It should be easy to bristle at the mildewed cliche that “rock ’n’ roll is a young man’s game.” Sure — ignoring for a moment the archaic gender-exclusivity inherent in the phrase — it’s true that youth might be a salve against the grind of late nights and cramped vans, the stomach-churning sustenance of greasy gas station fare, the endless blows to one’s self-worth brought on by complacent crowds and a general state of abject poverty, but if you’re still trying to give it a go as you approach middle age, it’s likely that none of that shit ever bothered you anyway. Actually being able to pay your bills can be just as much of a liniment to most of those pains, yet for some reason, an “either-or” misconception persists. True art is suffering, supposedly. There must be some necessary baseline of discomfort for true expressionism, one that rarely coincides with a cushy middle-class lifestyle. As Chase Johnson puts it, “It’s hard to be hip and responsible at the same time.”
With his new band, Spring Palace, the 39-year-old frontman demonstrates that, although it may be hard, it’s not impossible. While there are no spring chickens in Spring Palace, they’re proving that another tired cliche — “better late than never” — still holds a bit of truth. The melodic indie power trio is releasing its debut EP, Whatever Happens, and the five-song collection of hook-driven, guitar-centric pop is worth the long wait. The group will celebrate the record’s release with a show at Twilite Lounge Saturday. Though he’s played around town and released his share of bedroom recordings, Whatever Happens is Johnson’s first successful attempt at what he calls doing a “real record the ‘right’ way.”
He added, “It’s really hard to cross the finish line and actually put out a record. It’s just really hard to do. I’m really happy to take this project all the way and finally put something out. I feel really lucky to be in a space where we can do music and there’s a community that’s accepting of what we’re doing and other bands who are doing kind of the same thing.”
After kicking around in a few bands in the early aughts, most notably a group called the Noble Chocolatiers, which due to “being caught in a perfectionist trap” never ended up releasing any material, Johnson took an extended hiatus from music altogether. He focused on his career and raising his now 7-year-old son, Harvey. Now, with his career on track and his son a little older, he feels like he is finally in a position to be able to pursue music again.
“At some point, I realized I’m really happiest when I’m doing music,” he said. “If I had to put one hat on, I’d say that I’m a creator. I’m a person that creates things. That’s when I’m most happy, when I’m creating things, so I figured I needed to start something up.”
Though Johnson dismisses the idea of Spring Palace as “another pandemic project,” he admits that the lockdown did afford him some extra time to begin writing again. He started the trio — which takes its name from the ill-fated Texas Agricultural Exposition building that burned to the ground in 1889 just two years after opening — with drummer Seth Gomez and bassist Jacob Jones, with whom Johnson played in the Noble Chocolatiers, in January 2022. He said he liked the idea of starting a new project syncing with the start of a new year.
“It’s a little bit of feeling two things at the same time,” he said of trying to start a band from scratch again after such a long layoff. “Part of me feels like I’m probably a little bit behind. There’s like 10 years of work that would have been great to have [behind me]. The other part is just kind of accepting the reality of the present-day music scene, that the best time to start something is right now.”
After the trio played a handful of shows, they set out to track what would become Whatever Happens at an Arlington studio called The Cove in June of last year. Producer/engineer Peter Weirenga (Sur Duda, Siberian Traps) was tapped to run the sessions. After one weekend of tracking, however, The Cove shut its doors to the public, and Spring Palace was left to find another studio to try to finish the EP. Through a connection with his wife, Johnson reached out to Midlake’s McKenzie Smith about his Redwood Studios in Denton. Smith agreed but originally wanted Spring Palace to use a Redwood in-house engineer. However, the band was determined to have Wierenga finish what he’d started with the group, and they successfully negotiated having him do so.
“Peter is our guy,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to stick with your guy,”
The final result of Palace’s and Weirenga’s work is a breezy collection of infectious indie pop. Over his clever Malkmus-ian guitar antics and via earworm melodies and drum-tight harmonies, Johnson tackles lyrical themes appropriate for a man of his station, things like nostalgia and fatherhood — though he shrugs at the possibility of the latter being a little on-the-nose.
“It’s a weird thing to tackle as a theme,” he said of writing about being a dad like he does on the track “Only Son.” “I feel like I did it from a very authentic place, of being not perfect but still trying to be loving and supportive. It’s not something that people really write about often. I mean, I get it. No one wants to be called ‘dad rock.’ ”
With the band’s first effort brought officially “over the finish line,” Johnson is looking forward to what comes next, the current musical climate around town and the trio’s place within it.
“When you finish an album, you get to have it out and people are going to react to it however they react to it,” he said, “and you don’t have a whole lot of control over how that is, but everyone has been so nice! Within our own little community, I feel really lucky to have people on the same wavelength as us. When I was trying to do music 10, 15 years ago, it felt like there wasn’t anyone doing [similar things]. Now, it’s really nice because I feel like there’s a lot of people in Fort Worth who are on the same page.”
Spring Palace EP Release Show
8pm Sat w/Cool Jacket and Black Market Garden at Twilite Lounge, 212 Lipscomb, FW. Free. 817-720-5483.