Driver Friendly reflects on road to recognition

2013-02-07_Band_Portrait_Gabriella

Gabriella Belzer

Driver Friendly, a local pop-rock band with seven members, will be playing Local Live Sunday evening. The band signed with Hopeless Records last year and is planning to release an ep this summer with a subsequent tour. 

Alexandra Hart

In a cozy apartment complex just east of the iconic stretch of South Congress Avenue, all seven of local pop-rock heroes Driver Friendly are packed into the living room of one of the units, laughing, joking, some with a beer in hand. There’s a sort of energy present, fun and infectious but not quite rowdy. It’s an energy that permeates everything the musicians do— from live shows, recorded songs and music videos, down to the playful banter that’s going on inside the apartment.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get all seven of us together for this kind of thing,” lead vocalist and keyboardist Tyler Welsh said while the crew relocated to a covered deck overlooking the complex’s pool. “This is the first time we’ve been able to sit down as a whole band and do an interview in I don’t even know how long.”

Understandable, as rounding up seven people is no easy feat, much less seven rising musicians, some of whom are in graduate school, some with full-time jobs. But Driver Friendly has managed to make it work. They’re making it work so well, in fact, that the band has recently signed to Hopeless Records, a big step for a group that started as a high school ska band in Houston.

“A lot of us knew each other growing up, but by around junior year in high school is when things started happening,” Welsh said. “Then moving to Austin was a big deal. That was the first major shift, realizing we wanted to take this further and not just be like, a high school ska band.”

A few members groaned and chuckled at the mention of their ska roots.

“Yeah but we were in marching band, and you love ska music when you’re in high school and in marching band,” guitarist and vocalist Andy Lane said. “I mean, when you have horns in a high school band, you almost have to play ska music.”

After moving to Austin for college, some at UT and some at St. Edwards, Driver Friendly became more serious about its music, performing and developing its sound. Its first big break was a Battle of the Bands show on the steps of Gregory Gym in spring 2005.

“At that first Battle of the Bands we were basically still just a high school band, playing on Wednesday nights at like 7 p.m. on Sixth street to literally no one,” drummer Jeremi Mattern said. “One of the judges Jason Dick, who’s the morning DJ at 101X, saw us and liked us. He started letting us play some of the Homegrown Live shows and that’s when we started playing at real venues, like Emo’s.”

Through the connections it made at the Battle of the Bands, Driver Friendly ended up building a relationship with producer and sound engineer Jim Vollentine, who has worked with bands including Spoon, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead and White Denim. Vollentine has worked on projects with Driver Friendly since 2005.

After a few years, though, the band started to lose momentum. The weight of school and jobs had taken a toll on their projects, and the members started slowly drifting.

“Post-graduation we were all trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives and we all kind of started normal jobs, too, or going to grad school,” Mattern said. “We had put out an album our last year of school and had done some stuff, but nothing that really took us to the next level. We hit this almost hiatus point where we didn’t really know what the next step was.”

Out of this low point, the band found inspiration. During South By Southwest of 2011, a year the band wasn’t performing in the festival, Welsh rallied his bandmates to create new material. Soon after, Driver Friendly took a road trip to North Carolina, where it spent nearly two weeks in a cabin on the Appalachian Trail. There, apart from technology, Internet, cell service and other distractions, the band created its most recent album, Bury a Dream. This is the album that finally caught the attention of record labels.

“We had all just done nothing for so long that we had these ideas, musically, stuffed up in our heads,” Lane said. “So once we finally got back into the rhythm we just had all this material.”

Bury a Dream, along with the videos for “Ghosts” and “Messidona” from the album, got the band noticed. Offers started coming their way, but the band maintained caution when dealing with
the industry.

“We’ve very much learned to take things with a grain of salt, because we’ve had many, many offers and all of these promises,” trombonist Andy Rector said. “They’d tell us, ‘Oh, we’re not like the other labels, we’ll pay you a salary’ and things like that. We’ve had a lot of people approach us, so we’ve learned not to freak out or get too excited about any sort of offer.”

The band eventually settled on Hopeless because of the label’s flexibility with the band’s schedule.

“The difference with Hopeless was that they had this attitude of, ‘Hey, we want to work with you,’ which none of the others had really had,” Lane said. “It made us realize that they were serious about us.”

Driver Friendly officially signed with Hopeless Records in October 2012, and will meet again with the label during this year’s South by Southwest to discuss future plans. So far the group has an EP release tentatively slated for June and a subsequent tour to support it. They hint that the lineup will be a big one, but remain tight-lipped about it.

“We can’t talk about it, we’ve seen ‘Almost Famous’; you’re not our friend!” Welsh said jokingly. “In all seriousness, we’re under contract so we can’t discuss it yet. We’re releasing the lineup in March. But know that it’s gonna be big.” 

Driver Friendly play Local Live Sunday Feb. 10. Doors are at 9:30.

Published on February 8, 2013 as "Driver Friendely rolling onward".