• Article by: Sarah Furbish; Photo by: Julia Korn
  • Posted: 08/23/2011

A Heypenny live show is akin to your high school A/V club growing up, becoming handsome and throwing an excellent dance party – all while donning matching outfits and playing some insanely catchy, seriously methodical pop rock.

Even with a considerable portion of Nashville’s music scene headed over to the free Toyota Antics Block Party at Mercy Lounge, a substantial crowd opted instead to see the happy hoopla that was brewing at Music City’s modest venue The End.

Chicago-based French pop rock group Santah opened the night with a dreamy performance, enchanting the small Elliston Place dive bar. Despite the stage being slightly crowded with Heypenny’s props, including stacks of analogue televisions and a 12-foot pink squid made of plywood, Santah’s winsome melodies were able to blur out the background fuss and successfully render the spotlight their own.

Moody songs carried by the elegant, harmonious vocals of Stanton and Vivian McConnell lingered over the crowd like a welcomed fog, rewarding the trickling-in concertgoers for their early arrival.  

The comforting ambiance was slightly soured as Santa Barbara’s Tommy & the High Pilots followed with their questionable SoCal alt rock. Sounding (and dressing) like the Kings of Leon’s more contrived, bluesier little bros, their set seemed better suited for a sleepy Tuesday night at one of the more mainstream downtown honkytonks.

Thankfully, Ben Elkins, DJ Murphy, Aaron Distler and Zach Grace of Heypenny took to the stage like knights in fun-time armor.

Sporting black pants and matching black T-shirts emblazoned with giant squid arms, they opened with the hopeful “Emperor’s New Clothes,” which had Elkins screaming the final chorus like a toddler throwing a joyous tantrum. Heypenny then tore into their quirky ode to immaturity, “Oh No,” with the crowd shoulder-shrugging, head-bobbing and singing along as the 12 vintage TVs on stage pulsed abstract pop colors to the beat.

While intoxicatingly entertaining, the costumed theatricality of these Flaming Lips-in-training is not as lighthearted as it appears, and intentionally so. At times, having fun morphs into serious business. Take touring for example: Before bands have the financial means to hire roadies and rent luxury tour buses, they do all the legwork. For these guys, that meant a late night of reloading gear after a Friday gig in Chattanooga, waking up early Saturday morning, driving the two hours to Nashville, only to unload their gear again at The End. Multiply this by several old TVs, a giant, wooden squid and repeat several times a week; the sum is a typical Heypenny tour.  

“Last night was interesting because we were absolutely just completely broke and beat when we started playing,” drummer Distler confesses in an interview prior to their performance, “and as the set progressed, we actually got more energy and became a lot tighter. I would say by the middle of the set we really hit our stride, and it was awesome.”

“You get most of your energy from the crowd,” Murphy, the band’s bassist, adds. “No matter how tired you are, if you have a great crowd then you’re going to play a great show.”

“Even if there’s not a great crowd,” Elkins optimistically chimes in. “There’s never been zero people; there’s been three a lot of times. But the thing is, those three individual people, they’re watching you and they’re there, so you’ve got to show them what you do.”

Saturday’s audience showed their gratitude by getting willingly drenched in dance-induced sweat and shouting along to songs like the popular head-rush “Cop Car” and the crowd-pleasing “Parade,” which scored recent placement in a Honda commercial.  

The set continued in a Tasmanian Devil-esque whirlwind of delectable pop mastery with an endearingly nerdy Elkins crooning through a Cheshire cat grin. Murphy ballroom danced with his mic stand while giving the crowd some Vogue-worthy poses and facial expressions. Distler’s vision, hampered through sweat-drenched, foggy glasses, focused fiercely on his precision drumming, while Grace, the softest spoken, newest member of the band, expertly tended to his guitar with unabashed intensity.  

“We recognize that getting up on stage and playing music is a special circumstance,” Murphy articulates. “When people get up in their T-shirts and jeans and they stare at their Chuck Taylors with their greasy hair, like, anybody can do that. What we’re trying to do with Heypenny is, not in any pretentious or conceited way, but what we’re doing is unique and not just any guy can hop on stage to do this. It’s just a way of saying that we respect how special this performance is.” 

Heypenny’s early 2012 EP, titled Tendre, is set to exhibit the softer side of the band, and they’re also looking forward to the upcoming national release of their spitfire LP, A Jillion Kicks, which they released locally to Nashville early this year.

While this latest full-length lends itself well to generating gusto, conducting an audience’s good time comes naturally to the quartet. They seem stunningly at home on stage, as if they have all been raised before expecting crowds. It’s a good thing, too, considering these guys will probably still be bouncing around on stage at an assisted living development sometime in the 2060s.  

“When we were playing at Bonnaroo a couple of years ago,” Elkins recalls, “I saw David Byrne get up on stage with the Dirty Projectors, and he was like a 16-year-old boy up there. He was jumping all around; he was really excited. That was a real inspiration for us, because we want to be doing this for a long time – whatever it takes to make sure that we can still do what we do now.”

“Wheelchair lifts for the TVs!” Distler cries out. “That’s how we’ll do it; we’ll just roll in there with TVs on our laps.”

At nearly 1 am, it seemed likely that the band members were hiding Energizer battery packs somewhere beneath those handmade squid shirts. Both the band and the audience were still going strong, albeit much sweatier than when they began, right up to the hard-earned encore. The sheer delight and exhilaration that this cosmic A/V indie dance-pop outfit exudes onstage is an indicator that this marathon of late nights, long drives, heavy lifting and poor diets may never end. And to Heypenny, it’s more than worth every perspiration-soaked costume.

Download five free songs, including "Parade" at briterevolution.com/artists/heypenny


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