Band To Watch: Home Is Where
Home Is Where have done the homework assignment. The Palm Coast, Florida four-piece’s music is composed of self-deprecating wails, crashing guitar riffs, and a flicker of lyrical hope that almost feels naive — in other words, the perfect foundation for classic emo catharsis. Their debut album, I Became Birds — soon to see limited edition vinyl release via Knifepunch and Father/Daughter — plays like In The Aeroplane Over The Sea for a new generation of emo fans. Singer Brandon MacDonald, drummer Josiah Gardella, guitarist Trace George, and bassist Connor O’Brien are bonafide music geeks who take pride in studying their predecessors, and it shows in the pitch-perfect decisions of their songs. But more than anything else, Home Is Where are just trying to make their home state proud as the latest in a long (yet often overlooked) lineage of Florida emo bands.
“I’m deeply proud to be part of the Florida scene, and not even in a weird home state pride kind of way,” says MacDonald. “The classic ’90s emo stuff is called Midwest emo and I get why, but my favorite sound comes from Florida. There was a lot of abrasive, dynamic stuff happening here, from the hardcore side to the poppier side, and our music is purposely Floridian in that way. It embraces the imagery and sounds of our scene like Don Martin Three and, even though it’s not super apparent, hard screamo shit like Twelve Hour Turn or Palatka. We wouldn’t be the same without the weirdos from this weirdo state.”
As MacDonald speaks into the phone, background noise weaves throughout her words in a way that’s both irregular and calming. She’s pacing outside and smoking a cigarette next to the highway, and the ambient whoosh of cars speeding by and honks of impatient truckers never lets up. By the way MacDonald describes Palm Coast, any event is a big event when there’s not much to do there in the first place. It’s the type of hometown where Gardella and George could already become local legends by age 16 thanks to the Ned, their grunge rock band known for throwing energetic live shows, or O’Brien could literally be pulled from the crowd to play bass with Home Is Where onstage despite never playing together prior. Perhaps part of this is due to the comparative infancy of Palm Coast in general. The first “pioneers” settled there in 1972, and the city wasn’t incorporated until 1999. Located between St. Augustine and Daytona, it’s a city with the feeling of a small town and a rapidly multiplying population that more than doubled in a decade.
So it’s not exactly a surprise, then, that Home Is Where quickly rose to prominence in their local scene after forming. As high school friends, MacDonald asked Gardella about starting a new band together because the latter already had “a million side projects anyway.” They rotated through a few guitarists before striking gold with George and, at that fateful show where they dragged him onstage, picked O’Brien as their bassist because they knew he practiced diligently in private at home. With nothing to lose, the newly formed Home Is Where spent their first shows in 2017 improvising before an audience that didn’t seem to mind. “I was reading awkwardly from my notebook where I kept ideas for song lyrics and the band was staring at each other very intensely to see what would happen next: general punk riffs, some post-punk stuff, and math-y, weird moments,” recalls MacDonald. Unsurprisingly, most of those spontaneous songs did not land, but they did establish the natural rapport and ease of experimentation that would come to define the band’s sound.
A month later, Home Is Where solidified their own songwriting ritual: drink some Cokes, play two or three games of chess, then goof around on acoustic guitar and harmonica to outline a track. By early 2019, they had their first EP, the charmingly scrappy Our Mouths To Smile. Those first five songs, excluding the political number “Dob Bylan,” were created specifically for people in Palm Coast. The way Home Is Where saw it, Our Mouths To Smile could offer everyone that prized opportunity to scream together about a collective experience. “I just wanted them to leave this town for a night, go out to St. Augustine or Jacksonville, and dance around to songs that were just for them,” explains MacDonald. “We wanted to be a band for our friends, to connect with them in a way that’s different than sitting in a garage smoking pot.”
Immediately afterwards, Home Is Where started drafting ideas for their debut album. I Became Birds is a collection of six songs that crystallize their vast range of influences into one sound. It’s adorned with a photograph from the 1977 Enfield poltergeist, as made famous by The Conjuring 2. To be clear, it’s an album, not an EP, despite its relatively brief 18-minute runtime. “We militantly adhere to Sum 41’s philosophy of all killer, no filler,” jokes MacDonald. To her point, there’s repeated motifs, connecting lyrical themes, and a varied approach to each track that makes the record feel like a sizable body of work. By the time the opening track segues into “Long Distance Conjoined Twins,” it’s hard not to feel like you’re listening to an unpredictable epic unfold.
While it’s accurate to point out similarities to Tim Kinsella or the Hotelier on I Became Birds, the album’s most obvious comparison is also one of the hardest to earn: Neutral Milk Hotel. From folk-punk acoustic guitar to absurdist heart-on-sleeve lyrics, there’s ample similarities between the two: downtrodden horns that enter like a stagehand, synth that moans like a theremin, and the repetition of innocuous phrases-turned-grandiose idioms like “Look at all the dogs/ I wanna pet every puppy I see.” And then there’s MacDonald’s instruments of choice, which mirror those of Julian Koster, like singing saw and oddly stirring harmonica solos (“I have to ask Trace what key the song is in so I can pick the harmonica to play for it. I feel like the most useless person in the band sometimes,” she laughs.) Few artists have captured the complex, mysterious, and bizarre aura of Neutral Milk Hotel’s indie rock the way Home Is Where have, and even then, they push themselves farther by refusing to settle for solely that sound. Each track on I Became Birds experiences an explosive pivot to full-force electric guitar, screamo vocals, or a rush of punk power chords. It’s endlessly creative and obviously dynamic, and Home Is Where pull it off like a poem that’s coming straight from the heart.
“When we’re recording, we treat everything like it’s happening for the last time, and that’s why it comes across so urgent,” says MacDonald. “From day one, I wanted to be in an emo band. I wanted to make music like Cap’n Jazz, Boys Life, I Hate Myself, all this stuff from the ’90s, and do something different than what was currently going on. For me, 2017 was a dark time. It felt like the end of the revival, I wasn’t into a lot of newer bands, and my favorite contemporary bands at that point were either broken up, on hiatus, or on their 12th album that wasn’t as good as their first three. So I just wanted to do something different within emo with this band.”
The way MacDonald talks about emo may come as a surprise to some. At 25 years old, she’s got a flow chart about the evolution of the genre burned into her brain, where even the fleeting subgenres are annotated in detail. To MacDonald, memorizing old band discographies isn’t a misguided path to contribute to the genre or an eye roll-worthy attempt to join know-it-all debates. She just loves learning about music, and an upbringing defined by ample free time guaranteed days spent reading Wikipedia pages and diligent emo archives like Sophie’s Floorboard. Suddenly, early last year, MacDonald’s routine felt like it hit a glitch. When browsing Sophie’s Floorboard like usual to check out albums she may have missed, she saw her own band name filed between artists like Frances Quinlan and Glass Beach. “I saw a band added that I liked and thought Oh hell yeah! Then I saw us listed there and said, out loud, ‘What the fuck?'” recounts MacDonald. “My girlfriend came in because I was shouting and geeking out, just a mess. I was so happy. I thought that would be the peak. If that was all we left behind, I would be so proud of ourselves.”
Of course, Home Is Where’s career isn’t stopping there or anytime soon. Thanks to a devoted local scene and the never-ending power of word-of-mouth recommendations, their fanbase continues to swell. For many, I Became Birds served as the perfect entry point thanks to its passionate approach to timeless emo methods. For others, it acted as an unexpected comfort regarding the realization, understanding, and acceptance of gender transition. Through lyrical metaphors like escaping Scientology and conjoined twins separated at birth, MacDonald was able to capture what it feels like to discover who you really are while saying goodbye to your former self. “Reading old lyrics from as far back as 2012, I realized I had been trying to tell myself forever that I might not be a boy. It hit me full force,” says MacDonald. Her goal was to make an album that trans people like herself could connect to. Based on the number of people that have reached out expressing exactly that — including several who “got it” before looking at the liner notes or looking up who MacDonald is — it seems to be a success. “That means a lot to me,” MacDonald says, “and I hope it continues to inspire something positive.”
Community permeates everything Home Is Where touches, from the serious to the silly. When the pandemic brought shows to a halt, MacDonald wanted to foster an online space for bands in the general emo realm to champion one another. Meticulous charts and “fifth-wave emo” memes allowed an otherwise regionally separated community to come together and hype one another up, even when others took it the wrong way. At the end of the day, Home Is Where just want to extend a hand to listeners who need one. It’s right there in their Bandcamp tagline: “Our band could be yr neighborhood.” It looks like their own community is already growing, too; Home Is Where just welcomed two new band members (Katy from Gilt on guitar, Caleb Haynes from Hey, ily! and Rookie Card on synths), potentially for the long haul. After keeping an eye out for their Palm Coast pals and sharing a knowing embrace with queer kids worldwide, what better way for Home Is Where to introduce themselves in person than now, when touring is safe again and there’s a classic album tucked into their back pocket.