Try as any band or publicist might, there's no way to decree a song a hit. Not really. True hit singles declare themselves, by the quickening of your own blood, by the persistent echoing in your head a day or a week later. A true single almost doesn't even belong to the band that made it: It's more a creature of its own, chaperoned around the country by the band who wrote it, where it slips free of its authors to roam the minds of their listeners.
Which is why I find myself at Foam one night, following a hunch. It started with a guy at an art opening, urging me to check out this new band Pono AM. Then Lisa Houdei of LéPonds enthused about her favorite song of theirs. Then came the show I checked out on a whim at Off Broadway — the band's EP release, full of balloons and good cheer from the assembled friends, where every song was greeted with hollers and raised beers. The band members looked pretty young and not especially dressed to impress, but they enjoyed themselves, and the singer had an intensity and intentionality that was intriguing.
At Foam just a few weeks later, the balloons are back: Dozens of them bounce along the wooden floor, up in the air, onstage. Pono AM's songs vary dramatically in style, each one expanding on the band's strengths. I get a beer and the guy next to me asks if I've seen them before. "I heard they got a hit," he says, and he's not the first to say it tonight.
"What song?" someone asks him.
"You'll know it."
As if on cue, the guy center stage strums a chord, and I feel my head turn before I even realize it. As he starts to sing I can see the same thing happening throughout the room: Heads turn and the whole crowd takes a few collective steps toward the stage. The song is almost literally a magnet. Its opening melody has a touch of Thom Yorke, though the music is far more relaxed and breezy. Guitar phrases sound casually tossed off but hit every right accent. As the band winds its way through the track the crowd starts throwing balloons around, and everyone in the room joins in on the big fat chorus together: "Good vibes, good vibes, all right."
The song — titled "Good Vibes," of course — just has natural charisma. It's instant nostalgia, the shambling sound of being happy and high late in the party after a long and deliciously unproductive day. It's the definition of good vibes — and a natural hit.
"It was kind of written like an anthem for myself. If I was in a bad mood or something, it was like, here's something that I'll just sing that'll make me feel better. And the good vibes lyric, it's just what felt right at the time. And then at these shows, it's the one that everybody knows the words to, which is incredible. It's so awesome," explains Josh Friedrich a few weeks later over coffee at MoKaBe's. He's one of the band's two songwriters, and he's got a kind of bookish aspect. Also at the table is Kory Meyer, the band's scruffy, long-haired other guitarist and songwriter.
It has been a surprisingly quick rise for Pono AM, whose first show was just in October. Friedrich and Meyer have known each other for years — they're both based in Festus, and their bands have been playing together pretty much since they met at Jefferson College via "having the same dirtbag friends," according to Meyer. He plays in the Langaleers and used to run a coffee shop down the street from Friedrich, who fronts the band Bucko Toby. They'd each been playing around St. Louis for a few years without making much of a dent.
One day at the café, Meyer showed Friedrich a new song he was working on. A little later he got a message from Friedrich, "Like, 'Dude, check out this thing' — and it's my song!" Meyer says with a laugh. "He'd added some stuff to it and put all these parts to it. He's like, 'We should go back and record it and do it where you're singing,' and I was like, 'This is cooler than anything we're gonna be able to do.' So we just took his recording of him doing everything, and that's the version you hear."
"I just hijacked his song," Friedrich says unapologetically.
That song, "Not for Me," is a grower. At first it feels a little tossed off, sung in a slightly wobbly high voice and played on acoustic guitar, with a tambourine instead of a snare drum. But a charming little keyboard line shows up halfway through, and that little line is the hook you'll find yourself humming days later.
"The coffeeshop I was running, it just didn't get a lot of business," Meyer says, "so it was mainly just me and Josh hanging out bullshitting with each other all day, and —"
Friedrich interjects: "— talking about the responsibilities of being the only person in our bands that were booking and —"
"— keeping it running," Meyer finishes.
The two put that work ethic to immediate effect, bringing in friends John Stewart on bass and Alex Tucker on drums to start a new project and begin working on songs. (Stewart was later replaced by Brandon Fichtenmayer.) And not just songs: They were on the hunt for something sticky. "We talked about the Strokes so much when we started this band," says Friedrich. "There's usually like several parts in the song where you can be singing along with the guitar part or the melody — they're just constantly doing the hook."
Meyer notes the way the crowd would sing along in live performances. "There wasn't a part of the song that everyone didn't know to a T," says Meyer. "It's something we try to keep in mind ourselves, you know? Try to keep a hook going as often as possible."
And sure enough, their set is bristling with musical burrs. "Death Man" is a rocker built around a classic lo-fi guitar riff sung in Meyer's yellin'-est voice. "Money" starts with grand guitars, bass, drums and vocals all tracing the same unexpected melody. It channels Ty Segall at his heaviest, with a weirdly syncopated rhythm that roars like a locomotive when everyone lines up. "Good Vibes" is the song fans know, but the full set proves Pono AM is a talented new band rather than a fluke.
As soon as the band had songs, it got busy making videos to support its EP, and booked a few shows — at a radio station and an unhinged Halloween party in Dayton, Ohio, then onto Nashville, Memphis, and Punta Gorda, Florida, where the band jumped on a bill with pals the Woolly Bushmen. At the end of the show, as soon as the members loaded their gear up, they immediately drove fifteen hours straight from Punta Gorda back to Festus.
"That's kind of been our goal from the beginning, like, 'Let's tour instantly,'" says Friedrich. "We pretty much tried to take all of our experience and things that we'd learned in our other bands and start fresh with this new thing."
Now the band is back home, working on new recordings while playing shows and gaining attention in town, most recently as part of this year's Lo-Fi Cherokee. As the group been creating new material, its members been noticing the "Good Vibes" phenomenon as well. It's even got Friedrich a little wary.
"I feel like..." he pauses. "I'm under the impression that 'Good Vibes' is what we're known for. And it's strange because it's exactly what I wanted with that song... But at the same time, I'm concerned that it's giving people this idea that we're a party band or something."
He fears that the phrase "good vibes" is easy to dismiss as "a hashtag... a thing you see on psychedelic shirts with cats on them." But there's a fine distinction between riding a trend and tapping into a universal emotion.
"It's not like I was trying to latch onto this thing that's already selling," he says. "That song was just the power of positivity. I knew some people at that time that were just kind of down and out and stuff. That song's just meant to be for them, and for myself, if we're not feeling great."
And that's the beauty of the song: Good vibes are good vibes no matter where you are. And now that the band has caught some ears, Pono AM is planning to make the most of it.
"What we said when we started this band was we gotta do one thing where we can say we actually tried," says Meyer. "You know? 'Cause I just don't know if I want to put this much effort into anything down the road. Were going for broke with this one."