Lorde and Muse were rained out of Chicago's Lollapalooza music festival, but the Districts — Philly's smart and spacey lo-fi rockers — had a different experience from their more famous festival-mates. The band had a great, even triumphant, gig in the Windy City the day after rain forced the aforementioned rock stars to cancel.
"It was great; gray, but fantastic," says Rob Grote, Districts co-founding singer and lyricist. "We got tired for a minute of doing festivals, but tired in a good way, where you're spoiled. A festival like Lollapalooza, though, was fun for us and the crowd."
Playing too many festivals is a good problem for the onetime toasts of Lititz, Pa. — together since their days in 2009 at Warwick High School. "We've been together since we were kids," Grote says of the "second nature" relationship among the grade-school pals and Districts co-founders: bassist Connor Jacobus and drummer Braden Lawrence. Even the newest Districts member, guitarist Pat Cassidy, was a friend from Lititz.
They bring their vivacious live act to Union Transfer on Friday in support of their third album, Popular Manipulations. It's a departure for the Districts: featuring bigger, glossier sounds; warm, smooth vocals; a radiantly anthemic melodicism; and abstractionist lyrics that point as much toward self-satisfaction and confidence as they do to loneliness and isolation.
In a way, there's an innocence to new songs such as "Ordinary Day" and "Capable" that wasn't apparent on the band's first two albums, Telephone, and the rough-edged A Flourish and a Spoil, both of which sound wearily rocking, nervously jangly, and older than their years, with Grote's raspy, throaty voice high in the mix.
On Popular Manipulations, the Districts just seem younger.
Grote, 22, says the band avoided themes of the innocence of youth in their work. "People focused on our age back then," he says. "Maybe we defied it."
As for Grote's sounding smoother — especially in tandem with the band's clearer sound — he says the band was highly aware of and savvier about the bigger picture going into Popular Manipulations.
"We understand what goes on with each other and get along," Grote says. "We were more confident on this album. There are things that we did on this album that were very intentional. I personally had never properly trained as a vocalist, but now I know what I'm doing. We all do. We're not kids anymore in that respect."
Living in Philly — Jacobus and Grote live in South Philly, Lawrence in Brewerytown, Cassidy in East Falls — also allowed the band members to pursue the friendships they've made in the area and further expand what they can do. Grote and Lawrence have an outside band, Straw Hats, with other locals. Popular Manipulations was co-produced by John Congleton (St. Vincent, Blondie), the band, and their buddy Keith Abrams of the Pine Barons, whom they met through the Philadelphia music scene.
They recorded a casual set of demos with Abrams for what became Popular Manipulations. "The Districts went into [Kensington's] Headroom Studio with him to demo 'Fat Kiddo,' which I started in my bedroom, and 'Ordinary Day,' " says Grote. "It was all off the cuff."
The demos gave the band a feeling of self-sufficiency that they hadn't felt since EPs, such as 2011's Kitchen Songs and 2012's While You Were in Honesdale. Only now, the results were shapelier, shinier, and even sultrier.
As far as Grote's lyrical development on Popular Manipulations is concerned, the lithesome writer funneled the "high hopes and low despair" of his generation — "We really wanted Bernie Sanders, not what we wound up with for president" — along with the emotionally taxing experience of growing up in public, into the new album. But, rather than point directly to what enthralled or disappointed him, Grote sought to "manipulate" the circumstances abstractly, to display distance and dysfunction in notional, even philosophical, ways — like the "f-d-up prayer" of "If Before I Wake."
Then there's the Districts' current single, "Ordinary Day," which finds the lyricist dealing with personal relationship stuff: "difficult things to process, but I didn't have specifics to share," says Grote. "The lyrics are more of a distillation of what's on my mind. Same with a lot of this album, which makes it different from the other records — this time, I wanted to focus on sentiment and feelings."
"We deal with real problems in our lives all the time, so maybe we don't have to be so specific in our work."