Telescreens may be young, but they’re rising on a fast trajectory to stardom. Based out of New York, the four-piece band includes Jackson Hamm (vocals and guitar), Austin Brenner (bass), Josiah Valerius (keys and synth), and Oliver Graf (drums). Telescreens’ sound is classic rock with a twist, made unique by their alternative addition of keys and synth. They put on high energy live shows that bring the house down – we can see why they’ve become so popular. If their goal is to be the biggest rock band in the world, they’re off to a great start. The foursome have accumulated hundreds of thousands of monthly Spotify listeners and continuously sell out one venue after another in New York. Where do they go but up?
We sat down with Telescreens (and their producer, Alex Poeppel) before their show at the Bowery Ballroom, where they answered a few questions for the groovement.
How did you all originally meet and how did you form the band?
Oliver: Jackson, Austin and Josiah were all in the same year at college at NYU. I also went to NYU, but I’m a couple years younger. They all met in the music program, and I think Josiah lived on your floor?
Jackson: You don’t know the story? Skip straight to when we met you.
Oliver: They all met in college and started making music together, and it was all fine and dandy.
Jackson: We kinda sucked ass, and then Oliver Graf came in.
Were you actively looking for people to play with?
Jackson: We were trying to be the biggest band in the world from the jump.
Oliver: They started working on the first album, The Return, which came out at the end of 2020. They were all doing that, had some drummers before, tried no drummer. It’s just hard with the amount of equipment on stage.
How did Oliver become your drummer?
Alex: No one can drum like Oliver can. Let me just say as their producer, I’ve never encountered another drummer like this guy.
Oliver: It was just the right place at the right time. I’ve known Jackson for a million years. In middle school, my best friend growing up was Jackson’s brother. So I used to come over to the house a lot just to hang out with Theo, who’s my friend and Jackson’s younger brother. And Jackson would steal me. They had a cool little garage studio with a sick drum set and amps and everything. Jackson would come and be like, ‘come on, five minutes.’ And it would be like two hours. And we’d play all of Nevermind front to back.
Jackson: Those were the days.
Oliver: I went away and I kind of stopped playing drums. I was going to school for normal stuff and I thought I was done with music. Fortunately, I ran into Jackson on the street one day, just in New York. And he was like, ‘do you still play drums?’ and I was like, ‘yeah kind of. But not in a while.’ He was like, ‘hey we have a show at the Mercury Lounge at the end of the month. Do you want to try out?’ He sent me the demos, and we got in the studio, it took some trial and error, but it hit from there.
Josiah: We all met at school freshman year. I met Jackson first out of everybody. He put me onto weed and rock ‘n’ roll. Before that, I was doing a lot of hip hop and gospel music. I wasn’t really into it, or didn’t know the language. Then we started hanging out, and we connected philosophically about music and the power of it. And also just passion about music. Some kids weren’t there (at NYU) because they were passionate, some kids were there because they had rich parents, and they wanted to do music. We connected over that, hanging out a lot and making music that was blowing our minds. Austin came into the picture because he was across the dorm hallway from where we were hanging out and making music.
What is the origin of the name?
Jackson: It comes from George Orwell’s “1984.” It’s the monitoring system of the thought police. We wanted to repurpose the name as a reflection of humanity and society.
“Phone Booth” was originally released August 26th of last year, which is exactly a year today. That’s a good sign for the show today.
Oliver: She did her homework.
Josiah: That’s actually crazy.
Oliver: You can’t plan this shit.
Can you talk about the creative process of that single?
Austin: I believe one day Jackson came to the band and played a little guitar riff.
Jackson: No, tell them how it really happened.
Austin: Well, he said ‘Austin, I’ve got a good song.’
Jackson: You’re butchering the story. I wanted Austin to say this because I wrote the song while Austin was playing video games next to me. And he was super fucking tired. And I kept trying to get him to listen to it, and he refused until the next day.
Austin: That’s what happened.
Jackson: Then we took it to the band and played it in rehearsal, and it was one of those that fell into play immediately. It took no thought, no effort.
The song now has over 500,000 streams on Spotify. When writing that song did you have this feeling of, ‘oh this is going to be it,’ or are you surprised by the success?
Jackson: I actually thought it was a nothing song. It was like ‘ah whatever,’ it’s three chords the whole time.
Jackson: It’s kind of like mid, you know. Austin from the gun said it was the best one.
Josiah: Yeah he said it would be a smash and it is.
Jackson: Here’s what I’ll say. When songs are effortless, they’re the best ones. That whole song was written in about five minutes. I always try to pay attention to that, if it all comes together without any thought it’s coming from somewhere else.
Was that the first song you had written that was sort of a different vibe than your debut album The Return?
Oliver: No, not even close. For the EP that just dropped, the first one Jack wrote was “Stare” and “Wide,” which are the first ones chronologically you wrote. When the pandemic hit, we all were dispersed and Jackson and I lived ten minutes down the street from each other in LA. Jackson and I rehearsed every day. I went over to that same garage studio I used to go to when I was 13 years old, and I came back there and we practiced and played for six hours a day. All of the old setlists we did, I remember the first two songs were “Stare” and “Wide.” And now it’s the name of the EP and the first two tracks.
Is the ‘yeah’ at the beginning of “Phone Booth” and “Games” going to be a trademark? Was that intentional or not?
Alex: That’s an awesome question.
Jackson: It’s kind of something I do to check the mic to make sure the levels are right. And it’s just become a thing that I do.
Alex: If I can add, as the guy who recorded the record, the start of each take Jackson typically yells or, in “Times Like These”, you hear him yell at the beginning. We didn’t edit that in. That’s a live take, the whole band is playing that live. He counted off, he screamed and started playing the riff. When we listened back to it we couldn’t get rid of it.
Oliver: It’s so natural.
Can you give a brief overview into the songwriting process for the EP?
Jackson: Trust god. Trust the universe, and get out of the way.
Regarding your album, Stare Wide, you have teased different dates for the release starting midway through April until it was confirmed to be released August 25th, 2023. What was going on behind the scenes for the delay?
Alex: Mixing is hard. Mixing a record is hard as shit. When you’re trying to do maximalist shit.
Jackson: Sometimes songs come really easy, “Phone Booth” came very easy, and the reset of that EP was a battle.
Did you struggle creatively?
Jackson: Technically. On a sonic state. We wanted to make a record that neared the sounds of the greatest that we’ve ever listened to. It was about Nevermind and beating those sounds, talking about how Butch Vig and Andy Wallace mixed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” alone for six months. Just that one fucking song. It was about giving those songs the same amount of detail as those legendary songs.
Alex: It wasn’t like, ‘oh we have to figure these songs out.’ From my perspective it seems very fluid from you guys. But the sonic journey was one of turning over stones.
Jackson: The recording took a long time.
How did the album come to fruition after only releasing singles? What was it like starting from an idea to a final product?
Jackson: It was always about making a record. The singles are just a marketing mechanism to get more people to hear each song. It’s all a record. It’s a complete body of work.
Josiah: This was really like a performance. It was a lot of rehearsals for this album, trying to get that shit right, like a performance. And we played a fuck ton of shows at The Bitter End, Mercury Lounge, and practices. Last summer, we recorded a bunch of shit. Nothing was recorded to a grid structure. It was let’s perform it, get the right feel of performing it live, and then add everything on top. So it was really trying to be true to a live moment.
Alex: I think the best producers understand, it sounds cheesy, but it’s more being someone who can help in any way. Whether that’s a technical thing, emotional support, being a chill person in the room for eight hours. I think the really beautiful thing about working with these guys is that this is a project that pushed us all. This isn’t the first album I’ve made, but I’m immensely proud of what we’ve achieved with this. We all were putting in relentless hours. It felt like we were on a mission.
Is this the most proud you’ve been of a project?
Alex: By far.
Jackson: I just want to answer your question from before. Is it an album, or is it a bunch of singles. It’s a record and the unveiling of the singles is intentional. And I hope that people who pay attention to the music and read the lyrics see a through line because there is one. Hopefully it will all make sense when the full LP comes out.
You guys signed to Universal Music Group in March. Can you talk about that experience?
Jackson: They hit us up about “Phone Booth.” We went to meet them.
Alex: An intern found it on a playlist.
Oliver: As rare as it could be.
Jackson: We met with the head of A&R at Victor Victor. It was written in the stars. Steven Victor came into play. I basically said, ‘we want to be the biggest rock band in the world. If you’re going to get in our way, get out of our way. But if you want to be a part of this, let’s party.’ And he said let’s fucking party.
Let’s talk about your sound. Instead of having a classic rock band structure, you have someone fully on keys and synth. Can you talk about how that contributes to crafting your sound?
Josiah: It’s organic. It’s just natural. I would say it was more like when we first met, I was really getting into Frank Ocean and trippy shit. It was what excited me. And then just natural collaboration of what I’m into, what he’s into, what they’re into, kind of birthed the sound. In retrospect we’re like, ‘oh shit, this is pretty unique and cool let’s keep doing it,’ naturally. I wouldn’t say it was too intentional at all. It was just natural expression and the fucking stars aligning.
Jackson: That was a great question. No one has ever asked that question, it’s a great one.
Josiah: Great question.
On social media you’ve been saying this slogan: ‘Rock Lives In New York.’ What makes you think that we’re in this new period of a resurgence in classic rock, and what do you think you’ll contribute or hope to long term?
Jackson: I think basically rock ‘n’ roll is a philosophy of just relentless and unapologetic self-expression. And some of the greatest musicians of the last recorded era carried this torch, and for a long time it’s been dormant for one reason or another. Music happens on a pendulum swinging.
And you feel like we’re swinging right now?
Jackson: It feels like we’re swinging back in the direction of people playing live music. I also feel like there was so much incredible hip hop music made over the last 20 years that the label and everyone wants to be a part of that money cycle and make money. When you have too many people clogging the airways, this shit gets tired. And people find new ways of expressing themselves that are not mainstream and the pendulum swings.
Josiah: I think Covid had a big part of it too. New York was one of the epicenters. Live, you want to go to a show and have a lot of energy. I think what’s been the music, electronic and hip hop, from my experience, cause I don’t really come from rock; at a rock show there’s more energy there than any kind of show. I think that is a big factor as to why rock is making a comeback. And in New York City people are catching a bug. There’s a lot of bands, a lot of artists, a lot of its rock ‘n’ roll.
Alex: The deal is indicative of that. Victor Victor is a hip hop label. This is the first band that they’ve signed out of that world. Everyone is waking up to it.
In the last year, two years, you’ve done a few ‘secret shows.’ Can you talk about how that idea first came about, why you started doing them?
Oliver: We just want to play as much as possible. I think I can speak for all four of us. Our favorite thing in the world to do is be on stage with each other and make people dance and curate a moment. I think that any opportunity we get to curate a moment and get up there and do it is welcome. Secret shows are so great because it’s such an intimate space, you’re coming into a unique moment whether it’s a rooftop or a bar.
Josiah: With all these venues there’s a certain performance aspect protocol.
Jackson: They don’t want us to play once a month. We only just beat the radius clause for Mercury Lounge, and there’s a two-month radius clause for Bowery Ballroom. We want to do it more often. That’s why they’re secret honestly.
What do you think sets you apart as a band, why do people keep coming back?
Josiah: There’s a cathartic experience live. I’ll call it spiritual. I think the music is genuine, it’s a type of rock ‘n’ roll you haven’t heard with the textures that we choose. I think us just being genuine is what people really pick up on. We’re not trying to do anything; we do what we love to do and what we want to hear, and people seem to be responding to it.
Oliver: All of the self-expression we do on stage is all genuine, our immediate reactions to what’s coursing through our veins in the immediate moment, and I think that rubs off.
Jackson: We’re trying to be the best versions of ourselves. We love the music that came before us and we worship it and study it, but we are not trying to replicate it. We’re trying to do what we can do and the combination of us four and get better. I think that quest to get better every single time we get on stage is what keeps people coming back, because it’s different.
Austin: I agree with that. I feel like being an artist is all about being genuine, being honest, and I think that’s the endearing part about being a fan, is believing in them. People embellish a lot in life and everyone has to be a salesman in some way. And we do as well, as a band. But when we are on stage, when we play together, it’s clear that we have an honest connection with each other and there’s a care for the experience that everyone else is having, not just us.
How does it feel to have a fan page in Japan?
Josiah: Sick. I hope we can go on tour there. It’s great, it’s lovely.
Oliver: Shout out to Japan. We love Japan. We love our Japanese fans. And we can’t wait to get out there. It shows the power of the internet. It’s cool to see how we can have this global appeal. It’s a universal language. And we can’t wait to get out to Japan and play for all those fans.
What is your dream venue?
Jackson: Outside of New York it’s Glastonbury.
Oliver: In New York, Gov Ball.
Oliver: Oh yeah.
Josiah: I was going to say that, but I’ll say Yankee Stadium.
Austin: Slane Castle in Ireland.
How do you personally categorize your music? Is there anything you want people to take away when listening?
Josiah: I want them to hear themselves in the music, and have an evolution of themselves, or mirror of themselves. Just put them in touch with them and their feelings, maybe that they’re hiding, maybe that they’re enjoying, but I really want them to get an emotional and spiritual experience out of it because that’s where it’s made.
Jackson: I’ll leave it at that, great answer.
What’s the ultimate goal?
Jackson: For me, since I was 10 years old, it’s been the pyramid stage at Glastonbury, headlining.
Oliver: To be the biggest rock band in the world.
Josiah: Honesty and process.
Austin: To stay inspired and keep getting better as a group.
📸: shot by Tori McGraw