As the lights dim at Slim’s on July 15, a hauntingly familiar steel-string guitar riff emanates from the speakers. People glance around incredulously at the recognizable pop tune, which seems out of place blaring through the speakers of a rock venue. Is that … Backstreet Boys?
Laughter spreads through the audience, and before long, the eclectic crowd of twentysomethings is singing along in a nostalgic haze to “I Want It That Way.” And as the song fades, silhouetted bodies appear onstage — not those of the once-reigning ’90s boy band but rather of Los Angeles synth rockers Hunter Hunted.
The band immediately launches into the title track from its debut album, Ready for You, as two measures of lone piano melody erupt into a pulsating riff of bass, synths, guitar and violin. The sound fills the room with the immediacy and intensity of traditional electric guitar/bass arrangements while introducing a nuanced variety in tone.
“I think touring has always influenced our songwriting,” explained pianist and singer Michael Garner in a pre-show interview. “We’ve gotten great opportunities for touring as an opening band. … I think that the type of songs we’ve written have been very influenced by trying to get that crowd participation.”
The up-and-coming indie-rock band is on its first headlining tour but has opened for high-profile acts such as Weezer, Twenty One Pilots and Fun. Those years of touring as an opener have paid off; the band’s punchy, upbeat songs and enthusiastic performing style connect immediately with the crowd, which dances within moments of the first downbeat. Laden with catchy vocal riffs, the choruses pull the audience into singing along, whether it knows the song or not.
Garner and bassist Daniel Chang foster a strong sense of intimacy during the show, conversing freely with the small crowd in between songs. About halfway through the set, Garner relays how he and Chang met while trying out for an acapella group in college. He asks the crowd if the band can do a little acoustic-acapella number, and after some enthusiastic cheering, the accompanying violinist and drummer for the tour join Garner and Chang at the very front of the stage, where the quartet performs “Lucky Day” in four-part harmony, sans any microphones or amplification. In fact, every song in the set is built on layered harmonies, which cut through the instrumentation where a single vocalist will often get lost, muddied or drowned out in the mix.
The performance, however, isn’t solely about technicality. In the moments when the music swells, you can visibly see the performers step out and get lost in the music.
“There’s sort of an equivalent to a runner’s high,” Garner explained. “There are these moments where I’ll look at Dan or look at one of the other (accompanying) members, and kind of have a moment. It sounds cheesy, but just like an audience member, I think my favorite thing is to get lost in it.”
Despite obvious talent and engaging stage presence, the band still has work to do as it transitions from an opener into a headliner. It has mastered the art of converting a room full of strangers into fans. Moving forward, it needs to craft a live show that doesn’t feel like it has something to prove.
As the set progresses, there is a nagging feeling that the band is unaware the crowd already knew its lyrics by heart. It’s hard to quantify that difference in dynamic — the way bands will step back and let the audience sing, or will launch into a non-studio interlude or cover. Performing as a headliner is less about delivering a highly polished product to the audience and more about using music to show fans what they mean to you and giving them the opportunity to thank you for the effect it’s had on their lives.
But this was only Hunter Hunted’s third show on its headlining tour. By this time next year, the band may well have figured it out.
Contact Imad Pasha at [email protected].