Fresh out of the studio, Island Apollo has an important summer ahead. Their single “Hold It Down” landed on Spotify’s New Noise playlist, quite an accomplishment for an unsigned artist, and is the first of several set to be released over the coming months. Yet even though the song was recorded in Seattle, Island Apollo’s soul and sound are pure Southern California.
“We like to picture our music as California beaches at night where the palm trees are burning,” keyboardist Austin Farmer explained, and a bright California disposition follows Island Apollo wherever they go. “Hold It Down” is catchy even before the first verse kicks in, while older songs “Miracle” and “Lion Eyes,” the latter now the theme of the PBS concert series Landmarks Live, have no problem getting audiences to dance. If the Beach Boys are surf party music, Island Apollo is party surf.
After winning Best Pop Artist at the OC Music Awards in 2014 (when they were still called the Bolts), stylistic comparisons to Orange County success story Young the Giant aren’t far off-base, and the five-piece has already had songs appear on Fox Sports, CBS, VH1, KROQ and a commercial with supermodel Kate Upton. The hope is the new material, recorded with producer Eric Lilavois (Saint Motel, Atlas Genius), will build buzz throughout the summer and allow Island Apollo to take the next step.
Farmer, the youngest of three brothers in the group, talked to Behind the Setlist more about Island Apollo’s background, the California music scene, what it was like working on the new songs, and plans for the future. This interview had been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with the name, Island Apollo. Where does that come from?
We formed the band name off of a weird phenomenon in Long Beach, where there are oil rigs designed like fake islands and each island is named after an Apollo astronaut. Heath came up with that name thinking, “How strange is it that there’s an oil rig disguised with fake palm trees and artificial sand?” We thought Island Apollo was a cool name to show California culture, and how sometimes there’s a little facade over what you think is real.
How did you start playing together?
Growing up, Addam, Heath, Ryan and I actually took our first guitar lesson together. Back then, my hands were too small to fit around the neck of the guitar. So they got really good at guitar and I was just trying to keep up. I was literally physically unable to play the chords they were playing.
We used to play a lot of church services and one of Addam’s old music directors needed a bassist. Addam had no clue how to play, but the director said, “You’re playing the guitar, one note at a time.” I made the switch to piano because I was really into synth sounds and wanted to do some piano and singing. Having Ryan sing naturally happened as well, and it all fell into place. We’d been playing music for years together and finally decided Island Apollo was the outlet for that music.
Did growing up in Southern California, with KROQ and the whole industry right in your backyard, make it seem like music careers were a real possibility?
I think we’re in the right place where the scene is always going. There are a few select cities across the U.S. where there’s always a band playing, with local music and a real community. For a lot of musicians who don’t have a central hub to meet other musicians and artists, it feels a lot more daunting and difficult to try to break into the music industry. Down here, there’s a community of artists and musicians always trying to look out for each other, and that’s special.
What was the writing process like for “Hold It Down?”
That was one of those rare songs where the bulk of it came together in about half an hour. I was feeling different emotions, definitely frustrated, and not happy about something. I’m walking in a bookstore to this beat in my head and finally just beatboxed into the voice memo in my phone. I couldn’t help it.
When we met up with the band next, we jammed on it. Ryan came up with these awesome lyrics on the spot and it just kind of fell together. It was one of those moments where we were all thinking this is the song we’ve been wanting to showcase and write for a while.
How did you feel when the song was selected for Spotify’s New Noise playlist?
It’s a big honor to be chosen for the official rock playlist for Spotify. It’s a huge deal. We were, I’m sure, one of the only unsigned artists on that playlist. To hear our song in between bands like HAIM and Fall Out Boy and Paramore, bands we look up to and love, was a great moment.
How many singles do you plan to release like that in the near future?
Probably around five, to give people a taste of the new stuff. The next one is called “Feeling You,” an up-tempo party jam. I can’t wait to put that up. A lot of this stuff we’ve been recording, you have to wait so long for the mixes and masters and to figure out the game plan. It’s nice to get excited about finally releasing it.
That’s one of the interesting things about Spotify and bands working digitally now, how you can release the songs fully mastered before there’s an end product. Instead of coming out with an album and releasing singles from there, you are able to release singles and figure what it is later. What has that been like?
It is changing the landscape for artists. For the songs we recorded up in London Bridge, it was good to have the unity of recording all in one recording session over one week. We’ve seen a lot of artists do the single game, or post one song a month or every few months. That’s always cool from an artistic perspective. For us, we’re a big fan of having that single, unified sound as a band and then releasing it, not to tear down other people who do it differently.
You spent one week in the studio. Did you have all the writing done before you headed up to Seattle to record?
We first connected with Eric [Lilavois, producer] in Los Angeles and did a lot of preproduction and brainstorming for how these songs would best tell the stories we wanted to tell to the audience. The writing process was different for every song, but they all came together in Seattle. Mainly, we wrote them down in Orange County, but it’s hard to resist writing any type of songs in a studio.
Did you feel extra pressure from only having a week in the studio to lock it down? Was that enough time, or is there even such a thing as enough studio time?
All the things you said are correct at one time in the process. It’s almost like the grieving process, where you have to accept we only have one more day left. But it’s good because we had other projects years ago that would take four to six months to see the turnaround of releasing the songs. The timeline is always different. That’s why I think it’s good to remember the ultimate goal is to create music and show it to people.
How are the new songs a step forward for the band?
For these songs, especially lyrically and thematically, we really tried to be as honest and genuine as possible. For “Hold it Down,” that came from a trying time for our band. We love making music, but sometimes so many unexplainable and frustrating things go on in life where you have to keep creating art even though it feels like you’re trying to swim upstream all the time.
In my own life, when I’m going through a hard time, I listen to music. We tried to keep that in mind, that each song could mean a lot to somebody in that moment. I think we found a new, mature aspect in that sense of our storytelling.