Stop me if you've heard this one before.
A kid from the sticks moves to the big city, starts a band and shakes up the scene. Daniel Sant, vocalist for San Diego punk band Northern Towns hasn't arrived yet—in terms of popular success—but few have traveled farther to chase their dreams.
Sant, now 33, moved to San Diego when he was 17 years old from Warrington, a city in Northern England midway between Manchester and Liverpool.
Cold and wet, it's the anti-San Diego. Hell, it's not even like London.
But Sant would like you to know that the difference between the north and south of England are as pronounced in his country as they are in America. “Very insular,” he says of the mentality typical of Northern Englanders. “Us against the world.” It's an outlook that comes through loud and clear in his band's music.
Last week, Sant said he was feeling “very home sick” after returning from a two-week visit in Warrington. He found the city center even rougher than he remembered. Some of the pubs and clubs stay open all night, and there's “a bit more crime.”
Mission Bay High must have seemed like another world when he arrived in the early '90s. He eventually joined up with Mark Smith, Gavin Kelly and Nick Lennen to form the punk band Swindle. After graduation, his American father and step-mom gave him an ultimatum: school or the service. After three years traveling the world and “being told what to do by idiots” in the Navy, he signed on with San Diego hardcore band Over My Dead Body.
Formed in January of 2008, Northern Towns features his old classmate Smith, Gabe Cross of The Muslims and Tommy Garcia and Brandon Hays, former members of Please Mr. Gravedigger. Garcia writes all the guitar riffs, but they build the songs and structure the melodies as a band. Sant describes Garcia's leads as “very angular, sharp but catchy.” The result is a sound that's a little like “Gang of Four-meets-The Jam,” Sant says with a laugh. “You can hear that we're into certain things, but nothing's easy.”
Sant grew up listening to The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays—the whole Manchester scene—but he loved everything from The Buzzcocks and The Clash to Joy Division and The Smiths. He credits Paul Weller as a huge influence who made him appreciate his stepdad's extensive collection of soul records.
One of the band's most soulful songs is “Latchford,” a rough part of Warrington where Sant grew up but left when his mother had an opportunity to put him in a better school. It's an evocative tune about looking back—not in anger or with laughter—but with a searing sense of pride: “School dinners paid for by state / looked upon with pity or hate / but it made us strong as we moved along.”
But the irony of traveling halfway across the world to sun-kissed San Diego to sing songs about life in Northern England isn't lost on Sant.
“I write my lyrics from a Northern English viewpoint,” he says. “Some things are set in a fictional world in Northern England triggered by different memories that I've had.”
Northern Towns capture the conflicting bittersweet feeling of hating a situation when you're in it but missing it when it's gone. It's a surprisingly stirring combination because it's so aggressively sentimental, something one doesn't always associate with punk rock. And that's just the way Sant wants it.
“It's punk, but accessible.”
After six months of rehearsing, the band played its first show in June 2008. Northern Towns have just come off a pair of shows at Che Café and The Casbah and have two records coming out from Swagger City: a 10-inch album that combines their first demo and the four-track CD EP Good as Gold, and a split 7-inch with The Sharps. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether Northern Towns will be a bigger hit in Southern California or the north of England. Northern Towns play Friday, April 17, with The Vibrators and Rat City Riot at The Radio Room. www.myspace.com/northerntowns.