Spring is a great time of year to be living in Denver when music is your thing. As bands slowly make their way west towards Austin, TX for the music week of South By Southwest (SXSW), Denver tends to be one of the last stops for many groups before they plunge into the festival’s insanity. While some might think it’s a little overkill to watch the same band multiple time in the course of a few short weeks, I love getting the chance to watch artists play a proper concert before seeing what can often be disjointed, quick sets in rooms packed to the gills with festival goers. Last week I sat down with California-based Night Riots to talk about SXSW, touring, and all things Oregon Trail (yes, the crappy 90’s computer video game) before the band heads to Texas to battle the beast that is SXSW.
The room was moderately packed for a chilly Friday night at the Marquis Theatre when I arrived after a tedious battle with the pothole-filled streets to get downtown. It had been snowing all week, but you couldn’t tell from the warm buzz of the crowd once you got inside. “We always pick the coldest time of the year to come to Denver” guitarist Mikel joked, wrapped in a peacoat and boots as he met me at the door and walked us downstairs to meet the rest of the band. Playing that night with locals The Epilogues, the Denver music scene has become a welcome friend to Night Riots. They’ve played this city a slew of times over the past few years and were paired with The Epilogues as local support so often its lead them to ask the group to now accompany them on some tour dates through California and along the west coast. Although the band has continued to grow and change, Denver’s familiar crowd is refreshing amidst their newest endeavor: their first full national headlining tour. Kicking off on January 19th, the band will be out until the end of March, a lofty endeavor for any group regardless of size or tenure. “It’s been surprising how awesome the shows have been so far” lead singer Travis Hawley admitted to me on their green room couch. “It’s been nerve-wracking to be the headliner for the first time, but it’s going well so far”. “We think our drummer has dysentery, but he’ll pull through” guitarist Matt joked.
The past year has seemingly been one long, eclectic experiment for the band as they played with a crazy variety of different artists throughout the year. Touring with experimental rapper K Flay, playing festivals with The Mowglis and Cage The Elephant, and even a few Saosin reunion shows in the fall, the group has certainly stretched the limits of their dynamic sound, one which I’ve been known to describe as “brooding disco meets alt-pop”. When asked about their unique sound, Hawley said “We don’t wanna write the same song every time. All these pieces, each song, should be a different story, but they’re all from the same life. We’re always trying to relate pieces that are an adventure through (coherent) lifetime.” From the simple, poppy bass lines and piano of “Young Lore” to the emotive, 80’s style lyrics of “Back to Your Love”, into the dark and mysterious tracks of their newest release, 2014’s Howl, Night Riots might not seem to “fit” any of the bills they’ve been booked on, but it’s been made clear that they are the square that can become the rectangle, not the rectangle that cannot be the square. “It’s been really interesting to watch how fans react to us in each situation” Mikel concedes to me while we chat, “It hasn’t been planned for us to play such diverse shows, but it’s certainly been surprising to see how each show goes. Not all the fans at every show connect, but there’s been a good portion of fans that have been interested in what we do. I think that K Flay’s fans were the most surprising because she’s so different from us, but then again, she has a really varied fan base to begin with.”
Another experiment the band tried in 2014 was their month-long residency at Hemingways, a smaller, “hipster” venue in Los Angeles. Artist residencies have for the most part become a thing of the past with the exception of legacy acts at Madison Square Garden and shows in Vegas, so for such a young band to try it out seemed curious. “It’s something that’s kinda weird to think about, but it turned out rad for us” the group says. Playing four nights throughout the month of August, the band actually toured other states in between their shows each week instead of hunkering down in the city. “We regretted building the schedule like that in the end since we were traveling and touring so much (during that time period too), but we got it to work for us. It really hyped up the (fans in) LA, and was cool to see certain fans returning for each show week to week”.
As 2015 begins, Night Riots seem more focused on carving out new futures than they are on continuing to experiment. The group is headed south in a few weeks to Austin, TX for their second duel with the monster that is SXSW. “It’s interesting…wild…something that you just have to fully accept to make the most of” the group says when asked about the festival. “We went last year, and it was cool because there are just so many people there. Some you know, some you don’t, but you do have to have good shows to really make it worthwhile.” While the band is prepping to make solid first impressions on many down south, Denver’s familiarity with the band can be seen as one of the small pressures to keep them focusing on growth. During their set that at the Marquis, fans were singing and dancing along to each song, fully immersed in all the show had to offer. Vocalist Hawley was moving around the stage, climbing on speakers and twirling his mic stand through one of the better light displays I’ve ever seen in the tiny venue. After the group’s dynamic 45-minute set, fans called for encores despite the group already playing their current single “Contagious”. The crowd left happy at the end of the evening, although I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in attendance itching to hear new material from this group of avant-garde musicians.
Night Riots will be back in Colorado this summer during their stint on the Vans Warped Tour, but I hope that will be the last time we see them until they return with a full-length album in tow (they say they’ll record as soon as they have the chance). It’s certainly going to be a crazy week down in Austin for both the Ultra5280 team and the bands performing, but one thing i’m looking forward to is seeing Night Riots in a different setting, getting to watch new fans react to this eclectic sound that Denver has come to love like one of our own.