Alt-Rock Band Young Pioneer Fearlessly Explores New Pop Territory
Story by LCC Radio Reporter Sarah Spohn
Five years ago, Signals was an up and coming alternative rock band. Last year, they switched their name and swapped a few members out, releasing their first full-length record as newly-named Young Pioneer. These days, they’re busy recording new music with a more pop-driven sound and landing gigs with big Australian indie rock bands.
Young Pioneer is made up of Ben Awrey (vocals), Jonny Walker (guitar), Bobby Schmid (bass), Jason Marr (guitar), and Austin Howard (drums). The band spoke about how the latest lineup came to be, thanks to another Lansing-based band, Lights and Caves’ breakup.
“Lights and Caves used to play shows with Signals and Young Pioneer back in the day too, so that’s how I knew the guitar player Johnny,” Jason said. “He called me up one day and said ‘hey, we need somebody to come play.’ I learned the songs, asked if Austin could come jam, ‘cause they needed a drummer, and it just worked,” Jason said. The two newest members haven’t been with them for quite a year, yet, but the ride’s already been a fun one.
“It’s definitely different,” Ben said. “The last record we got to write an alternative rock record. This next record … we didn’t want to make the same record twice, we’re kind of dabbling — it’s a little more polished sounding, it’s definitely more pop-driven.”
The band drew influences from more relevant pop singers and sounds including Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran, compared to their past alt-rock inspirations from the likes of Anberlin, Copeland and Mae heard on their debut album, “When Does the Night End.”
Early music memories for Jason started when he was around six years old. During the movie, “The Sting,” he recalls sitting down at his grandma’s piano, mimicking how to play the honky tonk piano tune, “The Entertainer.”
“My parents got me a guitar, and I hated it and threw it in my closet and never played it again,” he said. “Until ‘School of Rock’ came out.
“I played in concert band and everything growing up, but I never played guitar again until I got into early high school and saw ‘School of Rock’ and was like man, ‘I really want to get an SG and learn ACDC songs,’” he said.
Ben took guitar lessons, but quickly realized video games were more fun. A few years later, he picked up his Squier strat again, and started learning how to play his favorite songs.
Lyrically speaking, Ben enjoys telling stories through the band’s songs, much like his favorite record, Mae’s “The Everglow.”
“I like having a theme and some sort of general idea to the record,” he said. “I kind of like the record opening up with an idea, and then resolving it by the end. ‘When Does the Night End’ kind of did that a little bit — to where it started off, ‘Dead Man’s Dream’ is a melancholy song. As you’re going through the stages of life, and sometimes you wonder like is this where I’m supposed to be, is this what I’m supposed to become?”
The rest of the record explores both the happier and sadder moments of life, with the final song finishing on a hopeful end.
Even though storytelling and thematic elements appear on their upcoming record, the newer sounds can also stand on their own in the pop music world.
“Even with this record that we’re working on now — it’s definitely like a pop record,” Ben said. “It is more single-based, where I definitely do want each song and I think everyone else agrees, even though each song stands on its own, I like having themes and ideas that are revisited and stuff throughout the record. And yeah, just like Jason said, there’s even a reference to the last record.”
This time around, the band is writing their new record in the studio, rather than basements. They’ve also got the help of a big-name producer. The band spoke about how they linked up with the famous producer.
“I work at a music store,” Jason said. “He actually came in on break from one of his tours, he was visiting the area and he was renting out one of our lesson rooms to practice drums. I didn’t know who he was, but I could tell just by the way he was that he was somebody. We just started talking, and a couple months later, he’s back in our store again when he’s back through. And we started talking some more, and at that point, I was in Young Pioneer.”
“We were talking about how we’re trying to work on new music and put out a new record, and then he mentions that he’s a producer,” Jason said, “he works for Warner Bros. and Chappell Music and he’s the drummer for The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus.”
“Long story short, I showed him [John Espy] a couple songs, he came out to one of our shows, he really liked what we were doing, and we started a record last fall.”
Now he’s producing Young Pioneer’s record, and is referred to as the band’s unofficial sixth man. Young Pioneer continues to navigate the often uneasy waters of the music industry, and recently landed a big gig as direct support for Australian alternative rock band Atlas Genius. The show was a special one for the group, for a couple reasons.
“It was a really cool offer,” Jason said. “We don’t get them often, and when we usually get offers like that, it’s in Lansing or where we’re from, so to get it in GR, a city that none of us are from, it’s just a really cool feeling.”
The band’s got upcoming shows with fellow Michigan musicians Watching for Foxes, Ellis, The Timbre of Cedar at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, and a performance planned for East Lansing’s Stoopfest. Playing all across the state, and some members having toured outside of Michigan, they’re quick to give a nice shout-out to the mitten state.
“The coolest thing about Michigan to me, especially living in Lansing, is – ‘alright everybody, lift your hand up and picture Michigan,’” Jason said. “You’re within an hour to an hour and a half drive of any big city that has local music or big concerts. You could play Lansing and Grand Rapids one weekend, and Saginaw and Flint the next, and Detroit and Kalamazoo.”
This sort of thing doesn’t happen in other music hubs like Colorado, with gigs and cities much further apart. Michigan has many unique venues, including some of the band’s favorites: The Crofoot in Pontiac, the Filmore, and Masonic Temple in Detroit.
“I think as Detroit continues to revitalize and we’re seeing lots of new stuff pop up, I’m really excited to see what happens with the music scene there too,” Ben said.
Continuing to move onward and upward, Young Pioneer is fearlessly exploring new pop territory with different, polished sounds. The band is working on their new album, hoping to be released fall of 2017.