The Mass. band talks starting a band in college, the writing process, and THAT Malia Obama cameo.
On July 28th, 2018, the New Dakotas were playing a show in a roughly sixty-square-foot basement in a house next to a storage facility in Allston, Massachusetts. Unsure of what to expect when we arrived, my friends and I made the trip into the city to see the show. The New Dakotas had a Lord of the Rings clip projecting on repeat behind them, and there were about 18 people in attendance. In September, the Boston-based band made headlines on the likes of USA Today, Hollywood Reporter, Yahoo, and a number of other major news outlets. One might wonder how this sequence of events occurred, considering that none of the New Dakotas’ songs have been streamed more than a few thousand times on Spotify. The answer is their music video for “Walking on Air,” a track off their April EP Marsh Street. The four-member band (all Harvard students) from Cambridge, Mass. was able to score a guest appearance from none other than Malia Obama, their college classmate.
But don’t let the recent tabloid-esque stories skew your vision of the New Dakotas. The four members (Alasdair MacKenzie, Chris Haley, Jake Stone, and Liz Kantor) embody the age-old adage: work hard, play hard. They’re all for having fun, but, when it comes down to it, they’re serious musicians with serious goals. Bridging the multigenerational gap between bands like the Beach Boys and Dawes, the New Dakotas have honed in on their distinctive sound and deserve commendation for the music they’ve released. Their music videos may be goofy, and they may have received some (er, a lot of) views on their most recent offering because of a certain president’s daughter, but that doesn’t take away from the killer rock records the band has made.
I got to catch up with the band a few weeks ago: we convened at the WHRB station in a dingy room littered with old musical equipment. The walls were covered floor-to-ceiling with old records of all kinds. I took my place in a ripped-up upholstered chair opposite the four members, who chilled casually on beat-up couches, their calm demeanor reflective of their breezy tracks. I quickly found how cohesive the band was, finishing each other’s sentences and constantly cracking jokes. Alasdair broke the ice by telling stories about whacking kids with Styrofoam swords when he was younger. Eventually, we dove into origins, Malia Obama’s cameo in their music video, the future of the New Dakotas and more. Read below for the full interview.
How did the band form? What was your inspiration for forming the band?
Alasdair: I play drums and sing, Chris played guitar and sings. He and I were the only two people in the audience at a show—it would have been weird not to talk to each other. So we hit it off with each other and discovered we were into some of the same music, and then a little bit later got together in this band. Liz is a year above us, and she also came in, and Jake is in our year and he came in. And we all go—or, in Liz’s case, went—here [Harvard University].
How did you come up with the name “The New Dakotas”?
Alasdair: My band in high school was just called “Margarine,” and it felt very self-serious. So with this band I wanted to do something else and be more old-fashioned. What’s wrong with a “The ‘Somethings'” name? So we thought about a name that was like “The ‘Somethings,’” but what if the “something” was a person’s name. We liked Dakota because Dakota was a gender-ambiguous name. Turns out there was a band in the 60s called “The Dakotas.” They’re old. We’re new. You know the rest of the story.
Who are your musical influences? When you’re writing or playing, who do you look to for inspiration?
Chris: We listen to a lot of 60s stuff. We’re really into the Beach Boys; we love [Bob] Dylan…I think the Beach Boys have been a big influence on us in terms of signing harmonies and thinking about cool vocal arrangements and melody. But we’re also really inspired by some contemporary bands like the Shins.
Did you come across the Beach Boys yourself, or was that something your parents brought to you?
Chris: Well, it’s funny. I had always known the Beach Boys, like, “Little Deuce Coupe,” but I never really got into the “gem” Beach Boys albums until Alasdair…showed me Pet Sounds, which, obviously, I’d heard of, but I never really got into it or listened to it that seriously. And that just totally blew me away, and I got so into the Beach Boys. So, for a whole year, I was just into that. Two other albums by them that are really exciting to me are Today and Summer Days. I think they’re incredible…but Alasdair showed me them—Alasdair shows me a lot of stuff.
Alasdair: Chris shows me stuff, too. We all show each other.
Chris: There’s a lot of 60s bands, like the Zombies, I guess I never would’ve listened to if it wasn’t for Alasdair. So it’s cool to introduce people to stuff that we end up falling in love with.
What does your writing and recording process look like?
Alasdair: As for recording, we do it at my house…What do we do, guys? [laughs]
Chris: We do mostly overdub recordings. We don’t really play a ton of live stuff—sometimes we do it. I guess recording is more of an execution for us. We like to make pretty complex demos, or demos that are really specific that have the parts written just so that when we go into the studio it’s more efficient and easy…The recording seems to be the execution of the ideas we’ve come up with during the writing and arranging process, and the production comes afterwards…And writing is pretty collaborative. A lot of times we’ll send each other a verse, like, “What do you think of this? I thought this melody was cool.” I’ll send it to Alasdair or he’ll send it to me, and he’ll be like, “Oh, that’s a good start, but what if you changed that melody, or take out that last part, or change the chord underneath it?” And it sorts of turns into this process of building things, demos going back and forth. It’s a fun, collaborative process that all four of us get involved in.
Alasdair: And when we’re writing, it’s usually the music we’re collaborating on. The lyrics will be nonexistent or even dumb, but we’re working to make sure the music part is good, and then we’ll lazily do the lyrics last.
Chris: And then we’ll patch them in. We’re a patch-lyrics-in-after-melodies-are-crafted band. I know some people do it differently, but I think it works for us.
Alasdair: So far.
So you’re really focused on the instrumentals, and the lyrics are more of an afterthought?
Alasdair: I wouldn’t say afterthought. There’s instrumentals, there’s lyrics, and then the thing we focus on a ton is the melody, which has to do with lyrics and is not a lyrical thing itself. That’s the king, the melody. That’s what we try to make really, really good. And then the chords and the arrangement hopefully are also good, and the lyrics are hopefully also good, but if we don’t have an excellent melody, we abandon the song.
So once you have that melody and you’re writing the lyrics, what are you thinking about? Are you looking at things in your life, or trying to convey a larger message?
Chris: A lot of our songs so far have been about things we’ve experienced and thoughts we’re trying to convey. A lot of them are about relationships people in the band have had, or emotions involved in those sort of things.
Alasdair: Not me; I don’t have any feelings.
Chris: I always appreciate lyrics that make me think and listen twice.
Alasdair: Although you won’t find a lot of that in our music.
Chris: Not yet, but I think that’s something we’re striving for. You’re always trying to make yourself better and trying to make your music better, and the lyrical aspect is something we’ve been working on. I’m not saying that we didn’t focus on lyrics before, but we’re trying to think of them in new ways now. Like I said, I like lyrics that can make you think, change your perspective, so we try to think about those things when we’re crafting the words for our songs.
How do you balance school life with your musical careers?
Liz: There’s something about a student’s schedule that feels more conducive to being in a band than working, because you have free time during the day to do schoolwork and the other things you want to do, and then at night you can focus on other activities, and one of those things is the band, for all of us. We rehearse enough that it makes the gigs good and we sound tight together when we rehearse. But it’s totally manageable.
What do you see for the band in the future?
Chris: We’re trying to figure that out. It’s not “Will we keep going?” because I think that’s definitely gonna happen.
Alasdair: Hard yes.
Chris: Absolutely. But I think it’s just graduating from school, where I think things are a lot different from the real world, where you’re not really paying rent.
Liz: Can confirm.
Chris: I think the way that bands come to be involves a lot of touring, a lot of playing shows, a lot of recording. You don’t really make enough money to live, and pay rent, for a while. The reality of the fact is that at the beginning of next year, out of the gate, I’m not expecting to be able to pay rent. I think a lot of us are gonna be bartending or driving Lyft. But that’s kind of exciting to me, because this is important to us and we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t love it, and so whatever we need to do, I’m sure we’ll figure it out. I don’t know quite what that looks like yet, but we’re trying to figure out what city would be the best for us to live in to try to make this work, or what our approach should be—should it be mostly “Let’s stick in one place and try to get out songs out to companies,” or do we tour nonstop and try to get live performances out to people. So, it’s something we’re gonna have to think about, but I don’t think there’s any question that we’re gonna go for it.
Do you have any ideas for possible plans?
Alasdair: I don’t want to announce anything to you, because we’ll probably do something else, and I don’t want to have it out there, like, “New Dakotas are moving to San Diego!” We’ve played some shows with some bands of post-grads, 20-somethings that are living in Boston and doing it here, and they’re living the life that Chris talked about: white-collar or service industry day job and music by night. And that sounds fun, at least for your twenties; we could make that work. But maybe lightning will strike and we’ll meet a producer in Los Angeles… And I also don’t know how important location is in the internet era, right? It might just be that knowing people’s email addresses is more important than being in the same city as people.
Chris: I think that touring as much as you can is essential. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong about that, because what do we know about the industry right now [laughs]. Something I’ve been thinking about recently is seeing if we can try to go play a bunch of shows in others states in and introduce ourselves to potential fans…
Alasdair: And we’ll get a road trip out of it!
If you could tour with any band or any artist, who would it be?
Chris: I would probably tour with my favorite contemporary band, which is Dawes. I really love them, so if I got to tour with them it would be pretty cool.
Alasdair: It’s complicated, because there’s people I like but I don’t know if we’d be good with them. Like Fleet Foxes, I love, so like Dakotas opening for Fleet Foxes, or if I’m getting to dream, Fleet Foxes opening for Dakotas [laughs]. The Shins would be pretty good. We have a similar enough vibe for them that people who would be into them would be into us and vice versa.
Jake: I was thinking The National. They’ve got a good collaborative energy, and I think that would be conducive to a good tour.
Liz: I was thinking Hey Marseilles. They focus a ton on arrangements, and I think it would be a nice complementary sound to us. They have a lot of more string stuff, and we’re more rock, but I think we think about songs in similar ways.
How do you come up for the ideas for your music videos, and what did the execution of them look like?
Alasdair: Both were directed by people who go [to Harvard], and they were both freshmen when they did it, so, prodigiously talented people. David Grant did “Hold That Pose”; Brett McLaughlin did “Walking on Air.”
It was me and Chris sitting in my kitchen, we thought of them one day. It was in a period of the band where we were into a little more goofy stuff. There was a period when we were trying to do a little more “internet-y” stuff than we are now. It was like, “What’s the zaniest situation? Band dresses in masks, kidnaps Alasdair,” or “Chris is fired and various people audition to replace him.”
Chris: We were just trying to have fun with it.
Alasdair: Yeah, and just thinking, “What would be an interesting skit to watch if there were no song?” or even if the song were bad. Just sort of buying insurance against if people didn’t like the song. We shot the “Walking on Air” video in this radio station.
What happened with Malia Obama’s cameo in the “Walking on Air” video?
Alasdair: The bit of the video is that Chris is fired and we have a bunch of people to replace him…We’re big Obama family fans, just like everyone else on this campus, and I saw her one day, and I texted Chris like, “Look who I just walked by” and Chris and I were like, “What if we asked her to be in a video? She’ll definitely say no, but it’s, like, a cool thing to do. So I took a deep breath, took another deep breath and said, “Hey, do you and your friend want to be in the video?” and they said yes, which was surprising, and then they showed up to film, which was even more surprising. So we were like, “Cool, good story for the grandkids.”
Then a bunch of pretty rank news outlets picked it up, TMZ and tabloid stuff. And I felt so bad, but we should have seen it coming. We weren’t trying to do that to her, obviously. I don’t really know if she cares, but some people commented some awful, racist stuff. And, you put it on the internet, you’re gonna get that, but there was some vile stuff. And that was entertaining, well, maybe not for her; I don’t know. And then she called, and she was super chill, but she said, “My family’s publicist doesn’t want me to be in this,” and we said “Yes. Of course.” We’re not trying to antagonize the Obama family, so we took her out [of the video]. But she was super gracious and nice and encouraging.
I think some people on the internet are like “The Secret Service made them take it out! The Obamas are so uptight!” Not the case…I regret putting her in an uncomfortable situation, but I’m glad it didn’t get any bigger. We’re not “the band that used Malia Obama to get famous.” It was maybe headed in the direction, so it’s probably good that it stopped where it stopped.
Chris: Those videos are all just about having fun.
So you saw a rise in listenership after the video?
Chris: What’s funny is on Spotify we went up by about 3,000 plays on that song and on YouTube we got 450,000 views. The amount of people who liked the song enough to go listen to it was devastatingly small [laughs]. The internet was focused on the cameo and not really on the song…Of course it was! But you’re not really hoping for that with a music video. It was an interesting story to tell, I guess.
Alasdair: Now we really have a story for the grandkids!
Chris: At the end of the day, it got us some plays, and some people heard it who wouldn’t have heard the song otherwise. And if they don’t like it, well, not much we can do about that [laughs].
Are you working on new music right now?
Chris: We try to always be writing.
Chris: We do this because we love playing and writing songs, so we’re always writing songs because we just love doing it. So we have a pretty solid batch of new stuff—we have a lot of new songs, actually. We don’t have a concrete release plan for the next project, or even what that next project is gonna look like—
Alasdair: Maybe an EP; maybe an album.
Chris: We’re just trying to make some of those demos for a bunch of songs, come up with the arrangements, say, like, “What should the keys do?” or “Should we shorten the bridge?” It’s just those kinds of things. Like, we have a recording, a demo; we know what that song is, so we can just go into the studio and make it happen…We try to record when we’re out of school, which usually means summer and winter breaks, so, because we don’t have a ton of time, we’re trying to go into it and be efficient. Who knows if we’ll finish all of them over Christmas break? Maybe we’ll have to finish them in June, but we’re working towards the next project.
Listen to the New Dakotas here!