In late 2016, two high school friends named Matt Quinn and Sam Cooper put four songs that they'd recorded in the living room of producer Caleb Nelson on Spotify. They used the band name Mt. Joy (named after a mountain in Valley Forge National Park near Cooper's childhood home), and it was a low-key launch by two guys who simply wanted an outlet for what they'd written. Neither of them had any plans to make Mt. Joy a permanent proposition. The two were headed in different directions; Cooper was a law student in their native Philadelphia and Quinn studied music management in Los Angeles.
But a funny thing happened on the way to their separate lives. One of Mt. Joy's songs, "Astrovan," started getting added to playlist after playlist. The song, a laid-back, loping rocker that hinges on a soul-soaked vocal by Quinn and the line "Jesus drives an Astrovan," paints a picture of a pleasantly stoned lord and savior following the Grateful Dead around.
Over the next year, the song developed a life of its own, eventually racking up nearly five million streams. It was a gradual process, but Mt. Joy, a band that was essentially defunct, began attracting a lot of attention.
"The band was dead," Quinn says. "That's the way to characterize it. It was never really alive. It was just two friends, both musicians and songwriters, who decided to record something without the expectation of touring or making a full-length record. We'd just written these songs and wanted to record them. Then 'Astrovan' kept getting added to more and more playlists."
Even a year-and-a-half down the road, Quinn says he and Cooper still don't know what it was about "Astrovan" that caught people's attention. "In terms of what resonated, it's hard for me to say," he says. "I don't know what people latched onto. But I think it's a lighthearted song that, the further you get into it, you realize there's some heavier content within it too. Maybe people got hooked in by the joke aspect of it and found that there was a little more there."
Whatever the reason, it was enough of a response that it drew the duo from their respective educational pursuits and back together to write more songs, one of which was a single called "Silver Lining."
The song is more acoustic-guitar based than the rawer "Astrovan," but it's just as irresistible, an anthemic mid-tempo tune that combines a sweeping, epic chorus in the Needtobreathe mode with another emotional, throat-tearing vocal from Quinn (who occasionally resembles Kings Of Leon's Caleb Followill) and Cooper's stacked, soaring guitars.
A second strong single was enough to catch the attention of Rolling Stone, which called the band "your new folk-rock heroes," and NPR, who named Mt. Joy one of their Favorite New Artists of 2018 and made them part of their "Slingshot" incubator series, which is a collective effort among taste-making radio stations to introduce emerging artists. Suddenly, the Newport Folk Festival, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza were calling.
In other words, these two guys needed a band, and a full album to capitalize on their momentum, and they needed both of them pronto.
Luckily, Quinn and Cooper work well under pressure, and they knew the right guy. They found the bassist on their original four-song session, Michael Byrnes, on Craigslist, and he had all the right connections on the L.A. music scene.
"He put the band together for us (adding drummer Sotiris Eliopoulos and keyboard player Jackie Miclau), and it worked right away," Quinn says. "It was seamless. We just got really lucky and we gelled immediately."
Then they wrote a full-length, self-titled record, which is due out in March on the Dualtone label.
"I think at first it was a little daunting," Quinn says of writing and recording a 13-song album within a couple of months. "But ultimately you realize it's a dream, not just for us but for anyone who's trying to write and record songs and perform them. So after a while we just embraced it. It was scary at first, but once we got our feet under us, it was a lot of fun."
Quinn says that in a short-attention-span world, he and Cooper both knew that time was of the essence.
"The position we were put in was, 'Hey, people are catching onto this thing and there's going to be some demand for a full-length to present to the labels,'" he says. "In 2018, you don't have a lot of time to keep people's attention, so we knew we had to write 15 to 20 songs as fast as we could and record the best ones. It was done as quickly and earnestly as we could."
So now, this living-room project that's less than two years old is a full-fledged band with buzz, an album in the can, a tour with Neko Case, and spots at SXSW and the Shaky Knees festival.
"It's definitely been surreal," Quinn says. "But I don't know if we've had too much time to think about it. This life we've been thrown into, it's pretty easy to get lost in — jumping in and out of the van, playing all these different cities. So our focus, probably for the better, has been to try and make the load-in times and play the best sets we can, and if we're going to get more and more attention, to get better each night and earn it. But when we do have time to stop and think about it, we're really grateful."