AQ’s Bob Makin basks in the contagious joy of this Clinton, New Jersey trio.
Throughout 40 years covering the local music scene, it’s always been fun to watch a band grow up and mature into a really great act, such as From Good Homes and The Bouncing Souls. I’m happy to add The Happy Fits among them, whose brand-new sophomore LP, What Could Be Better lives up to its title by being the charming Clinton-based cello-driven indie-pop trio’s best work yet. While silly and fun as ever as far as videos and what eventually will be a return to live shows, the band demonstrates a maturation with their songwriting and playing that adds greater dimension to their music. While classically trained singer-songwriter-cellist Calvin Langman’s chops are huge, his playing and songwriting on What Could Be Better is more dynamic than on 2018’s Concentrate and “Awfully Apeelin’,” which gives guitarist-vocalist Ross Monteith and drummer Luke Davis a greater sonic canvas.
The following chat also discusses the importance and impact of their friendship, their amazing management and marketing teams, and even their views on race.
When, where, a how did you three meet, and when and why did you start playing music together?
Luke: Ross and Calvin met in 2012, during their Latin class and slowly became familiar with each other at North Hunterdon High School. As years passed, the guys realized they were both musicians and started writing together in 2016. Also being a North Hunterdon graduate, I knew Ross’s older brother very well who referenced me to the band so that I could do some session work for their upcoming EP, ‘Awfully Apeelin’.’ After recording the drums for their EP and getting picked up on the Fresh Finds playlist, the rest was history!
What was your families’ response of the three of you dropping out of Rutgers initially, then after the success of ‘Concentrate,’ and now in the midst of a tour-paralyzing pandemic?
Luke: All of our families were super supportive. Although it was scary at first to hear we were dropping out of school to pursue our dreams, they let us move toward where we are today. As our listens and crowds grew, as well as hearing the music, our family only became more passionate. Being out first big leap was intimidating, but seeing the response from fans online and in person, it brought more confidence as we grew. During this new age of technology, it was easy to keep track of our progress, and lucky for us, it kept snowballing. Now with ‘What Could Be Better’ coming out, our families couldn’t be more excited to see what everyone thinks!
How do three Rutgers dropouts become a national touring act in support of a self-released album? Did you accomplish that yourselves or did someone help you get there?
Luke: We are very lucky we have had unconditional support throughout our whole music career. Starting with Ross’ family supporting the first EP and helping us afford a vehicle to tour with and practice space, it gave us all the space we needed to be able to create our music. We then were fortunate enough to meet our good friend and tour manager/videographer, Tyler, who got us on our feet during the start of our band. Both Tyler and Calvin worked relentlessly to book us tours and find any opportunity to help us move forward. Our families also helped us fund our first LP ‘Concentrate,’ and with that, met our current manager, Ayad Al Adhamy, who produced our first two records and still manages us to this day. Ayad helped us build a lovely team, with our other manager, Kieren, and our booking agent, Jake. None of this would have been possible without all of their work and dedication.
How has The Syndicate helped your career as a band and why, how did you hook up with them, and what exactly do they do for you?
Ross: Our manager, Ayad, has known Jerry and The Syndicate crew for a long time and has worked with them on several projects. He highly recommended that we work with them for college radio and alt specialty radio for our album ‘Concentrate,’ and that’s exactly what we did. We love the crew at The Syndicate and they have done an excellent job of pitching our music to radio stations. Thanks to them, we ended up reaching No. 17 in the college radio charts, and we have seen a growth in our audiences in college towns and cities ever since. We are continuing to work with them on ‘What Could Be Better,’ and they have already done a great job of getting our singles played on college stations and a few Sirius XM stations!
How can you afford to work with The Syndicate?
Ross: We are very grateful for them because they were very understanding about our position and were willing to work out a lower budget with us since we are an independent band. I’m sure their relationship with Ayad over the years has helped with that too. This year, thanks to a growth in our streams and thanks to our fan donations, we were able to afford a slightly larger budget and a few more perks with them. I’m sure they are still keeping it low though because they are too nice.
What is the name of Ayad’s management company? And comment on the amazing job the team is doing.
Ross: Diamond City Management! Ayad was the one who recorded both ‘Concentrate’ and ‘What Could Be Better.’ He started managing us shortly after we finished recording our first album. The Syndicate does all of our radio campaigns and, yes, they do an amazing job. We directly work with Jordan Howard, who works on college radio for us and always kills it. We always see her and Jerry when we play in NYC, and we love seeing them. The whole company is a close-knit group of dedicated workers, and we couldn’t be happier to work with them.
Calvin, what was it like growing up an ethnic minority in lily-white Hunterdon County, and how has that influenced your lyrics?
Calvin: Hunterdon County is such a nice place to grow up. SaveTheChildren.org ranked it as the No. 1 safest place to raise a child. I never felt discriminated against, and, honestly, I had a lot of fun growing up playing into the straight-A, classically-trained Asian kid stereotype. My mother was born in Manila and moved here when she was 8, and my dad is of Austro-Hungarian and Jewish descent and was born and raised in Ohio. I’ve felt nothing but support from my friends in Hunterdon County, and I’m so very thankful and appreciative of that. I think the way being Asian-American is reflected in my music has a lot to do with how I projected those stereotypes onto myself growing up. I attended Juilliard Pre-College in high school, and there I was surrounded with so many Asian and Jewish folk that I just assumed I was to be like them since that’s what my parents were. In reality, my parents never celebrated any cultural traditions in my household (not even Christmas!), and I only eat Filipino food every few years when we have family reunions. Growing up, it was so rare to see an Asian-American make it on the cover of a magazine or be the lead in a primetime sitcom, let alone front a rock band, so when I made the switch to be in a rock band from classical music, I was filled with — and still feel — a sort of self-doubt in myself that a person that looks like me can successfully do what I do. I’ve had a number of Filipino fans come up to me after shows and tell me how happy it makes them see an Asian-American person in a rock band, and I’m equally as happy to be able to provide some kids that inspiration.
What else inspired ‘What Could Be Better,’ and am I correct in saying that the album shows maturation in comparison to ‘Concentrate’?
Calvin: ‘What Could Be Better’ has a lot to do with the mounting pressures of aging. In a way, it shows literal maturation from our album ‘Concentrate,’ because a lot of the songs on there are an expression of my experiences over these last few years and committing to music as a career. There is a lot of uncertainty in being a musician, and this is my way of dealing with that stress.
Why and how are The Killers and Violent Femmes an influence on you?
Calvin: The Killers were the first band that I went out of my way to listen to a full album back in fourth grade. I was instantly drawn in by their beautiful, catchy melodies and euphoric production. We didn’t start listening to the Femmes until people told us we sounded like them. Their energy and vibe are unmatchable, and I think our chaotic stage presence has been somewhat normalized by bands like the Femmes.
Who and what else has inspired The Happy Fits’ music?
Ross: We have taken influences from many genres of music. When we first started playing together, we were listening to a lot of folk/acoustic music, and that is when we wrote songs like ‘Dirty Imbecile,’ ‘Drink,’ and ‘Achey Bones.’ We were listening to tons of Andrew Bird, Shakey Graves, Mumford and Sons, and Ben Howard. Our more ‘Indie Rock’ music has been influenced by some of our favorite indie-rock artists, such as Two Door Cinema Club, Bombay Bicycle Club, Alabama Shakes, and so on. Indie music has some of the catchiest melodies that I’ve ever listened to, and that’s what I try to emulate.
The things I — and probably a lot of other people — like most about The Happy Fits is your silly charm, contagious fun, and Calvin’s cello, which makes for really interesting and eclectic instrumentation as both a lead and rhythm instrument, the latter especially when it’s plucked. So let’s break each of those down. Comment on how and why not taking yourself or life too seriously is appealing to you and your fans, and what impact that has had for you and them in dealing with the pandemic in a positive way.
Calvin: Growing up, I always had a smile on my face and realized the power of positivity not just on myself but others. As one of my best friends Matthew told me, ‘It’s nice to be nice.’ I try to live by that mantra, and I like to see it resonate with our fans.
Next, comment on the camaraderie the three of you share, how it appeals to others, and how it’s helped you help each other during these trying times that are especially trying for touring musicians.
Calvin: Being on the road so much, we’ve all seen each other at our highest and lowest. We’ve all been in the back of the van throwing up at some point! We all understand when we’re at our lowest that it will pass, and we’ve learned when to give each other space. Our collective drive to make this dream a reality always humbles us and makes us realize petty fights aren’t worth throwing away all our hard work to build what we have.
Lastly, how does the cello set the band apart?
Calvin: We use cello not as an artistic choice but more out of necessity. I never learned bass and always wanted to be in a rock band, so I realized — mostly in part to 2Cellos — that I could play most of the notes a bass has less the bottom seven. I think when people see the cello live, they are a bit taken aback, but after a few songs, I can usually get the crowd on board. We’re happy to exploit the uniqueness of the instrument in our marketing, but I definitely want to make it clear that we love basses.
Given Calvin’s classical chops, would the band experiment more with the cello beyond rock and pop, like The Beatles with the help of George Martin?
Calvin: Oh, boy. Thinking about working with George Martin just gives me chills. I love The Beatles and think they deserve all the hype they have. I definitely have a desire to eventually branch out and release songs with lush orchestration, but the music we’re writing now plays into our youthfulness and makes for very high-energy shows. Also, from a financial perspective, trying to write conservative instrumentation helps us save on touring as we can tour with just the three of us and not have to pay extra musicians.
What direction are new songs taking The Happy Fits?
Calvin: This newest set of songs really hammers on the 2000s indie-euphoria vibe we all grew up listening to. We are so happy with the production job Ayad did and our mixing engineer Jim Stewart. They took our sound to the next level and really made the sound we all dreamed of having since releasing ‘Awfully Apeelin’.’
Calvin, do you think you’ll make other music at some point with the cello outside of The Happy Fits?
Calvin: Definitely! With the rise of the BLM movement in the past few months, I’ve found myself drawn to bands that tackle social issues like IDLES and Parquet Courts. In the future, I really want to follow in the footsteps of musicians that used their platform and music for good. For now, we’re still working toward making a living wage off of this, so I’m going to be taking it a year at a time.
Why do Asian parents place such importance and priority on classical music in regard to their children; what positive and negative impacts does that have, and to what degree does it have as much, if not more, to do with preparing the mind for math and some science rather than just music and culture?
Calvin: I think classical music has its own diversity issues to face, as access to classical instruments and western music education has been for some time now a middle-class privilege. Lessons are really expensive and to make it in the industry you have to pay to attend expensive camps and seminars to network with other classical musicians. Any parent that forces their child to get into classical music definitely just wants the best for their kid. There is a proven correlation between the effects classical music can have on a child’s development and without a doubt it looks good on a resume or college application.
Some of your live dates are postponed. What is the status of your performing schedule, and will you be playing any virtual shows, live-streams, or socially distanced venues?
Calvin: Yes! We have been trying to live-stream on Thursdays every other week. We have a nice organic community on YouTube that is always jeering us on so it’s always a blast.
Whose Fisher Price Record player is on the cover of ‘What Could Be Better’?
Calvin: Some user on eBay! (laughs)
Is there anything I didn’t ask on which you would like to comment?
Black Lives Matter! Don’t stop educating yourself and having conversations about social inequality in our country. Check out our website TheHappyFits.com for a list of charities we have started making regular donations to. Lastly, VOTE VOTE VOTE!
Bob Makin is a reporter for MyCentralJersey.com and the former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him via email and like Makin Waves on Facebook.