It is a cold evening in Dublin when I go to meet Jesse Rutherford of rising Californian band, The Neighbourhood. Cold to the point where the prospect of heading outside for a cigarette is not tempting to the singer – “Is it okay to smoke inside?” he asks me as he takes a seat. I shake my head hesitantly because, of course, Ireland was one of the first countries to ban smoking in public places. After a moment of glancing around the empty bar we’re in he gets his lighter out anyway, murmuring with a hint of a smile, “Fuck it”.
It is immediately apparent, then, that the slight figure sitting opposite me dressed all in black – now dragging on a cigarette – is perhaps just as fascinating as all the initial mystery surrounding the band has suggested. Admittedly this is somewhat detracted from later on when we nervously debate as to whether a solitary cigarette is likely to set off a fire alarm and whether there might be a sprinkler system, but ultimately there’s no denying that there is a certain sense of intrigue and cool about The Neighbourhood.
When they first appeared on the music scene in early 2012, there was no information to be found about them online – just the band name, the songs and video clips which displayed a penchant for a certain grainy black and white aesthetic. ”The black and white thing is The Neighbourhood, you know? Like, we think in black and white.” He pauses as if to consider how best to phrase it. ”You know when something feels right – like, did you ever have a pair of shoes that fit you just right? And then you went to the same store to get another pair and they looked the same and they still looked cool…but they’re like half a size off? I think we have the perfect fit. It feels like we write our music with black and white in mind.”
With that idea of ‘black and white’ in mind, then, is there a specific style or sound that they’re trying to emulate or create when writing their music? ”We came up with the music that we write because there are just a lot of bands that sound alike out there; on the radio so many artists sound alike.”
So just what is it about their sound that Rutherford thinks sets The Neighbourhood apart from those other bands on the radio? ”I come from a hip-hop background myself – like, I really love hip-hop, that’s all I listen to really…”. He’s not exaggerating either, spending at least five solid minutes enthusing about the likes of Game and Kanye. He goes on to laugh a bit as he confesses, “Rock music just doesn’t affect me in the way that hip-hop does – I don’t know why. I feel like I’m supposed to be more affected by rock music, y’know? But…”, he trails off. I tell him that I think a powerful song is a powerful song, regardless of genre and it seems to rouse him again, “Exactly! The production of hip-hop – like, the way a beat hits me, the way that an MC will say what he or she is trying to say, I think it’s just really cool.
“We’re definitely influenced by hip-hop when it comes to our drum production. So when we create music, I guess we’re trying to fill a certain void. At the end of the day, I think the structure and the melody of our music is pop – it is – but that’s so broad! We’re played on ‘alternative’ radio, so we’re apparently the alternative to something else.”
Certainly The Neighbourhood aren’t making pop quite like anybody else out there – their songs are full of sparse, incredibly atmospheric instrumentals, swooning, clean drums and vocals that are unusually fluid and soulful with something of a dark aura about them. “My voice – like, I know nobody else has my voice”, Rutherford agrees with an air of self-assurance, “And I think that sets us apart. I’m not trying to say I’m the best singer in the world or anything, just that nobody has the exact voice I have and it helps give us this distinct sound that people can’t quite place.”
With the release of their debut album approaching, I ask Rutherford whether ‘I Love You’ will be in the same vein as their previously released ‘I’m Sorry’ EP. ”I think we’ve definitely grown – the songs have gotten better, the production value is bigger in the right places – and more contained in the right places at the same time. I think it’s the growth of a band, you know. The growth of The Neighbourhood.”
It is apparent from talking to him that Rutherford takes The Neighbourhood very seriously and, as such, I suggest that he must have found their inclusion in the Blog Sound of 2013 Shortlist reassuring. ”Um yeah, I mean it’s kinda hard to say! I mean, like, we put out music because we like writing songs that we like – so when we like them it feels great already, but if other people like them it just feels even better. We got to where we’ve got right now because other people like our songs. So it was definitely exciting, yeah – we’d heard how important that list is out here? I think it’s a pretty important list?” He speaks in a confident but hesitant rush of tangible elation, something true throughout the interview – it’s as though Rutherford has always been confident of his band’s potential but, now things are actually happening for them, even he’s pinching himself.
This shouldn’t necessarily be too surprising given that, although he is the second oldest member of the band, Rutherford is in fact only twenty-one. The singer dismisses the suggestion that their age makes all that much difference, however, “I mean, I don’t really care about stuff like that – I wish I was seventeen, I think that was the coolest age to be, I don’t know why. I guess if you have a career before the time you’re legal in your country then that’s pretty cool.”
There’s no denying that things are looking more than just ‘pretty cool’ for The Neighbourhood right now, and Rutherford is seemingly still taking it in. “I’m excited. It’s just so cool to have any of this – like, once a day, at least, I’ll be outside smoking a cigarette with our tour manager or one of the guys and, like, I’ll have a big sentimental moment like ‘fuck, I’m in Ireland with my best friends and we’re doing this – this is my job‘.”
Rutherford seems blissfully content but at the same time incredibly driven for the band to achieve more. With that said, he’s not taking himself too seriously – certainly he’s not above cracking jokes about himself, admitting that no matter where he goes he ends up “feeling like a stupid American”, having made the social faux-pas that morning in Dublin of announcing their arrival in the UK.
There are no such missteps at their show that night, though, and it is again with that almost-defiant air of confidence that Rutherford and the band take to the stage. There is something about the singer’s personality that seems to draw the crowd in, although Rutherford for his part seems quite unaware of his stage presence, appearing quite content to just get lost in the music.
As I watch them perform, I can’t help but think of something Rutherford said at the end of our conversation – something that might explain his lack of being phased on stage and, moreover, his general confidence in The Neighbourhood and their music. I asked him if he’d have any advice for aspiring musicians, and the question seemed to strike him more than anything else we spoke about that evening.
“If you have nothing else, then you’ll get it. I only say that because that’s where I was. If you have nothing else. Then the main thing is to be fucking honest. So many people I know make music – they write good songs, there are rappers with good flow, but it’s all bullshit if it’s not real. Be honest. If you’re a piece of shit, tell the world you’re a piece of shit. If you’re fat and ugly, tell the world that you’re fat and ugly because that’s what the world’s gonna appreciate. If you’re beautiful, tell them you’re beautiful. Some people might not like it, but honesty is the closest chance you have to making it.”
That they came from nothing perhaps explains Rutherford’s tentative awe that The Neighbourhood are really making it, but that ultimate self-assurance they have is arguably the result of his belief in honesty. Rutherford is confident enough in their sound to know that what they’re making is good and that they’ve genuinely got a shot, and he’s not about to shy away from letting the world know. With ‘I Love You’ out in a week, it’s about to become apparent whether or not Rutherford’s been blowing hot air about all this. But, to heed his advice about being honest, from what I’ve heard and seen at least, The Neighbourhood are making some wonderful, seductive pop and, as such, I’d say ‘I Love You’ is an album very much worth getting excited about.
‘I Love You’ is the debut album by The Neighbourhood and it will be released on April 22nd on Columbia Records. You can pre-order it here. Many thanks to Jesse, the band, and a special thanks to Darren at Sony.