Gathered behind the Sutro Stage, The Backseat Lovers stood in a loose semicircle, a cloud of smoke hanging over the verdant green. Swapping subtle smiles in the afternoon shade, they appeared casually cool, a reflection of the folksy indie-rock for which they’re known.
Soon, the band would enliven the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival with hits from “Kilby Girl” to “Pool House,” but first, Josh Harmon, Jonas Swanson, KJ Ward and Juice Welch met near their trailer for an interview with The Daily Californian.
“Music for us has always been a reflection of who we are and what we’re experiencing,” Harmon said. “When we made our first album, we were angsty teenagers. And then after, we were slightly less angsty 20-somethings. So (our new music) is just a little bit more like us, a little bit more grown up.”
“Still some good angst, though,” Ward added, laughing.
The Backseat Lovers’ debut album When We Were Friends brims with boyish charm, the songwriting at once intimate and relatable. Nineteen-year-olds rule the night with fake IDs and nose rings; young couples skip class to teach each other crochet. Just as “Kilby Girl” nears a natural end, it lengthens into a percussive, guitar-driven outro, eventually fading into gentle harmonics.
“I don’t think it’s very clear,” Harmon said, reflecting on why they decided to end the song that way.
“It just seemed like a fun way to end it. Wanted to rip out some harmonicas,” Swanson added.
For The Backseat Lovers, spontaneity takes the wheel. Always on the road, much of their songwriting now occurs during impromptu soundcheck jams. Even when a song is recorded in the studio, it never really remains static. Once in motion, it stays in motion — a product of constant kinetic energy.
“I listened to the recording (of ‘Still a Friend’) the other day, and it’s so weird, dude,” Harmon said to his bandmates. “It’s a completely different song. It’s honestly so strange, but it’s cool that it feels like it’s still just as fresh because we play it differently every night.”
Musical elasticity is a lesson they learned in part from Jack White, whom they opened for back in June. The former White Stripes frontman never plays the same set of songs; each night, his performance takes on its own unique shape.
“He’s a guitar wizard,” Swanson remarked. “On one of his guitars, he has a pitch shifter knob. And just seeing all this gear and stuff, just being on the same stage, was really, really cool.”
“We had never really played a venue of that size before,” Welch responded. “So it was interesting to see the behind the scenes and how many people go behind putting on a show like that.”
Similar to White, The Backseat Lovers often write their setlists minutes before appearing on stage, their choices a product of the moment. Often, they begin with some variation of an “Intro Jam,” lacking in words but overflowing with raw instrumentals. Rather than jumping right in, they linger in the moment — they tease out the feeling that, during a live performance, anything and everything can happen.
“Even as a band, we don’t really know what’s going to happen a little bit,” Harmon said. “So, it just makes the whole experience less predictable and more exciting.”
Perhaps the unpredictability of performance became almost too evident during the band’s last show in San Francisco. After an electrifying set at The Fillmore, an unexpected injury forced them to cancel their remaining tour dates.
“Right at the end of the set, I was rambunctious, and I fell and hit my head and I had to get rushed to the ER,” Harmon said. “We couldn’t play the encore. We had to go home … But we’re so excited to be back. (San Francisco) is one of our favorite cities to play.”
Though The Backseat Lovers had only just arrived, Swanson had already taken some time to explore the festival grounds. At one of the stands, he purchased an item he later wore for the interview and performance — a forest green T-shirt embroidered with purple mushrooms, bent in the twilight and hugged by a crescent moon.
Chatting on the grass, the band waved to Briston Maroney as he walked on a nearby path, his blue cap slightly turning in acknowledgement before disappearing back behind the trees. Other than Maroney, The Backseat Lovers expressed excitement at seeing Post Malone and Wet Leg, Harmon remarking that the latter “is just crushing it right now.”
“I was a huge Weezer fan as a kid. I’m gonna check them out,” Swanson added. “I think my parents named me after ‘My Name is Jonas,’ so that’d be cool to hear.”
Both on and off the stage, The Backseat Lovers breathe an air of genuine, good, lighthearted fun. Whether they’re steering their music down new avenues or hanging out in the seat, they’re strapped in for life’s serendipitous drive — and they’re thoroughly enjoying the ride.