The indie pop band has been as eager to get back in the studio as its fans. Now it's back with a new EP, "Amateurs."
“Wild” has been the calling card for Royal Teeth that just keeps calling. After the New Orleans-based band released the song in 2012, it took on a life of its own and became the soundtrack for a Buick Verano commercial later that year. The song’s percussive enthusiasm and joyful, wordless chorus made it one to which people could map a lot of positive associations, and in 2014 Samsung used the song as well in an ad for the Galaxy S5. That spring, Royal Teeth’s performance at SXSW left NPR’s Stephen Thompson raving about the band and “Wild,” and Harry Connick Jr. flexed his muscle as a judge on American Idol to get the band to perform “Wild” on the show that March. By that time, the band was ready to play a different song and show another side to itself, but “Wild” won.
"Harry really likes that song,” the show’s staff told drummer Josh Hefner.
Those who wondered if “Wild” was all there was to Royal Teeth had a good reason. After the release of Glow in 2013—which also gave “Wild” another life—little followed. Now, the band has a new EP, Amateurs, and will play a release party at Gasa Gasa Friday night. It’s not that nobody in the band wrote songs for the last three years, but business got complicated.
It’s Election Day, and singers Larsen and Nora Patterson are wearing their Louisiana “I Voted” stickers as they talk about the interim years. In 2013, Royal Teeth signed to Dangerbird Records. At the time, it was a happening label for bands with one foot in the indie world and one in the pop world. It promised to be a good fit for the band, which re-released Glow on Dangerbird. Before long, one of the owners, Jeff Castelaz, left. He was Royal Teeth’s connection to Dangerbird, and as the label’s staff dwindled, it lost the ability to flex its muscles in the ways that a pop band needs. They bought themselves out of the Dangerbird deal and followed Castelaz to Elektra Records, but once they were on board, he left again. The band had high hopes for Elektra until they learned the label’s time line for them.
“It didn’t work for us,” Hefner says. “It’s a major label. It happens. They have longer processes. You’ve got to get in the radio pipeline and all that stuff.”
For a band that had been touring on the same music for a at least three years, another long wait before it would put new music out felt like career suicide. “Wild” had carried them farther than anyone could have anticipated, but they knew it had to have limits.
“We worked it out where we separated,” Hefner says. Shortly after that, Round Hill Music came around. Round Hill is a publishing company based in Nashville and New York, and founder Josh Gruss saw Royal Teeth at Jazz Fest and suggested that it should start a label that could release their music. “We’re doing a licensing deal with them,” Hefner says. “They were hungry and ready to work, so we did it.”
As the band walks through its time line, an air of inevitability colors the story. For an indie pop band that has poked its head up into the mainstream a few times now, another deal with another label seems like a no-brainer, but it didn’t feel that way at the time to them. When Gruss saw Royal Teeth at Jazz Fest, the band was officially unsigned, and although little was said about it, the tour they were on when they played Jazz Fest was as an unsigned band. That knowledge weighed on its members.
“There really was a moment for us where we realized this could be the beginning of the end,” Larsen says. “We’re not in our early 20s anymore. We have stuff in our lives.” Going back to day jobs wasn’t a realistic option if the band intended to maintain its profile.
“It was a very real moment for me,” he continues. “I’ve always been a little naïve. I’m in my early 20s, I’m in a band, we got signed? I’m a lucky guy. I appreciated it, but it was always something I had.”
The unlikeliness of getting a third label deal is not lost on them, particularly with their unusual story. “We’ve signed more contracts than we’ve made albums,” Hefner jokes.
Throughout all that, band members were coming up with song ideas, but they had to squirrel them away. “Contractually, anything we recorded would have been theirs,” Hefner says. After two years of touring Glow, they wrote a lot of new material so that they’d have something fresh in the set, and that pool of half-finished ideas gave them some strong possibilities when it came time to record Amateurs. While the EP is just being released, Royal Teeth recorded it more than a year ago. They went to Charleston, South Carolina, where they recorded with Eric Bass, who also recorded Glow. According to Larsen, the band intuited which of the many musical ideas they had to pursue. “It was like, We’re here for a few weeks. What feels good right now that we can feel really confident in, that vibes really good in the room?”
The results sound exactly like Royal Teeth. Rolling through the gears of the record industry hasn’t caused the band to doubt its sound or concept. The title cut and “Kids Conspire” have melodies that a club or pasture of people can sing along with, though unlike “Wild,” they have words. The songs mark off an expansive musical footprint that is sonically spacious during the verses, then gain power as percussion, voices, and other instruments surge into the open spaces in the choruses. The parts are richly textured, balancing Patterson’s airy vocal with the defined plink of bell-like keyboards and the snap of electronic handclaps. Every sound comes factory installed with a sheen, gloss, or plastic rotundity that, taken as whole, gives every song a pristine buoyancy that lightens the darker songs and threatens to escort the upbeat ones out of this galaxy.
Royal Teeth songs repel angst like emotional citronella, but on Amateurs, they make uncertainty sound dramatic. “Is It Just Me” is the most immediate song in a set that all come at you with the giddiness of spaniel puppies, but as the title suggests, the song is about doubt. “Is it just me / or are we electric?” Patterson sings in the chorus, capturing the frisson of that moment when two people are pretty sure something’s about to happen, but they’re not sure sure.
“I don’t know if everybody has this, but that certain spark or connection with somebody—you’re not sure if they feel it too,” Patterson says. “It’s an intense feeling and something a lot of people remember.”
Royal Teeth is Patterson’s first band, so it’s no surprise that the lyrics she sang on Glow came from Larsen. By the time the band went in the studio to cut Amateurs, she had learned that she could write songs too. “After five years, I felt more confident about what I brought to the band,” she says.
Larsen saw it too. “I try to help, obviously, but when it came to this EP, I said, You’re on a roll!”
There’s no obvious “Wild” on Amateurs, and everybody seems comfortable with that. As Royal Teeth have moved through companies, the unspoken question others have asked has been, Can you do it again?
“It’s been lightly thrown at us, like I know you’re joking but you’re not,” Larsen says. They didn’t set out to write a jingle-worthy song when they wrote “Wild,” and they can’t do it on demand now, even if they wanted to. “The thing that’s been crazy is how long it lasted.”
Part of the point of touring as heavily as the band has was to be more than just their biggest song. “We wanted people to fall in love with the band, not just ‘Wild,’” Hefner says.