The Billboard Alternative Songs chart for the week of May 20 includes singles like Paramore’s “Hard Times,” Lorde’s “Green Light,” and others that no doubt live in your Spotify playlists. Above them all, though, is The Revivalists’ “Wish I Knew You,” a catchy and soulful tune that just knocked off “Believer” by Imagine Dragons to claim the No. 1 spot, a first for the band.
“We definitely never thought that was going to be something on our radar,” frontman David Shaw told us. “Some bands aim for that, but we’re just trying to make songs that we like.”
Fresh off performing at their hometown’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the group has an appeal that extends far beyond their own tastes, because without compromising anything, they appeal to multiple distinct sensibilities. “Wish I Knew You” has elements of just about every classic school of American music, and instead of a history-bastardizing cacophony, it blends these influences into a sound that feels as new and engaging as it does familiar and comfortable.
I spoke with Shaw about the modern jazz revival, writing longform songs, and, surprisingly, Lil Yachty’s relationship with old-school hip-hop. The conversation reminded me of a fundamental if not taken-for-granted element of music fandom: Whatever the aesthetic or context of the sounds you’re listening to, quality songwriting is above all else what makes memorable songs.
So “Wish I Knew You” just hit No. 1. I think part of why that song has done well is because in terms of its influences, it seems like it has a lot going on; There’s some soul, some rock, blues, funk, jazz… How do you strike that kind of balance on a song without it being either too all over the place or too boring?
I think the core of that song is the beat, the bass line, the melody, and the lyrics, and I think everything else just lifts that up and takes it to another area. It has those influences like jazz and folk here and there, but the real core is that four-on-the-floor and that bass line that’s there throughout. As long as you don’t stray too far to the left or the right, you got something there that’s memorable, that’s going to hit home with some people.
So you just played Jazz Fest, and it seems like in the past few years, jazz has had a popular revival, whether it’s thanks to guys like Kamasi Washington or BADBADNOTGOOD or even Kendrick Lamar to a certain extent. Would you say that jazz and related genres are in a stronger place now than perhaps people might realize, even if it’s just in terms of its influence on other genres?
I really think that what’s popular in music today, there’s a kind of ebb and flow to it, and it’s cyclical. Right now, you have a resurgence of that realness that’s in jazz and blues and real rock and roll, because for a long time, there wasn’t really that, you know? There was a lot of… there’s still a lot of DJ stuff going on, which is cool, but I think after a while, people are like, “OK, well, I want to see a guy up there playing guitar and singing instead of pressing some buttons.”
So I just think there’s a kind of ebb and flow when it comes to that sort of thing. After a while, people just get sick of the same old thing, so something’s got to come back around. There’s that saying that every 20 years, a genre resurfaces a little bit, so if that’s the truth, we’re approaching grunge right now. [Laughs]
Speaking of genres coming back, it seems that based on your band name, there’s a strong implication that you place a lot of value in the music that came before you. That reminds me of what Lil Yachty was saying a few months ago…
Who? Who is this?
Lil Yachty, he’s a rapper.
Oh, he’s a rapper. OK, cool.
I bring him up because he got some flak for saying that he doesn’t care that much about old-school hip-hop. That led to people saying he needs to have more respect for his musical forefathers and that sort of thing. So would you tend to agree more with him that knowing the old-school stuff isn’t that important, or with his critics who say that you should be aware?
I think it’s extremely important to remember those who came before you so you can know what’s been done and try to take it higher. I’m not going to subscribe to what he says at all. That’s cool if that’s what he believes, and you know what? If you believe that and you’re willing to go out and say that and put that on the line, then cool. That’s fine, you know? But I’m not of that school. I really like to study the greats. I like to study how they wrote their songs and how they did their live shows. I think it’s only natural to look up to those who came before you and say, “Wow, that’s great. Maybe I can do this in my own way.”
So who are those artists for you?
Man, I’d have to say Prince, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, David Byrne, Anthony Keidis, Eddie Vedder… just these guys who have really taken their crowds to another place. That’s what people are all searching for, fans and musicians; They want to go into this almost other world, this head space that only live music can bring you to.
You guys are a New Orleans band, and it seems people have this specific idea of what music from New Orleans is supposed to sound like. So how do you guys balance being a “New Orleans band” with standing out as more than that?
There’s definitely an element of New Orleans music in our music. You just can’t not have a love for the music of New Orleans, so what we’ve done is we’ve let certain elements creep in. A lot of times, it’s the rhythm or the use of horns in certain parts to elevate our music to a place where it’s like, “OK, that could potentially be a rock song,” but if you put some horns on it in a certain area, it makes it something different. It takes you into that Prince/David Bowie realm where it’s like, what is this? Is it rock, is it pop, is it disco, is it funk? Is it all of the above, is it soul? What we try to do is let the song be the song and not necessarily try to fit into a genre.
Aside from that kind of sound, you guys have also delved into what you could call jam band territory with some songs that are pretty long on your albums. I’ve always thought it seems like there’s this stigma against songs that are longer than five or six minutes. Would you agree with that?
I think it’s just that some bands can do it and the song can stand up and you don’t feel like it’s too long. But people’s attention spans are getting shorter because of what’s on the radio, and if you want a song to be on the radio, it can’t be longer than three and a half minutes, really. But if the song can stand up and has these different movements so it’s not just verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-out, then it’s something different.
There are these Beatles songs that are verse-chorus-verse-chorus-outro, and the outro just goes. And you don’t get sick of it because it’s a great melody that’s just tacked onto the end of this other song. I’m referencing this song we’ve been playing called “Hey Jude,” I’m sure you’re familiar with it. [Laughs] But the end is just this huge sing-along that goes on for two and a half minutes, and you never once think, “Oh man, this is really long, I just wish they’d end this.” [Laughs] A seven-minute song is one of their biggest.
It’s been a couple years now since Men Amongst Mountains, so what have you learned and experienced since then that’s changed the approach of your next album? For example, I know that record you did live on tape in just 21 days. Is that something you would try again?
You know, I don’t think we’re going to do it too much different than we did, really. We’re still going to get in the room and record it, and it seems like that’s something that’s worked pretty well for us. As far as recording to tape, I’m not going to say we are and I’m definitely not going to say we aren’t, because I don’t exactly know what the process is going to be like this time around. We’re just going to go in there, be the band that we can be and play our songs, I guess, kind of the same way we did last time.
Do you have an estimated timeline for when that next album might be on its way?
I’d say it’ll definitely be out in 2018.
Stream Men Amongst Mountains here, and watch the music video for “Wish I Knew You” above.