In the dead of winter, the grand summer homes of the Hamptons sit vacant and silent, their yards piling high with snow behind the perfectly manicured hedges that line the quiet streets… or so you might expect. But, if you paid a visit to Southampton, NY last winter, you may have noticed that one house in particular was neither vacant nor silent, but rather spilling over with raucous music and joyful listeners. A knock on the door would have welcomed you into the winter retreat of Great Caesar, the six-piece, Brooklyn-based band bringing together chamber rock and indie soul in a singularly anthemic and captivating blend. Don't fret if you missed those wild winter nights, though. They were just the warm-up. Now, with a new EP (titled 'Jackson's Big Sky' after that Southampton house) and extensive US tour dates on the way, Great Caesar is ready to bring their one-of-a-kind sound directly to you.
The band's roots stretch back to Connecticut, where frontman/guitarist/singer John-Michael Parker teamed with bassist Adam Glaser, trumpeter Tom Sikes, and guitarist Mike Farrell while they were all still in high school. They built a local following exploring a variety of sounds, and added drummer Thomas Stephens and vocalist Niki Morrissette after relocating to New York City.
"I went to Yale, and we had a guy at NYU, a guy at UConn, and another at Williams, so we started going all over playing shows at each other's schools," explains Parker. "We recorded a few songs at a little studio and printed a bunch of copies of that first CD. We weren’t thinking about the music industry or anything at the time -- we were just doing it for fun, and to make something for ourselves."
That all changed when a filmmaker approached the band with an ambitious concept for a video for their song "Don’t Ask Me Why" centered around themes of social justice and drawing parallels between the civil rights movement of the 1960's and the modern fight for gender and sexual equality.
"When we lost our initial source of funding, we decided to do it ourselves and raised $50,000 on Kickstarter," says Parker, who tapped Beirut/Modest Mouse producer Griffin Rodriguez to helm the recording of the song along with three additional tracks that would make up their self-titled EP. "It was a three-week shoot and it took four or five months to actually release it, but we somehow managed to get connected to Upworthy, and when the video went out, it got more than 100,000 views in its first week."
MTV raved that it "proves love conquers all," while Relix said it "challenges viewers to take a stand for equality" and named Great Caesar a band "on the verge." The video garnered attention from influencers and tastemakers as varied as Russell Simmons and Deepak Chopra to Arsenio Hall and Superbowl champion/LGBT advocate Brendon Ayanbadejo, and it earned the band an invitation to perform and speak at TEDxHollywood, Summit Series, and The Feast.
With excitement around the group growing, Great Caesar left Brooklyn behind for two months in early 2015 to hunker down in Southampton and focus on new music and their first tour to SXSW. On two different weekends, they invited a few dozen friends and fans from the city to come live in the house with them and listen to the new tunes. The morning after one of those winter showcases, they filmed a live performance using empty cans and kitchenware for percussion that landed them on a featured post from NPR as a standout performance in the Tiny Desk Concert contest. Living together in such close quarters proved to be an invaluable experience for the band, both for personal bonding and for their creative output, which was partly inspired by a life-changing visit to the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio.
"None of us knew what to expect, but we ended up having this incredibly powerful experience," says Parker of the performance, which they routed into a national tour last fall. "First, we got to be a part of a spoken word session that a few of the guys were doing, where we'd play a little bit and they'd share their poetry. It was honest, vulnerable, and really skillful. When the time came for our show, over 100 inmates filed into the chapel, and we just dove right in. As soon as we finished the first song, 'Still Love,' everyone jumped to their feet and gave us a standing ovation, which sort of shocked us. But then they jumped up and cheered for every song after that, too, and by the end of the set, we had this very emotional, visceral experience of the power of music and performance. It was an important moment for our band to see the impact we can have on folks, and to feel the impact an audience can have on us, even when we’re least expecting it.”
Two songs Parker penned while reflecting on the band's experience at Marion—the warm and soulful lead single "Hey Mama" and the harmony-rich, chamber-folk track "Jolene"—are early indications of the band's remarkable growth and maturity in the short time since their last release. Recorded at the iconic Bear Creek studio outside Seattle with producer Ryan Hadlock (The Lumineers, Vance Joy), the tracks showcase sophisticated arrangements full of dreamy guitars, lush horns, and infectious melodies.
These tracks, though, are only a part of this new beginning for Great Caesar. 'Jackson's Big Sky' is out now, soon to be followed by a US tour, and more videos are already in the works. And who knows, maybe they'll play another snowy house show or two while they're at it. The band may have found their sound in the dead of winter, but everything Great Caesar touches is heating up.