As much as music should outlast the times, it should also speak to them.
On Spirit Animal’s 2018 full-length debut, Born Yesterday, the band not only proves 808s and guitars can coexist in harmony, they also craft airtight songs that would delight in any era. Hailing from Brooklyn, NY, singer Steve Cooper, guitarist Cal Stamp, drummer Ronen Evron, and bassist Paul Michel make music that both bottles and transcends the moment.
“Something special happens when you dump a bunch of genres into a blender and just let it rip,” says Cal. “We want our songs to move in unexpected directions. We’ll take what we love about Arctic Monkeys or Kendrick Lamar or James Blake and pull the pieces together into something cohesive, new and fun. Nobody listens to just one kind of music anymore, so why write that way?”
“Songs come together from every angle,” adds Steve. “Sometimes it’s four guys jamming in a room. Sometimes it’s one person producing on a computer. Sometimes it’s two of us, a co-writer and an acoustic guitar. We lean into not knowing what will come of a session and take every risk we can. If we don’t do it, who the fuck will?”
Spirit Animal as we know it, though, nearly never happened. Introduced by a mutual friend, Cal initially passed on the opportunity to join the group as a guitarist. But after catching the band’s bombastic live show one night at Pianos in downtown Manhattan, he changed his mind. “I wanted to have as much fun as they were having on stage,” he admits with a laugh.
A “poptimist before the word existed,” the guitarist’s sensibilities dovetailed nicely with the other members’ eclectic tastes. Although Paul’s roots were in the D.C. hardcore scene, Ronen studied at Berklee College of Music, and Steve grew up on a strict diet of rap music, the guys bonded over a shared desire to push boundaries. “We’ve changed each other drastically,” Steve says with pride.
The group’s efforts began with the single “The Black Jack White,” which quickly topped a million plays on Spotify. Building a buzz, the band landed looks from Consequence of Sound, Entertainment Weekly, and The Washington Post. 2016’s World War IV EP yielded the staple “Regular World,” which clocked 3 million Spotify streams. They toured relentlessly along the way, developing a diverse and devout audience. Signing to Atlantic Records in 2017, the band wrote and recorded what became Born Yesterday at Steve’s apartment, as well as studios in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville.
“We want this album to stick with you, but we also want it to be fun,” Cal says. “It’s more than just a good time, but it shouldn’t feel like more than a just good time.”
The first single, “YEAH!” pits sparse pop verses against a wild, distorted chorus. Punctuated by fingersnaps and an oft-repeated chant that lends the song its name, lyrics veer from plaintive irreverence (“All I wanna hear you say is/You put me on your love songs playlist”) to disorienting commentary (“Give ‘em all a raise/Give ‘em Marvin Gaye/Give ‘em Michael Bay”).
“It’s about fame’s relationship to the real and the fake,” says Steve. “This tornado of pop culture touchstones -- similar to Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ or the bridge to Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ -- makes it all mean something, but you’re not sure what. You’re supposed to question it, the way the modern world makes you question yourself.”
Elsewhere on Born Yesterday, “Karma” opens with a punchy bass riff before launching into a gleeful, stadium-sized ode to underachievement (“What do you want me to say?/I’m the Jordan of making mistakes!”).
For the piano-driven “JFK,” Spirit Animal teamed up with producer Ricky Reed (Jason Derulo, One Direction) for a more bass-heavy sound. “It’s a little more serious and contemplative,” Steve says. “‘JFK’ explores the gift-and-curse of having power and attention, but being a target as a result. You carry that around. You live with both. It’s not all good and it’s not always predictable.” Unpredictability is Spirit Animal’s bread and butter.
“We went from losing our indie deal to signing with Atlantic and working with our favorite producer,” says Steve. “In this game, anything’s possible. Our music shows that.”