Caught in a balancing act between Dylan-esque Americana, feverish punk-rock attitudes and the soulful rhythm and blues that tie them all together, Los Angeles locals PAPA sparked a fire in 2013 with the cheeky sincerity of their debut LP Tender Madness. After a brief stint opening for Florence and the Machine on a few of her dates—as well as slots at major music festivals—the band announced earlier this year that they had broke ground on their second album.
Daniel Weiss, PAPA’s singing drummer, hasn’t revealed much, offering only a comparison of the record to the pink starburst flavor, explaining to fans that it’s the “freshest” of flavors. The only single so far, “Hold On,” does shy away a bit from the band’s previous sounds—Weiss appears sharper with his lyricisms and the track’s hysteric percussion pedaling is perhaps a sign that the madness won’t be quite so tender this time around.
“This album is going to have a much more aggressive tone to it. There’s nothing like the song, ‘Replacements,’ with any folk influence—that has taken a backseat in what we are doing now,” explained Weiss. “There’s a lot more things that excite us to play live and keep us interested; we are really more excited and interested in rhythm, which we always have been, but I think as songwriters—which I hope comes across in the song, ‘Hold On’—that the rhythm and the urgency are more meaningful now.”
But the changes are not just limited to sound and style, because after and even during their extensive touring for Tender Madness, Weiss and company began to notice things about themselves and their music that they hadn’t encountered before. That the record, while an honest and poignant display of robust songwriting, was more about personal catharsis rather than artistic invention.
“I think with Tender Madness there was no real mission in the songs other than just to express what we were going through and relate it to the people in our lives. A lot of it was very personal; directed at romantic people from our past or friends that we see going through experiences,” Weiss said. “I think with this one a lot of inspiration comes from having to put out that first record, touring the world on it and sort of what’s that been like as artists.”
From dissatisfaction with the music industry to their own personal shortcomings as musicians, the band was fueled to demolish any notions of a “sophomore slump” and put out the kind of record that voiced their frustrations.
“I think in the past, Tender Madness had a lot of different sounds and styles, and I think that was what we wanted to do at the time, but it didn’t bring us anywhere or fulfill a certain side of our creative desires,” Weiss admitted. “We hadn’t yet created the musical home that we wanted to live in when playing on the road. I think with this new album it didn’t begin as a conscious effort, but a stronger identity took shape throughout the course of making and writing the record.”
But in order to understand that identity, you first need to understand the unique situation that is PAPA’s lineup. One of the first things you notice about the band besides the somewhat intimidating beard of Weiss, is that he’s also the band’s lead singer.
“I was a drummer before I was a songwriter, before I was a singer—that was my first love of music,” Weiss said of his instrumental passion.
Then there is Daniel Presant, its lead guitarist, rounding out the total number of people behind PAPA to just two men pumping out some seriously funky tunes. But when Weiss first started making music, the idea of starting a band wasn’t at the forefront of his to-do list—instead, it came out of necessity.
“When I started writing songs, it came from an almost folk perspective. I still don’t own an electric guitar; I write everything on organ, piano, and acoustic guitar and then adapt it. But I could never really get a band together,” Weiss confessed. “I didn’t want to be performing folk, but it was coming across as folk music because I didn’t have a band—and this was when I was living in New York and I didn’t know that many musicians.”
Studying in New York with Presant, an experience Weiss called “extremely transformative,” the two found it was easier to find guitar players than drummers. So once more out of necessity more than anything, Weiss began his career as a singing drummer—and he’s been doing it ever since.
“Once I started, it felt very much apart of the identity of the band. In some bands the drummer runs the show in terms of setting the tempos and the momentum, and sometimes the singer leads it; but the way I sing and the way I drum is a direct result of the relationship that exists between the band and I.”
Since PAPA’s inception, Weiss and Presant have seen members come and go—in its early years the lineup was an ever-changing body of friends who just happened to be musicians.
“It really was a tight knit group. Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes played guitar on our first EP—but at the time, we didn’t think, ‘Let’s hire someone who is a good guitarist,’ we just asked our friend who totally understood the vibe to come in,” Weiss said, reminiscing on the past. “And even the first time I ever performed as a singing drummer, Danielle Haim was the guitar player in that band and lineup for PAPA, and I even played in HAIM in the early stages.”
In the studio, Weiss and Presant stand as the creative fulcrum that allowed PAPA to swing back and forth between their collective experiences. Live, the duo remain center stage, adding only another guitarist, and later a few back-up singers—a move that, for the first time, wasn’t done out of necessity.
“In many ways we’re a proper live band,” Weiss explained. “We don’t play the tracks, we don’t have samples. A lot of bands I see sort of try to outsize and outstretch what they actually can make onstage by adding all these loops, playing the tracks and having all these triggers.”
One of my first encounters with the group took place within the small confines of the Constellation Room at the Santa Ana Observatory, a humble side room that was more lounge bar than concert venue. Somewhat dragged there by a romantic interest at the time, I had little to no idea what to expect and my knowledge of the band was only its name—which because of its shared etymology to certain Spanish words, I feared was a foreshadowing of the music they would play. So in an embarrassing example of that old adage about not judging a book by its cover, I prepared myself for some sort of Latin alt-rock group to take the stage and endure an hour or so of lyrics I wouldn’t understand (but music that I would earnestly be open to try and enjoy).
I was wrong to despair, because as teens Weiss and Presant were students of punk and rock-‘n’-roll. Their teachers were Murder City Devils and Fugazi, their classrooms the sweaty and crowded confines of Los Angeles venues like the Troubadour and El Rey. They learned early on that the bliss and ecstasy that came from losing yourself in the presence of live artists performing their craft was rooted in something deeper than sound quality and polished accuracy.
“The bands that we grew up loving were rock-‘n’-roll bands and punk bands, and the joy of the performance came from the interactions between the crowd and musician,” Weiss explained. “It didn’t come from the live show or from how perfectly on pitch the singer was singing because it had auto tune; it didn’t come from us thinking, ‘Oh wow, that’s so cool. The drum sounds like it did on the record.’ It was something different from the record. That’s what made it cool.”
PAPA have successfully dissected those experiences and infused the philosophy of those punk rock champions into their live shows. There’s a flexibility, an eagerness from the band to retain that raw and unfiltered transparency while onstage. Some songs they play through to completion without much deviation, other times, if the crowd seems particularly frenzied or is enjoying a certain song visibly, Weiss will take notice and add a little something just for them.
“I think of each night being an experiment for us in a way, because everyone is going to play a little different every night. The tempo’s not going to be exactly the same; and because we’re not playing the tracks I can stop the beat on a dime, and the band knows that just from their experience and hard work on tour.”
PAPA have come a long way since that Constellation Room show and their extensive touring has put the simplicity and honesty of their live show to the test. When Weiss and Presant found themselves opening for Florence at the Red Rocks Amphitheater, their live ethics only helped them conquer the challenges of larger stages.
“I think because we open ourselves up to what each night has to offer, that’s what makes it transformative and relatable. Whether it’s a small club with ten people or an amphitheater with ten thousand people—we bring our A-game every night, but we let the energy of the community dictate what our songs mean to that environment.”
And because it’s never dependent on a sound guy, a sample track or the fear of not sounding as good as the studio record, PAPA have had the freedom to aim for the nosebleeds and transform intimate, bar-sized rock songs into stadium worthy anthems. It’s the kind of music that leaves you sweaty and exhausted, the kind that simultaneously puts a fire in your belly and a groove in your shoes. Candid and refreshingly unapologetic, PAPA crafts music for the saucy, charismatic lover and hopeless romantic in us all.
In the meantime, you can find us at the Constellation Room once more, this time with bags of pink starburst in hand for their show there on December 6. Tickets are still on sale, don’t you dare miss out on all the sugary sweet goodness.
(PAPA also have a date at the Echoplex on Friday, Nov. 27. Get your tickets here.)
Words: Steven Ward