I met the five affable lads of Motel Motel on a rainy Saturday afternoon, outside their gig at Brooklynâs Northside Festival. The place was abuzz with the rumor that Meryl Streep was inside. (It was true: her son, Henry Wolfe, was playing the Gothamist showcase just ahead of Motel Motel.)
"I just saw Mamma Mia," lead vocalist Eric Engel informed me. "I was with my mom. She was like, 'I don't want to do anything but lay down and watch Mamma Mia. I don't care if it's bad, Eric, I just want to watch it." This sort of thing is half the appeal of Motel Motel: no matter how many tour dates they've booked in the last year, no matter which hipster paragons they're playing with -- Harlem Shakes and Crystal Stilts, for starters -- the boys still aren't too cool to watch mediocre movie-musicals with their moms.
And then there's the music: Motel Motel is the rare band that defies comparison simply because they're better than most of what you want to compare them to. (They're better, for example, than Cold War Kids, though that's a good starting point.) Their debut album, New Denver, is the best kind of alt-country: heartfelt and vicious in all the right proportions, and just raggedy enough around the edges. Almost all the songs have single-word titles, like "River," "Virginia," and the standout "Coffee," a rollicking ode to love nearly lost; it'll get stuck in your head the way "Come Pick Me Up" did a decade ago.
The more I talked to Motel Motel, the more I realized I'm not alone in my impression of them: five guys who are so nice, they make you want to do favors for them. When I asked about the beautiful cabin in South Carolina where they spent April working on a new record, bassist Timo Sullivan piped up, "It was totally random! It was my girlfriend's father's friend's house." Meanwhile, drummer Jeremy Duvall had stepped away briefly to talk to a friend in another band who had stopped by the venue. And the cover art for New Denver? A friend of the band did that, too, as everyone explained at once. It's pretty epic, even by album-art standards: a simple line drawing of two raptors fighting a stallion.
"There was an older version, of a T. rex chasing a horse," Eric explained of the cover. "It was a big T. rex. That was pretty awesome, too."
Photo by Johnny Leather