Sunshine rockers are a predictable bunch. You can count on chirping birds, oohs and ahhs, whimsical strings and breezy lyrics about California and sandy beaches. You can depend on these fundamentals so surely, in fact, that the label is an empty façade these days, a shelter for TV shows about Newport Beach and summer rides in a friend's convertible. And while the four Santa Monica boys in a sunshine rock band called Princeton have all of these things, they also bring meaning back into a genre that once helped define California.
Take, for instance, the band's name, lifted not from the Ivy League university, but from the street where they grew up. Or take last year's self-released Bloomsbury EP, which may sound playful and warm, but it's also written about a mysterious London collective of artists and philosophers, including Leonard and Virginia Woolf. These elements don't make Princeton's well-informed indie songs pretentious; they make them memorable.
“We never grew up loving the L.A. music scene or California pop,” says vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Kivel. “Basically, I think we always liked the Beach Boys and The Byrds, but we never embraced being from this city or wanting to sound like it.”
They're sounding like it now. Princeton's songs are both brightly whimsical and lyrically dark. The Bloomsbury EP is filled with Los Angeles stories: devastating loss combined with dazzling orange grove dreams. It's timeless in the same way that no one can pinpoint the exact year in a Wes Anderson movie.
By his account, Kivel's Santa Monica upbringing with twin brother Matt Kivel and friend Ben Usen (drummer David Kitz came on just this year) was full of common teen angst and parents who forced their children to play band instruments. Not so fun at the time, but fun to recount in adulthood.
“We didn't have a musical family,” Kivel says. “I think my grandpa played violin or something, but we grew up playing music in school. It was a scholastic thing, which wasn't so fun when you're young. Writing music now is a nice break from what we've been doing our whole lives, especially since I never wanted music to be a theory to me. I don't like listening to a song for its technicality; I want to connect with it.”
So while most Californians are trying to figure out how to save funding for music programs in schools, Kivel is advocating for their demise. It wasn't until he got out of school and out of the rigor of studying music that he truly enjoyed what he was playing, he says.
But it was during a college semester abroad in London that the Kivels and Usen found the creative inspiration to form Princeton. Their shared musical interests blossomed there, allowing them to echo the mood and influence of the city in early recordings and live shows.
“Even before we moved out there, we had all been obsessed with British culture and British musicians, from The Kinks to Scott Walker and Blur and Oasis,” Kivel says. “But then we started to learn about the intellectual culture, as well, and we were just so inspired.”
That inspiration was augmented by their stripped-down arrangement—forced on them by the steep price of shipping musical instruments overseas. The band forged ahead, using as muses the art rock of John Cale and the theoretical studies of the Woolfs and economist John Maynard Keynes.
“I feel like I've been doing this for a long time because we've been playing music for so long,” Kivel says, “but then I remember that we're in our early 20s and how that influences what we see and think. We're still so easily excited by everything, which I guess is a younger attitude, but I think that also makes our music interesting.”
From their house in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles, the band spent the last month putting together their first full-length, which will come out in September. Many of the songs have been a year in the making, a detailed writing process that Kivel describes as “not a dictatorship, but close.” He doesn't name the dictator.
“It can be very aggravating to have four opinions and want to do things your way,” Kivel says. “We're trying to come to agreement on our album cover right now, and it's very difficult. Difficult because Matt and I are brothers and because everyone has a drastically different idea of how things should work.”
But band democracies, Kivel says, sometimes make boring bands. The extremes are what he's interested in capturing—not the kind of extremes you get in scream-core or naked live shows, but the extremes of opposition: California pop songs given meaning by European culture.
Those extremes are in full bloom on stage. While their records include thick orchestration, sunny strings, tiers of horns and lush layers, that kind of production is difficult on tour. Princeton solves that with a show that sounds nothing like its albums.
“When I have a million dollars in the bank I'll tour with an orchestra,” Kivel says. “We barely make any money touring with four people. We'll shoot for simple until we're making Oasis money and we can do a victory tour. That'll be the day.”Princeton plays at The Casbah on Tuesday, July 7. www.myspace.com/princetonmusic.