“It was all or nothing,” says Chief bassist Mike Moonves when I tell him I heard he dropped out of college to be in the band full time. “I was either gonna totally blow it and get my parents all pissed off at me or do something. So I’ve been working my ass off ever since to make it something.”
If Moonves pretty much bet the farm on Chief’s potential, so did vocalist/guitarist Danny Fujikawa, who likewise left NYU before matriculating to concentrate on the band. “I work on music eight hours a day every day,” Fujikawa tells me, over tacos in Los Angeles’ Atwater Village. We’ve just wrapped a photo shoot and I’m trying to reconcile the deep dichotomy so apparent in this band: on the one hand, they’re hard-toiling, committed and, whenever they’re playing, deeply and palpably earnest. Says Fujikawa, “Whether it’s writing chords or words, I try to mean what I say, so that when I’m performing it I can fully support it. I don’t know,” he tells me. “They’re really personal and emotionally full songs.” On the other hand, they’re four of the goofiest guys on planet earth: at times lighthearted and flip, at times sardonic and razor-sharp, these four are about as funny as humans come, period. It’s a shock, once you’ve talked to them, to see that veil of seriousness descend when they start to play.
Take, for example, drummer Michael Fujikawa (who is older brother to Danny): when we sit down to talk his tone turns immediately poignant, but just before he’d been assailing his band mates with the kind of speedy repartee most stand-ups can’t pull off, all the while mainlining his favorite hangover cure: Gatorade and sunflower seeds. An hour before that, during an afternoon game of croquet, the elder Fujikawa, apropos of nothing, hoisted his mallet over his head and exclaimed, “By Erasmus’ concubines! I shall live, sir!”
I ask him how the band moves so quickly from irreverence to reverence. “Behind closed doors we’re actually pretty emotional,” he says. “I think Danny’s music is particularly earnest and really kind of heartbreakingly tragic, and that’s just… I mean, he’s a fucking heartbreakingly tragic kind of guy, you know?”
Chief is used to moving between polarities: they’ve ping-ponged between living in New York and Los Angeles. I ask Michael where it’s been easier to be a band. “In New York it was really difficult to get work done,” he says. “To practice we’d have to go to our studio space in Williamsburg in the dead of winter—walk to the subway station, take the subway to the L, the L across, if the L wasn’t running there was a whole fucking other matter, walk from the L to Greenpoint… Now we play at Mike Moonves’ mom’s garage, which is on a mountainside, and we take breaks and shoot basketball—you know what I mean?”
If the band’s time in LA has been characterized by light-filled days and outdoor play, says Michael, being in New York has been about “the nights. The drinking and the darkness and the walking and the… it gets dark,” he says. “New York is dark. I’m so happy to be out of there.”
It’s rare for a band to play major festivals before they’ve released a full-length. But maybe that speaks to Chief’s uncommon magnetism: they’ve played Glastonbury, that holiest of holies, even though the forthcoming Modern Rituals is their first LP. I ask vocalist/guitarist Evan Koga whether he’s excited that the album is finally ready. “We’re really excited,” he says. “I’m happy with the way they recorded it. I’ve never been really amped about a recording so this is the first time that I’m really happy about releasing something.”
Modern Rituals has certainly been worth the wait. Like the band members themselves, it’s made fascinating by its notes of high and low, light and dark. As ambitious as the band is committed, the album heralds the proper arrival of a foursome we’ve long admired.