Dumb in a Cool Way: Happy Diving Take the Big Plunge
"You're supposed to be in your favorite band, right?" asks Matt Berry, vocalist and guitarist of the sludgy Happy Diving. "Someone said that to me once."
Samuelito Cruz, the group’s drummer, grins. "Anthony Molina?" he offers, referring to their friend and fellow hard riff enthusiast, the guitarist Tony Molina, with whom they’ve performed in the past. Berry shrugs. No one really has a better answer.
Admittedly, it’s a little hard to think right now, given that it’s the sort of humid summer night in Brooklyn that gives you a contact high from the cocktail of trash fumes, residual heat and thick air that doesn’t dare circulate. On this particular August evening, the band — comprised of Berry, Cruz, bassist Mikey Rivera and guitarist Will Anderson — is perched on a stoop, wisecracking, sipping PBR tall boys they brought from the van they’ve been using to zip across the country. We’re across the way from Bushwick’s no-frills DIY venue Shea Stadium, where Happy Diving will perform cuts from their second album, the pummeling Electric Soul Unity, which dropped August 19 via Topshelf Recordings.
While it’s not that unusual to meet a pedal-happy rock band in Brooklyn, it is rare to meet one that’s not mired in self-deprecating misery, simmering in the idea that one must be “tortured” to make emotive art; not to mention one that, frankly, is just psyched to be performing the music they forged from their calloused hands. Nor do you usually meet bands that listen to their own music. “It's weird to say, but I really like the songs and think they're good to listen to,” Berry says of Happy Diving’s music, which is sticky-sweet pop at the core, drenched in layers of feedback, dripped with fuzz and topped off with his confessional lyrics.
Berry’s not alone in thinking this way. “When I record something, I'll listen to it a million times and be like, 'I fucked up there, this sounds bad, this sounds good,’" Cruz says of Electric Soul Unity. "But we'll be in the car and I'll put it on my headphones.”
Much like its predecessor, 2014’s Big World, the songs within Electric Soul Unity were all recorded live. From the beginning, the album challenges listeners who thought they’d heard it all on the last record (and Happy Diving waste no time in making their ambitions clear; the very first song is called “Bigger World”). Berry says that the songs, which were recorded at the Atomic Garden with Jack Shirley (Deafheaven, Joyce Manor) are usually first takes from those sessions. He admits that it’s "half-laziness" on their part, but it’s also partly the spontaneity captured in that moment. “There's something about a first take that's like lightning in a bottle, you know?” Berry says.
"Or, we're just that good," deadpans Anderson.
As for the recording process itself, that was fulfilling or fraught, depending on who you ask. "It was rough," Cruz says immediately.
Berry pauses. "Well … we had to practice the songs first," he says. "Will and I flew down separately and we had a week of practices where we practiced every day to get these 12 songs down."
Happy Diving were born in 2013, when each of its members lived with their parents in various suburbs around the Bay Area. They’ve since sprawled across the country: Anderson’s been living in Vancouver, while Berry is in Seattle (and not doing a exceptional job of eschewing Kurt Cobain comparisons, considering the shaggy blonde hair and white Fender Strat he wields onstage). Cruz and Rivera still live in the Bay Area, and while they had a house together in Oakland at the time of this interview, they’ve since been evicted due to the ever-encroaching gentrification that’s gripped San Francisco in recent years. “They're going to remodel, raise the rent ... the Bay Area is definitely rough,” Cruz says. “That’s all I’m going to say about that.”
It’s easier than ever to be a band that doesn’t live in the same place, let alone the same time zone. Prior to recording Electric Soul Unity, Berry emailed demos to each of Happy Diving's members, and they each practiced them individually before meeting up for a few days in the Bay Area. Yet, technology’s great benefit in maximizing streamlined workflows doesn’t change the fact that learning to play music together remains something that must be hashed out IRL. It’s especially tough when, out of necessity, the band learns to play the songs together while recording them. “The first few songs we had demos of, so ... it was easy,” says Berry. “And the other newer, later songs on the album we had to kind of learn while we were recording them. Like, we would take a break and learn how to play the songs.”
On top of that, Cruz fell ill right when Berry and Anderson came down to rehearse the songs on the new album. "I went to one practice," he says. In this way, Electric Soul Unity is not so much an album title as it is a literal approximation of that feeling that can often be so elusive in the studio — seeking out the moment when you all manage to wrangle all the right grooves and lock into a singular one that's sparking, cohesive and, most importantly, functional.
The album’s name has a much goofier origin story than that, though. "It started as a joke," Berry says. "Our friend Tony was referring to us as a genre he made up called 'unity metal.' And then they got really into adding words to it and making it this crazy genre."
Cruz chimes in: "'Denim rock' was the first one."
Berry laughs. "At one point, it was 'electric soul unity metal,'" he says.
So, when it came down to naming the record, the name had already been prophesized. "It's dumb in a cool way; I'm fine with that," Berry says. "It makes sense for us, because we're all pretty dumb."
Jokes aside, Electric Soul Unity is a smart collection of songs that deftly draws from specific reference points — they hear your Dinosaur Jr references and raise you a riff — while diving into entirely new territory. “Head Spell” is a dizzying incantation that finds Berry crooning about resisting the urge to pick up the phone, while the burning lo-fi ballad “Pain Country,” which echoes This Is a Long Drive...-era Modest Mouse, could drive even the most stoic to tears.
While Electric Soul Unity is a enormous plunge forward for Happy Diving, the young band hasn’t exactly reached any kinds of grand conclusions in their songs — and that’s more than okay with them. "I felt like those songs [on Big World] were very coming-of-age," Berry says. "Those songs were kind of figuring out an idea of something, and this record is an exhibition of that thing I was trying to figure out. Which I still haven't figured out.”
He pauses, brushing a strand of hair behind his ear. “But, you know, it's something."