Being under 21 has its advantages. Summer vacation, for example. It gives you a free time to pursue those dreams that might be quashed upon joining the workforce.
After winning the Record Store Day High School Battle of the Bands this April, the members of Indianapolis-based indie rock band Hot Fox — mostly recent graduates from Cathedral and Lawrence Central high schools — have the summer to figure out their next move.
The whimsical, fun-loving sextet — comprised of lead guitarist and vocalist Oliver Hopkins, his sister and fellow vocalist Sophie Hopkins, guitarist Duncan Kissinger, bassist Chris O'Connor, drummer Michael Preuschl and band manager Chris Kauffman — is ready for a new sound, a new album and a new name. This is the summer of Hot Fox, formerly known as Sanuk.
A Musical Handshake
Part of the spoils of the Battle of the Bands victory — achieved on the strength of "Love Stay," from Sanuk's 2009 debut album Honey, I have news — is a star-studded recording session. Sanuk's new incarnation, Hot Fox, will travel to New Jersey later this year to work with producer Jack Ponti (Bon Jovi) and mixing engineer Kevin "The Caveman" Shirley (Journey, Rush).
Meanwhile, the band has begun recording a yet-to-be-named album at Queensize Twin Air studios with Tyler Watkins of Margot & the Nuclear So and So's. Watkins offered to record and produce the band's second album this June, as well as mentor them through the editing process.
"Tyler has helped us write more concisely," Oliver Hopkins says, explaining that an e-mail he sent to Watkins in 2008 helped to spark their friendship. "Now we sometimes show up at his house at 4 a.m. and crash on his couch when we need to. I don't think Tyler would go to the lengths he has if he didn't believe in us."
All this ostensibly because of a simple song Oliver wrote during spring break of his sophomore year of high school.
"'Love Stay' is about being far away and missing someone," he says. "Since writing it, I've been catapulted out of our first record into the new one."
"Love Stay" from Honey, I Have News:
Moving away from the lo-fi, teen love songs of Honey, I have news, the members Hot Fox have begun to look outside themselves for material. "Color Blind," the last song off album one, foreshadows their new sound.
"I discuss destruction and also speak of redemption," Oliver says.
With deeper, dynamic lyrics and more cohesive composition, the new album will, according to Oliver, illustrate the idea that human beings are fleeting blips in history.
"We're the dirt of the Earth," he says, "but all together, we make the world what it is. With hardship comes clarity of mind and a sense of self."
It's a far cry from the heartfelt pop songs on the first album, but the band hasn't quite turned to the dark side. An afternoon with Oliver and his bandmates still consists of carefree chatter over lemonade and popcorn on a porch swing in the heart of Irvington.
Even the band's rehearsal method speaks to their upbeat, welcoming nature. "We call it the musical handshake," Oliver says, referring to the first 30 minutes of each rehearsal, when the musicians spontaneously jam and toy with new content. They spend the rest of their time learning their more than 20 new songs, many of which will make up album two.
Where We Come FromMost of that jamming takes place in the Hopkins' basement, a den belonging to Oliver and Sophie's father, Lee Hopkins. The elder Hopkins spent his career performing as a frontman and arranger for The Entourage, a touring USO band for troops.
"When he asks, 'Did you write that?' and I tell him yes, he replies, 'Cool!'" And it's with that exchange, according to Oliver, that he knows he's written a good song.
Fortunately, the songwriter's bandmates were also born into musical families — or come from musical backgrounds.
"My dad plays a 1952 Martin guitar he bought at a pawn shop," O'Connor, who is studying film scoring and electronic production and design at Berklee, says. "And I took bass lessons in seventh grade to learn how to play jazz."
Preuschl, the band's new drummer, was one-fourth of local pop-punk band Where's the Cake? for several years, and Kissinger, like Oliver, took piano lessons before turning to his instrument of choice — the guitar. He and Oliver formed a cover band in high school, out of which was born The Oliver Hopkins Trio, which would become Sanuk.
Kissinger continues to bend genres for the band by experimenting with ambient noise through effects pedals and electronic beats. "He's our 'sound' guy," Oliver says.
As for the younger Hopkins sibling, Sophie says she's been singing anything she could since childhood — even instructions to her mother like, "I'll have grilled cheese!" She and her brother mix their vocals into a unique harmony that they believe is rooted in an unspoken sibling understanding. "It's in our DNA," she says.
Kauffman, who, as Hot Fox's manager and networking aficionado keeps the musicians on track, was led into the music business in part by his uncle, radio personality Charlie Morgan, a vice president and market manager at Emmis Communications.
"I really believe in what these guys are doing," Kauffman says. "They're my friends first."
Welcome to Bloomington
Now all that's left is college. Four members of Hot Fox — including Oliver, accepted into the Jacobs School of Music to study classical guitar — plan on attending Indiana University in Bloomington this fall. That leaves O'Connor, who already attends Boston's Berklee College of Music, and Sophie, who, as the youngest of the group, will become a junior at Cathedral High School.
"We want to hit Bloomington and blow people away," Oliver says. Indeed, after they record album two with Watkins, Oliver says they're going to tour their asses off. Their biggest challenge, he says, will be raising funds for the U-Haul and gas it will take to tour as far as New York or Chicago.
"It's hard to raise capital when you're 18 years old," he adds. "We're putting all our money toward recording album two."
Still, the band takes every chance it gets to rehearse their music — including Friday and Saturday nights. "Instead of going out every weekend like most teens, we play our music," Preuschl says. "We work so hard that after practice, the music room is as hot as a locker room."
"We'd like to do this full-time," O'Connor says. "Our goal is to make a living doing what we love and not to have to eat Ramen noodles every day. Our second album will definitely set the tone for the future."
"This is our chance at a new name, a new album and a new school," Hopkins chimes in. "We're not hobby musicians anymore. This is our moment to define ourselves."