Arizona may be the most ironically named band in music. Despite the state- inspired moniker—chosen because the stylized version, A R I Z O N A, looked cool on T-shirts—the band’s three members, singer Zachary Charles and instrumentalists Nate Esquite and David Labuguen, proudly hail from New Jersey. And, in a way, their home state is the fourth member of the band.
“I think there’s something in the water,” Esquite says, only half-joking.
Esquite looks back at their early years performing in local basements as formative experiences that shaped the ethos of the band. “That was the thing; you didn’t go to parties, you didn’t go to shows in the city,” he says. “Your friend would be like, ‘Yo, my parents are out of town, whose band wants to play?’ … You all just get together and throw a huge party and play some music. It became very community focused, and I feel like that’s always been the Jersey scene.
We produce the songs out, but
we always make sure they get stripped back to the bare bones because if the song’s not saying something at its core, then it’s not doing its job.
“Even going back to Bruce Springsteen. His music was very community focused.”
The name-drop isn’t incidental.
The legend of the Boss loomed over the band’s debut album Gallery (which earned a spot on the Billboard Top 200), and this year’s Cold Nights // Summer Days.
The songs not only feature the kind of massive launch-off points that Springsteen is known for but also the blue-collar, narrative- centric songwriting that’s made him a rock icon. But these aren’t just any stories—they’re stories of community and the power it has over people’s lives.
The song “What She Wants,” one of Arizona’s big summer singles, tells the story of a girl who “sings her favorite songs, does her makeup in the bathroom / She dances in the mirror … But she don’t even know what love is like / She been dancing in the dark throughout her life.”
With big ’80s-inspired synth, it’s a fun song starring a person you might meet in the basement of a house show in New Jersey. And in the video, they made a very intentional choice. Though inspired by ’80s movies like Flashdance and Footloose, featuring a lone dancer in an abandoned warehouse working out her pain, the video stars a woman of color named Jessica Castro.
“When you think of the lead in those ’80s films, and think of an all-American blonde, like white chick, curly hair … for us, it was important to do today’s re-imagination of that, and feature someone who is a minority,” Esquite says.
“For us, as a culturally diverse band, that’s really, really important to us.”
After officially becoming a band back in 2015, they started to tour relentlessly. That’s when they had a sort of epiphany about the kinds of songs they wanted to write. Instead of first-person confessional ballads, they wanted to make music for—and about—other people from all backgrounds.
“We spent the last year or two on the road, meeting people face to face, not just seeing numbers on Spotify or streaming and things like that,” Charles says, thinking of tours with the indie-rock outfit Coin and playing large stages on the summer festival circuit.
“And when you meet these people face to face that follow your work, you realize how personal they make your music, and how much they make it their own. And I think for us that was such a realization of like, there’s another side to it. Because typically when you think about creation, you think about creating from your experiences … For us, it was really cool to start writing stories.”
To hear Charles describe it, using narrative-leaning writing wasn’t a creative decision but one of obligation. Not just to fans, but to the communities that made them want to make music in the first place.
A NEW JERSEY STATE OF MIND
There’s a populist spirit that inhabits the art of a place like New Jersey, where music is created in the long shadow cast by the often-pretentious, and sometimes impenetrable world of New York City and its constantly shifting scene that can define and redefine what’s “cool.”
This isn’t music for critics and fickle tastemakers. This is music for the people—for community.
“We are a bunch of kids from New Jersey who grew up more or less on the downside of advantage,” Charles says. They grew up leaning on other people instead of trying to climb a ladder over them.
“It’s never been competitive in the sense that people are trying to knock each down to get ahead of each other,” Esquite says. “We’re all from the same place, and we’re all trying to prove we’re better than New York” (again, only half-joking).
Now, after breaking onto the indie-pop radar, Arizona has made a decision: What will ultimately determine where they go is where they came from.
FOR THAT PERSON
At the center of Arizona’s creative process is an ideal that runs counter to that current: They want to make music that brings all people together—no matter what kind of music you like.
“Accessibility is at the core of what we believe a good song does,” Labuguen explains. “We produce the songs out, but
we always make sure they get stripped back to the bare bones because if the song’s not saying something at its core, then it’s not doing its job.”
Since forming, Arizona has signed to a major label (Atlantic), seen their faces on the digital marquee outside of Madison Square Garden and played shows all over the world. But if there’s one thing they don’t want to forget it’s where they came from and what that still means to them.
“Now that we’re lucky enough to be in a spotlight, where people are looking at us, I think when they look at us, or when they listen to our music, or see our videos, or see our shows or whatever, we just want to say, ‘We are exactly the same as you guys,’” Charles says. “Whoever you are. Whoever you’re becoming, whatever you’re coming from, it’s all good, man. Our songs are for that person. That person just happens to be— if we’re honest with ourselves— almost everybody.”
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.