Q&A: How A R I Z O N A Found Success From The Studio To The Stage

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Photo: Jimmy Fontaine

“We’ve just been doing it for other people. It hasn’t worked for them, but the minute we did it for ourselves, it started to work,” chuckled Zach of A R I Z O N A as we began chatting at Lollapalooza. Funny how that works, right? To give Zach’s quote a bit more context, let’s rewind and share a bit more about A R I Z O N A’s background. 

Zach Hannah (vocals), David Labuguen (keys), and Nathan Esquite (guitar) of A R I Z O N A came together by complete happenstance during their college days in Boston, a time when all three performed for various bands and produced for other artists. They casually chose the name A R I Z O N A, added the spaces for comic effect, and continued to create the catchy indie electro-pop style they’d always owned–with zero expectations of the success that was about to come their way. Signed to Atlantic Records and Artist Publishing Group in 2016, it became clear that the trio was onto something special as listeners and fans came rolling in the hundreds of millions. The whirlwind continued in 2017 with major festival slots at Governors Ball, Lollapalooza, Firefly, and Hangout Festival, plus the announcement of a headline tour in the fall. All the while, A R I Z O N A have maintained an air of humble confidence, claiming that ultimately, “We were the dudes who created those records that gave them to people to go play on stages and for us, we’re just driving the vehicle now.”

Get to know the band in our exclusive Q&A below, where we discuss David’s relationship with the Jonas Brothers, Nate’s Pop-Tart obsession, Zach’s artists to watch, and more.

OTW: How has Lollapalooza been so far? What are you looking forward to seeing here?

Nate: I’m super super super stoked for Arcade Fire. That’s like the biggest reason I’m even coming Sunday. I’m so stoked to see them; I’ve been trying to see them for years.

David: Lolla’s been good. It was hot yesterday, then it rained at night, and now it’s cold, but it’s allowing me everything I want to wear, so I’m cool.

OTW: You like the warm clothes?

David: I think I do best in Fall. Fall’s a good season–this is a little fall vibes, so I can wear something a little heavier.

Zach: I wish I had gotten the memo, because I would have dressed differently.

OTW: How was your guys’ set?

Zach: It was good. A lot of fun. Big turn-out, big party. It was just more than we expected, and it was awesome–everything about it.

OTW: Are you noticing more fans turning up and singing your songs?

Zach: I mean, yeah, as time goes on, we notice a natural incline of that. It’s also hard to gauge at the festivals, and that’s what makes them so cool. At venues you can kind of see the size of the rooms, and festivals sometimes look one way and end up being another way. I think the main thing with festivals is that everyone’s always there to have a good time, so it always ends up being one big party–always.

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OTW: So you guys first came together in Boston. How did that happen?

David: I was going to school at Emerson college. Nate and I met in church one day. Nate went to Berklee, and the next school year we were roommates. Zach and I have known each other for the better part of 12, 13 years now, so Zach would come and crash at our place. He would eat Nate’s tortillas, and at some point, we all started making music together, so that’s kind of how it all started. But that’s not how A R I Z O N A started; that’s just how our group dynamic started.

Zach: We were producers, so our job was to make music for other artists. That was what we did for a long time–producers and song-writers.

OTW: What kind of artists did you produce for?

Zach: Literally everybody. I lived in L.A. for a long-time. Nate came out to live with me. Dave was back and forth. We were all back and forth quite a bit. We kind of got our start–like that’s a weird story…

David: I grew up with the Jonas Brothers. Their dad was my pastor. So, one of their songwriters took us under his wing. So that’s how Zach and I got started, and then Nate came into the fold, and we were all living in Boston.

Zach: Years after the Boston thing, we were in L.A., and during a long down period of not much going on, we just made some music just by ourselves for fun. Just to be like, “ah whatever.” I was literally going to become a history teacher. Dave was working at Al Jazeera news network. Nate and I were living together in England at some point. There wasn’t really much going on, so we said before we totally give everything up, let’s just make a few songs for ourselves, and it’ll just be fun. But that ended up being the thing that went online and this is what happened. It was really weird.

OTW: Did you start with this sound or did it evolve?

David: It’s funny, because people who knew us when we were producing for other people were like, “You have been doing the A R I Z O N A sound forever. Like this has just been you guys.”

Zach: We’ve just been doing it for other people. It hasn’t worked for them, but the minute we did it for ourselves, it started to work. It’s weird.

OTW: Why A R I Z O N A?

David: Iced Tea was taken.

Zach: Funny enough though, during that time when we started to make those songs for fun, we had one or two of them and we were FaceTiming between LA and Boston. We had a FaceTime call about this one record we made called “Let Me Touch Your Fire.” It was our first song, and we were like “Oh this is fun, this sounds cool. Who is it for?” It’s for nobody. And that’s when we had the idea, well maybe we should make more of these and maybe we could make it a “band.” It was like a really, really funny idea for us. So much so, that we had been so strung out on being in the industry that you just get so sick and tired of taking everything so seriously after awhile. So, Dave was like, “Bro it doesn’t matter what we call it. No one’s going to hear it. It’s never going to be a thing, so you call it whatever you want.” And Nate on FaceTime happened to be wearing a hat that said Arizona on it, so he said yeah call it Arizona.

OTW: Did it have the spaces?

Zach: No, no no. Furthering that joke, we were just like, “Yeah we can make it look hipster. We could space it out. It could be cool.” Dave does all of our design anyway. He’s our visual artist guru. He made it look really cool, as a joke. And after we got done laughing, we just kept it. It was something we just liked. It was the spirit we appreciated about it.

OTW: Do you think spaces are the new not having vowels?

Zach: [laughs] Those are two very, very dumb things.

David: That was something that passed through our minds for a split second. I was like if we do A R I Z O N A without vowels, but with spaces..it was too much.

Zach: It would just be like R Z N. Like, “What’s the name of your band?” “R Z N, it’s pronounced Arizona.” It’s a dumb thing people do these days, and I think it’s just something we like to make fun of in a “don’t take yourself seriously” way. It’s tongue in cheek for sure.

OTW: You released your debut album, GALLERY, this year. What was the process for it? Were there any themes that bring it together?

David: We started out on a course to write an EP, and when we got to the stage of presenting all of that, we were working with our A&R and our label very closely and collectively decided to do an album. Because we didn’t have some high-concept album, we actually named it GALLERY. For us, all these songs have real touch points in our lives, and so it’s us on display.

OTW: What kind of touch points?

Zach: Everything that’s happened the past ten years of our lives. We have enough momentum, we have enough material to do it, we should make a full album. It made sense on paper all across the board in everybody’s mind. But for us, it was a little bit more than that, because we went from taking this huge scary step to becoming the ones performing, singing, and playing on the song. We’re not going to make it for other people– it went from making one song ourselves in the studio, low-key after-hours, to us making a whole album. And that’s the intention, everyone’s intention–“you guys are an artist and you’re going to make your whole album right now.” It was just an opportunity for us to look back at the ten years that had just passed and view it in a different way, third-person, and take those experiences and reshape them in a form of creation that was completely brand new for us.

OTW: Is that an amazing feeling?

Zach: It was a lot of things, obviously, but that’s how this past year unfolded. It was just going through the motions of dealing with that, and at the end of it we came out with GALLERY.

OTW: And are you working towards a second album now?

Zach: Oh yeah.

David: It’s been considered. [laughs]

Zach: We’re definitely not not making music. It’s what we do. We make music.

OTW: You’ve been playing some pretty major festivals. How has the live side been?

David: It’s funny, because we’re so used to being on the other side of the glass or the other side of the soundboard, so we’ve been coming into our own since the top of the year. I think if I look at how I was performing at the top of the year, I’ve gotten a lot less stiff on stage–that’s for sure.

Zach: Same.

David: For Zach, especially. Nate and I grew up in church playing live music, so we had a little bit of experience, and Nate had a lot of hardcore bands.

Nate: Yeah, I grew up playing in a ton of bands, so performing wasn’t new for me at all, but Zach–his first performing in front of other people was with A R I Z O N A.

Zach: Yeah, I don’t want to see those videos. [laughs] It’s funny, but it’s become something that you love, because the love goes straight to you. It’s one thing to see the numbers, like oh ten million people on Spotify, it’s a crazy number, but at the end of the day that’s sort of a disconnect. But when you’re standing in front of those people that are like shouting your lyrics back at you–a bunch of dudes who never imagined themselves being those guys, and then being those guys, it’s an odd feeling.

OTW: Does it make you feel more confident as a person?

Zach: No. I think I speak for most of us when I say I don’t think it affects our confidence as people just because we know what it is. We were the dudes that created those records that gave them to people to go play on stages and for us we’re just driving the vehicle now. So, it doesn’t help your confidence as a person; I think it just makes you feel nice. It makes you feel like, “Wow there are people that actually care”–you just have to find them and go talk to them. It makes the world a little smaller, that’s all.

OTW: Nate–we heard your fans bring you Pop-Tarts. OTW: Any flavor recommendations?

Nate: Brown cinnamon only.

Zach: That used to not be my favorite, and then I was converted. I used to love the s’mores one. I still do like those, but the brown sugar cinnamon has an emotional connection to me.

Nate: It’s a classic, clean favor.

Zach: It’s a staple.

OTW: What do you wish for the future A R I Z O N A? How would you define an ultimate success point?

Zach: World domination.

Nate: I think if we ever sell out a room and every single person there brings us Pop-Tarts, then we’ve succeeded.

Zach: Also, world domination as supreme galactic chancellor.

Nate: Also, owning Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts. Re-invent breakfast.

OTW: Who are your Ones To Watch?

Zach: Kaytranada.

David: The funny thing is I’ve been on such an old-school kick lately, like super old-school, so I’m like, “Ah what am I listening to that’s up-and-coming?”

Nate: I’ve been really, really into Warpaint lately. They’re pretty up there already, but I still love them. Fickle Friends. Joan.

Zach: I was just going to say being here at Lolla helps us, because we get to discover, cause we’re so trapped on the road, in the basement sometimes making records, being out here and discovering is what we love too.  

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Photo: Jimmy Fontaine

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