Since UCSB’s relocation in 1954, the little campus-bordering town of Isla Vista has become known for a lot of things. For one, its population density is more than 50 times the state average per square mile. Its picturesque, coastal location has made it a sought-after spot for coeds to call home, never mind the fact that it lays claim to some of the best burrito spots in the county. Most importantly, though, Isla Vista’s streets have earned a rep for their chaotic, booze-fueled, anything-goes parties. It’s this very thing that’s landed UCSB on more “Top Party Schools” lists than we care to count, and its residents and visitors in more police blotters than we care to remember.
It’s fitting, then, that Isla Vista’s biggest movers and shakers of the moment are a musical act like FMLYBND. On the surface, the electro-rock six-piece from Del Playa Drive was made to party. Their songs are climactic and huge sounding; their lyrics are triumphant, joyous, and sing-along ready; and their combination of live and electronic drums, samples, and synths practically knocks you back with its might. But a closer look at FMLYBND reveals something far removed from the I.V. scene we’ve come to know. And their backstory that could help rewrite Isla Vista’s reputation for the world at large.
It’s a typically beautiful summer day in Isla Vista when I meet up with the FMLYBND players for the first time. Minus their lone lady, Braelyn Montgomery, frontman Mac Montgomery, synth player Erik Mason, bassist Justin Huntsman, guitarist Al “GoldenBear” Valles, and drummer Ethan Davis are huddled around a table at a coffee shop in the heart of I.V.’s bustling main drag. In between good-humored quips and jabs, the conversation breaks for passersby to say hi or simply yell the band’s name in our general direction. In the hours to follow, FMLYBND will release “Far Away,” the second single off their forthcoming debut album. The next day, they’ll head south to Huntington Beach to play the U.S. Open of Surfing alongside The Faint and Twin Shadow. The show will be their biggest yet, in front of a crowd of well over 5,000 attendees.
As the guys tell it, FMLYBND started in 2012, built off a collection of songs that Mac had written to sing with his wife and now bandmate, Braelyn. In its infant stages, they explain, FMLYBND was more chamber pop than electro rock, with lots of group vocals, reverb, and acoustic instrumentation. “It kind of sounded like Arcade Fire, if Arcade Fire played folkier stuff,” laughed Mac.
“The transition from playing that kind of music to playing the music we’re playing now kind of started when I bought the drum machine,” said Huntsman, who was splitting his time between playing music with Mac and working on a boat before he broke his back last year. “I kind of took [the injury] as a sign that I should really be doing music,” he said.
Laid up, Huntsman immediately reached out to Mac and Braelyn and began devoting himself to FMLYBND (who were then going by the name The Family Band) full-time. With Huntsman and then Mason at their side, the Montgomerys’ sound quickly evolved into something harder and dancier, and the fans flocked willingly.
“We played a show here to 150 people, and it was just two synths, the drum machine, the electric guitar, and me and Brae singing,” recalled Mac. “People went nuts.” In the following months, guitarist and friend Valles was added to the lineup. Davis came onboard shortly thereafter to produce and add live drums to the mix.
With its players in place, and thanks to the help of a generous “fan and friend,” the band headed to a studio in Lake Arrowhead, California, to begin work on a debut. While the almost-finished product is still being kept under wraps, lead single “Electricity” is a prime indicator of FMLYBND’s new vision fully realized. The track, which has reached close to 250,000 listens (per music blog aggregator Hype Machine), is a soaring synth anthem with an infectious hook that draws immediate comparison to acts like M83 and MGMT. Not surprisingly, it’s also garnered the band a steady stream of major-label attention since its release.
Down the road a ways at FMLYBND’s Del Playa studio space, the fellas plug in for a short afternoon practice session, still minus Braelyn, who’s off attending to her and Mac’s month-old son, Keagan.
Positioned behind Isla Vista’s famed Jesus Burger house, the studio is an expansive garage space that doubles as a meeting room for Isla Vista Church.
Still, the bandmates see FMLYBND as far removed from both IVC and any members’ religious affiliation. “We just really want to give people a sense of fulfillment, of satisfaction. We want them to have fun and go back to their roots of being a child, where there aren’t worries and you don’t really have to think and you can just enjoy the music.”
Up next, FMLYBND — and its growing family — plan to lock in an official release date for their debut. The group is also working toward an upcoming tour, with an outlook that’s about as un-I.V. as it gets.
“We plan to take Keagan on tour with us,” says Mac with a smile. “We’re not a real crazy band in the sense that we go out and rage and stuff. We’re pretty mellow. We stay pretty introverted. But that’s just how we are. Our focus is more about being with each other and making good music together.”
As for their Isla Vista roots, FMLYBND sees the group’s success as just the beginning of a musical movement in UCSB’s little town by the sea. “It might not happen right away, but eventually I’d like there to be a whole subculture of good music coming out of I.V.,” says Mac. “There’s already so much inspiration here; people just can’t see it, because it’s masked by everything else that goes on.”