The California band releases their new single, “Magic,” today.
“I’m so ripped on Yerba Mate right now,” Chase Johnson laughs into the phone.
“That is the most California thing I’ve ever heard,” I laugh back.
Johnson, the Laguna Beach-born musician, and songwriter is the lead singer of Los Angeles-based band Half the Animal, whose brand of alt-rock is infused with modern pop sensibilities and production. Founded by Johnson and longtime friend Nick Gross, who is now the band’s drummer–the two met in third grade and as young teenagers in catechism would purposely get kicked out so they could talk about music and surfing–Half the Animal took shape in 2015, eventually adding bassist Evan Smith and guitarist Dan Graham. They released their first single, “Babylon,” in 2016 which quickly resulted in two million streams. The band followed up with regular releases after that, including “Bad Bad Love” at the end of 2017, which was added to Spotify’s “New Music Friday” playlist. They also went on tour that year with Atlas Genius. “Too Late” came in May of this year, as did a tour with Great Good Fine OK. Today the band releases their latest single, “Magic.”
“Magic” is an ode to that one eternal goal: happiness. “It can be love, it can be family, it can be catching your first wave, it can be anything. It’s just that universal happiness,” Johnson says. For him, “Magic” is a song you can dance to, that can make you feel mellow, happy, or sad and every experience makes sense. “That’s something that you strive to as a writer,” he says. “If you’ve been wanting to have a song that has that feeling for a really long time and you finally get it, that’s a beautiful feeling in itself. I found the magic in the song “Magic,” so it’s pretty cool.”
California’s surf, sun, and skate scenes inform Half the Animal’s roots; Gross was drawn early on to the SoCal punk scene, and Johnson followed a bit later–and the rest of their influences are as far-ranging as Sir Sly and The Beatles, Incubus and Ravi Shankar, Oasis and The 1975, Tame Impala and Gorillaz. “To be a musician, to be a songwriter, to be an artist, you also have to be a listener and a fan,” Johnson says. “There are some incredible artists that never go along with the times and that’s sick because that’s their thing, that’s not really our thing. We love how music evolves and music changes.”
And Johnson and Gross know about how music evolves. Half the Animal is not their first venture together. In high school, they also formed part of the band Open Air Stereo, a pop-rock/emo outfit that gained traction on MTV’s reality series Laguna Beach. They were signed to a major label after their appearance on the show in 2005 but disbanded in 2008. “Nick and I have been in a non-sexual relationship for a very long time,” Johnson laughs. “We needed a little break.” Gross went on to found creative studio Noise Nest, independent music label/publishing house Big Noise, and Find Your Grind, a platform for high school students developing non-conventional career paths; and Johnson became a fashion photographer. But they later came back together more inspired. “We created something we always wanted, which is what we thought was the biggest and best representation of our creative selves and that’s Half the Animal,” Johnson says.
Even in Open Air Stereo, Johnson and Gross had a knack for solidifying the sounds of a time–going back and watching the band’s 2006 appearance on The Laguna Beach After Party on MTV recalls every skatepark punk show I went to in high school–and Half the Animal is no different today, though the sounds of 2018 are of course much different. Skate punk far behind them, Half the Animal has grown up. They blend crashing rock influences with electronic, pop production for a sound that’s decidedly now. “Now” in that pop is no longer a four-letter word, as it was in describing the Britney-esque bubblegum counterparts of our youth. Imagine Dragons is pop, Dierks Bentley is pop, anything that’s popular is pop, Johnson reminds me.
And making pop doesn’t mean you’re “selling out” anymore. “I think the whole term of selling out is so stupid,” Johnson says. “I think everyone that says they don’t…want to be bigger, they don’t want to play to bigger crowds, I think it’s a line just to sound cool. The biggest high and the most beautiful high in the world is having people sing back your music and having a bunch of people be there to see you and play with you and have fun and make the music together.” And while for so long rock bands wanted to stay far away from pop, incorporating its techniques into the genre now is a decidedly modern, artfully category-less move that reflects the shrinking genre gap in music altogether. And the modern blending of genres comes with increased creative opportunities, something Johnson and Gross don’t take for granted.
Having been signed to a major label once upon a time, Johnson and Gross understood the limitations it could place on their creativity. When Gross founded Noise Nest and Big Noise, it became the band’s studio, label, and publisher. An independent label, especially one founded by a member of Half the Animal, gave the band everything they could ever want as artists. Johnson sees the ability to produce music this way as a blessing because so many people–themselves previously included–don’t have the option. “Some people move to LA or to New York and they go to do music and they don’t have any foundation so they gotta sign their life away a little bit,” Johnson says. “We have full artist creativity. Like, full. We get to do what we want, that’s the beautiful thing. That’s why we’re always so fucking happy,” he laughs. “That’s why we’re always smiling. We live in a beautiful place, we got beautiful families, we got beautiful sunshine all the time, we get to do whatever the hell we want. It’s beautiful.”