Plugged In: The Summer Set
Plugged In is an ongoing feature on Fender.com, highlighting Fender artists who we strongly recommend you “plug in” and give a listen.
Written by Chrissy Mauck
On a scorching mid-September day in the desert, three-fifths of power punk band the Summer Set hold court on the back patio of a Starbucks only a few blocks from where the trio first converged at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“I still remember meeting John and Stephen (Gomez) when I was playing freshman year with my band at this festival that Saguaro throws every winter called Winter Courts,” says guitarist Josh Montgomery as he sips his pumpkin frappuccino, followed by a drag on his cigarette. “They told me about their band as we were setting up and I remember Stephen specifically picking up a bass. He had just learned a brand-new song called ‘Sic Transit Gloria.’ He started playing that bass riff for me and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I don’t remember that much about John from that day though.”
“Well, I was only in seventh grade,” recalls John, the younger of the Gomez brothers. “I was all quiet back then. I just remember getting stuck in the mosh pit.”
New Arrival, the Gomez brothers’ first band together, along with current drummer Jess Bowen and singer Kennedy Brock had formed the year before the Winter Courts meeting. Although unplanned, little brother also wormed his way into the thick of things.
“Kennedy and my brother were about to leave for their very first band practice with Jess when my mom yelled at them and made them take me along,” recalls John, who began his musical training on violin. “They all had electric guitars and basses and Jess had this full-on drum set, and here I was stuck in the corner with this acoustic guitar. I was just trying to be heard on the acoustic while they were jamming all loud.”
But New Arrival ran into a hitch while rehearsing Blink-182′s “All the Small Things.”
“Kennedy couldn’t figure it out so, we started unplugging our amps so we could go find the guitar tabs,” remembers Stephen.
In a Dirty Dancing “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” fashion, John surprised the others mid-unplug by playing the song from his corner spot.
“They were like, ‘Wait, take Kennedy’s guitar and try playing it.’ So they kind of just let me in by need,” says John.
“Straight up,” admits Stephen.
That lineup eventually became Last Call for Camden, which lasted until spring 2007, when Kennedy left to become lead singer for the Maine.
“I was freaking out that month,” says Stephen.
“Me too,” chimes in John. “I felt like I had no identity; no purpose.”
But Stephen, who told me earlier he had slept until 2 p.m. that day, soon filled the singer void by posting an early-morning bulletin on MySpace.
“Apparently I was losing sleep over not having a band, and for some reason Brian (Dales) was also awake,” says Stephen. “He came over and sang a capella and we were like, ‘Sold!’”
Given their preoccupation with music, John graduated high school a year early while Stephen barely lasted a semester at Arizona State University.
“We were touring every weekend and I just didn’t give a sh*t about college,” says Stephen. “It was a joke!”
As a highly goal-oriented high school grad, Montgomery had meanwhile secured a job as a certified nurse’s assistant and enrolled in pre-med classes. But after realizing he was in complete and utter misery, Montgomery hatched a bold plan with his best friend to move to New York together and enroll in fashion school.
Shortly before the big escape—with bags already packed and his apartment lease broken—his fate would once again be rearranged.
“My best friend Matt overdosed about a week before we were supposed to leave,” says Montgomery as he gestures towards a Roman numeral date tattooed on his left arm in remembrance of his friend’s death. “He had been a party animal in high school but was clean for a while; he got really drunk one night, took one pill and passed away. It really marked a change in my life because Matt was in my first band in high school and he had always pushed me to be in a band. I just never thought it was realistic. I thought it was like a one in a million chance to get signed. But when he died, I felt like I definitely needed to do something I truly loved, and music was it.”
So it was an automatic “yes” when, soon after, Montgomery received a MySpace invite from Stephen to join the band.
“This band was literally a great blessing; a wonderful thing,” he says.
Recruiting new band mates wasn’t the only time the Summer Set—chosen after looking at an atlas and coming across Somerset, N.J.—relied on MySpace to conduct band business. Early on, the Summer Set figured out the power of online social networking.
“We decided to promote our band by becoming friends with everyone,” says John. “We were like, ‘Let’s let these fans into every moment of our lives, whether it’s Twitter, buzz net, videos or hanging out after shows.’”
Adds Montgomery, “We’ve just always tried to be genuine as possible with it by spending countless hours on there, adding friends, commenting back and sending messages.”
Duly evidenced as iPhones and BlackBerrys frequently buzz and are immediately responded to throughout the interview. In fact, dressed in dark charcoal skinny skinny jeans and a black shirt (his entire wardrobe consists only of white, black and gray), Stephen’s colorful wrist catches my eye as he replies to something on Twitter.
“These are bracelets that our fans made us,” says Stephen, nodding at similar adornments on Josh and John.
“I think we are really close to our fans because, realistically, there’s really very little money at the beginning of this and we aren’t afraid to show that,” explains John. “We are just a bunch of kids trying to do what we do best and have fun with the fans. It’s not glamorous at all.”
“Even if it ever became glamorous, it still wouldn’t really be glamorous for us because of the kind of people we are,” claims Montgomery. “We are just down-to-earth people; we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
As if to illustrate the point, Stephen picks this moment to apply a fresh layer of vanilla lip balm, accidentally killing a gnat and smearing it onto his lips.
“We’re a bunch of people who don’t fit in,” he says. “In some bands, fans attach to one person in the band. I don’t think there is that one person with us. I think everyone attaches who they most identify with. We are all totally different people.”
This segues into a personality analysis of one another, as well as the missing members of the Summer Set.
I learn that Bowen “absolutely rips on the drums,” gets her own girl row in the tour van, has the moxie to defend said turf and yet ultimately is still a “girly-girl.”
“She thrives to see girls, and when she gets around a few of them, she turns into an absolute chatterbox,” says Montgomery.
And if you are looking for the bad-boy lead singer, forget it. Dales is as wholesome as they make ‘em.
“He’s not the typical cocky lead singer who wants attention,” Stephen explains. “He’s super smart, always stoked about everything and probably the nerd of the band.”
Stephen, the bassist, is the most cerebral and introspective of the bunch.
“He’s into politics and history; if you go to his tumbler page, he’s always putting up some excerpt from a book or a lyric,” John says. And then looking over at his big brother adds, “I think change really scares Stephen.”
As an example, John reveals that Stephen hasn’t washed his hair since June.
“It’s better if you don’t wash it,” Stephen insists (although this grosses me out, I can’t really argue this; with his voluminous and somewhat teased hair, he comes off looking like he just left the salon.)
No longer the shy baby brother getting lost in the mosh pit, John stands out with his colorful red-, gray- and blue-striped tank jersey and aqua headband, and is also the most outspoken throughout the interview.
“John is not a person of definitiveness,” Stephen says. “He’ll never say something is definitely right or definitely wrong because he’s always changing his mind about everything.”
“I’m a (bleepin’) wreck,” admits the youngest (18) member of the Summer Set.
Montgomery, nicknamed Gob after the Arrested Development character who he says, “tries to be a magician, but he’s like really bad and all of his tricks go wrong,” likes to believe he’s charming. He admits though that he sometimes comes off as offensive.
“I think every day and the way we interact with each other as human beings is so awkward and so hysterical,” he says. “I just don’t take much very serious anymore, and so people either love or hate me right off the bat.”
He also struggles deeply with saying “no.”
Case in point: On an Internet gossip website, a fan recently posted, “Getting Josh’s number is nothing special. He gives that number out like Jesus gives out fish.”
“I mean, when somebody in the middle of the conversation goes, ‘Can I have your number so I can text you?’ How do I say, ‘No, I can’t give you my number,” asks Montgomery.
“You just turn it around on them and say, ‘Would you give your number to a stranger?’” advises Stephen. “It’s not that hard.”
Personality differences aside, it’s crystal clear after only one meeting that collectively, these young men couldn’t be more passionate about their fans and their own style of music.
“I’d say we’re pop, but I hate putting labels on music,” Stephen says. “Genres have become so blurred, I think, and there’s a huge crossover market. We’ve got a song on the new album that has a country twang to it, another one that is an acoustic duet and then a straight electronic pop radio song. It’s pretty diverse.”
The Summer Set took a year to write the material for their first full-fledged studio album, Love Like This, only to replace half of it in less than a month when they hit the recording studio in May.
“We got our (butts) kicked in the studio,” admits Montgomery. “We had so much material and we thought we were ready, and Matt Squire basically called the producer we were working with in-studio and was like, ‘Tell the Summer Set they can’t write bridges for sh*t. I want all-new bridges for every song.’ We just looked at each other and were like, ‘Oh my god.’”
The group rose to the occasion, pounding out bridges that quickly turned into four additional album tracks: “The Boys You Do,” “Girls Freak Me Out,” “Young” and “Where are You Now?”
“I wanted the criticism,” Stephen says. “I think that’s what we needed because we are young and we want to keep getting better. It was our first time having real money to record an album and work with really good people, and we wanted to put something out that we know we worked hard for. We ended up with a lot of new material from it.”
“Chelsea,” the first single to be released off the album, was written about Dale’s crush on actress Chelsea Staub, a childhood friend of Montgomery’s.
“I hadn’t seen her in a while and so I invited her to come to this showcase we were doing in L.A., and Brian ended up with a huge crush on her,” Montgomery says. “We wrote the song about him falling for her and how she was way out of his league and then they actually started dating. She even came on tour with us last summer. We never saw that coming.”
“Yeah, I thought she was going to go for me,” jokes Stephen.
“Come on, having a girlfriend on the road is the worst idea ever,” John says.
“Yeah, it’s like, ‘How can I make myself feel like sh*t during the best time of my life?’” Montgomery adds. “I mean, you can say, ‘I’m going on tour and I’m going to do my own thing and you do your thing and we both love each other,’ and it always starts out that way, but somebody always ends up feeling that not as much love or not as much time is going to them and you both end up miserable.”
Speaking of touring …
At the time of the interview, the Summer Set has been home less than two weeks after opening this summer for the Cab during their “What Happens in Vegas” tour. But the road already beckons.
“I’m just losing my cool being home,” Montgomery informs. “I think we are all restless.”
“Yeah, I can’t sleep,” agrees John. “I feel like you are supposed to go to sleep once you have accomplished something, and when we aren’t touring, I feel like I’m not doing my job.”
Fortunately, time passed quickly and the guys can now rest easy. The Summer Set is back on the road, promoting the Oct. 13 album release by touring in early October with Rocket to the Moon, followed by a tour with Cartel and This Providence.
“Everything has been building and leading up to this album and we’re just going to keep building,” sums up John. “It’s never really going to stop. We constantly want to do something bigger and better; that’s how we got this far.”
And if you happen to catch the Summer Set out on the road this fall, try asking them, “What’s up?” but in French (Ça va?); The night before our interview, the band tells me they spent a fortune at Barnes and Noble on how-to-speak-French DVDs.
“It’s the language of love,” explains Montgomery. “I want to have people be like, ‘Wow, the Summer Set speaks French.’ That would be awesome!”