Seattle pop-rock group the Young Evils have been through the sort of major-label rigmarole that gives major labels a bad name. Maybe you can relate. In 2012, they released an EP titled Foreign Spells. Shane Stoneback (Sleigh Bells, Vampire Weekend, Cults) produced it. Soon after its release, popular local DJ Marco Collins posted the lead single “Dead Animals” on his Facebook and someone from Fairfax Records—a Universal subsidiary—contacted the band. After months of negotiations, the Young Evils secured a deal with Fairfax and went to LA’s Sound City Studios (where Nevermind, Rumours, and Pinkerton, among other famous albums, were cut) and recorded 10 songs with Kevin Augunas and his engineers Gavin Paddock and Clif Norrell. They returned to Seattle, but didn’t hear anything from Fairfax for a couple of months, and then they found out that Universal had ceased operations with Fairfax.
But hold your tears… Universal said it wanted the Young Evils to move up to the big leagues. Guitarist/vocalist Troy Nelson picks up the narrative from the band’s Facebook page. “[Universal] wanted more songs, they didn’t love the production, they wanted to re-record, they wanted 30 new songs to choose from (wrote them) and we dutifully plugged away at this exciting opportunity. Unfortunately it felt like some of the classic symptoms of dealing with a major label were setting in - keep the band busy delegating tasks and just hurry up and wait. It was becoming painfully clear that the Young Evils were going to have a tough time fighting for oxygen in meetings mostly devoted to Rhianna's next release.”
Gradually, both band (Mackenzie Mercer, Brendon Helgason, Michael Lee, and Scott Helgason) and label decided to end the relationship, and through what Nelson calls “killer managerial assistance and lawyering, we were able to retain the rights to the music we recorded and walk away.”
Six of the songs from those sessions at Sound City, plus a recent stint at Ben Jenkins’s Kill Room, form the False Starts EP, which will be self-released on November 18.
I caught up with Nelson, who also DJs at KEXP, to discuss the Young Evils’ harrowing encounter with the biggest label conglomerate on the planet and their new music.
What initially convinced you that getting involved with a major label was a good idea? Did any musician friends warn you about the risks?
Nelson: We only became involved with Universal because they had a subsidiary label called Fairfax Records and they really liked our darker EP Foreign Spells. Ever since we drastically moved away from our acoustic-pop beginnings and finally had a solid band in place, we felt like we confused anyone who may have paid attention to us in the first place. Fairfax was the first [label] to be very supportive and vocal about our new direction, and we were happy to fly down to LA and start working with them. They only had three bands on their roster, and one of them was Broncho, who we love. We signed a deal, recorded 10 songs at Sound City, and waited for mixes. During the mixing process, Universal pulled the plug on Fairfax completely, almost overnight. So for months we didn't know where we stood contract-wise and whatnot. We heard that Universal may want to move us over to Universal Republic if they liked the songs. We weren't exactly sure how to feel about everything, but when we found out Phantogram were on that label, we figured there had to be some cool people there.
Months went by and we didn't hear much of anything. Then we saw on Twitter, of all places, that they added us to their lineup. We talked to someone in A&R, and they were ready to finish the mixing and possibly do some more recording. After another few months, we got word that they had laid off quite a few people involved and things were a bit unstable. By that point, we just wanted to release some new music without being in limbo, so we worked on getting out of the whole deal, which is exactly what ended up happening.
Was it painful and expensive to get out of the deal? Has this experience soured you forever on working with majors?
We got to walk with the recordings, which was amazing. That and we got Phil Collen from Def Leppard to play on our song “Renegades”! [This came about because Nelson had worn a Def Leppard T-shirt to the studio one day and Augunas bet him $100 he could get Collen to play on a Young Evils song. Augunas won.] Thankfully, the few people that were left on their end were understanding. We left fairly unscathed. No money owed, just points to the producer if we decided to release any of the songs, which is what we're doing. It didn't sour us too much. Anyone who listens to our band and wants to work with us is nice, but either way we're going to keep doing what we're doing.
You can tell that the songs on False Starts are very catchy and bear the fingerprints of some pro producers working in well-equipped studios. (I also think that this record will end the Vaselines comparisons.)
Yeah, four of the six songs on False Starts were produced by Kevin Augunas (Cold War Kids, Edward Sharpe) and the other two by local producer Ben Jenkins. Augunas operates out of the legendary Sound City Studios, and he's got a great ear for making records—bass and drums, in particular. To record where Nevermind was created was surreal, a dream come true.
Has marriage changed anything in the Young Evils’ creative dynamic? (Nelson is married to vocalist Mackenzie Mercer.)
The only thing that's changed is that our first record was about falling in love and innocence. Now our songs are about fire, demons, space, twisted hearts, and running away. In other words, we're finally writing the songs we really wanted to write in the first place.
Whatever happened to that side project based on Lou Champagne System?
You're the only person who knows about that. I told you that years ago! It's still on. I'm just slowly setting home recordings of that project aside one by one until there's a solid five or six. Super dark, homemade, fuzzy, snotty, obnoxious shit will be in your mailbox someday soon.