More than a band, California’s Rival Sons is a family, with a bond between its four members strong enough to keep things together when the road gets challenging. That includes being away from loved ones while on tour, something that weighs on guitarist Scott Holiday whenever he’s far from home.
“I’m a dad with two young kids,” the Los Angeles–based musician says, reached in Milwaukee on a late-summer round of touring for Rivals Sons’ sixth and latest album, Feral Roots. “So it’s not cool to be away from them. That’s the roughest part. I like being on the road and I love playing shows. The band is a big family out here, and we all love each other. But I also love my family at home and I want to be with my kids, every day and every minute.”
The problem, in these days of digital streaming and flat album sales, is that touring is what pays the bills. And that Holiday is fortunate enough to get a paycheque for doing something he loves isn’t lost on him.
“Even though we’re not the largest band on planet Earth, we have some level of security in this business,” he says. “We’ve built something that’s reasonably successful that works. We have a great fan base that’s allowed us to make a living and to have lived off this band for a long time now.”
There was a point when the idea of Rival Sons making a career out of music seemed an impossible dream. Like his fellow Rival Sons—singer-guitarist Jay Buchanan, drummer Mike Miley, and bassist Dave Beste—Holiday has spent most of his life in bands, some of which ended up with major-label deals. (Miley and Holiday at one point worked together in a mid-’00s rock project called Black Summer Crush.)
With Rival Sons, the quartet chose to rely on blazing-guns guitars for a sensibility that mixes the rawness of Electric-era Cult with the majesty of the Killers at their most Springsteen-obsessed. That’s a blueprint that would have achieved instant liftoff a generation ago, but it took a bit longer to catch on in a millennium where Tyler, the Creator and Travis Scott are the new rock stars.
“There was a time when we’d been signed and were working, but were hemorrhaging money,” Holiday recalls. “I remember being in this theatre in Cleveland. No one knew who we were, we weren’t moving records, and we weren’t getting any promotion. Nothing good was happening, but I knew that the band was very good—we were really on point and really well-oiled, and had our shit together.
“I remember thinking I was going to have a nervous breakdown—‘I’m away from family, we’re not making any money, and I have nothing to show for not being at home with them,’ ” he continues. “It was like, ‘What the fuck are we doing? There’s not even anyone here tonight.’ It was really upsetting and difficult, but we put our heads together to remind ourselves why we were doing what we were doing. We kind of had a powwow at the Agora Theater in Cleveland and said, ‘You know what—we’re doing music because it’s in our hearts, and we’re doing music because it was what we were born to do. And let’s have faith that this will change—that even though there’s no one in the theatre, that there’s something good happening with us.’ ”
The reward for sticking it out has been slow but steady growth, with the last two Rival Sons albums, Hollow Bones (2016) and Feral Roots, both going Top 10 on the Billboard hard-rock chart.
Recognizing that the stakes have been raised over the past couple of years, both Holiday and Buchanan obsessed about what they wanted to accomplish with the new record, decamping to a remote cabin in the woods of Tennessee, and then thinking seriously about how to move Rival Sons forward.
Out of that time came a conviction that whatever they were doing, it had to be real. And while that might sound like something intangible, there’s an iron-clad case they achieved it with Feral Roots, a blues-tinted rock opus that at times is bombastic and turbocharged (“Do Your Worst” and “Back in the Woods”) and at others mystical and celestial (“Look Away” and “Feral Roots”).
As much as Rival Sons isn’t afraid to roll out double-cherry-pie choruses or lightning-strike guitar solos, the band also understands that big issues are important. On that front, check out the soul-drenched “Shooting Stars”, which concludes with the beautifully timely line “My love is stronger than your hate will ever be.”
Speaking volumes about how far Rival Sons has come today not just artistically, but also as a strong draw on both the festival and club circuits, Holiday and his bandmates now look back upon that night in Cleveland with fondness. As much as there are sacrifices to be made for Rival Sons, sometimes it all seems worth it.
“We quote that show quite often when we’re going out and playing for 45,000 people,” he says proudly. “We look at each other when the crowd is already singing our riffs before we get on-stage and we know it’s going to be a great show. And we say, ‘It all goes back to Agora and Cleveland.’ That’s really romantic and powerful. It’s very real and it’s very deep, what we’re trying to accomplish with our audience. Playing this kind of music isn’t cocaine and hookers. It’s that we want to connect with people’s hearts, because what we’re doing is coming from our hearts. While it might sound overly dramatic, really it’s the truth.”
Rival Sons plays the Summerset Music & Arts Festival at Fort Langley on Friday (August 30).