Three of the five members of Boston indie jazz band People Like You are dissecting songwriting styles in the back of their van when singer/guitarist Chris Lee-Rodriguez lets out a torrent of curses in Spanish.
We’re en route to the band’s practice space in Charlestown when a pedestrian jaywalks across our lane, leaving Lee-Rodriguez just enough time to brake and swerve. Considering we’ve spent the rainy afternoon dropping off bassist Sai Boddupalli at work, getting horn player Matt Hull’s cornet and singer/keyboardist Michi Tassey’s stand across the city, and returning in time to pick up drummer Sander Bryce for the band’s upcoming tour, Lee-Rodriguez has lost interest in holding his tongue.
“Chris will always tell you an honest opinion and is a real emotionally centered person,” Tassey says moments later. “Like, especially on the road when he’s driving.”
Honesty and emotional transparency are similarly what make People Like You’s sophomore album “Verse” — which is out Friday, July 28 via Topshelf Records — excel. Cementing the band’s emo-by-way-of-jazz sound while lyrically opening up on moving, mortality and growing up as first and second generation Americans, "Verse" is the kind of record that unsurprisingly needed three years of writing to perfect.
While People Like You isn’t the kind of group that would call any one member its leader, the band unquestionably started from Lee-Rodriguez’s self-proclaimed "selfish need" to start a band.
“You know when someone’s always in a relationship and they don’t know how to be single? That’s kind of how I am with being in bands,” Lee-Rodriguez says. “I’ve technically been in a band since I was 12.”
"You know when someone’s always in a relationship and they don’t know how to be single? That’s kind of how I am with being in bands."Chris Lee-Rodriguez
Of his long list of prior acts, Lee-Rodriguez is most known for his part in I Kill Giants, an “angsty” emo band formed with Bryce and fellow classmates Dylan Hanwright and Nick Koechel during their time at Berklee. After a few national tours and a cult-beloved album, the group disbanded in 2014 upon graduation.
“I Kill Giants was my first punk band,” Bryce says. “Both Chris and Dylan used to bring stuff to the table, but I found myself wanting to have a little more say in that band.”
By the time Hanwright told the band he was moving to Seattle, Lee-Rodriguez had already written two songs for a new band.
“I wanted [something] cleaner and jazzier with notes of abstract and experimental in my music," he says. "The first album was ... [meant to be] an artist’s statement.”
The result, 2014’s “This is what you learned.,” makes the anxieties of post-graduate life feel cinematic. Its jazz-inflected interludes (called “kneeplays” in homage to composer Philip Glass) and impassioned sing-alongs were emphasized in large by a patchwork cast, some of whom would later become People Like You’s permanent lineup.
“A trumpet being equal to the voice is something you don't find very much in rock music,” Hull says. “Usually, if there is a horn in rock music, it's a horn section like in ska bands, Bruce Springsteen, or any ‘80s music with corny saxophones.”
Citing his unabashed, lifelong love of ska, Lee-Rodriguez tried incorporating Hull into I Kill Giants songs several times over the years, ultimately offering him a fuller role while recording “This is what you learned.” Tassey’s invitation into the band, on the other hand, was for a far more specific purpose.
“I had a song where I wanted a female voice because it was supposed to be the voice of my sister,” Lee-Rodriguez says. “Then we found this keyboard during Allston Christmas. It was really busted, but we were like, ‘Sweet, Michi can play this.’ That was a funny tour because [Matt and Michi] didn’t have parts on every songs, so we’d play some songs and they’d sit on the side.”
“We’re still not in the band,” Tassey says jokingly. “We’ve just been fully committed. Like, ‘We’re here when you need us! Put me in, coach!’ ”
"Verse's" opening songs, “You Need A Visa” and “The Baker,” were written that same summer, but three years of meticulous workshopping, lineup changes and finding each member’s voice on the record built its remaining nine songs.
“I remember after we [practiced the two new songs], Sander and Matt sat me down and said they wanted to be a part of the writing process,” Lee-Rodriguez says. “I was starting to follow the same pattern where I was writing songs and being like, ‘Uh, here,’ to the rest of the band.”
It was around this time that Tassey began bringing her songs to practice and splitting lead vocals with Lee-Rodriguez. “I remember talking to Chris one time about what our record should sound like and he said, ‘I don’t think we should have a goal.’ This is a collection of songs that flow because of who we are ... but almost nothing more in common than that.”
If its flow is largely coincidental, "Verse’s" movements are all the more impressive. Songs about long-distance relationships play into reflections on one’s heritage and mortality, held together by the band’s intricate, math rock-leaning compositions. Considering the band attests each song has a dozen influences (in one minute, the band manages to cite bass guitarist Thundercat, prolific ska outfit Bomb the Music Industry!, and Brazilian jazz guitarist Toninho Horta as touchstones), "Verse" needed an advocate and clarifier in the studio with them. During the writing and recording process, fellow Berklee friend and fledgling producer Sai Boddupalli joined on bass.
“There was definitely a gigantic learning curve for me,” Boddupalli admits. “This was my first time having to record a full band for a pre-production and, to be honest, it sounded very bad, but it was helpful from the standpoint of cutting down on time in the studio that we were paying for. I just felt so lucky to make music with people I was friends with for so long and in such a beautiful environment. I think because of that, the transition was seamless.”
The band’s kinetic friendship is most prominently felt through Lee-Rodriguez and Tassey’s split of vocal and lyric duties. “Josephine Ave,” named after the street Tassey’s best friend lived on, is the album’s most heartbreaking point as Tassey pleads for a loved one to give in to terminal illness. “Hackensack Hospital” immediately follows “Josephine” and finds Lee-Rodriguez similarly faced with an ailing grandmother states away, but turns it into a life-giving anthem deeming Heaven “too far to spare the gas.”
Their differing experiences and personalities converge on “Variations On An Aria” as Tassey sings about Lee-Rodriguez’s time spent on the island of Puerto Rico.
“The thing about hyper-specific lyrics is that you obtain universal pains through those specific details,” Lee-Rodriguez says. “[Puerto Rico] is a place my family is from, but I’ve never lived there longer than a couple weeks at a time. I don’t know what it’s like to live in Puerto Rico, but I also feel close to it and I don’t want to leave it, especially on a political level and the huge diaspora happening because of their current situation.”
“I also definitely relate to that theme,” Tassey adds. “My mom is from Japan, but I don’t speak the language and never lived there. I think it’s a relatable theme for kids who are first or second generation American and still have ties.”
After we (thankfully) return to Charlestown in one piece, the band loads gear, copies of the new records and a selection of older merch into the van to bring to their album release show (on Sunday, July 30, at the Middle East Upstairs in Cambridge). After the 2016 election, and inspired by how Bomb The Music Industry!'s Jeff Rosenstock would offer pins for charity at shows, the band started using proceeds from merchandise for charities of the buyers' choosing. According to the band, it's one of the biggest ways they maintain the inclusiveness implicit in their name, while learning more about causes and organizations their fans support.
“We’re not a political band, but every person is political,” Lee-Rodriguez says. “It’s just talking about things that are important to us. There’s a song about visiting my grandmother at the hospital, but you can’t talk about that without talking about Medicare. You can’t talk about leaving a place or a relationship without talking about the laws that allow us to be in relationships.”
“The word ‘accountability’ gets thrown around a lot, but realistically what it is to me is that we all need to make sure we’re on the same page about making people comfortable,” Boddupalli adds. “I think that we’re headed on the right track, but we need to expedite this process because it’s 2017 and, frankly, I don’t think it’s terribly difficult to be a decent human.”
People Like You is ultimately a band that has grown into its reputation of heartfelt consciousness — a reputation that sprouted from the group's intense collaboration.
“Considering my role in the band, you’d think the drummer would keep things together, but everyone kinda keeps me together,” Bryce concludes. “Being able to share recordings and a stage with friends that are like-minded and connect with me on a deep, emotional level is one of the things that keep me wanting to be here. It keeps me existing.”