”
In person and in their music, GIVERS possess a level-headed giddiness. They’re eminently practical—all band money goes back into the band. They haven’t split gig money since they played Festival International the first time and all put $50 in their pockets—and they’re beautifully out-there. “Some people use their music as a release for negative emotions,” LeBlanc says. “We’ve done the expression part before in jazz, so now we’re using our music as sympathetic magic, writing something in the sand and hoping it will translate into our lives.”
And despite their anxiety about being poppy, it’s who they are now. “We’ve made these songs about how your life can be as good as you want it to be, and we’ve gotten to see all these things happen that we never imagined happening,” Taylor Guarisco says. “That’s what we wanted to explore at that time. We’re totally open to any direction that music beckons us to take. I’m sure people will be surprised by the next group of songs that we write.”
The coolest thing that has happened so far? “Knowing that songs we made in Lafayette, Louisiana in our home studios are being released all over the world,” Kirby Campbell says. “It’s pretty surreal. I still can’t picture anybody listening to this album.”