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Just enough hip

Oklahoma’s garage punk darling Broncho stays loose as it makes a splash

Jaret Ferratusco

On a damp Saturday afternoon in Chicago, crowds of tattooed, sweaty music fans trudge through the muddy, foot-tilled knolls of Humboldt Park, hosting ground for Riot Fest, an annual multi-city music festival showcasing a grab bag of noteworthy punk, alternative and metal bands from the past four decades.

A handful of stages and numerous vendors compete for attention from the elbowing throngs looking for food and drink before the next bucket-list show. On one end of the park, British punk elders the Buzzcocks perform for a few thousand nostalgic fans; half-a-mile away, Portland indie popsters The Dandy Warhols do the same.

Midway between the two shows, on a small, unassuming side stage tucked behind a row of beer booths and food trucks at the edge of the park, a quintet of scraggly, sleepy-eyed Oklahomans runs through a final sound check before a few dozen curious onlookers. Frontman and guitarist Ryan Lindsey approaches the mic and greets the crowd with deadpan restraint: “We’re Broncho.” The band launches into “Family Values,” a sunny, gleefully perverse B-side from its latest album. The perpetually bed-headed Lindsey, in a ratty, oversized sweater, bounces across the stage with abandon as the rest of the band stoically performs in place. 

The crowd grows significantly as the band burns through its 40-minute set. By the time they kick into the new single, the joyous, jangly “Class Historian,” an enthusiastic few hundred watch. A handful of energetic 20-somethings sing along to each song; several Broncho T-shirts can be spotted. The crowd’s built-in awareness of the music is impressive.

This tour, a five-week trot across the U.S., is the first for Broncho as a five-piece. In addition to its core members—Lindsey, guitarist Ben King and drummer Nathan Price—the band recruited guitarist Mandii Larsen and bassist Penny Pitchlynn, both of Tulsa’s Low Litas, to fill out the live show. They also hired Tulsa producer Costa Stasinopoulos to run sound throughout the tour (see Day Drinking on page 20). The benefit of these additions is clear in Humboldt Park: even outdoors, the band sounds louder, meaner and tighter than ever.

The Chicago performance—at 2:45 p.m. on the festival’s smallest stage—was supposed to be an obligatory, dues-paying reprieve from the sold-out, high-pressure theater shows they’ve been playing as the opening act for Brand New. But it’s just days before the release of Broncho’s sophomore album, Just Enough Hip to Be Woman, and the crowd is hungry. 

Out of the gate

Broncho initially formed as a goof. In 2010, Norman-based Lindsey was experiencing a modest amount of success as a solo artist. He’d landed a publishing deal with BUG music based on the strength of his album White Paper Beds—a collection of gauzy, folk-tinged pop songs—and his music had begun to show up in TV shows and commercials. (Disclosure: In 2009, as a freelancer, I wrote some promotional material—a bio and a handful of press releases—for White Paper Beds.)

While on a break from recording his follow-up to “Beds,” Lindsey and friend Johnathon Ford (founder of instrumental act Unwed Sailor) wrote and recorded a couple of lo-fi punk songs in the voice of a fictional band as part of a potential film project. The movie never happened, but the two musicians so enjoyed the experience of playing rambunctious rock ‘n’ roll that they decided to keep doing it. They recruited Price and King—two prolific players in Norman—to round out the line-up, and Broncho started playing house parties. 

A year later, the band released its full-length debut, Can’t Get Past the Lips, a blistering 20-minute LP that conjures the youthful, analog energy of ’70s American punk rock. 

“The first record was really a total concept record,” Lindsey said. “We now had a name for this music where I’d previously just been putting out solo stuff. There was a name that you could use to do things with. So I thought, the first record this band is going to do is a straight punk record, and we’ll kind of put out some shitty songs. That’s the way I viewed it.”

Despite Lindsey’s modesty (by any standard, the songs on Lips are better than shitty), the freeform, id-driven approach to writing paid off, connecting to audiences in Norman, Oklahoma City and Tulsa as the band transitioned from performing at friends’ parties to proper gigs. 

Lindsey abandoned his solo project and the band began to tour often, cultivating a fan base through its raucous live shows. Austin-based label CQ Records picked up Lips for distribution and single “Try Me Out Sometime” became a staple of college radio.

The next two years were heavy on false starts and lineup changes. They parted ways first with CQ, then with their manager, and finally with Ford. Jarod Evans, co-owner of Norman’s Black Watch Studios, took up bass duties as the band split time between touring and recording its second album. Fairfax Recordings signed the band and agreed to re-release the first record with the major backing of its parent company, Universal Music Group. But Fairfax was dealing with internal problems and eventually folded. Universal released Broncho from its contract. 

The band ultimately found a home with Toronto label Dine Alone Records. In the spring of 2014, it offered listeners a taste of the new album with the early single “It’s On,” a snarling barn-burner that benefited from prominent placement in the third season of HBO’s “Girls.” 

In July, Broncho announced the drop date and title of its second album, the winking Just Enough Hip To Be Woman, and released another single, “Class Historian.” NPR’s All Songs Considered called the track “the most immediately catchy song so far this year.” Stereogum likened it to “some bizarrely satisfying hybrid of T. Rex and Phoenix.”

The progression from first to second album is startling but also intuitive. If Lips is the delinquent teenager high on Ramones and The Stooges, Woman is the college student who’s moved on to 80s post-punk, shoegaze and new wave. Older, more melancholy, but still up for a wild night. 

“You know, people would hear the first record and be like, ‘OK, it’s this, this and this,’” Lindsey said. “But I think live we were slowly progressing past what that record was. And people would say, ‘I saw your show, I can’t put a finger on what it is.’ I think maybe it’s because there are all these (disparate) influences—we weren’t just sitting around listening to punk records. There’s nothing wrong with that, there are tons of great punk records, but as individuals, we listen to all kinds of different things—country, pop stuff, it’s all over the map for us.”

Woman’s three most propulsive tracks, “What,” “Kurt” and “It’s On,” feel like more layered, nuanced companions to anything on Lips, but the rest of the album largely moves out of the Midwest basement party and into a Manchester club. “Stop Tricking,” with it’s washed-out falsetto vocals and fuzzy, low-end guitar, recalls The Jesus and Mary Chain, while “Deena” and “Stay Loose” feature the kind of spare, emotive guitar lines typical of new wave acts like Modern English and New Order.

The British factor looms large, but the band also listened to a lot of Dwight Twilley (the Tulsa Sound stalwart who had a top 40 hit in 1975 with “I’m on Fire”) between the two records, and it shows. “Class Historian,” with its speedy “Dah-dah-dah” chorus and loose, Americana-tinged melody, feels like a spiritual cousin to Twilley’s “Looking for the Magic.” 

“Yeah, that song is totally an influence,” Lindsey laughed when asked about it. “We actually wanna end up being Dwight Twilley’s band. It’s kind of a dream. We haven’t really had any communication with him, but we want to get to a place where we can say, ‘Hey Dwight, you want a backing band?’ I think it would be awesome.” 

Not even drunk

“That show was a real surprise for us,” Lindsey told me after the Riot Fest performance. “I thought that playing a festival at three in the afternoon on a side stage would be kind of a bummer. Television was playing (at the same time), and there was some other great shit going on. But we still had—not only the size of the crowd, but it was enthusiastic. People were moving around and I’m not sure that anyone was really drunk, ya know?” 

Indeed, Broncho, whose punkish, hook-driven garage rock would seem most at home in a poorly ventilated room full of intoxicated hooligans, experienced a rarity at Riot Fest: an outdoor, early-day show supported by a large crowd of zealous, sober fans.

Currently, the band is touring Europe with The Coathangers and Purple. “Class Historian” is in heavy rotation on satellite radio and featured in an extended commercial for Tinder, the popular dating app. In February, they’ll open a handful of U.S. shows for Billy Idol in some of the largest venues they’ve yet played. 

Just Enough Hip to Be Woman's mostly positive reviews have raised the band’s profile, and with it the pressure to deliver. 

“We wanted to make a record that made sense to us at the time,” Lindsey said. “And we’re proud of it. But I don’t want to dwell on this record. Nobody in the band wants to dwell on it. Sitting around thinking about it too much leads to depression, and it’s not very productive. We just want to keep creating.”

Don't miss our review of Just Enough Hip to Be Woman and other Fall 2014 coverage of local acts including Whirligig, Low Litas, Dylan Golden Aycock, Grazzhopper and more.