Zach Russell, Craig Perno, and Travis Perno. Photo by Abram Thompson.
Zach Russell, Craig Perno, and Travis Perno. Photo by Abram Thompson.

Spotlight: The Naturalists

by / Oct. 14, 2015 12am EST

When I meet local indie-grunge band the Naturalists at their Tonawanda practice space to discuss their new album, Home Honey, I’m Hi, I anticipate we’ll spend a lot of time discussing influences, songwriting, and aspirations. But within five minutes of meeting him, bassist Zach Russell is already telling me his life story. He apologizes for being a “bit of a rambler” before he starts in:

“I was born in the small mountain town of Layton, Utah,” he says. “I won two basketball championships, one baseball championship.”

Craig and Travis Perno (the band’s vocalist/guitarist and drummer, respectively) share groaning laughs, but Russell keeps on, more or less straight-faced.

“I had a game-winning shot once. I don’t know if you’ve ever made a game-winning shot in any type of sport before?”

I shake my head. Russell lights up.

“Having sex for the first time did not even compare to the game-winning shot, the euphoria.” I can tell that, even though he knows this is a somewhat goofy sentiment, Russell is serious, and it’s hard not to like him for it. The image of a chubby 13-year-old throwing his hands up in victory after proving himself on the court is endearing, especially contrasted with the 24-year-old Russell in front of me, who is tall, lanky, and speaking in a deadpan Utah drawl. The Perno brothers laugh along like they haven’t heard this story a million times before.

For comparison’s sake, Russell describes losing his virginity. The content is licentious, the context of its telling is absurd, but it still comes off as good-natured, which underscores to me the essential thing about the Naturalists: No matter what they’re doing, their hearts are basically pure.

The first thing you’ll probably notice about Craig and Travis Perno is how similar they look. They’re twins. I ask if they’re identical; Craig says, “Probably.”

Now 24, the pair has been playing music together since they turned 13, when their grandmother bought Craig a guitar and Travis a drumset.

“We learned side by side,” says Craig. “I haven’t had a drummer other than Travis my entire life.”

While the Pernos have been together since childhood, Russell got involved with the band right at the precipice of his life. He’d met the pair through a friend when he signed up to be Travis’s roommate. But just over a year ago, he’d been set to ship off to the University of New Haven in Connecticut to study Music Business. Craig caught him in the driveway and suggested they start a band instead. He weighed his options: $200,000 of debt or playing music with his friends? He chose Option B, got a job at Camp Bow Wow, and the three moved in together. 

The first thing I notice when I walk into the rehearsal space is the wall of girls. There’s at least three years worth of Playboy centerfolds tacked up behind the drum set, almost totally covering the wall. They’d served as set dressing for the band’s most recent music video. Russell signed up for a free subscription to Playboy years back in an FYE. He’d never bothered to cancel. I ask the members of the band to pick out their favorite models. Russell’s answer is immediate: Daisy Lowe, the “illegitimate love child” of Bush singer Gavin Rossdale and designer Pearl Lowe. She’s wearing red sequined sunglasses and tilting her head back toward the sky. Travis takes a bit more time to consider before choosing the girl directly behind the drum set who watches over him while he rehearses. Craig, meanwhile, has avoided the question entirely. He’s sitting crosslegged across the room, picking out one of the band’s songs and humming to himself. I think about posing the question again to him directly, but he seems so zoned in on the music that the answer suddenly seems totally irrelevant.

I ask the band what their hopes for music are. They did, after all, record an album with a professional studio (Quiet Country Audio). And they do have plans to tour. But in terms of “making it,” they don’t discuss having any endgame in mind past continuing what they’re doing.

“I want to travel around, see the world a bit,” says Craig. “Be able to do something with music.”

“I would like to find a hot dog better than what I’ve found here,” says Russell. “Which is impossible.”

Impossible, maybe, but he’ll be trying as the band tours New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois in support of Home Honey, I’m Hi, out on October 30 via Rochester’s Dadstache Records. They’ve also got a CD release party lined up on October 30 at Nietzsche’s as part of the Public Presents with a handful of bands including the Soft Love, Handsome Jack, Lovey, and Johnny Nobody.

The album sits in a sweet spot between 1990s college rock and modern indie. “Slip” sounds like a lost Nirvana deep cut; “Fortunes” is closer to Ovlov; “Potions” is Speedy Ortiz by way of the Beatles; “What Puts You to Sleep” is heavier and more straightforward.

It’s common for bands to draw heavily from the 1990s, but the Naturalists are part of the next wave of this trend. They’re equally influenced by both the originators and the modern torchbearers, equal parts Nirvana and Ovlov. Whether they’d fit in better on Geffen Records circa 1991 or Exploding in Sound Records circa 2015 is really a function of where they decide to go from here.

The Naturalists w/ The Soft Love, Johnny Nobody, Lovey, Handsome Jack 
Fri, Oct 30 / 8:30pm / $5 / Nietzsches, 248 Allen St / Buffalo 

Be sure to RSVP on Facebook!