Heavenly Beat’s John Pena comes home for SXSW

David Sackllah

Heavenly Beat is the musical project of John Pena, one of the founding members of Beach Fossils. Pena released Prominence, his second album as Heavenly Beat, last fall and is already close to completing the follow-up for a tentative summer release. 

Pena grew up in Austin and moved to Brooklyn when he was 21. The Daily Texan spoke with him about his new band and coming home for SXSW.

The Daily Texan: How has your experience been from playing SXSW to just going and watching shows?

John Pena: I mean, both experiences are kind of the same. You kind of try to find as much free booze as possible and chill with your friends. It’s kind of the same thing. 

DT: I know you used to play by yourself with Heavenly Beat but have a live band now. How long have you been playing with this group of people?

JP: I have four dudes that I play with besides myself. My first show with them was August at the Captured Tracks five year anniversary festival. It’s been a dream playing with them. Before them, I hated playing live. It was such a goddamn nightmare for me to get up there and just bomb every time. It’s a lot less stressful now to have four other dudes on stage with me sort of taking that stress off. 

DT: Have you begun to work on any new material? 

JP: Yeah, I’m wrapping up the next record now that’s probably coming out during the summer time. The music’s kind of done, so I’m just laying down vocals. Hopefully I’ll have it wrapped and turned in by the end of this month. 

DT: What would you say the new album sounds like? Is it similar to Prominence?

JP: No. The drum programming is better. The songs are a lot catchier even though they’re darker in both tone and theme. They’re more propulsive. I got really candid on Prominence, perhaps too candid about things going on in my life that had some real life consequences I had to answer for. The new record is about the fallout of all the horrible stuff I was doing on Prominence. Even though it’s a darker record, it hits harder than Prominence

DT: You grew up in Austin?

JP: I lived in Austin until I was 21, and then I moved to New York. I’ve been here for about seven years.

DT: Did you play in bands when you were in Austin?

JP: No. The first band I was ever in was Beach Fossils. I didn’t even move to New York with the intention of making music. It was sort of an accident. 

DT: Why did you move to New York?

JP: A friend actually asked me to help them move here, so I didn’t actually intend to move here. I came up here intending to stay for two weeks and help a friend settle in. In those two weeks, I spent all my money and had to get a job. Seven years later, here I am.

DT: When you come back for SXSW, do you have a lot of family you see?

JP: Yeah, I have my mom and my father and sister. My sister, she works for the La Quinta there that I stay in when I’m in town, so it works out nicely.

DT: Do you think it’s easier to make it as a band in Brooklyn? Did you join Beach Fossils when it started?

JP: I was the original bassist in that band, yeah. With Brooklyn, all this sort of infrastructure for being in a band is here, so it definitely does make it a little bit easier to get started. That’s assuming that you have a band that people are interested in. You could live in Brooklyn and still be the worst goddamn band of all time. If you have talent and you’re here, the structure exists that makes it easier to be heard. In the end, it’s all about songs and talent, though. 

DT: What was the highest amount of shows you’ve ever played at SXSW?

JP: With Beach Fossils one year I think we did 14 or something like that. It seems really obscene now, but at the time it didn’t really feel like anything.

DT: Did you enjoy doing that or was it stressful?

JP: No, we were all really good friends so there wasn’t a lot of stress involved. We were just having a really good time. 

DT: You hear a lot of stories about people who hate SXSW so it’s good to get different points of view. 

JP: I’ve never really understood that vibe. You understand what you’re getting into whenever you sign up for SXSW. You’d have to be really naive to go into that situation and expect some great experience where you’ll be able to perform your art in the best possible experience. If you go into it with a mind frame that you’ll get to play some chill shows and chill with friends in a warm environment, it’s really easy to have a good time. You’re only going to have a bad time if you want to have a bad time.