Interview by Robert Kyte
Photos by Mikko Castano
back to yours.
The crash cymbal sings. The tempo slows.
“Let me take a second to introduce the band,” says the pianist and lead singer. “Over here we have Tommy Levin on guitar. We have Bryce Kassalow”—the singer pauses—”…on guitar too.” Kassalow noodles a quick riff on a candy-apple strat.
“Aiden Jones on bass.”
A distant “Jonesy!” can be heard from corner.
“Jiaan Mansuri on drums,” is met with a wave of high-pitched support. Adoration, some might even call it.
“And my name is Daniel Luttway,” says the pianist. “And we’re back to yours.”
back to yours formed in the Fall of 2017 through Georgetown’s Guild of Bands, a 1-credit class that prioritizes studio time for musicians and bands to compose original music, culminating in a showcase at the end of the semester. A year and a half later, back to yours is coming off a sold-out show at Songbyrd Music House on 18th Street in Adams-Morgan. Robert and Mikko of ThirtySeventh sat down with back to yours prior to their big night to chat before the band inevitably blows up and outgrows their compact Vil A hangout space. The five-man group squeezes onto a three-man couch before breaking into an impromptu acapella rendition of “Mallory,” a back to yours original.
“We’re ready,” Aiden remarks:
R: Was there any prior plan to create something like back to yours, or would you say that Guild of Bands is mostly responsible for the formation of the band?
The bandmates look to one another awaiting an answer.
“No,” says Daniel, shrugging.
R: So, “back to yours.” How did we arrive at that name?
“We began as the Villuminati,” says Tommy, laughing.
“But that name sucked,” interjects Aiden.
The group briefly pauses, looking to one another.
“It was okay,” says Daniel, looking deflated.
“It had no pizazz,” asserts Aiden, before continuing on to explain that the band’s name originated from a string of “heinous text messages” from a friend of the bassist. Questions were asked. Shots were shot. The name “back to yours” was born.
R: Who would you say your biggest influencers are that aren’t named John, Paul, George, or Ringo?
“The Beatles,” quips Aiden.
Through laughter the band fires off a number of other notable names: Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Monkees, Stevie Wonder.
R: What gets you excited about music?
Jiaan leans into the mic: “You tap into a certain fire. There can be on days and off days.”
Daniel is bouncing his head from shoulder to shoulder: “Like this, you know? It feels like this.”
R: So, this fire you’re talking about…What’s something non-music related that inspires you to make music?
“The whole Mueller thing,” answers Jiaan. Aiden corrects his pronunciation.
“That old nursing school that they knocked down,” he says, recalling the former Kober-Cogan building.
“We play music because we want to pay less for parking,” responds Daniel. This is the answer the group settles on.
R: Alright, off the top of your head, I want an answer from each of you: what’s a popular song you really think deserves a feature from back to yours?
Bryce, Daniel, Jiaan, and Tommy fire off in succession:
“Down by Jay Sean.”
Behind-the-scenes photos from back to yours’ first studio recording session for their forthcoming studio album, as of now untitled.
Vocalist and pianist, Daniel Luttway.
Lead guitarist and vocalist, Bryce Kassalow.
Rhythm guitarist and vocalist, Tommy Levin.
Drummer, Jiaan Mansuri.
Bassist, Aiden Jones.
R: Alright, so your Songbyrd intro describes you guys as “pop-punk funk-rock soul-pop pig-slop.” Let’s unpack that a little bit. Do you feel the need to attach yourself to a particular genre?
“As our setlist gets a little longer, I’m starting to see it a little bit,” says Tommy. “Every song is different right now. But we have time to define ourselves, hence the pig-slop.”
“We started out as a pig-slop band, actually, but it didn’t quite fit,” Bryce inserts.
Enter Jiaan: “Is there such a thing as indie-pop? I think we’re indie-pop. We wanna get the people going,” the drummer emphasizes.
R: How has your music evolved from when you first started playing together to now?
“There’s not enough music going on at Georgetown,” says Jiaan. “[So,] when you play music [here], and you enjoy doing it so much, and your friends get really into it, you think you’re the king of the world.”
“We have to constantly check ourselves and not talk like we’re further than we are,” Aiden points out. “We’re still just a group of guys.”
Jiaan remembers that he has a presentation in the morning. “I am not prepared.”
Tommy recalls how a few months prior their main focus was to make music and immerse themselves into the Georgetown music scene. Now, “to be able to see that unfold is just…unreal.”
R: Do you have any projects coming up that might challenge your existing work or stand out?
The band comes to the consensus that their primary goal right now is to record their first album and nail down their existing work.
“After that, and after Songbyrd…after the show, we’ll have a little more free time,” says Aiden. “I’m excited to see where our heads go.”
back to yours’ performance at Songbyrd Music House & Record Café on Saturday, April 6, 2019.
R: There have been whispers that back to yours sorta kinda killed it at a darty pretty recently. Tell me a little bit about that experience.
“I think we can all agree that [the SigEp darty] was one of the best hours of our lives,” recalls Aiden. “Everyone was so responsive. We kinda blacked out for that hour [and] went on autopilot. Our only thoughts after the show were, ‘When can we do that again?’”.
Tommy: “I couldn’t think about anything else for three days.”
R: How do reflections from your live performances affect your studio work?
Daniel weighs in: “The more fun we have, the better the music sounds.”
“When we’re practicing a setlist for a show,” says Tommy, “[we] almost get the energy as if we’re playing that show. But then when you’re up there…it just happens—it goes.”
R: Playing live is obviously a whole different thing. How do you guys handle performance anxiety?
“Part of being a college band,” says Tommy through a smile, “is getting to play in front of your friends. Looking out into the crowd and seeing 15 or 20 of your closest friends singing along to your songs…what do you have to be nervous about?”
“The jitters only exist before the show,” says Jiaan. “As soon as we start playing”—he pauses—“it’s maybe the best feeling I can describe.”
R: What’s a day in the studio with back to yours like now compared to when you first started?
Bryce rejoins: “There would be times when we were first starting where we would go in for two hours and play two songs. We have things a little more together now. We’ll know within five minutes if it’s going to be a productive rehearsal. It’s like a class, but I spend so much time on this than any other class.”
“And it’s the best class.” Jiaan compares the group dynamic to a sports team: “You know where your teammate is supposed to be, and you preemptively pass it to that place. [We’re] filling in the gaps and getting each other excited. That’s the best feeling”
“I’m basically playing with four Lionel Messi’s,” Aiden says, looking to his bandmates. They form a group hug towards the center of the couch.
R: How did you guys go from having two songs written in a Vil B living room last year to where we are now, in terms of the creative process?
“Being separated,” Daniel notes. Here worth mentioning is that Daniel took off the Fall semester to work in Electric Lady Studios in New York. Despite the distance, the bandmates continued to make music knowing that they would come back together in the Spring. “Being able to come back with a different perspective on the music was fantastic.”
“It was nice being able to explore different genres and new musical directions,” Tommy explains.
R: Tell me a story behind a back to yours Song.
Daniel recounts the story of the back to yours original, “Merry Christmas and Goodnight”:
“Last year we lived above some neighbors in our apartment [in Vil B]. A lot of music was written in that apartment, a lot of music was jammed, a lot of music was played. And our neighbors didn’t like that, hence the line ‘three knocks on the floor.’”
Aiden mimics the motion of their neighbor hitting a broomstick against the ceiling, which would reverberate through the floor of the band’s former apartment.
“At 6 pm!”, Tommy complains.
“Yeah, like at a reasonable hour to be playing music. Sometimes unreasonable.”
“We did bring a drum set in there once,” adds Jiaan. “That was probably the height of the unreasonable shenanigans.”
R: What advice do you guys have for people trying to write songs?
Aiden suggests breaking off into pairs, recalling the chaos of trying to write songs as a five-man group. “Go into the studio. Stay late, go early, do it at 3 am in Dan’s bedroom and just hammer something out.”
R: Where do you see back to yours in 5 years?
The band’s answers were unclear, but Jiaan was able to say this: “In 5 years, at least, we’ll be able to look back at this tangible thing and say, ‘We made this in college.’” Through the uncertainty, the group seemed to resonate with this.
back to yours plays regular shows around campus. Follow them on Instagram (@backtoyours) for updates, and find their demos on https://backtoyours.bandcamp.com/releases.