Story by Emily Gibson
Photos by Jenna Million
When we arrive at the Parish on May 1, a fan is already waiting in the back alley. Night Riots doesn’t hit the stage to play a sold-out show opening for The Mowgli’s for another three hours, but she looks like she’s already been waiting a while. She is camped outside the wrong bus, but is undoubtedly a Night Riots fan. She holds a vinyl edition of their most recent EP “Howl” close to her chest as she peers at each body that passes through her line of vision, looking for the band.
Later, she excitedly tells me the band went outside the venue, and she met every member. Her eyes glow as she tells me how nice they all are and how she can’t wait to see them live again. She sings along to every word to their set, sometimes with tears in her eyes. During their biggest radio hit “Contagious,” frontman Travis Hawley kneels in front of her and sings the chorus.
Interactions like the one between the band and their enthusiastic fan that night prove the world is just as ready for Night Riots as Night Riots is for the world. There isn’t a barrier between the California five-piece and the crowd. Going to a Night Riots show is like going to a Halloween party where five cool guys are jamming, and all you want to do is dance along.
Night Riots are undoubtedly and authentically cool — the members are clad in all black or close to it. “Contagious” has been on Alt Nation’s Alt 18 Countdown for longer than any song this year, and they’re winding down their tour opening for The Mowgli’s just in time to begin their summer rounds with Vans Warped Tour.
When we sit down with Hawley in the green room before the show, he asks us questions about our week, my moleskine journal and Ernest Hemingway. Even when I remind him that the interview is about him and not us, he shrugs it off and continues inquiring about my feelings on Hemingway’s prose. He reassures us that the Friday show will be a good end to an otherwise stressful week and, with a smile, promises to make it fun.
There’s something down-to-earth about the band. It seems like they’re almost unaware of their success. Hawley says they sometimes get texts from people they’ve met on tour telling them “Contagious” is playing on the radio, which he finds both exciting and strange. “I guess when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t really realize what’s happening,” he says. “But the first time we heard it [on the radio], it was pretty exciting. To finally have somebody accept what you’re doing and give it a chance is pretty exciting.”
Night Riot’s discography is full of laidback gloom-pop, first heard on their 2013 EP “Young Lore” and developed into a more confidently upbeat sound on last year’s EP, “Howl”. Hawley’s brooding-yet-ethereal vocals complement the band’s new wave, goth-pop instrumentals and simultaneously create something nostalgic and fresh. “Howl” is almost vulnerable in its honesty, yet the synth-charged anthems still shroud the band in mysterious allure.
Their taste for the macabre seeps into their aesthetic and their sound, but Hawley is clear that they aren’t into the gory, darker side of horror. This is reflected in his taste for visually appealing horror movies — he recommends the March release “It Follows” because it is a beautifully shot thriller with an actual story — and his love for Tim Burton. “It’s like Halloween,” Hawley says of the band’s image. “Halloween when you’re a kid.”
But there might be more to Night Riots’ haunting look than meets the eye. During our interview upstairs in the Parish, Hawley admits jokingly that the band members are vampires. He says they sleep for most of the day, then drive and play their shows at night. “And we’ve been alive for 800 years, and we suck blood, but those are minor details,” he says. “I’m giving it all away.”
Maybe because they’ve known each other for 800 years — or maybe because all of the band members sans drummer Rico Rodriguez grew up in San Luis Obispo County, California — the band shares an obvious chemistry. Hawley says they spend most of their free time on tour together, but they don’t live the motorcycle-riding, slicked-back-hair lifestyle that one might assume from looking at them. He says they spend most of their downtime playing “dorky board games” like Settlers of Catan, camping or watching movies.
Our pre-show interview wraps up when another interviewer enters the greenroom. But first, Hawley asks for a few more rapid-fire questions.
ORANGE: If you could only listen to one song on repeat for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Hawley: (after some debate, and clarifying that he actually has 6 of these songs): “Don’t Change” by INXS
By this time, guitarist Nick Fotinakes has joined the conversation.
O: What are you most excited for about Warped Tour?
Hawley: The AC in the bus.
Fotinakes: The catering
And now, bassist Mikel Van Kranenburg is sitting in.
O: If you could play a show anywhere, where would you play it?
Van Kranenburg: The Moon.
O: It’d be groundbreaking.
Hawley: It’d be space-breaking.
When we wrap up the conversation, Hawley nods and says, “Well, that was fun.” I don’t know if he means it or if he’s just proving again that he is, as I would hear Fotinakes say later, “the nicest guy in the world.” Maybe their unpretentious friendliness is a smokescreen for their vampirism — or maybe Night Riots have found a way to walk the walk and also talk the talk.
Later, when Night Riots prepares to take the stage, a girl behind me says, “Who are these guys, again? I hope they’re good.”
They begin their set with “Remedy,” a simmering track from “Young Lore.” Fog pours from smoke machines at the back of the stage and coats the band like they’re players in a haunted house. The band sings to the crowd rather than singing at them, and even those who don’t yet know the words respond enthusiastically. “One of the most exciting things about being in a band is creating an atmosphere and a world for the audience to live in,” Hawley says. “I don’t have anything against bands that just kind of go with it, but I think it’s radder to go see a spectacle.”
By the end of their act, it feels like Night Riots have played a headlining set that was accidentally placed in the middle of a bill. The band members are confident onstage — they fall to their knees as they play their riffs, smirk at the crowd and move around the entirety of the stage. At one point, Hawley joins Rodriguez on drums while Van Kranenburg, Fotinakes and guitarist Matt DePauw step out to the front.
After a 45-minute set, they draw out the last lines of their closing song, “Oh My Heart.” Hawley drops to the floor as the rest of the band hits a final note. It’s almost strange to see Night Riots start disassembling their equipment as another band prepares to play.
Later, I see the girl who was standing behind me during the show — the one who was unfamiliar with the band — hanging out by the merch table. She’s holding a Night Riots t-shirt, and she snaps a picture with the band before she leaves The Parish.
The band’s success has come before the release of their first full-length album. Something Hawley says just before they play their third song, “Contagious,” sticks in my head after the show: “If you don’t know our name now, you will soon.” It seems like a promise not only to the crowd at The Parish, but to the world.