The cramped space that is Room 37 at House of Hits Rehearsal Studios in North Sacramento can barely contain the big sound and even larger dreams of Cemetery Sun.
On a recent afternoon, the five band members crammed into their walk-in closet of a rehearsal spot, sporting a nearly uniform look of black denim, black t-shirts and taper fade haircuts. Once their amplifiers and microphones roared to life, with blasts of anthemic choruses and gigantic guitar melodies, they were clearly imagining sports arenas in their heads, not some rinky-dink local club.
It seems within reach for Cemetery Sun, which signed in August to Lava Records, an imprint of Republic Records/Universal Music Group.
The major-label deal is a great score for the Sacramento area band of about three years, though no slam-dunk for mainstream success in the fickle music industry. But if all goes to plan, Cemetery Sun and it’s sweeping, finely tuned sound could be Sacramento’s answer to Imagine Dragons. You may have already heard Cemetery Sun’s “Fake Love” on Sirius satellite radio or locally on 94.7 FM. On Friday, the band released its latest single, a brash yet catchy bit of alternative rock called “Piece of Sh*t” that’s hoped to further grow its audience.
“We’re still waiting to see what the result is for all this stuff, but it’s exciting,” said bassist Jesse Mancillas, after a run-through of the band’s set. “This is all of our dreams.”
For all its promise, such as joining a label roster with the likes of Lorde, Trans-Siberian Orchestra and other mainstream acts, Cemetery Sun is very much still paying its dues. That includes piling into a 15-passenger Ford van with their gear and enduring long stretches of barren highway that can test any band’s camaraderie. Cemetery Sun will be on the road through the end of April with a tour that winds through Texas and the midwest before concluding with a string of California gigs. Back home, when not rehearsing or writing songs, most of the band members keep day jobs.
The last few years have been a somewhat heady overall trip for the band, which includes singer Josh Doty, guitarists Matt Scarpelli and Elliot Polokoff, drummer Austen Butler and Mancillas the bassist. This more pop-minded approach wasn’t the style of music the band members had in mind when entertaining their earliest dreams of stardom. They were veterans from various bands on the histrionic scenes of heavy metal, screamo and post-hardcore. But they burned out somewhat on those sounds, which were heavy on intensity and volume but not always delivering much in terms of dynamics and other subtleties.
“Jamming with these guys taught me a whole new element for music,” said Scarpelli. “I thought it was going to be boring to play because in metal everyone’s super hectic and crazy. But with this, I have so much more fun. It reaches out to more people.”
Cemetery Sun sprung about three years ago from this overall desire to stretch their sonic ambitions. Distorted guitar sounds were mostly traded for a more atmospheric and melodic approach, with blasts of keyboards and an ear for pop melody and song structure. About 50 tunes were spliced together meticulously in Polokoff’s home studio, with the aid of click tracks, electronic effects and other technological gear.
Andy Hawk, the host of “Local Licks” at Sacramento’s 98 Rock radio and assistant program director at Radio 94.7, emerged as an early supporter of the group. The band was known in its earliest incarnation as Headlines, which was scrapped because the name wasn’t a good search term on Google and was also the title of a Drake song. Either way, Hawk noticed how quickly the group was enchanting local fans, who mouthed along to songs as the band played local clubs.
“They were definitely writing some things that connected with young audiences in their late teens and early 20s,” said Hawk. “It’s a lyrics thing. They have big melodies and you see the kinds singing the words back. It made me notice and they’ve been on my radar ever since.”
The band’s road to the major label world started on social media. Like shooting an arrow through cyberspace, Cemetery Sun manager Alex Barragan sent an unsolicited Instagram message with links of the band’s music to Mikey Flom, the son of Lava Records founder Jason Flom, who scouts potential acts for the label. Within just a few weeks, and a flight to New York City, Cemetery Sun inked a one album deal with Lava Records and options for more.
“By a stroke of luck, (Mikey Flom) saw the direct message and responded,” said Polokoff. “Literally three weeks after that message we were on a plane as fast as we could. The label wanted to move quick.”
Despite its pop leanings, a few shades of darkness remain from their heavy metal days, such as the name “Cemetery Sun” itself. The band still embraces the edgy, such as the theme of its new, somewhat NSFW single, “Piece of Sh*t.” It’s a follow-up to the 2016 single about shallow relationships titled “Fake Love,” a track from the band’s 2016 e.p. that pairs finger snaps and an echo-y guitar hook with a wide open chorus of, “Hard drugs, fake love, it’s a sensation, makes one hell of a collaboration.” With support from Hawk, the song was added to Radio 94.7 FM’s playlist in early 2017, a fairly rare feat for a local band.
“It’s where the darkness meets the light,” Butler said about the band’s name and overall vibe. “The name goes along the lines of ‘The Killers’ or ‘Savage Garden,’ where it sounds super brutal but (it’s different) once you hear the music. Some of the songs have that pop essence but the lyrics are on the melancholy side and there’s always a serious topic involved.”
“Piece of Sh*t” is also the kind of track that could make radio station programmers do a double take in terms of content, though a more family-friendly version of the song has the offending word bleeped out. Either way, the new single is constructed expertly and begs for a rowdy sing-a-long when performed live.
“Most often, people are just a piece of sh*t,” said Doty. “They’re in it for a quick buck, for instant gratification ... (The) point is we’re sick of that and want our fans to portray something kinder than that, and we want to portray something kinder as well.”
“It’s an equality thing,” Doty added. “You’re not better than the other person. We’ve all been a piece of sh*it, we’ve all been there before. I think it’ll be cool to play live and get these people off their feet and screaming the lyrics.”
Cemetery Sun’s full-length album debut for Lava Records isn’t expected until 2018. In the meantime, the band plans to spend the better part of 2017 on the road. Cemetery Sun will make a local appearance on May 19 as the band headlines Concerts in the Park at Cesar Chavez Plaza. In between, they’ll also make the tight squeeze in Room 37 at House of Hits, to refine their songs and keep building their audience – one fan at a time.
“In the industry we’re a baby band,” said Polokoff, as another round of rehearsal awaited. “We’ve been a band for years, but for the rest of the world we’ve been a band for months - but any song could change that for us right now.”