Every once in a while, a band comes along that breaks with so many conventions and pushes so many boundaries that music critics laud them with terms like "revolutionary," "groundbreaking," and "genre-defying." The Summer Set is not one of those bands and, surprisingly, they're not afraid to say so. Ask drummer Jess Bowen about the meanest things she's read about the band and she doesn't hesitate to admit that the Scottsdale quintet may not be the most original band in the Valley.
"It's all the same stuff," says Bowen. "It's the same mean reviews you've heard from other people. 'Oh, we've heard this a million times before. This is unoriginal.' It's like, okay, cool, we get it. We're not Kings of Leon or something."
Fortunately for The Summer Set, what they lack in originality is made up for by a remarkable knack for writing catchy, hook-heavy power-pop anthems that clearly resonate with their core audience of tweens and teenagers. Perhaps not surprisingly, Bowen and the Gomez brothers — bassist Stephen and guitarist John — were barely into their teens when they began playing together. After a few years of jamming as a trio, they added singer Brian Dales and guitarist Josh Montgomery to the mix, and The Summer Set was born.
After a series of successful EPs, the band released its debut full-length, Love Like This, last October. According to their publicist, the band has sold roughly 20,000 copies of Love Like This, but based on the band's recent success on the AP Tour, Dales suspects a lot more people have acquired the album through other means.
"For me, it's always been one thing when the kids are jumping and getting into it physically, because we play pretty energetic music, so they don't necessarily have to know our songs to really get into it," Dales says. "But it's a totally different thing when I see them singing along or singing over me. That's really cool. That response was a lot better on the AP Tour than I thought it was gonna be, which makes me think a lot of people probably illegally downloaded our record. But so be it. They're coming to our shows."
One person who probably isn't coming to Summer Set shows anymore is Dales' ex-girlfriend, Chelsea Staub, a Disney Channel regular and the inspiration for the band's most popular song, "Chelsea." Dales says he met Staub after Montgomery invited her to one of the band's Los Angeles shows, and the two hit it off. The brief encounter inspired Dales to write a song about her. It not only became the band's signature tune, but it helped him land the girl in question.
"The song was essentially about a guy writing a song about a girl who's way out of his league," Dales says. "And she loved it. I'd say it helped. I'd like to think it wasn't the only reason I landed her, but it probably helped a little bit."
The rigors of their respective showbiz careers eventually took its toll on the relationship, and Staub and Dales split late last year. Dales says the two are on good terms now but admits to some bitterness immediately after the breakup, prompting him to spontaneously change some of the lyrics to "Chelsea" during live performances.
"He'd catch us by surprise," Bowen says. "We'd all just kind of look at each other like, 'Did he just say that?'"
"The first couple months after it happened, I used to, verbatim, copy this speech I heard John Mayer say when I saw him play live the last time, in New York in December," Dales says. "It was this 'Storytellers' thing, where it was like a question-and-answer session. I can't remember who he was talking to, but he basically said, 'Never, ever, ever write a song about a girl and then name it after her, because you do not — I repeat, do not — want to give them the gratification that that song is specifically theirs.' I was kind of going on a tangent about that for a few months after we broke up, but [she and I] are on great terms now, and I play the song like nothing happened."
Even when Dales isn't ranting about ex-girlfriends onstage, there is a certain edginess about the band that belies their teen-pop exterior. The opening track on Love Like This, "The Boys You Do (Get Back at You)," features a fairly vindictive chorus, in which the song's jilted protagonist declares, "I heard you're talking shit again / I'm gonna sleep with all your friends." A line like that may not raise too many eyebrows coming from, say, a South Phoenix rap group, but in the Disney-fied universe that The Summer Set belongs to, it's a little shocking. Yet Dales offers no apologies.
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"We have a lot of younger fans," he says. "I feel like our fan base is finally expanding a little bit in age, but really, our primary fan base is teenage girls. So I guess, in a sense, we are role models to a lot of them, but at the end of the day, we're still trying to be ourselves and be as real as we possibly can. That's who we are. We can't hide the fact that, songs like that, that's us."
When it comes to allegations of unoriginality, Dales is equally unrepentant, and really, who can blame him? Not every band needs to reinvent the proverbial wheel. Sometimes, just picking an established sound and honing it to near-perfection is a notable accomplishment in itself.
"We're still a pop rock band, so we're gonna write pop songs," Dales says. "There are things within the songs that are different, but we're not trying to change the sound of music. A lot of bands are gonna sound the same. We're just hopefully trying to be a band that does it well."