A Brief History of The Districts - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
The Districts | Photo via facebook.com/thedistrictsband

Inexplicably wearing a surgeon’s mask and light blue nurse’s scrubs, The Districts frontman Rob Grote is relentless as he sits behind a drum set in the smokey basement of a North Philadelphia row home. As he brutally beats the crap out of the instruments as if he was the unhinged percussive offspring of Marky Ramone and Keith Moon, Grote finds himself in an unfamiliar spot; he’s typically anchored at center stage behind a microphone with a guitar dangling from his left shoulder. But this time fellow District Braden Lawrence is the one playing guitar and singing into a microphone, which in this case is hooked up to a cheap PA system being entirely drowned out by the thundering monsoon that is Grote’s abominable drumming.

A crowd full of college-aged kids are delusionally moshing and dancing to the music being performed, creating a ruckus (and surely a fire hazard) to the fast-paced, punk rock sounds coming out of the instruments of Lawrence, Grote and their roommate Breshon Martzall, the third member of the trio, who plays bass and sings. It’s very loud, and nearly impossible to tell one song from another. It’s the sound of Grote and Lawrence’s side project. It’s called Straw Hats. 

The show is at a place called The New Nest, a DIY concert venue/house located just outside of Temple’s main campus. It smells like mildew inside, and the pile of food-stained dishes in the sink reveal that people really do live at the house. It cost $3 to get in, and it’s the first house show Grote and Lawrence have performed in a long time, even if it’s not with the band they’re known and loved for.

The Districts’ guitarist Pat Cassidy and bassist Connor Jacobus are also in the building, moshing with the crowd. In fact, Jacobus is Straw Hats’ “Head Coach.” His responsibilities? “He makes sure we’ve had enough drinks, our instruments are plugged in, and that the crowd is going crazy,” says Lawrence. “But usually he just doesn’t come.”

The band told me about the shindig when I met up with them the prior week at their house in Fairmount. “It’s pretty under the radar,” Lawrence said at the time. “We just wrote our first two songs.”

“Well kind of,” Grote replied back. “We’ve been a side project for technically four years, but we played one show like three years ago and haven’t done anything since, and now we’re playing a house show.”

These are the sorts of things The Districts do for fun. When they get bored making music, they create a different band and make different music. Lawrence describes it as “in-your-face punk,” and calls it “an excuse to make music for no reason.”

The Districts | Photo by John Vettese

The Districts play SXSW in 2014 | Photo by John Vettese

Since the beginning of 2014, a lot has happened for The Districts. Most notably, they released their new album, A Flourish and a Spoil, which got positive reviews from outlets such as NME and Consequence of Sound. The record includes a slew of great songs, the most significant being “Young Blood,” a tempestuous, eight-and-a-half minute anthem that will go down as one of the greatest songs written in the history of Philadelphia rock and roll. They’ve been on two American tours, a European tour and an Australian tour, totaling up to nine months of time on the road in the past year. The band lost their lead guitar player, had their van robbed in St. Louis, and even performed live on Late Night With Seth Meyers. This Friday, they play their biggest Philly show when they headline The Electric Factory – a stage they previously played opening for Dr. Dog. Still, Jacobus is the only band member legally old enough to purchase alcohol.

The band formed when most of the guys were in ninth grade, save for drummer Braden Lawrence, who was still in eighth, and guitarist Mark Larson, who was in tenth. The original lineup was Grote, Lawrence, Larson, Jacobus and Josh Sunseri, a relative unknown for most fans of the band who was actually the first lead singer.

Because of Sunseri’s father’s job at the time, his family had temporarily moved to the band’s hometown from Colorado during the time in which the Districts were conceived. He was originally the lead singer. “We’re still good friends with him…when we’re in Colorado he comes to the shows,” Grote says.

The band is from the small, working class town of Lititz, located near the Amish country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

“It was voted the coolest small town in America,” Grote says. “It was like an online voting thing where just everyone in the town voted for it, so it’s like not like other people think that, just people who live there think it’s awesome.”

In many ways, Lititz is similar to Philadelphia. Its residents are working class, the architecture is suffused with quaint brick houses, and as Grote points out, only the people who live there think it’s awesome.

It was in Lititz where the band first started playing shows. The most popular venues for the band to play at the time were a bakery called Dosie Dough, a burrito shop called Senorita Burrita, and other local shops that weren’t at all designed for rock bands to perform in. Eventually, concerts at venues like Senorita Burrita turned into opening slots at larger capacity clubs in the Lancaster area, like The Chameleon Club. Soon after, the band was playing shows in New York and Philadelphia at places like at The Fire on Girard and various house shows around the Temple University area of North Philly.

At this point, the band started getting serious. They hired a lawyer and opened a bank account; this way they didn’t have to keep storing the money they made in Jacobus’s dresser drawer. Then they moved to Philly. Then they went on a self-booked tour with Pine Barons. During the tour, they started talking with Fat Possum regarding a potential record deal. By this time, the band had enrolled at Temple, in effort to secure a stable backup plan in case the whole ‘rock band’ thing didn’t work out.

But luckily for them, Fat Possum called just in time.

The band unenrolled from Temple before their freshman year even started after it became clear that a record deal with Fat Possum was imminent. However, talking them, it becomes clear that nobody in the band really wanted to go to school anyway. I asked the three original members of the band what they would have majored in.

Lawrence says “I think I was going to do recording or film or undeclared probably.”

Grote: “I was probably going to do either recording stuff or English.”

Jacobus: “I think I was going to go undeclared, or something like that.”

“We kind of all had plans for school,” admits Grote, putting the word “plans” in air quotes. “But I think the idea was just to do it for the time being.”

However, this wasn’t true for the entire band.

The Districts’ former guitarist Mark Larson respectfully declined to be interviewed for this piece, but was kind enough to let me know that upon leaving the band he enrolled at Rutgers University. He’s currently undeclared, but thinking about going into psychology. He got married this past July. Less than a year after he left, The Districts played a date opening for The Rolling Stones in Quebec City.

About a month after talking to the band at their home, I met up with Grote at The Monkey & The Elephant, a small coffee shop on West Girard Avenue, to talk about Larson and why he left the band. After warning me that he might be a few minutes late, Grote eventually walks through the door and waves at me. As he orders his coffee, I get my recorder ready and get my list of questions prepared. Then I look up.

“I made a mess,” Grote mumbles after spilling some of his iced coffee onto the condiment station. Upon cleaning up the spill with a napkin, he unsuccessfully roams around the shop in search of a trash can to throw the beverage-soaked piece of cloth into. He’s getting frustrated.

“I think the sign says just to throw all trash in the bus bins,” I say, helping him out by pointing to the gray bins at the bottom of the condiment station.

“Oh. okay.” He makes a weird face and then sits down and smiles.

The Districts

The Districts in their tour van | photo by Ryan Farber

It’s hard to describe Grote’s mannerisms. Quirky? Definitely. Ostentatious? Not at all. Conspicuous? You could say so. But they definitely exist, and they’re a large reason why he’s so interesting – and peculiar. Although he and his band hail from Lititz, Grote’s dressed as if he’s from Fishtown. He’s wearing a flannel shirt and jeans, complete with a willfully cheesy blue hat that reads “Nashville – Music City, USA.” He sports a mustache.

“It wasn’t completely unexpected,” Grote says of Larson’s quitting the band. “Because I think we all knew that where he wanted to go in life wasn’t necessarily where this was taking us.

“Mark loved playing music but just wasn’t really into that lifestyle. It just wasn’t his thing…I kind of expected it in a way, but definitely the initial shock of hearing he was leaving was like ‘oh shit, what are we going to do?'”

I ask him if Larson’s departure made him and the rest of the band second-guess his decision to forego college in attempt to become a rock star. “It definitely caused us all to reassess what we were doing,” he admits. “It didn’t make any of us want to go back to college, but it definitely made us all take a step back and really think about what we’re doing, and make sure if we are going to do it, we’re going to do it right as best we can.”

The band lived on, bringing aboard Cassidy to fill Larson’s spot, who previously played in another Philly band called Keepers.

Grote admits that the life of being in an internationally touring band can be rough, and doesn’t blame Larson. “There’s definitely times where I miss [my girlfriend], I miss home and my friends and stuff, but at the same time, it’s like a sense of purpose thing you’re trying to fulfill.” He tells me he and and his girlfriend Lyndsie are saving up to fly her out to a few shows on the upcoming European tour.

Although Grote wishes he could see more of the people he loves the most, there’s something he also likes about keeping the band working class. “I kind of take pride in it, like, just being a normal person, you know?” he says. “So, yes we play music and stuff, but we see ourselves as just average 20-year-olds, 21-year-olds, and we hang out with people we think are cool and that do stuff we like to do.” Despite his band’s internationally recognized attention, Grote still very much has a starving artist attitude to him. He dresses himself in inexpensive thrift store clothing and had previously bragged to me like a coupon-clipping soccer mom about scoring is $1,400 Rickenbacker for only $900.

For the time being, he’s still innocent. You just hope the rock and roll lifestyle doesn’t absorb him. However, after getting to know him on a personal level, I can’t ever see that happening. He’s too thoughtful and tactful, even at 20 years old. The same goes for the rest of the guys as well.

What you may not know about Grote is that he’s exceptionally smart and politically active. Political issues have yet to enter the band’s sphere of songwriting, however, on occasion the band will post more politically- or socially-minded things on their official Facebook page, from gay marriage to gun control. Much of this comes from Grote. “I wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility,” says Grote when asked if the he’d ever start getting political in the music he writes. “I mean, we didn’t set out to be a political band or anything like that. But if there’s a time where we have a politically leaning song, then we’ll play it. We’re not ashamed of anything we feel,” he says.

Grote, who is a staunch liberal and Bernie Sanders supporter, says that much of Lititz is very conservative. He grew up down the street from an Evangelical church. “It definitely had an influence on us moving here [to Philadelphia]. I would probably go insane if I was always surrounded by people like that in Lititz for the rest of my life,” he admits. How does he feel about having fans that may not agree with the band politically?

“Some can be pretty rude. I remember we posted something about Ferguson when that stuff was going on, and there was some pretty rude people that commented on it. And I was just thinking to myself like, ‘I really wish you didn’t like our band.'”

Woah, harsh.

“I mean not really,” Grote says, quickly realizing what he just said. “But it’s just strange to think about somebody liking your band who you don’t agree with at all. You can’t let that define your relationship with people though. I bet most young people don’t agree politically with their grandparents, but can still be friends with them, you know?”

Despite the conservatism of Lititz, the band was able to find friends they were on the same page with; it wasn’t all bad. But it also wasn’t easy.

“I had this awesome English teacher senior year who would say he didn’t believe in God, and he would just kind of slip that into English lessons,” Grote said. “Some kids in his class I remember getting really upset.”

Grote says that the scenes depicted in “Suburban Smell,” a song “about a handicapped kid at our high school football game getting made fun of,” really did happen. “I think there are kids who are going to be assholes probably because their parents were assholes and probably did the same thing. And probably raised them as tough guys.”

That kind of “asshole” mentality has troubled Lititz in the past. For instance, in October 2007 the town made national headlines when three white 16-year-old students allegedly yelled racial slurs and harassed minority students outside of the town’s high school.

Was becoming a musician a rebellion against that kind of life for Grote?

“Maybe in a way,” he says. “I’ve always loved and appreciated artsier stuff in general. My parents were really into music so that definitely had a big influence on it, but both my parents are pretty liberal, open-minded people, so that definitely contributed to it [as well].”

The Philly arts scene had a big impact on the band moving to Philly, and Grote takes pride in living in a city with such a great music scene. “[Philadelphia] is getting popular with a lot more people. It’s on people’s radars way more than it probably it was when Hall & Oates were the only people, but now there’s a lot more here.”

Back at the house, I had asked the band who some of their favorite bands in the area were.

The band name dropped a slew of bands, including Man Man, Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs, Dr. Dog, The Retinas, and Hop Along.

“Purples!” Cassidy shouts excitedly like Archimedes running from a bathtub. “Do you know Purples? They’re like three of the four guys that used to be in the band The Teeth, and now they’re Purples and they’re awesome.” It’s clear the guys are proud of being a part of such an upcoming music city. “Any night you can go to a house show and see a bunch of really good bands,” Cassidy adds.

Despite the band’s rapid success, Grote and the guys are still extraordinarily humble, and still maintain the hard-working attitude they’ve had ever since the beginning – back when they drove to shows in Larson’s minivan given to him by his mom.

“We just tried to be better. Tried to do better things, tried to write better songs. That’s ultimately the goal — to do a better show than last time, or write a better song than last time,” Grote says. “Sometimes we have bad shows, and sometimes we work on a song for a month and it turns out terribly, but the times when you get it right are what it’s about, and that’s what you always work for.”

The Districts headline the Electric Factory on Friday, November 6th with Lady Lamb and Purples. Tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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