Originally published on Introspxct.
Photo: Meredith Truax
While John Vaughn and Ben Lapps were close friends and musical collaborators all throughout their Cincinnati school days, Matthew Alvarado took a bit longer to enter the picture.
“I used to take the bass player of the high school jazz band’s bass and practice during lunch period. John and I talked between lunch periods once because he heard me,” Alvarado recalls. “We started hanging out and then he invited me to jam with Ben and himself in Ben’s basement. John started playing the tremolo pedal for I Need You [off of what would be their Red EP]. I sat and I thought about it and start playing.”
Alvarado recounts that the rest of the evening was pretty routine, with the trio snacking and playing video games like any other group of teen boys. However, the events of that night had flipped a switch for the group as a whole. “I don’t remember if it was that night, or some time that week, but it was pretty late for high school, around midnight probably,” he said. “I got a one word text from John. It just said ‘Matt.’ And I said ‘Yeah?’ And he said, ‘Are you ready to heed the call?’”
Their newest release, the Sweet Lemonade EP, is a slight departure from the look and feel of their earlier releases, Red (2012), Let’s Make It (2014), and Let’s Remake It (2015). Drummer Lapps explains, “With Red in the beginning, the kind of drumming I wanted to do was like Grizzly Bear and Local Natives, very indie. But now I’m obsessed with stuff like Earth, Wind and Fire, and I love making dance beats. Our new record is a lot of dance beats, four-on-the-floor with auxiliary stuff sprinkled in. That’s just my drummer perspective.”
The funkier, moodier tracks featured on the EP are a bit of a contrast to the lighthearted love songs of their last release, Let’s Remake It, but bassist Alvarado stresses that the path taken was a natural progression, rather than an outright pivot. “We had another five or six songs between Let’s Remake It and Sweet Lemonade that we scrapped. Maybe from the outside in, people are probably like ‘Wow, that’s kind of a big shift in their sonic space,’ but it’s been a pretty gradually transformation. We’ve been writing a lot; we didn’t just jump to this conclusion.’”
Though the EP was recorded in the same space as their previous EPs, Moonlight Studio, there were a couple of key differences in the production process that the group believes set this project apart from the rest of their body of work. For one, the producer brought on for the project, Austin Nivarel, is a contemporary of theirs. Having someone who had a finger on the pulse of pop music production who also respected the group’s vision was conducive to getting the best possible product out into the world.
Vaughn, guitarist and lead vocalist, also explained their different pre-production process this time around. “One of the biggest differences between this and previous wor k is that we came in with super fleshed out demos. A lot of sounds that you hear on this EP were made on my laptop. We wanted to make sure we had everything together before we brought it to a producer or engineer.” And for the first time, the group welcomed collaboration in the writing stage, with Eli Maiman of Walk the Moon lending a hand with On My Mind.
As for their visual identity, the group stressed that this release was all about stepping out of their comfort zone. The album cover features a hot pink background and a lemon fashioned into a grenade. The pink and yellow color palette of the cover, designed by Brandon Rike, carries through to their website, social media profiles, new merchandise, and the admat for their tour. Past motifs had stuck with black, with accents of pastel green, pink and blue. Vaughn elaborates that this shift not only sets this EP apart from rest of their discography but from other acts in their scene. “There’s so much noise nowadays, so much information people are taking in all the time. If you want to be an artist that does make an impact, being loud is something you have to do. We’ve not really gone for that yet,” he said. “In the past we’ve been more reserved and thought through things a thousand times before we execute it. Now we want to do things that are loud, make an impact, and leave a taste in your mouth.”
The new approach is definitely effective for the group, as a number of opportunities have come their way in the past few months, including a licensing deal. It’s quite possible you’ve heard a tune from the group without knowing it, in an ad for Truly Spiked & Sparkling. Sure enough, the official audio on the band’s Youtube page is sprinkled with comments saying that they reached the band through the television spot. Though there was hesitation about a connection with a spirits brand, the three agreed that the deal was a great step at the end of the day.
A day after Sweet Lemonade dropped, the group was able to debut the new tracks live in a very special way. Vaughn, Lapps, and Alvarado took the stage in front of 18,000 people to open for Twenty One Pilots’ penultimate show of the Tour De Columbus series at Nationwide Arena.
A number of connections, as well as great timing and tunes, helped to get the trio on that stage. After the debut of 4Her, industry attention started to pick up and the band looked toward friends in the know.
One of these friends was Michael Gibson, former tour manager for Twenty One Pilots. "We actually contacted Michael for business advice," he details. "With all the emails and stuff we’d gotten, we were like, we need to reach out to our industry friends that can provide us with knowledge."
For Vaughn, it was probably something of a full circle moment. Alvarado described John’s texts as when he could discern the start of the band, but the lead vocalist had a separate moment of clarity.
Back in 2012, the trio opened for Twenty One Pilots at a different Columbus venue, the LC Pavilion, now Express Live. It was their final show bearing the name Crown before they officially began to release music as Public. “The crowd was so happy, it was one of those magical things,” Vaughn said. “Afterwards, we were cleaning up, I was rolling up my cords. They started the music back up, the venue music in between sets. It was Come Together by The Beatles and I just had this moment where I thought, ‘I think we’re gonna do this.’”