story / Tara Tyson
pictures / Shalon Goss
Musicians don’t always have the best reputations—groupies, trashed hotel rooms, drugs and booze—but the nice guys of Youngblood Hawke, the L.A-based band behind last year’s Billboard Top Ten hit, “We Come Running,” are the exception that proves the rule. “They are just good people,” says Alice Katz, one of the group’s vocalists and percussionists, and its solo female. “It’s really easy to spend every day with them.” That earnest affection infuses not only the band’s relationships—“We all just love what each of us does,” says Alice’s husband and bandmate, Simon Katz—but underlies their unique brand of phoenix-from-the-ashes music that this writer can only describe as “opti-pop.” Says Simon: “That optimistic, positive view point—that’s who we are.”
Formed in 2011 by Simon and Sam Martin, Youngblood Hawke is the manifest destiny that followed what Simon refers to as “a really dark period” after the breakup of Iglu & Hartly, the band Sam and Simon had founded several years before. “We had a big hit, a lot of success, the whole roller coaster ride up. We played Coachella for 10,000 people in 2010,” Simon explains. “And then we dissolved two weeks after.” Although Simon attributes the unraveling of Iglu & Hartly to the fact that “relationships in the band soured,” the fracturing seemed to reenergize his creative connection with Sam. “We hadn’t written songs together a lot,” Simon says. “We started writing with no real thought. We didn’t really know what we were gonna do. But we were like, ‘What would we do otherwise?’ This is what we care about the most. We both have the mentality you have to do what you love.”
The pair recorded a demo, which featured “Rootless,” a song that would become the first track on the YBH debut album Wake Up, released April 2013, and created what Simon calls their “dream band” with Alice, Tasso Smith, guitarist, and drummer Nik Hughes. “Everybody said yes and quit what they are doing—Tasso was in Florida in a very serious job, Nik was doing a lot of session work for other people— and we all just got in the studio,” Simon says. “Realistic optimism,” he continues, is the key. “If we work hard, are really passionate, are smart about what we do, we can grow something.” An EP was released in Fall 2012, and by the new year, they were opening for Keane. Youngblood Hawke had officially taken flight.
The ability to see potential in uncertainty, to look for light in the dark night of the soul, is as foundational to the Youngblood Hawke philosophy as it is to its sound. Their debut single “We Come Running,” a track that is hard to describe without using the word “infectious,” full of bells and the bell-like voices of the West Los Angeles Children’s Choir, is an anthem that celebrates confidence, independence, and wildness: “Headed for the open door/Tell me what you’re waiting for/Look across the great divide/Soon they’re gonna hear the sound, the sound, the sound/When we come running”. But even when the words are less obviously upbeat, for instance in songs like “Glacier” with its repeated lament “I never saw you/I never saw you leave,” the music’s layered vocals, easy-to-clap-along rhythm, and surprise high notes transform the song from sorrowful to soaring. “Pairing that stuff together really creates emotion,” says Simon. “It gives weight to the message of being hopeful, which is a lot of what we were unintentionally writing about when we wrote the record.”
Youngblood Hawke runs on “we.” “We all know each other very well,” says Tasso. “It’s helped our relationships, really. A lot of people ask, ‘You guys get sick of each other, right?’ But that doesn’t happen.” The members’ ties run deep and long into the past, which seems to fuel their commitment to collaboration, and their default habit, as Simon says, to “respect each other musically.” Alice and Simon married June 2010, and grew up in San Antonio with Tasso, who played in bands in high school with Simon. Sam, a native of Portland, Oregon, met Simon as undergraduates at the University of Colorado. Nik, originally from the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C., was the touring drummer for Iglu & Hartly. He’d planned to make his career as a strictly for-hire musician but decided to join YBH because “the music was just really cool.”
He’s not the only one who thinks so. Just ask the scores of fans who lined up hours ahead for the recent YBH show at the Avalon in Hollywood. “They’re so interactive,” says Sam. It’s cool to see them sing. It shows the music means something to them, and that’s the most important part.” While the band is enjoying their success, a second run for Simon and Sam at the “roller coaster ride up,” a summer touring throughout the U.S. and U.K. won’t distract them from the process that makes it all possible. “We have not stopped writing,” Simon says. “We’re constantly evolving, so who knows what our next record’s gonna sound like? Could be all metal!”