Quite understandably, singer-guitarist Neil Smith sounds like a man living the dream when he’s tracked down in the architectural wonderland known as Chicago. Along with his bandmates—guitarist Christopher Vanderkooy, bassist Peter Wilton, and drummer Mikey Pascuzzi—he’s on this third swing through the Windy City with Peach Pit, the difference from previous visits being the show is sold out. Packed rooms are something the Vancouver quartet has gotten used to since blowing up on the Internet in the spring of 2017.
“We’re spoiled because we pretty much started touring and immediately had people coming to our shows, which was incredibly lucky and rare,” Smith says gratefully, reached on his cellphone. “Now we’re at the point where we’ve already sold out 10 shows on this tour.”
If Smith sounds blessed by the band’s good fortune, it’s because most acts don’t go from regional obscurity to international sensation in the space of a year. The buzz was started by a Filipina music tastemaker named TheLazylazyme who spotlighted the breezy early single “Peach Pit” on her YouTube channel, where the song took off immediately. It’s sitting at an insane 19 million listens today—with fans from across the world leaving comments like “This song makes me nostalgic for things that I haven’t even lived yet” and “Makes me want to draw flowers while I contemplate the sunset, drink tea and my girlfriend smokes some flavored cigarettes and plays with my hair, at summer, in some small town.”
“We didn’t even know about the placement on the playlist,” Smith says. “We just started getting a lot of followers. We were just an indie band from Vancouver, and every day a couple of people would like our page. Then suddenly it was 100 a day, 200 a day, every single day. It was people with Chinese names, and people that didn’t seem like they were from Vancouver. We were convinced that our page had been hacked by some sort of bot or something—that it was fake accounts liking our page. But it didn’t stop.”
A debut EP, Sweet FA, arrived in the spring of 2017, positioning the group as a sun-soaked indie-pop unit to watch. By the fall of last year, Smith and his bandmates had made it clear they had global ambitions. The September arrival of a darker, unexpectedly mature full-length, Being So Normal, suggested Peach Pit had more on its mind than kicking back with a six-pack at Third Beach. The album served as a springboard to 12 months of steady touring that’s included North America, a couple of swings through Europe, and jaunts to such exotic locales as India, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia.
“We’re at the point,” Smith marvels, “where we’re constantly pinching ourselves.”
To truly understand his amazement, you have to look at what Peach Pit has meant to the singer on a personal level. Sometimes there’s a reward for riding out the rough stuff.
Although it seems Peach Pit rocketed out of nowhere last year, that wasn’t the case.
“Me and Chris knew each other from high school—he was a year younger than me, so we were sort of acquaintances,” Smith recalls. “When we were 21 or something, Chris’s mom moved to Deep Cove—that’s where I grew up. In the summertime, me and a friend would go down to the beach or the dock for a swim—drink beers or smoke a joint. I kept running into Chris at our usual hangout spot, so it became ‘We keep seeing each other, so we might as well become friends.’ ”
Vanderkooy not only knew how to play guitar, but was crazy good at it, as his consistently inventive work on Sweet FA and Being So Normal has proven. As an added bonus, he was a musical blood brother of Wilton’s, who moved to bass when Peach Pit started to come together as a band.
Rather than rush things with live shows, the group practised for a year, during which Smith also played in an old-timey Americana duo titled Dogwood and Dahlia. Confident they were onto something, the boys of Peach Pit finally exited the practice space for an appearance at the CiTR battle-of-the-bands competition Shindig!. They not only lost, but were labelled “too normal” by the judges.
“We had this really tight, rehearsed set with these pop songs that we’d worked really hard on,” Smith recalls. “Then we lost in the first round to this band that brought a floor tom on-stage that it never even touched. No disrespect to them—they won fair and square. But we got home and were like, ‘Oh my gosh—we need to reevaluate this.’ One of the positive things that came out of it was that we tried to change things up after that critique.”
Peach Pit today is indeed known for doing things a bit differently, making it a rarity in the often-vanilla world of indie rock. Each night the band takes the stage in the same thrift-store clothes (including Vanderkooy’s ’70s-orange turtleneck). Fans are referred to as “daddy”, an in-joke that dates back to the guitarist’s high-school years, and his by-all-accounts-tragic attempts to grow grownup facial hair.
“We were a band of white boys wearing T-shirts and jeans or whatever,” Smith says. “So we kind of went, ‘Okay, we need to spice this up a little bit.’ So we found the outfits that we now wear every single show. And we tried to be a little bit more true to our personalities, and a little less like ‘Okay, we’re going to play our songs and act super serious all the time.’ ”
Marked by ocean-sparkle guitars and mellow-gold vocals, Sweet FA cast Peach Pit as a band made for magical, endless summers. After establishing themselves as the Vancouverites you’d most like to spend happy hour on a tropical island with, Vanderkooy, Wilton, Pascuzzi, and Smith then showed life isn’t always sunshine and piña coladas. Being So Normal sent a message that, while Peach Pit is almost always down for a good time, it’s also there for you when the cold November rains roll in.
“I’ve been writing melancholy, sort of darker, sadder songs forever,” Smith says. “I don’t take myself too seriously, and I don’t like people who take themselves too seriously. But then, at the same time, I am definitely the kind of person—and my bandmates and my friends would agree—who can be pretty hard on myself. And I am the kind of person who does dwell on things—maybe more so in private. I’m someone who’s secretly in my bedroom wallowing in my mistakes and things that I regret.”
Being So Normal showcases Peach Pit as a band with more range than anyone would have expected after Sweet FA. The easygoing post-Tropicália guitars are well-represented in tracks like “Techno Show” and “Chagu’s Sideturn”, but it’s the adventurous moments that might impress the most. Witness Vanderkooy’s super-fuzzed guitar heroics on “Being So Normal”, or the funeral-service strings that add an extra layer of melancholy to “Private Presley”. Wilton and Pascuzzi are noticeably more muscular when required, putting on a clinic in the dub-indebted “Mighty Aphrodite”.
The songs on Being So Normal were written over a number of years, some of them—the burnished folk beauty “Hot Knifer”, for example—pulled from Smith’s days with Dogwood and Dahlia and then reworked.
“That’s kind of why there’s a super-poppy song, and then a really sad song, a really rocking song, and then a folky song,” Smith says. “Over the course of four years you write a lot of songs while listening to a lot of different kinds of music.”
Ask a creative person why they’ve rolled the dice on the arts, and an answer you’ll often get is that they’re hoping for some sort of outside affirmation—proof that, despite nagging self-doubts, somebody actually likes them. Being So Normal finds Smith using his sometimes confusing adolescence for inspiration. “Drop the Guillotine” will resonate with anyone who never got the girl—or guy—in high school. “Tommy’s Party” reflects on ragingly out-of-control teenage nights and the regrets that come with the realization that one day you have to actually grow up. And “Techno Show” does a devastating job of conveying what it’s like to be enraptured with indie rock in a world where bass drops have far more weight than guitar solos.
Acknowledging that songwriting has in some ways been a form of therapy, Smith says, “One of the reasons for starting Peach Pit, and writing songs about high school, was that I was pretty small in high school and had bad acne and stuff. I was always friends with girls that I liked, but they never really liked me back. I also had friends that were handsome and athletic, so I felt a little bit neglected.
“I don’t even know that I had a right to feel that way,” he continues, “because I actually had a pretty good high-school experience. But it affected me in some way. I look back at the way I felt and I cringe a bit. But I also wish I could have known ‘It’s going to get better, man.’ ”
And it did as he realized he had an outlet that was more useful than reaching for everything ever recorded by the Smiths.
“The outside affirmation thing is big,” Smith confirms. “When you’re feeling neglected or unloved, or whatever—I think that’s a reason that a lot of people start bands. I said this before to people, and they’ve said, ‘That’s not the only reason—it’s also because they love music, and blah blah blah blah.’ I’m like, ‘Yeaaaah, okaaay. But it’s also because you want girls to like you.’ You gotta be truthful about that, because it is the truth.”
Except that in Peach Pit’s case, the boys are just as big fans of the band as the girls are.
Sold-out shows around the globe, and triumphs like the 2.7 million YouTube views for last year’s “Seventeen” video, have made Wilton, Pascuzzi, Vanderkooy, and Smith keenly aware that there are going to be plenty of eyes and ears on the follow-up to Being So Normal. The band took an initial stab at sessions for a new record during a brief lull in touring this past summer. Peach Pit’s adoring daddies can expect more songs that lean toward the bittersweet.
“I think it’s going to be similar in mood to this past album,” Smith says, “with a lot of songs that are personal stories, whether it be drinking too much or feeling like nobody loves you. Or a lover in the back of your mind trying to get your attention again. But it’s not going to be about high school anymore because I haven’t been in high school for many years now.”
And while that sounds like some of the sadness of adolescence still lingers, the Peach Pit frontman is thrilled to report that things have most certainly got better.
“The best part has been being in a city far from home and having all these kids show up who are just so excited to sing along,” he says. “I’ll be halfway through a song, and finding myself going ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe these guys know all the words.’ That’s when you’re like, ‘This is so crazy.’ ”
Peach Pit plays the sold-out Vogue Theatre on Friday (October 26).