With the recent release of their debut album, Freedom Of Speech, The Young Presidents are poised to become your new favorite band. Produced by John Agnello (Sonic Youth, The Hold Steady) and sparking comparisons to bands ranging from Cream to Train, the album serves as a great introduction to a band sporting that classic back-to-basic guitar/bass/drums sound.
For a behind-the-scenes look at building the perfect band, Pollstar spoke with Young Presidents Jake Hertzog (guitar) and Mitchell Kaneff (bass). Although drummer Leon Bibi wasn’t available, he was present in spirit.
One band, three unique individuals. What influences shaped your musical journey while growing up?
Jake: We all come from some pretty different backgrounds. The mid-‘90s was my scene. Right after the grunge thing began to wane, that’s when I started playing. So I learned all those alternative bands of the ‘90s, Third Eye Blind and stuff like that. Those were the first songs I learned how to play.
Mitchell: I came from a traditional John Paul Jones/Zeppelin feel. John Entwistle rocked and from a lot of standpoints, a cross between Sting of The Police and Paul McCartney from a melodic standpoint. I was more of a fusion guy.
Many people play in bands while in high shool or college, yet leave it behind as they grow older. When did you realize this was your calling in life?
Jake: I’m a little unique in regards to that question. Jazz musician is my day job. I do a lot of teaching, write jazz articles for Guitar Player magazine and done a lot of records. [How]I met Mitch and Leon – we all loved doing these after-hours fusion jams late at night at rehearsal studios in New York City. Leon, our drummer, was way into the prog-rock thing and Mitch was into fusion and the Jaco thing.
We started goofing off together and after a while we really wanted to take the next step as a group and start writing songs we thought we would like and people would actually want to listen to as opposed to just playing random notes for an hour straight every night. That’s how it evolved as sort of a jam club into a more pop/rock band.
Mitchell: My perspective is very similar. I’ve been playing my whole life. I put out a solo album a few years ago and it was all about creating an opportunity for pop/rock. Really putting it out there in a format so it would be on the radio. And Jake came from being the music director for The Naked Brothers Band. Basically, they were a show that had to be three-to four-to five-minute pop songs with hooks, making it tight and rocking it from the first note. With jazz you get a chance to open up and see what progresses while with a really great pop/rock song, you’ve got to be slammin’ from the first note to the last.
With Jake, we both had this deep love for musical composition and musicianship. We said, “Let’s really do this, but let’s make each song in our mind as if it was its own hit.” I’m not going to put myself up there with Steely Dan but that was a tremendous influence as well for me, whether it was Lincoln Goynes or Anthony Jackson on bass. That’s what we were trying to go with when we started collaborating.
We met Quincy Jones at a small luncheon at the NAMM show in Los Angeles two years ago. He said, “Basically, it all comes down to music.”
And we both smiled and said we’re going to go into this and make music and the world is going to decide whether they like it or not.
Do you see yourselves as reinventing the power trio concept?
Jake: Absolutely. The power trio concept seems to go in and out of favor but regardless of what the genre is, I think it’s always strong. Especially at our live shows. On the record we have some great session musicians supporting us, great keyboards, great background vocals and all kinds of stuff. On our live shows we almost go back into that Cream/Jimi Hendrix Experience direction in addition to the whole bubblegum pop thing. I feel that somewhere on that sliding gray scale is the territory we see ourselves in and like to explore the boundaries of.
Mitchell: We’ve already started writing for the new album. What’s amazing is you hear one thing and already the juice is already going into the next thoughts. We had an opportunity with John Angello, who produced Sonic Youth. We took the opportunity to really paint on the canvas and develop a lot of stuff. That was what we wanted to do on the first album. Maybe the second one will be a little different but we already have the vision for that.
There’s a line we joke about – whether we’re playing in front of 10 people or playing to 250 and up, we try to bring the arena to you. When you come see us as a power trio show, we’re all over the stage and all about the energy. But it’s also all about the performance and the music. We’re not one of these bands that just stands in front of the mic.
How do the songs come about? Is there one main songwriter or is everything a three-part collaboration?
Jake: We approached this group originally with stuff we had written or played before. I had a little collection of songs I had played. Mitch and Leon had been together in many bands before I met them. They had music that they knew. We started off with that and Mitch and I ended up writing about five or six of the songs together that ended up on this record. It kind of became half-and-half with half coming from becoming a group and half generated from working together.
Mitchell: I played in blues bands, cover bands and other groups with Leon. From a rhythm section standpoint we’d been together almost a decade, so when we walked in it was real nice. When Jake and I started writing, it was almost like I knew where I was going and what was happening. That was the other thing that really inspired me about the project. I hate to use the word “effortlessly” but it just clicked. When we started writing together it kind of came out and the energy was great. It was mostly Jake and I but, on the new stuff, Leon’s been involved with more of it. It’s a really fun collaboration.
How long are your sets these days? With one album out and another soon to be, it’s not like you have, say, 10 or 20 years of original material to draw from.
Mitchell: We’ve been playing for about an hour. But we just finished Webster Hall, which went really well. The promoter said he’d love to give us a two-hour shot. We’ve been invited back to the Bitter End, a staple of New York. We’re back there on Sept. 23. It’s kind of like you’ve got to put your time in and people see it and are like, “When are you coming back?”
We’ve had nice draws in terms of crowds and a loyal fan base in the little time we’ve played so far. The average [time] we play is about an hour.
Are you sometimes awestruck when playing some of the legendary rooms like the Bitter End, knowing that you’re playing the same place Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix played?
Mitchell: Jake is an incredible musician and it’s an honor to play with him all the time and I don’t mean that just to stroke him. But he’s played almost every one of these places, not only in New York but all around the country. So, for me, I have to say, “Holy shit! I’m doing this stuff now.”
Especially at Webster Hall where I’ve seen a bunch of incredible bands play. It was really an honor to do that. I guess I’ll really feel that when we play The Beacon and when we do Madison Square Garden.
Jake: I didn’t grow up in New York so that I have that feeling of awe almost every day. Just being here and either going into the music venues, meeting musicians I always idolized or going to recording studios where they played at. The whole thing is a wonderful part of the experience for me. I used to watch all those “Behind The Music” videos on VH1 when I was age 12. Now I’m walking around the same streets as all those guys. It makes me feel like I’m living the dream a little bit.
If VH1 featured The Young Presidents on a “Behind The Music” episode, what would be the most surprising element revealed about the band?
Mitchell: That really I am Batman. Because by day I am Bruce Wayne and by night I’m Batman. Seriously, I run a successful manufacturing and packing business. I walk around in a tie and suit and manage over 200 people. But in the same breadth I’m in the position, I think, to be on stage performing at the highest level musically and come out as if I’m 27 years old. I joke about that because I put on and take off my mask.
Many bands talk about musical influences, but what are your performance influences? Which acts influence what you do on stage? Are there people you look at, not because of their music, but because of how they handle themselves on stage?
Jake: Absolutely. I would have to say my two favorites would be the audacity of Jimi Hendrix and the charisma of Bono. That would be my two biggest life-hero-worship moments. I watch everything I can find on YouTube with those guys and try to capture a little bit of how they command an audience. I think that’s what makes a gifted performer.
Mitchell. It would be Jaco and I’d look at Flea because here’s a guy that technically was slapping like Larry Graham/Pastori/Marcus Miller but without a shirt on and a sock on his johnson. With those things I try to be somewhere in the middle. I don’t want to be thrown out of the club but at the same time I want to entertain. And Jake pulls it out of me and I pull it out of him. That’s something we continue to work on because we think that when people go out they want to feel something, they want to see something. Plus, when people come see us, they’re like, “Jesus, Mitch. You look like you’re having so much effing fun it’s ridiculous.” When I am up there I can’t think of any other place on the planet I’d rather be than on that stage performing.
What’s more enjoyable: In the middle of a great night when everything works and you’re truly “in the moment,” or leaving the stage after one of those performances knowing you really nailed it?
Jake: I think the biggest thrill is to be in that moment of the performance. You can’t duplicate that.
Mitchell: And sometimes it happens in rehearsal and you’re like, “Holy shit, let’s get that on stage.” Then having that happen, with the entertainment factor happening, you’re able to keep the audience there.
Sometimes, the problem I find with jam bands is that they end up playing to each other. No matter how great they are, they start yawning. So it’s like how do you do that but still engage the audience? It happened at Webster Hall at the end of one of our songs. We had 150 or so people there. It’s a pretty small room and we could hear some people talking in the audience. There was a guy in the audience who said “Once you guys started cranking, no one was talking.” And when I heard that feedback I was like, “Cool.”
Jake: The ultimate thing is to try to perform at the highest level you can for every show and continue to be a student of that. One of the things I feel the three of us are together on is being committed on trying to improve.
Sounds like life is good for The Young Presidents.
Mitchell: Feeling very blessed. We just came out of playing three songs live [on radio] in Boston. We went to Berklee College Of Music. Jake graduated from there and I went there during an internship. The radio station, WERS, is on the street and people were looking in the window. And we’re locking in and nailing the takes, one take on every song, and getting through the interview. Doing stuff like that was very rewarding. That was yesterday and I’m still buzzing from it.
Jake: I think with music you come from a lot of places where great artists have brought music out of sorrow, frustration and depression. With this group, the music comes from a place of celebration. Whether we sell a million records or 10 of them, I feel we’re going to keep that spirit of joyfulness and celebration in what we try to create.
Where did the name come from?
Mitchell: I’m actually in a group called The Young Presidents Organization. Around the world I think there’s 20,000 members. Leon, I’ve known for a decade now. He and I met in there and that’s how we first started playing. We were in a blues band playing in New York and we were in a charity band that raised more than $100,000, giving money to the Wounded Warrior Project and Lou Gehrig’s disease. It was a trio and the core rhythm section resonated with us. So we said, “Let’s go with The Young Presidents.” We actually own the name and we own the logo. From a merchandising standpoint we have great T-shirts and hats. And the logo was designed by the guys who did the Chili Peppers logo. That’s kind of where the name comes from. Freedom Of Speech came out of writing songs for the name of the band.
If you found yourselves on a multi-act bill, which bands would you like to appear with that would be perfect showcasing The Young Presidents?
Jake: I think the one group that’s repeatedly mentioned in a little bit of our marketing that would be amazing to open for, because I feel the crowd would be compatible and I’ve always loved their music, would be Train. I’ve always been a fan of those guys. I actually did play a co-bill with them back when I was music director for Nickelodeon Pop Stars. We did a Fourth Of July thing in St. Louis for probably about 65,000 people and they’re pretty incredible live. I feel they would be a good compatible group if we were the opening act.
Mitchell: Or The Script. I’ve had a number of people say there’s kind of vibe that they also feel in the air with that band.
Jake: You know who I would most like to do a co-bill with? The Rolling Stones. They got everything we love about our stuff and they have great players, great guitar stuff, one of the best front men of all time. Great songs. Iconic status in 21st century culture. It would be one holy grail gig for us if we could open for The Rolling Stones.
Upcoming dates for The Young Presidents include Wilmington, Del., at Mojo Thirteen July 27; Baltimore (TBA) July 28; Washington, D.C., at the Level X Lounge July 29; Richmond, VA., at The Triple July 30; Roanoke, Va., at Awful Arthur’s July 31; Amagansett, N.Y., at The Stephen Talkhouse Aug. 25 and New York City at The Bitter End Sept. 23. For more information about The Young Presidents’ visit their homes on the web, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.