It’s been a while since I first saw Animal Years. The Americana/roots-rock band had played Rockwood Stage 2 early last September in celebration of their album release. It’s been about a year since Sun Will Rise has been out and in my first time seeing them since, it became immediately clear that the band has grown and matured to the point where they’re ready to take on larger stages around New York. This time around I was seeing them at Brooklyn Bowl, my favorite venue in the city and one which in my opinion, is well equipped enough to allow bands to really spread their wings and showcase their ability. Animal Years took full advantage of playing such a great sounding venue as they took the stage on Thursday night.
They fit the stereotype of a Brooklyn band – denim, beards, old boots. They also fit the stereotype of rock and/or rollers – drinking generous amounts of Brooklyn Blast prior to show time and accepting an assortment of bras launched onto stage throughout the set. They do however set themselves apart from other bands around New York with their unique sound that mixes singer-songwriter roots with the amps turned up real loud.
Animal Years came into existence after frontman Mike McFadden used the money he made from licensing a song of his out to Pennzoil and Tim McGraw to move from Baltimore to NYC in fall 2012 to start a band. Fast forward a few years and you have a group of guys who have a packed Brooklyn Bowl in the palm of their hands. While it’s tough to quantify if most of the people in attendance were only there to see them, it doesn’t matter, the band had won everyone over by the time they finished their set.
Opening with the albums first track in ‘Meet Me’, their set running a just over an hour had the band slinging songs from the album. ‘Heart On Heart’, ‘Let Go of Your Head’, and ‘Rapture’ all made it into the set. McFadden pulled out a slower banjo version of ‘Sun Will Rise’ (my favorite of the bunch), showcasing his ability to perform a song as a unique experience and live expression, rather than a band trying to make the song sound exactly like it does on the album. It’s that kind of unique performance that gives Animal Years a head up on the competition. You can either drive a song or you can make it sit still and a true performer can get behind the wheel and let a song form a unique personality every time it’s played live. McFadden and the fellas of Animal Years have grown to the point where they start into the song and leave their chemistry as a band to handle the rest, allowing their performances to take each song to a new level.
I sat down for a brief conversation with the band before the show. The group of happy-go-lucky musicians are the kind of guys who seem to enjoy just being in a band, rather than taking themselves overly serious. They’re not taking things too easy by any means however, as they recently signed a publishing deal with Round Hill Music, who have proven song placement success with local bands Bronze Radio Return and American Authors. McFadden seems to have his feet on the ground and mind wrapped around how a band like Animal Years can and should realistically build a game plan to have success in today’s industry.
“An album is the same regardless of how we release it. I don’t know how much money you get from a record deal, it’s essentially just a bank loan right? You don’t really want to just sign to a label right off the bat, rather you build your team and BECOME a band that’s valuable to a label. We hired a publicist, then management, then distribution, then publishing. We now have all the elements, so if a label wants to come along and offer something we can benefit from then we’ll do it. Unless you’re selling millions and millions of records, I really don’t see the paycheck coming in.”
Clearly the band has been smart enough to take a few pages from Donald Passman’s All You Need to Know About the Music Business books, and they’re talented enough to get the crowds to sing and dance to their music once they’ve got them in the venue. They’re unique, blended genre sound is still their best asset however. They write guitar riffs and hooks that don’t have that stereotypical riff-driven sound to it. Take the guitar line from the intro to ‘Meet Me’ for example. It blends in so well with Mike’s vocals that the listener almost doesn’t notice it’s driving the song, yet orchestrated with the vocals well enough that it’s comes off as almost a backing to the lyrics. The same could be said for the chorus of ‘Let Go Of Your Head’, which also acts as the songs intro. It’s the unique song arrangements throughout their album that brings listeners ecstasy in an unconventional pop-music style. Mike shared his experience writing those songs that would end up on their debut album as a journey he’s taken since he was a young songwriter living in Baltimore.
“The album is a combination. Half of it was written when I still lived in Baltimore and the other half was once I got some money from licensing, moving to Brooklyn and leaving my life behind. So the album is really a unique blend of those two chapters- one half is ‘what am I doing with my life’, the other is more upbeat and something different. It’s three years of living and experience working shitty jobs. I’ve always had my own process and songs like ‘Rapture’ were written three years ago and I never thought it was ready to be on an album. I’ve never had a deadline though so I’ve always been able to do what I want.”
At the end of the day the band just seems happy to be steadily progressing on their own terms. There’s no pressure or expectations coming from anyone except them. It’s the calm collectiveness that allows them to relax and just have fun playing with each other. There’s almost as much smiling and laughing on stage during their show as there is music. Things are steadily starting to move forward for them, and in between each step, comes a fun show for the fans put on by a band having fun with each other.
Article by: Tom Shackleford
Photos by: Shayne Hanley