OPEN AIR STEREO first exploded onto the pop culture landscape when they were featured on MTV’s wildly popular series, “Laguna Beach,” where the band’s charismatic frontman, Chase Johnson became a main character in the series. The band was featured prominently and the series concluded with the band’s sold-out performance at The Roxy in Los Angeles. At the time they were being featured on the TV show, OPEN AIR STEREO signed to Sony Epic Records, and were diligently working on recording their debut album. Over a year-and-a-half of writing and recording eventually hit a creative blockade, and the sessions stalled. The band split for about three years, unsure of the future and uncertain that the music they had worked so hard to create would ever see the light of day.
Reconvening in 2011 they emerged from the mists of the Hollywood Hills stronger than ever. Together, Chase Johnson (lead vocals), Nick Gross (drums), Scott Pounds (guitars), Evan Smith (bass) are ready to once again leave their mark on the music scene by unleashing their powerful debut album, PRIMATES, via Goomba Music. With a mix of songs written by the band and some co-written collaborations, PRIMATES is an exercise in the tight, economical execution of rock and roll. It was produced by an array of producers including Gavin Brown, Mike Plotnikoff, and Peter Stengaard; a large part of the writing on the album is with Marti Fredrikson (Daughtry, Aerosmith, Def Leppard). With PRIMATES, the band has filtered their various influences through their own personal experiences to arrive with a fully realized and confident debut album. The album’s title was inspired by mankind’s own evolutionary cousins, giving the band a moment to reflect on their own personal evolution through time, perfecting their craft and going through the growing pains to emerge on the other side as a stronger, leaner, fitter band. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Chase Johnson to discuss his music roots, the early days of Open Air Stereo, the creation of their debut album and much more!
I wanted to back to your formative years and learn about how music first came into your life?
My mom and my sister are two brilliant singers. I grew up around people who were singing all the time, so it just became second nature. I was always humming tunes and making my own melodies. I remember driving in the minivan back and forth from pre-school and my mom playing stuff like Enya, The Carpenters and The Beatles. I was humming along. I started singing lyrics at a very young age, almost as soon I started talking and getting sentences out. Those are some of my first musical memories.
Who were some of the influences who shaped you as an artist early on?
Definitely The Beatles. They are my number one influence. I think the first song of their’s I ever heard was “Paperback Writer”. Every since I head that song, The Beatles were it! From melody to they way they carried themselves as rock stars, they had the right attitude and put that into their music. They were just so true and believable. I think that is something we lose a lot these days.
What made you pursue music as a career instead of going a different route?
To be honest, I never wanted to be anything else but a musician. I think it is more about turning into a musician than a rock star. I think when you are younger, you want to be a rock star. Then you realize the rock star thing isn’t as glamorous as it all seems, ya know? I am a family man. I love all of my family, my girlfriend and my friends. I think as I have gotten older, I want to be a musician and an artist. When I was young, I would bring in a little guitar to show-and-tell. I never was the kid standing up there saying I wanted to be a fireman or policeman. I always wanted to do something in music. I guess it was ingrained into my mind, body and soul at a young age.
Take us back to the beginning. How did Open Air Stereo first come together?
I was always playing in and out with different friends in my garage or a friend’s garage. We were very young, like early middle school. I started doing talent shows and stuff. From there, I broke off and met Nick Gross in CGD class, which is cataclysm class. We would try to get kicked out so we could go talk about music. We both knew that each other’s minds were in the same realm. He said “Ya know, I drum and I would really like to be in a band.” I said “I’ve got a band going but we really need a drummer and I sing.” We started jamming out from there and it was all over! There was no turning back and we have been inseparable ever since.
I am sure a lot of people remember the band from your stint on MTV’s “Laguna Beach”. How did you get involved with that project initially?
I have always been friends with the people from the first two seasons of “Laguna Beach”. I grew up with them. When the crew, creators and directors of the show came to the third season, they asked those people, from the previous seasons, who were the younger, hip people. I don’t know how but somehow I made the cut! [laughs] They made me a real member of the show. I just sat down with them early on and being a little lawyer kid, laid down the law, saying “If I am going to be on this thing, you have to feature my band.” Luckily, the agreed. They said “That sounds great. It would be a great dynamic for the show.” I always felt I would rather be shunned doing what I love, than doing stupid high school drama! Luckily, that is how it turned out! [laughs] It caught the attention of a lot of people. It was a really good stepping stone and pathway for us.
As you said, the band got a lot of attention from the show. Then you went in to create what would b a debut album but it never came to fruition and the band went on hiatus. What was it that eventually resurrected Open Air Stereo and got you back in the mix?
To rewind a little bit more, the hiatus came when we got a lot of clout from the show but it was a lot for us to handle at such a young age. We had a huge contract with Epic/Sony. It was getting a lot of praise from some of the wrong people, who were just blowing smoke up our ass. I think we took it the wrong way at a certain point and thought we were rock stars before we were ever musicians. We had to break off and grow separately as people before we could grow as a band. What kicked started the band was late nights in the Hollywood Hills with my boy Nick Gross, the drummer. We were having a few beers and sat down to listen to a few of the songs we had. We were like “We have too much good shit! We are too good as two people together and we need to keep this thing going!” We got back Scott Pounds, our amazing guitarist, and we found our bassist Adam Smith. We have been moving it up the hill ever since.
For people who haven’t heard “Primates” yet, how would you describe it sonically and how does it differ from your early work?
Originally, you could hear a lot of influence from Incubus to a lot of different people. With this record, I feel we are starting to cultivate our own sound. We still have nuances of Incubus, Foo Fighters, Aerosmith, Thirty Seconds To Mars and Muse. It is all over the board really because we are all over the board. I think it is nice to have such diversity. To describe the record, it is alternative pop rock, straightforward. It is fun to jam out to and it is fun for easy listening, as well. There is no screamo or anything like that! [laughs]
The title of the album is “Primates”. How did you guys arrive at that title and what does it mean to you personally?
“Primates” came to be for two reasons really. The first one is the theory of evolution and the theory of growing and evolving as people and as a family. We have really done that! We have been through a lot of ups and downs and I am really proud of us. We have been doing this for a long time and we still love it. We love it more and more each day! We just thought it would be a quirky thing to call it “Primates,” and elude to those animal instincts. A lot of bands with our style of music have a really serious picture on the cover of their record with their faces really big and are trying to look all sexy and hot! [laughs] We didn’t want do that because we aren’t those kinda guys. We wanted to have something cooler. The monkey thing looked cool and sounded cool. Also, our single, “Stuck On You,” has that funny little monkey noise that kinda reminds me of The Talking Heads. That was another reason for the monkey. [laughs]
When you decided to hit the studio to create “Primates,” what were your expectations?
We wanted to make the best record we could make for where we are in our lives right now. I guess that is always the common goal. We didn’t really set any bars or anything, we just wanted to make a solid record that we felt proud of. We accomplished that! We are even more excited for the second album. We already have five songs written for the second album! We really sailed through it. I think the hardest part as an artist is being done with it and having to wait for the labels to put it out!
Awesome! That leads me to my next question. What can you tell us about your songwriting process and how you bring a song to life?
The songwriting process for us is never one solitary thing. Sometimes Nick might bring a beat or I might have a melody. Sometimes I might have a lyric idea for a song and we branch off of that. Sometimes Scott might bring in a guitar riff. We all have basically have studios and we work a lot out of Nick’s studio a lot. A lot of times, we will just sit in the studio and make demos until we find something we love.
You guys put everything you have into your live show. For those who haven’t seen you yet, what can they expect from Open Air Stereo’s live show?
It is an extremely energetic show. We have been told the music is a little more energetic live and that is always a blessing to hear. We always want to have the show represent the record well but is great that it is even better. This tour has been teaching us a lot and we have been getting a lot stronger.
What is in store for fans in regard to video releases?
We just released the video for “Stuck On You,” which was produced by Anthony Leonardi, who did the Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time.” He works for Caviar, who were involved with Jerry Bruckheimer for the “Pirates of The Caribbean” movies. It is really exciting to work with him. I we are excited to get it out there!
As a songwriter, where are you turning for inspiration these days?
I think I have always pulled from my life. It just goes without saying, it is hard not to. Lately, I have been writing lyrics from dreams that I have. It has proven interesting and to be quite a challenge. It is teaching me to write down my dreams and it has been a lot of fun!
You mentioned Open Air Stereo’s evolution as a band. How do you feel you have evolved personally as an artist and as a person through the years?
I think I have become a little bit more immune to bullshit. [laughs] I have developed this bullshit filter that I captured on tour. I have learned to push away negativity and focus on the positive. The outcome is so much greater! I write more because of it. I smile a lot more because of it. I think as a person I have achieved a little bit more maturity in songwriting and on stage.
Do you feel there are any misconceptions about yourself or the band stemming from your connection to “Laguna Beach’?
That is a great question. I think there used to be some criticism about us being this TV band. I always tell people “Oh yeah? We are a TV band, huh? If you actually did your research, you would know we were playing ever since we were little kids!” The TV show was just a stepping stone. I always tell them, “If you were in my shoes as a younger kid, with a band and wanted to spread your music all over, you would have been on the show too!” We are a real band. We play real music and most importantly, we love what we do!
What are your plans or goals for Open Air Stereo both short term and long term?
There are always goals. To be bold — we want to take over the world! We want everyone in the world to hear our music. We definitely want to continue touring for the next few years and continue to make records. We want to do it until we drop!
How about career milestones? Anything that springs to mind for you immediately?
Absolutely, I remember when we first started playing shows, we were playing high school parties and things like that. That lead to playing at the Roxy. Before we were selling out, we would literally play to twenty people, who were our friends and family. I remember being on stage thinking, “Man, what would it be like to have this room packed?” Eventually, that happened and we were playing to thousands of people! It is a headstrong feeling but also very humbling. I feel that if you perform to the crowd, then you are performing with them as well and they are there with you. It is a beautiful feeling and one I wish upon the world.
This is probably one of the most important question I could ask a person in your position, as you have been at it for years and are dedicated to what you do. What is the best advice you can pass along to those looking to make music a career?
You have to really love it, so make sure you really love music because success doesn’t happen overnight. Also, have a great lawyer! [laughs]
Solid advice! Thanks for taking time out to talk with us today, Chase. We have been digging the record and look forward to doing our part to spread the word!
Thank you, Jason, so much! Take care, brother!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.