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What Four of Us Started, Three Have to Finish

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By high school, there was a band name: Hot Moccasins started playing the Philly area and selling burned CD-Rs for $5. We joined up with a local label, (some friends in the grade above us), and started booking shows with other teenage rock bands orbiting Philadelphia. Some of them had access to unfinished basements, and we would take chunks out of the crumbly walls with guitar necks and shoved shoulders, pushing back against an audience that usually had us physically cornered. 

During this time, Brett and I were content to complement Jonny’s songwriting. Jonny was in the midst of a long-distance situation that kept the pen active, and he was bringing poetry to every verse.

Hot Moccasins released two albums by graduation. Not-so-sadly, the only online evidence of the band’s existence is a Last.fm page and this devastating blog post, which concedes we gave it our “best shot” before handing down a “C” grade. Still, we’d parted ways happily, making vague promises to play together during vacations. Hot Moccasins never broke up, but we didn’t stay together, either. 

In the years that followed, Jonny produced a still-good rap album under the pseudonym Mickey Cake, an obscure Maurice Sendak reference only elementary school teachers (might) get. Brett started sharing his loops online and getting placements through a new platform called SoundCloud. I obsessed over Chilly Gonzales and Fiona Apple, and started writing about music. And though we paid little attention at the time, Brett’s younger brother Brian was quickly becoming a guitar genius. He joined Jonny at Pitt after high school, and the two of them began songwriting together. 

We overlapped some in the summers, but it was rare: Jonny worked as a camp counselor upstate, and I was transcribing interviews in the pitiless world of documentary film. Brett and I sometimes worked together at the beginning or end of the summer, ferrying event equipment across town in a passenger van. When the three of us did get together to play music, all-night sessions worked best. We learned to grab any opportunity to play as a group. 

That started to change after college. Jonny and Brian moved back to the Philly area and started teaching and brand strategizing, respectively. Instead of letting music sink down their list of priorities, however, the two of them started recording demos and playing open mics. 

The writing process began to change: Jonny’s mantra had always been to write songs that would last forever, the kind of stuff that could have been written yesterday or last century. (“Chuck Taylors,” he says). But now Jonny was incorporating Brian’s knowledge of music theory and pedalboards into the equation. 

First came “Only.” Then “Parakeet” and “Always On Time” in quick succession. I was listening to it unfold from New York, now editing blurbs at Pigeons & Planes. My own band was playing shows at the time, but when Jonny asked me to play on the nearly-finished EP he was recording with Chet Delcampo, I realized how much I missed both my friends and our music. This cozy, earnest folk rock felt like home. We weren’t trying to find the cutting edge—the goal was to make songs that could fit into a canon of something timeless.

Brett wasn’t involved in that EP, or the open mics before it. From my understanding, he was rising fast in the sales world. Jonny and Brian even started trying out other drummers at one point, but to hear them tell it, everybody else kinda stunk compared to their brother and friend. The energy was all off, so Delcampo had asked one of his friends instead—Charlie Hall, probably better known for his work with The War On Drugs.

When the time came to play a release show, Jonny and Brian went about convincing Brett. He was reluctant at first—it had been a while. But it took all of 10 minutes to shake the rust. And after the wild energy of the snow show at Johnny Brenda’s, Brett was as excited as the rest of us for more practices and shows. 

I started taking the Chinatown bus between NYC and Philly with regularity. We developed a patchwork following: Jonny was working as an autism support aide at an elementary school at the time, and his fellow teachers would show up en masse, loose and eager by the time we went onstage. We were also an excuse for our high school friends to see one another. Another childhood friend, Ryan Putnam, had evolved into an incredible graphic designer. He cooked up a new poster for each show, and is behind all our album art to date. 

Philly’s vibrant midsize venue community welcomed us into the fold, through friends old and new like Jonny’s “Uncle Pat” Feeney at Main Street Music, Scooter at The Grape Room, Steve at Bridgeset Music, and the folks at Boot & Saddle. We started calling ourselves Mickey Cake, an ode to Jonny’s previous producer moniker. Best of all, the music continued to evolve—Jonny’s love interest from camp was 9,000 miles away, and the insurmountable distance made for a feverish writing pace. 

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