There’s a broad range of backstories behind the current crop of Cincinnati Entertainment Awards’ New Artist of the Year nominees. There are bands that have been around and have recently raised their profiles, as well as veterans who have been to this rodeo many times but find themselves in fresh circumstances that make them eligible for the category.
Then there’s Public, an Indie Rock power trio whose existence dates to the summer of 2010. The group’s underage members — vocalist/guitarist John Vaughn, bassist/vocalist Matthew Alvarado and drummer/vocalist Ben Lapps, who also has a blossoming solo career as an excellent fingerstyle guitar player — would normally be prohibited from hanging out in some of the places the first- and second-year college students perform.
That’s the definition of a New Artist.
“Ben and I were in a couple of band things, early projects when we were kids,” Vaughn says. “This is the first time we’re taking it seriously.”
Public’s debut four-song EP, Red, released last summer through the local Counter Rhythm Group, offers the yelping howl, martial cadence and galloping verve of Modest Mouse without the thick icing of ironic hipster cool. In fact, Red bristles with an edgy Pop vibe suggesting a slightly darker version of last year’s CEA Artist of the Year winners, Walk the Moon. But discussion of influences doesn’t hint at much of that directly.
“I brought a lot of Punk into the band,” Alvarado says. “I didn’t grow up with Led Zeppelin, I grew up with Alternative music.”
“I like a little Modest Mouse, and we get that (comparison) a lot, but we don’t do it on purpose. Is it because of the vocals?” Vaughn asks with a laugh. “When we were starting out … we were all three putting in our own things and it was delicate. We get compared to a lot of stuff, which is cool.”
Public’s roots began in grade school where Vaughn and Lapps first became friends
“We found Led Zeppelin together,” Lapps says. “Led Zeppelin was kind of the start of music for us.”
“That’s when I realized I wanted to take it seriously,” Vaughn says. “(Lapps and I) both started playing guitar at the same time. We were just really into the same things for a really long time.”
In high school at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, Vaughn and Lapps met Alvarado when all three were doing time in the school’s Jazz band. It was at that crucial point that Alvarado made a momentous decision to pick up a second instrument.
“I started playing bass guitar, trying it in junior year, and we practiced through lunch periods, just random songs,” Alvarado says. “I got into Red Hot Chili Peppers, which started me on bass, and then Muse. That’s how John and I bonded.”
“I’d heard him, because Matt would practice bass before Jazz band, then he showed me Muse,” Vaughn says. “Then we ended up jamming, the three of us, and we pretty much clicked right there.”
The first song that Alvarado played with Vaughn and Lapps was “I Need You,” the second track on Red. With little more than a skeletal idea for the song, Alvarado envisioned the bass structure and the threesome realized that their whole might be bigger than the sum of their parts.
“John and I only had the guitar riff and the drum part and we were like, ‘Maybe you have a bass thing,’ and he played it immediately,” Lapps says. “It was literally like the first 20 minutes of us playing together.”
With the core lineup established, the trio began writing songs with the goal of legitimizing the band’s status. Rather than auditioning drummers, Lapps shifted to the timekeeper’s position. Public gelled from there.
“I didn’t really play much drums until the group started,” Lapps says. “It was a blast.”
“I’d go to Ben’s house, we didn’t have a bassist and I wasn’t singing and we would play a White Stripes kind of deal,” Vaughn says of those earliest duo days. “It was raw and we were messing around, (but) then we realized we wanted to play out and we wanted a bass player. Our first instinct was to find a singer, but we jammed and I started singing because I didn’t feel like trying to find a singer. Matt got me into Muse so I started to try to sing, which is not a good way to start, but (it) really inspired me.”
After coalescing around Led Zeppelin, Muse and The Killers, Public entered a local band competition and was bounced fairly quickly (the major criticism was they sounded too much like The Killers). That humbling experience led them to rethink their sonic philosophy, which ultimately resulted in some amazing opportunities, including Public’s CEA nomination and opening shows for local Indie faves Pomegranates.
“It was a reality check,” Vaughn says of that first battle of the bands experience. “Early on we didn’t even know what we wanted to do, we just wanted to sound good. We weren’t trying to be anything we weren’t, we were just doing what we do. After the battle of the bands, we knew we had to indulge in our own songwriting and make our own sound.”
To hear music from and discover more about PUBLIC, visit publiccrown.com.