They might be young, but Kids These Days are making some waves in the Chicago music community—and working hard for that recognition. After playing Lollapalooza this summer and landing in The New York Times earlier this summer, the group’s playing Saturday’s Hideout Block Party. The A.V. Club caught up with guitarist-vocalist Liam Cunningham to talk about the band’s beginnings in high school, unique stylings, and playing bars the band members are not even old enough to hang out in.
The A.V. Club: You’ve got a rock band, a rapper, a jazz singer, and more in Kids These Days. How do those parts come together?
Liam Cunningham: We all met through various programs in school in Chicago. We started meeting up in my basement, where my dad had a sound system. A lot of us didn’t know each other, though, so we just got together and jammed.
AVC: Where did you go to school?
LC: Half of us went to Whitney Young, and the other half met at this music school that only meets on Saturday. It’s called the Merit School of Music.
AVC: Where did you grow up?
LC: I moved about a year and a half ago, but my old house was near Irving Park and Pulaski.
AVC: How did you take these random parts and put them together to become Kids These Days?
LC: Everyone had talents we saw from the beginning, and that’s come together in the music today. Everyone had a distinct upbringing and a distinct personality. Our singer, Macie [Stewart], grew up with a mom who had this huge classical background. My dad’s really into blues. [MC] Vic [Mensa]’s into rap. [Trumpeter] Nico [Segal] grew up on salsa music. [Bassist] Lane [Beckstrom] liked African music and rock music. His dad plays music, as well. A lot of us play jazz, too.
I think, when we all came together, we had this sound that was the only thing that could have come out. When you have that many things going on at once, you have to sort them out and create something from there. That’s how it happened with these eight people. We’re not just a band, though. We can’t replace our horn players. We can’t do a gig without those horns and those people. We can’t get a pro trombone player to show if our player can’t make it. This band is specific to the eight people in it.
AVC: Is it hard having so damn many people in the band?
LC: The hardest thing is getting everyone to practice. We practice a lot, but getting all eight of us there at the same time—everyone’s got a lot going on. On tour, it’s pretty easy, but when we’re home, it’s hard. We do practice every day, though.
AVC: Every day? Do you guys have jobs?
LC: This is it. This is all we do.
AVC: You’re unsigned, though, right?
LC: We’re not on a label. We have PR people, obviously.
AVC: You’ve done well even without a label, playing Lollapalooza and such.
LC: I guess that’s the most difficult question to answer: “How did we get the notoriety that we have?” I guess the answer is “a lot of luck.” With any band, success is a certain amount, like, being in the right place at the right time, and being on top of what’s new in social media, and then a couple of factors, like how we created our own sound. So, regardless of whether you like it, you pay attention, because at least it’s something new. You say, “I don’t know if I like these guys, but I’ve never heard anything like it. I’ll check it out.”
I think most bands feel uncomfortable playing hip-hop if they play rock or acoustic, or whatever. Most of us are jazz musicians, so we’re accustomed to adapting to the room we’re in and the crowd we’re in front of. It changes the way we play and makes it easier for an audience to have a connection with us. It’s given us a wide range of fans, and that might be how we got this notoriety. At least, that’s my theory, but it’s still all a guess. I’m a total, “How the hell do you get your band noticed?” person. I was in a rock band for some years before this, and it was a pain in the ass. Maybe this band was just lucky. There are a whole bunch of different factors.
AVC: How old are you?
AVC: And how old is the rest of the band?
LC: The oldest person in our band is 20. We have two 20-year-olds, two 19-year-olds, and four 18-year-olds.
AVC: Is it weird playing bars when you’re not even close to 21?
LC: The only problem that we’ve had with that is that, at least when we were starting up, [was that] a huge portion of our fan base is under 21. When we do 21-and-over shows, it’s all different people there. We’ve had over-21 people listening to us, though, so it’s not so hard anymore.
I mean, it was never a big hassle for us, the artists, to play. It was more like, “My cousin wants to come see the show, and he’s 12, and that’s a big problem.”
AVC: Is there ever a time when being young is an advantage, rock-wise?
LC: I think it definitely gives us an extra power boost after we’ve just played five shows in a row, and you have to go to one more in 100-degree weather. When you’re young and 18, it helps to have that.
It also helps when audiences see a bunch of kids onstage called Kids These Days. Anyone not our age, or even who is our age, is going to think “Oh, here’s another kids act with moms probably conducting them from the sidelines.” It helps us when people think of us like that, because we can go out and prove we’re serious about this and we’re serious about the music. We’re not another kids’ band, you know? We’re not some boy band.
It’s helped people come away with a different impression. Halfway through our first song, minds are changed. Whenever I go onstage, I try and find a couple of people with that “What’s this?” look on their face, and go back and find them again halfway through the set to see how that look’s changed. It’s kind of funny.