When the small-town Pennsylvania band the Districts first made a splash on the national scene in 2009, it was partly fans gawking at just how good these fresh-faced high schoolers were.
With a rough-and-tumble, roots-tinged garage sound delivered with uncommon verve and a deeply punk snarl, these DIY cherubs were capable of summoning up a sound and style beyond their years, something borne out by their Fat Possum-released 2013 debut Telephone.
But not surprising for a bunch of teenagers barely of voting age, the band continued to grow and evolve quickly. Their sophomore effort, the John Congleton-produced A Flourish & a Spoil saw them beginning to pivot away from that early signature sound. Congleton's track record as an indie rock superstar producer for artists ranging from Modest Mouse and Cloud Nothings to St. Vincent and Earl Sweatshirt was immediately evident, as the album's rich layers and evocative sound pushed the group past the easy garage-rock comparisons that dogged them before.
"From the beginning of our band we also just kind of thought of ourselves as not staying tied to one particular sound. We like the idea of progressing," points out guitarist/singer Rob Grote. "Anything we've ever released has a cohesion to it overall, that it sounds like us, but we have no problem altering parts of that."
There's some truth to that — going back and listening to their earlier efforts, tinges of shoegaze and post-punk pervade even Telephone and especially Flourish, but the group really leans into those sounds on the forthcoming Popular Manipulations, out later this summer. Self-produced but mixed and partially recorded by Congleton, the band now seems to fit more on the Interpol or Modest Mouse side of the column then the scruffy rock of the Libertines or the White Stripes, showing a more angular and sophisticated sense of drama and arrangement. Grote's voice has a new maturity too, with more contours and dynamic poise than it's had in the past.
"That was also a pretty conscious thing," says Grote. "When we started our band, I just kind of started singing. It's been interesting to me as time has gone, I think about how I sing differently. I can feel how I sing differently too. So part of it is just me feeling like I have more control of it and that being an interesting thing to explore, and taking it in different directions that felt good to me."
He adds, "I was trying to remove as much as possible what it meant to make a Districts' song and try to just distill it to what feels good to make and to sing."
As for the songs themselves, Grote says it was a much more methodical creative process than in the past as he and his bandmates were clearly trying to find something new with their skillset.
"These songs were written from a much more self-critical place, in a good way, from start to finish," he explains. "I was working a lot harder just writing songs every day in my room — and tons of those songs that aren't on the record. I was really just figuring out what I wanted these songs to be like musically and lyrically. There was a whole lot of writing and scrapping and re-writing and stuff like that."
He adds, "We really wanted to make something that we thought of as exceptional for ourselves."
Fortunately for fans, much of the visceral power of the band remains and Grote's songwriting has only gotten sharper and more ambitious. It's clear from advance singles like the Interpol-indebted "If Before I Wake" and the stately-turned-soaring rocker "Ordinary Day" that the Districts are taking the intensity of their earlier performance style and setting their sights on filling auditoriums and festival fields rather than clubs.
"We're probably more nervous about changing things [than upsetting expectations]," Grote says. "Since it is what we work on all the time and what we've dedicated our time to, if we were doing something that wasn't true to ourselves, that wasn't intellectually rewarding and stimulating, then we're not going to want to do it for the rest of our lives."
Popular Manipulations gets a full release on Fri. Aug. 11.