The saying goes that it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile, but sometimes it’s easier to subsist in sadness than to amp yourself to joy. This must be especially true for people in touring bands, who spend most of their time traveling around, squished into sardine can vans. For these folks, a low-energy skulk seems like an onstage posture that would be easier to maintain night after night, but Givers opts for the high-enthusiasm challenge.
The five players walk onto the stage of a sold-out Bowery Ballroom show in New York in June and begin the set not with a grand explosion but with a quiet guitar-and-bass-led groove. “There’s a trick we figured out,” says singer and guitarist Taylor Guarisco. “The first song, we always write some sort of intro that will start somewhat minimal, and then it builds, so by the time we’re in fourth gear and ready to start the actual song, the intro’s allowed us to wake up and let all of our eyes open all the way.” And once the band members get through their warm-up, they set their buoyant, percussive sound free from the restraints, and the music and its makers go bouncing around like adorable escapees from a jack-in-the-box. The energy doesn’t set fire to the show attendees as much as it appears to baffle them, with many moving offbeat as their bodies try to process exactly how to respond to this sudden good vibes flood that started as a trickle.
As the leaders of the show, Guarisco pogos around with his guitar, tongue hanging out of his mouth, and Tiffany Lamson whips her head around so much that it looks like she’s going to smack it on her drum-xylophone-tambourine station. It’s like watching a little kid do a backflip into a pool and seeing her head whizz by only millimeters from the diving board.
“I went to the hospital earlier that day,” Lamson later admits, but the rush of seeing the big crowd revved her up and made her temporarily forget that she’d been sick. “Something just woke up in my body and said, ‘Yes, this is right.’” And there’s a lot that just feels right about Givers and its onstage verve, which never appears half-assed or forced. It results from family-style closeness among the band members and an innate musical vibrancy that comes with growing up in Lafayette, LA, the Cajun cultural center of the United States.
Guarisco, Lamson, drummer Kirby Campbell and keyboardist Nick Stephan all come from Lafayette, with bassist Josh LeBlanc growing up just outside of it in a little town called Abbeville. The early-to-mid twenty-somethings all met somewhere between high school and college on the Lafayette music scene. But Guarisco and Lamson didn’t solidify their ability to jive musically until they were both living near each other while students at the University Of New Orleans. “We were both studying chemistry,” Lamson says. “Kidding, kidding. That would be weird.”
“A lot of people study chemistry, Tiffany,” Guarisco says, fake scolding. “They wouldn’t think that was funny.”
Lamson and Guarisco were both in line to study music in college, but their real training came earlier. Lamson has a background in percussion, and she spent her pre-college years working at a drum shop, playing drums in bands and even attending drum camp. Guarisco picked up the bass guitar in sixth grade, and though he now plays guitar in Givers, he mostly filled the role of bassist in bands in his musical past life. One of those bands was Feufollet, a Lafayette group whose sound is rooted in traditional Cajun folk music. This lively, down-home style, native to their town, certainly influenced the members of Givers, but Givers is not by any means a Cajun band.
“A lot of people somehow end up referring to our music as ‘Cajun-infused, zydeco pop music,’” says Guarisco, “and in all reality, there’s nothing Cajun about this band or zydeco for that matter.” You won’t see a fiddle or an accordion in Givers, but the Cajun inspiration does emerge in the band’s rhythms, designed with dancing in mind. Guarisco cites the “smoky, chord-stomping guitar part” in the song “Saw You First,” from the group’s debut LP, In Light, released this year on Glassnote, as evidence of that inspiration. “Whenever I came up with it, like in the back of my mind, I was thanking Feufollet for opening me up to folk music and Cajun music,” he says. “Before then, all I listened to was funky music, nothing that wasn’t funky. Funk and jazz were like the only things that mattered to me until I opened up to all this folk music.”
Listing funk, jazz and Cajun folk as some of his core influences might make Guarisco seem like a music nerd, one who thrives on rare records and releases from more obscure artists. But he’s not a mainstream-shunning music snob, admitting that he also idolized the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a kid. “I just kind of grew up thinking that that’s the coolest live stage energy you could have,” he says, “to just be full throttle and make every song like the last song and make every show as expressive and heartfelt and energetic as it could possibly be.” His appreciation of the California funk-punk rockers shows up in his band’s rowdy live show, but it might also explain why Givers’ music brings plenty of punch and melody.
The existence of joy and upbeat movements in the music also reflects the positivity the bandmates stir in each other. “It’s definitely like a brother band,” Guarisco says. “We’re all brothers, and Tiffany is our sister.” Thus, it’s safe to conclude that the “We’re all in this together” signoff at the end of every post on the old Givers blog reflects the group’s bond, not a reference to the High School Musical song of the same name, right?