MORE ABOUT THE BACKSEAT LOVERS
Josh Harmon remembers the exact moment when the world of his music grew a little bigger.
He and his band, the Backseat Lovers, were far from home in the fall of 2019. They’d left the dusty, sprawling landscapes of their native Utah behind and ventured north and across the border to Vancouver, where they had booked an intimate gig at a venue above a skate shop. They were touring in support of When We Were Friends, their debut album, and their expectations were low: they didn’t know anyone in Vancouver, and they were sure that no one would know who they were, either. When they approached the venue, they were shocked to see they were wrong.
“We were driving around this city, and it was dark, and we had very little hope that there would be anyone there,” the guitarist, singer and songwriter recalls. “We went in, and as soon as we got there, there was a line of kids.” After the room filled up, the lights went down, and they kicked off their set, the Backseat Lovers heard a foreign yet familiar sound: a bunch of strangers singing their song. “Maple Syrup,” one of the first singles they released as an outfit in 2018, was a notable crowd-pleaser. It was here, nearly a thousand miles from the comfort of their Salt Lake City scene, that Harmon and his bandmates realized this was the beginning of something new.
“People had flown from other places in the country to come see us, and I just remember the feeling in that tiny, cramped space, and everyone was actually singing back to us,” he says. “It was just a really humbling feeling to know that people actually cared about [our music] outside of our circle of community and friends.”
“Maple Syrup” had gone over well in Salt Lake City, too, where the Backseat Lovers cut their teeth as an up-and-coming foursome known for infectious hooks, searing guitar solos and the lyrics inspired by close conversations and intimate internal monologue. Harmon grew up in Heber City, Utah, in a musical household: his parents loved folk and country, and his dad was a regular in local songwriting circles. “Just storytelling songwriting, three chords and good lyrics were essentially all it was for a long time,” he says of his early influences, citing Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Tom Russell as major players on the soundtrack of his life. He played in various bands throughout high school, but nothing stuck beyond a couple of covers he and his classmates would riff through together. In 2018, his senior year, his last band disintegrated, and he started writing songs on his own for the first time. His ambition immediately expanded beyond his solo setup.
“Right at the peak of actually getting into a stride of writing, I met Juice [Welch],” he says, introducing the Backseat Lovers’ drummer. “I had this little collection of songs that I had never tried to put a band arrangement behind.”
He met guitarist Jonas Swanson when they struck up a conversation in line for an open mic night at Velour, a popular venue in Provo, later that year; within weeks they were getting together regularly, and soon they were recording Elevator Days, their first EP. Harmon finished it up before graduation, heading to the studio after the final bell rang for the day to mix the record and coordinate sessions with his far-flung bandmates. (The name for the band itself is one rooted in his high school experience and adolescent nostalgia: Harmon got the idea when he was on the way to prom in a minivan with a bunch of friends, someone said the phrase, and it stuck with him until he met up with Welch and Swanson.)
Though the first Backseat Lovers songs largely pulled from Harmon’s folk-leaning balladry and a sense for melody informed by his long-loved country classics, Swanson, who favored ‘90s rock and considers Radiohead’s The Bends to be a pivotal influence, brought his own palette to the table. (“My band in high school basically sounded like Weezer,” Swanson admits with a laugh.) They all adored the energetic earworms of Cage the Elephant, and the choruses they were perfecting -- especially on the EP’s title track -- came from this shared affinity for brash chords and full-throttle vocals. By the time they signed up for their first gig at the venue that brought them together, Velour’s Battle of the Bands, they had enough original material to play a cover-free set at the competition. They introduced “Maple Syrup” there and the audience, like the one that would follow in Vancouver, took them aback when they started singing their freshly broken-in lyrics.
“We actually hadn’t recorded that song yet!” Harmon remembers. “We had the little EP we had played, but ‘Maple Syrup’ was one of the first new songs that hadn’t been released. We played it the first night, and then three days later we played it at the finals, and people at the finals -- I don’t know how, but they must have had videos they’d seen! That was the first time that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”
Much of 2019’s When We Were Friends captures the sing-along quality that bubbled up at rock shows in Salt Lake City’s eclectic rock scene, and infuses each of its nine tracks with this essence. Youthful and boundless, the Backseat Lovers manage to balance spritely instrumentation with lyrics that are wise beyond their years -- notably on “Olivia,” a deceptively simple ode to relationship that falls victim to long distance, and “Sinking Ship,” in which Harmon picks his guitar while rueing a disintegrating love (“I don't want to be the ball to your chain/Seems that every time the weather's on our side/I turn it right back into rain”).
From the jagged chords of opener “Watch Your Mouth” to the dramatic, Kooks-channeling build of single “Kilby Girl” and the haunting grand finale of “Sinking Ship,” intensity abounds on When We Were Friends, and Harmon’s initial song sketches unfold beautifully with the might of a full band behind them. When bassist KJ Ward joined the fold in the fall of 2019, it was just as the Backseat Lovers were shedding the skin of their early sounds and forging a path to their next phase. They wanted to experiment with new approaches, new sounds, new instruments, and Ward — who loved the Grateful Dead and came up playing in jam bands — introduced a new groove to their quartet. Their 2020 single, “Heavy,” is the first to prominently feature piano, and they’ve already written enough material for their sophomore release (and then some).
“I feel like in the past, the recordings are just what the four of us can play live — it feels like you’re kind of in the room with us,” says Swanson. “We’ve been trying to write more. I guess it’s just attacking the whole composition… it’s understanding how we can go and decisions we can make in terms of production, layering, but I feel like that’s shifted a lot.” He notes that he and Harmon have continued to experiment with their respective guitar licks, but Ward’s impact has only compelled them to push themselves even more. “KJ didn’t play on any of our stuff on the first album, and being able to incorporate his style has changed a lot of the movement of the songs, for sure,” he says. “There’s definitely a completely new color to the music.”
“Heavy” is kaleidoscopic, in that it incorporates many shades: the dusky rose of warm, muted strumming; the violet of Harmon’s moody crooning; the glaring red of his throat-shredding belt on his final lines; the bright bursts of yellow and sunny cymbals that crash in a perfect din; the bold blues in their ambitious guitar solos. Shortly after he begins to sing, Harmon confesses that he’s “not quite ready for all this change.” The Backseat Lovers may be more ready for what’s in store than they think.