Interview & Gallery: Young Optimist

When Andy Brooks (former vocalist for Transmit Now) asked Shohn (former guitarist and vocalist for Repel The Robot) to produce a few demos for him in the winter of 2016, neither of them had any idea it would create what is now YO//NG OPT/MIST. Songs that started as simple ideas thrown together hastily in GarageBand became an eclectic mix of rock, alternative, and pop interwoven between Shohn's sense of harmony and electronic production. No overthinking, plotting or pandering: the sessions that became YO//NG OPT/MIST were made solely by doing what felt right in the moment.

What drew you to the music industry?

Andy: When I was a kid, I had a fascination with Michael Jackson. I of course watched all of his music videos, and he had this mini-movie called Moonwalker. It was a horribly written piece of trash, but I absolutely adored it. Watching him playing live in the movie, I thought that seems like a fun way to live your life. Also, my dad had a pretty sizable record collection. He was really into rock ’n roll music, and he got me into it. That was the end of that. I knew I was going to do music from there.

Shohn: I think it’s because I don’t know what else I can do. [laughs]

Andy: I can think of a few things you’re probably really—you’re really—. You have a mind like an engineer; you can take that and build bridges.

Shohn: I don't think I'd be good at that. I'd build a bridge with some speakers on it.

Andy: Yeah, there you go.

Shohn: We could put a disco in the middle of the bridge for all the people driving over it…. I mean, I’m sure lots of artists are this way: you have things that inspire you, and for me, music is that thing. I realized that pretty early on. I started playing piano and then the trumpet because I broke my left arm. I figured I could hold a trumpet with my broken arm, and play it with my right arm. So I did that for a while, and then [I] picked up the guitar. I lost hours of the day playing guitar. It would be ten a.m., and then all of the sudden it’s midnight. The days just disappeared and I thought that’s probably a good sign. I just can’t get enough of it. That’s what got me into it; that along with artists like Blink-182 and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. They were a big inspiration for me to keep trying.

Greg: Man, I just wanted to get out of homework. It’s funny, it’s been up and down for me, but music is the one thing that has stuck with me my entire life and it ended up taking me on some cool journeys and to amazing places. I have no regrets with music. But yeah, I can’t really pick one little thing, this is just what I'm passionate about and this is what I stick with.

What’s your creative process?

Andy: I think my process always started around a hook, not necessarily a lyric, but a melodic hook. Then I would build everything around that. That’s how I had always written songs in the past. Young Optimist was different, though. I wanted to very consciously write a bunch of songs that were out of my comfort zone. This process would start with music first, which I had never done. I always started with the chorus first and worked backwards. With our song “Voice” I went into my room and ended up playing that loop by accident. I just hit a bunch of keys in the same chord structure, and I was just like, “Let’s see what happens.” The riff ended up happening and I built a whole song off of that. Same thing with “Testimony”: it’s just a loopy piano. It’s just three notes. I was like, “I am going to make an entire sequence of songs where nothing changes, but everything changes at the same time. Don’t change one thing about the music, but change the melody around it and change the chorus around it and see what you can do.” That’s how I’ve approached Young Optimist. Then once Shohn and I got together, it was just taking all of those small things, cranking them up, and bringing out all sorts of sounds that I wouldn’t have thought of in a million years. Shohn just really was able to add to those melodies and create a scene. My brain doesn’t think like that, but Shohn’s does. It’s amazing.

Shohn: Well, my brain doesn’t write a good chorus.

Greg: You guys are perfect for each other.

Shohn: With past songs that I’ve written, I try to write a good chorus, and, well, they’re fine. They aren’t great. Not anything that would stick in my head. As far as writing individually instead of as a project, it just depends on what instrument I start on. If I start on piano, the song will be completely different from if I start on guitar, or if I start in the box on a computer then that would be completely different from those two. With Young Optimist, we had some foundations on a lot of these songs to start with, and then, like Andy said, we turned all of them up and used the box to create some really cool sounds and mix those 90s rock elements and classic, awesome themes that Andy writes, and put them into a modern style production.

Greg: What’s really cool is being able to take what’s been produced and adapting that. I’m like, “How many arms do I need?” Some of the stuff is its own creative challenge to figure out how to take this and bring it into a live show because the energy is so different. The whole show has some other element to it that transcends all of this, and if we can bring some of that production and some of that rock show and some of that live… awesomeness. [laughs.] I don’t even know what the word is, but to just bring it all together, that is where I'm really enjoying it right now. These kinds of things really push me and challenge me and it’s awesome.

Shohn: I think without Greg here this certainly wouldn’t be as awesome. I think he has eight arms. Really.

Greg: Sometimes it seems like it.

What’s your favorite meaning behind any of your lyrics?

Andy: I think some of my favorite lyrics I’ve ever written are in “Voice.” “Voice” to me was trying to write something that I had never written before. The pre-chorus, “Arrogant boy what do you know, living in memories and chasing down ghosts,” is like, stop thinking, stop being stuck in the past, stop chasing down stuff that’s not real. Stop living in memories and make something new. That’s probably my favorite lyric of this whole EP.

Shohn: It’s tough because there’s a lot of really good ones. I latch onto quick phrases instead of full sections of songs. One that really emulates is “live like do or die.” I love that phrase. In the modern world a lot of people use the phrase, “Live like this is your last night.” “Do or die” seems to me like don't neglect what you have. So all of your friendships that you have, don't forget that they’re there, and don't forget that those people are important to you. That one is big. “Start speaking up” is another one that emulates with me. That one is more so to convince yourself that you and everything you have thoughts about is important. That’s important to me because I’ve felt muted a lot in my thoughts for quite a long time. I don’t know why. That one really hits home because it reminds you that everything you have is important regardless of what anyone else says.

Greg: I’m still learning all this stuff. I think “voice in the back of your head” is just—that resonates with everybody. Everyone has something, some doubts, some nagging thing. When I hear that chorus I think that’s just the coolest, most resonating song for me.

Shohn: I also like “Void.” “Voice” and “Void” [resonate] a lot for me because sometimes you don’t have a thought. I don’t know, that’s just how I interpret it. Maybe that’s not right.

Andy: No, no, it is! Anytime anyone asks, “What does that song mean?” some of them are so subjective that when I hear someone else’s interpretation I’ll go, “I guess, yeah. Not what I was thinking, but it’s not wrong.” It’s so interesting to hear everybody’s spin.

Shohn: Which I love that about lyrics in general. Another artist I’ve toured with, her lyrics meant something particular to her but then she’d have people coming up to her and be like, “That hit home because I lost a friend and this song means to me what that relationship was.” Hearing their stories is always cool.

What’s your favorite and least favorite part about this line of work?

Andy: My favorite part of being in this line of work is being able to live a dream every day. For those people who have the opportunity to do it as a job, to not take that for granted and take in every moment and enjoy it. The least exciting part is obviously making zero dollars doing it. That’s the hardest. I think you ask any musician and they’ll tell you not being able to have any money is a big deal. Everything else is great. Everything else is amazing.

Greg: Load in sucks.

Andy: Load in sucks. Yeah. Load in totally sucks. Good point. Says the drummer, the guy [who's] got the most to load.

Greg: You’re just like, “I’ve got a mic, I’m good.”

Andy: Yeah. Great point.

Shohn: You guys nailed it on the head there. The joys of playing music is amazing. Even the process of trying to figure out on stage and rehearsals, that’s all so fun. I hate technical difficulties. Like in a live setting, that’s pretty frustrating. But Andy said it perfect: you don’t make a lot of money, at least while you’re starting. The money you do have, you keep spending to buy more gear…or go to Taco Bell.

Andy: Or put gas in the car, you name it. Being in a band is just a cycle of one step forward, two steps back, one step forward, one flat tire. It’s the whole deal.

What are the main themes for your songs?

Andy: I think the four that we are going to put out, they all actually do thematically work together. The four songs that will all eventually be out are “Voice,” “Testimony,” “Halos,” and “Brand New Drug.” They almost kind of make an arc of me. At least the way I saw them, was me thematically taking myself out of my comfort zone. “I don’t want to make you mad--I just want to break the noose around my neck,” like I feel like I’m stuck. “Testimony” is my sworn statement about how I feel about where I am in my life. “Voice” was let’s stop listening to what’s going on in our heads and just move forward. “Halos” is grappling with that same light and dark, you know “Halos over your head don’t make you a man,” dealing with what you think you should be doing versus what you feel in your heart you need to do, and “Brand New Drug” is about a new start—

Greg: It’s about meth.

Andy: [laughs] Yeah, it’s about meth. Um. Yeah. Thanks, Greg. Well, I got nothing now.

How has your music evolved since you first started making music?

Andy: I like to think that we’ve gotten better. I like to think that each of us as individuals [has] gotten better. When I first started making music, I had all of my ideas on cassette tapes, and I still have this drawer full of cassette tapes. I’ll go back and listen to when I was eleven and pouring my heart out into this tape recorder. Every step of the way, you get a little better. I was fortunate enough to be in a big rock band with Greg and we made a lot of fun, upbeat, crazy, exciting music.

Greg: This is our evolution of music. We went from imitation to finally eventually coming around to making your own music. Young Optimist is so cool because Andy has definitely evolved from anything I’ve seen before. It’s really cool to watch.

Shohn: So I met Greg, what, two days ago? And it’s funny, we went out last night and we got to chat about the history of their previous band, Transmit Now, and hearing stories of what you guys went through and knowing I had been through almost the same thing, but with a different style and genre, but they have a history of balls-to-the-walls-rock, I think is a good way to describe it.

Andy: Yeah, I think so.

Shohn: I grew up with blues-rock and EDM and hip-hop and all this weird stuff, and to see the progression from you guys, too, because I’ll listen back to some of your stuff, it’s just like, “Whoa, that sounds nothing like what we have now.” But that was still really good. I don't know if we get better or if we just change and make stuff that sounds cool no matter what. Like Andy, I had cassette tapes that I played into, I don't know if I have those anymore—

Greg: The going back and listening to old demos though, that’s what’s scary.

Shohn: Like what were we thinking? Some of those I never want to hear again.

What was the first song you ever learned to play?
Shohn: “Smoke on the Water." it’s a pretty classic thing to learn as a guitar player. Or “Iron Man." I had a guitar teacher [who] didn’t like to stick to the books which was great because I hate going by the book. So we sat down and learned—what was it—Santana. That was the first artist we started listening to. I probably should not have been playing his stuff because it was way too hard, but each lesson we would sit down and we would dissect a couple of bars and learn the songs.

Andy: I was the type of kid [whoo] would jump from thing to thing to hobby to hobby. I was into this one minute then this another, so I convinced my dad to buy me a guitar and he was probably like, “Give it two weeks, then it will be something else.” I remember going into the room with a guitar teacher and he showed me how to play “Come As You Are” by Nirvana. I could do it instantly, and I was like, “I don’t even have to try! I’m going to keep doing this! This is so—just the idea that maybe this is how my brain works and that I could just do it with very little effort. I think I’m a guitar player.” That was my first song. It was great.

Greg: I don’t remember my first song. Knowing my dad and my brother, it was probably an Aerosmith song. It was probably “Dream On,” and it was awful.

What musicians have helped you to grow as an artist?

Andy: I have a ton of respect for Brendon Urie. Like, a ton of respect for him. I think that not only is he a great talent, but Brendon Urie could’ve very easily gotten himself into a corner and written himself into obscurity. But because he was [in] the right place at the right time with the right song, they broke through when he was a kid--like, he was eighteen. To see him have gone through so many cycles and each one gets a little better, and to see him have the success he has now, fifteen years after his first record, is amazing. My jaw was on the floor at his show at American Airlines Center. My first date with my wife, Panic! At the Disco was the opening band on the five-band bill in a three-hundred-person club. So this is how far back we’re going. From the first record. So to see him go from that, which is nothing, to that arena fifteen years later after doing some re-inventions is just so inspiring. That’s just amazing. So definitely Brendon Urie for me.

Greg: I’ve never been able to worship musicians. I know I’ve jumped around all over through all the clichés like, No Doubt and Linkin Park. I think having the ability to jump helped to see a little bit of everything.

Shohn: Yeah, I’m kind of the same. I latch on to specific things over the eras from different genres. I started with Angus Young from AC/DC. I guess mine all started with guitar players. Angus Young, John Frusciante, I got a lot of my inspiration and my style of how to play from those guys. Then I started hearing all kinds of stuff like Mutemath, they’re on a whole other world of musicianship. The stuff they can recreate live without using tracks is just, oh my God. But then, like you said, Linkin Park was a big influence for me and the style I produce. This one will be out of left field, but the guitarist Michael Amott—a little history about me, I used to be really into hardcore metal, and he was one of the guitarists in that. I used to share that music with my friends and they’d all be like, “What’s wrong with you?” And I'd be like, “Well, check it out, you can’t tell that the singer is female first of all.” The stuff that Michael Amott and his brother Christopher Amott were doing melodically transpired to not just my guitar playing skills but how I write melodies and chord progressions today.

What’s your fondest musical memory?

Andy: Shoot. I have a lot. Rather it’s playing a show or being at a show. There’s a pop-rock group called New Found Glory that goes way back to my high school days. I have seen them fifty times. Not kidding. Fifty times in twenty-something years. Every time I go to their shows, I feel like I’m twelve. When I hear them, I have a moment where I go back to when I was seventeen and working at Johnny Rockets, and I’m on my way to work blasting their first album. That’s what music does to you: it instantly transports you to this time and place and that, thankfully for me, never goes away.

Greg: I can think of some really cool ones, like at House of Blues, when the lights come on, the audience is there, and everyone is singing your song. Like, wow. You just feed off of their energy.

Andy: Yeah, like you almost stop—and this didn’t happen for us a lot but when it did—you almost stop and you forget to play. It’s like, “You know that? We wrote that in our bedrooms! And you know the lyrics!” It’s just a very shocking moment.

Shohn: My last band, we won a competition to go to SXSW. We had been promoting it for like, three months. Everyone I was sure was fed up with us by this point because we were like, “You gotta vote! You gotta vote!” but we were heading back from a video shoot in New York, we got on a plane and we get this email that says, “You guys won! You’re going to SXSW!” And we screamed. We completely freaked. And we were on a plane so everybody on the plane was like, “What’s wrong? What’s going down? What’s happening?” Then another time, about three years ago, we opened for Robert DeLong at Trees. We had this weird like half techno, half EDM/rock group. I remember we picked up an acoustic guitar, and the entire room just busted out with a cheer. You couldn’t not hear screaming, just because of picking up a guitar. I was like, “That’s what I feel like every time I pick up a guitar! You guys are just emulating how I feel each time I do it!”

What are your biggest hopes for the future of the band?

Andy: That we’re good at our show in March. The 23rd at the Prophet Bar in Dallas.

Greg: I’m expecting a truck full of money. 

Andy: Yeah. Greg’s been waiting on it all these years, man. I think I’d be content with just being able to play out a few times a year, have people enjoy our tunes and maybe play some shows in state out of Dallas, maybe play some shows out of state, and that’s it. No pressure, no expectations, just keep writing good music and do it cause we love it.

Shohn: My ultimate hope is that it can reach people and people can latch on to it and it can help them or inspire them. That’s my ultimate goal. Doesn’t matter how many. If I get a message some day and a person says, “This is why I started playing music,” then I think I did good.

Greg: What they said, and money. 

Andy: Someone get Greg some money.

Shohn: If anyone is reading this, send Greg money.


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