RFA, a band of hometown friends recently named one of the 10 Artists You Should Know from Philadelphia by NPR, is a lot of things. When I ask a simple question—"who is the band?"—a veritable smorgasbord of answers, varying in seriousness and pretension, were thrown at me.
“Who isn't?” said Brendan McHale, RFA's lead vocalist, who doubles as a production associate for the The Philly Pops. He's cool in a quiet kind of way, offering palpable self–assurance and —at least based on this sole encounter—good taste in sweaters.
“A praying mantis, holding a beer,” says Christian Turzo (C '22), the band's lead guitar player. He's cool in a way that makes you squint, full of wry jokes and clever interjection.
“No. The band's like your drunk uncle,” answered Dan Cousart, who also plays guitar for the band. He's authoritatively cool, with a great head of hair and a decisive tone of voice. All of his answers seem declarative, like he knows exactly where he's going in the next ten minutes and the next five years.
The bottom line? RFA is cool in whatever way you want them to be, merging an indie rock sensibility with a desire for grand connections -- you know, the kind that push past the veneer of rockstardom. The men of RFA don't want to be your impersonal idols or secret crushes. They want to soundtrack lives, churning out songs that sound personal and relatable, kind of like the stuff that plays in the background of a John Hughes movie.
Beginning in 2011 as the product of lunchtime conversation in a mundane high school cafeteria, RFA has quickly emerged as force in the Philadelphia music scene. Pulling influences from a slate of British indie–rockers, like the Kooks and Arctic Monkeys, and transcendent greats, like The Beatles, this up–and–coming band creates music meant for crowded moments—basement shows, road trips with best friends, the climax of a party.
“Our music is for crowds,” says Brendan, “We like winning people over.”
“And we never have problem being noticed,” interjects Dan, recalling what the first time seeing RFA live should feel like. Each member looks back at high school through a foggy window, reflecting the best parts of a “misfit–y”—as Chris called it—high school experience in every song and live performance. Despite never billing themselves as a brash, DIY–punk type band, RFA aims to distill the essence of being in that type of crowd—sweaty, lost in the mosh, and desperate for another encore.
Their self–titled debut album, which pokes fun at the obscurity of their namesake acronym, does that well. Album standout “Just Don't Turn the Lights On” could easily soundtrack a nineties teenage movie montage, with an easy upbeat energy and an instrumental break meant for dancing. Meanwhile, “Goodbye Stranger,” whose lyric video is slated to come out on March 19, floats with an insanely catchy chorus and an approachable rock aura. RFA's music makes everyone feel like an insider, even if they position themselves “on the outskirts” of Philly's music scene.
“Because Philly is cliquey in a way, it drove us to sort of do better. When we would play these basements shows, we wanted to be the best band by far. Like let's just blow something away,” said Chris. To them, being better means offering an unprecedented sense of familiarity to fans. Unlike the popular trope of the self–indulgent, misunderstood indie songwriter, RFA produces music bred for connection. In order to do so, Dan, who writes much of the band's music, strikes a balance between likability and authenticity.
“I think we want to connect with people. We want people to like us. Like I think a lot of indie bands get in this mindset where they don't want to be popular, but ultimately we make music we want to like ourselves. It's like we wouldn't put stuff out that was like ‘oh this is gonna be a hit, but I fucking hate this song,’ ” he said, invoking a duality between mass appeal and self–satisfaction. This, in part, is what makes RFA's music timeless.
The other part? Friendship.
“The friendship is the band. We were all friends when we started the band, we started the band because we were friends,” said Brendan. RFA is great because they're natural—natural musicians, natural performers, and natural friends.
The chemistry between the band, sans Alec Powell, their drummer who couldn't attend the interview, was easy. While they weren't quite finishing each other's sentences, each band member complemented the other. Chris joked that this was because they followed “The Beatles Formula,” a model in which the songwriter drives production and performance, like John Lennon's relationship with his bandmates. While true on a procedural level—Dan sends acoustic demos that the others builds upon—it's not what keeps the band together, or in working order.
That lies in persistence and trust. When asked how the band prevents artistic distances from turning into the kind of totalizing fights that end in fractured friendships, social media breakups, and solo careers, Brendan offered the following:
“We just do it. Like what's the secret to a long marriage? Don't get divorced.”
It's a clear metaphor, and one we hope will catapult them from the outskirts of Philly's music scene to the epicenter.