“Have you ever been to Penge?” J Tyler, one third of half alive, asks me; to which I shamefully admit I’ve not stopped there, but only passed through it. “That’s how I would describe Long Beach… everything’s simpler, calmer and then you have L.A., which is like London – really busy with a lot of going on – then you can go to Long Beach and calm down.”
It’s typical of half alive – which also entails lead singer, Josh Taylor, and bassist, J Johnson – to be so considerate and offer a London based reference to describe where they’re from. (Even if I’ve failed to have gone there). Warm and welcoming, as we sit and talk in a pub in King’s Cross, the trio are a reflection of their wholesome tracks, which have raked in millions both in streams, and in views on YouTube.
The band came together through a tripartite of separate connections. Josh knew J through J’s brother, Jordan (who would later play an important role in the music video for the band’s breakthrough tune, ‘still feel’); Brett knew J through music, and Josh through church.
Their band name derives from psychological theory, which Josh came up with when studying at film school – a name which equally speaks to their Christian beliefs as it does their intellect.
“We were studying a lot of philosophy and psychology,” Josh explains. “In a lot of what we studied, I found tension between the soul being pulled into life and into death; into light and into dark; grounded in the earth and being pulled into the heavens; having hurt in the soul but healing in God.”
“The way Jung describes it is your soul literally being pulled into life and into death. The tension between [this] is when you’re half alive. So that’s the now-not-yet… I just thought that was a cool way to describe the human soul.”
It’s a fitting name. Their indietronica envelops you, welcomes you, just as they do, driven by Brett’s steady beat or an expansive melody that adds a degree soulfulness; alt-pop that makes you feel that little bit better. That little more alive.
It’s also apt that ‘still feel’ – a two-worded phrase with a similar half alive quality – would be the tune that established them in the music world, following its release in 2018. Its success was aided by a stylish, brilliantly choreographed music video.
“We filmed the music video, dropped it and then nothing happened,” says J Tyler. “We dropped it in August , and it took like a month until things started. So I think we were just like, ‘Okay, cool, maybe we could consider other songs, figure out what’s next.’ Then our manager called–”
“I remember I was on a family vacation,” Josh chimes in with, interrupting the way someone finishes their partner’s story. “I get a call from our manager saying, ‘That song is blowing up right now on YouTube’. He was about to go to Israel to see family. He said, ‘I’m cancelling my trip, we all need to get on a plane to New York now.’”
“The timing seemed really important,” adds J Tyler. “I think we’ve learnt that timing means a lot in the music industry, and about just being ready at the right times for those moments. That was one of those moments you wanted to take, because labels wanted to speak to us.”
It wasn’t just some labels. It was virtually every major one. Their desires to sign half alive was in large part down to their online virality – a near-impossible thing to bottle up and acquire, with no amount of money able to guarantee it.
“If we knew why it did so well–,” J Tyler says, before Josh finishes his sentence once more, adding simply, “We wouldn’t be at this table.”
“I think the strongest metaphor for that, though, is fishing,” Josh continues. “You just have to go fishing every day. Sometimes you catch something, and sometimes you don’t. But it’s the practice that gets you better at it.
“And just knowing you’re fishing because you like it; you’re not doing it for someone else’s approval or because you think someone else thinks fishing is cool. We could easily get caught up in how to make a hit that someone else thinks might be a hit, versus doing something that we genuinely like.”
“It feels like to me a lot of dynamics just all hit at once,” adds Brett, the quieter one of the three, not because he doesn’t have anything to say, he just says it sparingly. “There’s something in the music… that drum intro, there was something to that.
“There was also something special with what JA brings [the collective who choreographed ‘still feel’, consisting of J’s brother, Jordan Johnson, and Aiden Carberry] and what we bring. The best of our abilities just clicked together. A lot of people say that song is perfect for Josh’s range, too.
“Also, our first video that came out, ‘the fall’, had a bit of traction, and I feel like that raised our hand in a way that made people think ‘who is this band?’; we didn’t do anything for about a year and then we came out with [‘still feel’] and it just felt like a slingshot.”
As with any band where a single tune catapults their trajectory, the real trick is where to go next. How to build, rather than rely. It’s safe to say half alive have achieved this – and continue to do so. Their debut album, Now, Not Yet, released in 2019, also contained the fast-tempo, anthemic ‘RUNAWAY’ and funk-laden, shimmering ‘arrow’; it’s a record that capitalises not just on Josh’s high-pitch vocals, but on that feel-good quality they so naturally possess. Not that they purposefully strive for that.
“I don’t think we ever want to write a feel-good song, per se, or that we want someone to feel any particular way,” says Brett. “But I think when writing music, hopefully the inner expression of where we’re coming from is being felt in the songs, and the whole message lyrically is something we’re really intentional with. It’s something that’s deeper for each person, though – deeper than words.”
More recently, in February this year, the trio released the first instalment of their two-part album, Give Me Your Shoulders, with the second part dropping some point later this year – even though the band are coy about saying exactly when. Just like the album’s subject matter (it’s the first time Josh has explored love in his lyrics), there are signs of maturity in their new music, too, amongst the seven-track release so far.
‘What’s Wrong’, for instance, began with the refrain “The time’s always right to fix what’s wrong” as a base of inspiration – a line Josh’s friend quipped during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s also one of the few successful tracks to successfully contain the term “yippee-ki-yay”.
And just as their band name had thought behind it, inevitably so too does this album. “It’s many things,” says Josh. “Shoulders are just intimate in nature; to shoulder something is to carry one’s burden. There’s also the imagery of the shoulders of Jesus on the cross, carrying the weight of the world. So it just felt like the first album was more cerebral. And this one’s more emotional. That title just felt like it had the right emotion to it.”
A few days after we meet, I caught a glimpse of how they display and shoulder their live performances, at Camden’s newly renovated Koko. This was their headline performance following a string of shows they’d been playing in support of Twenty One Pilots – “turns out they’re very famous,” jokes Josh.
The first obvious thing of note about half alive’s Koko show was just how busy the venue was, the crowd queuing round the block beforehand – an even more impressive feat considering this was a Monday. Whatever it is, these guys have pull factor.
Their theatrical qualities, too, were on full display. It wasn’t hard to spot Josh’s film school credentials, as they opened behind a lit sheet, their silhouettes dancing as though on a canvas. This wasn’t simply a performance, but a spectacle, which made full use of dancers and even included a brief interlude for Josh’s spoken word.
Their onstage vivacity made you feel more than just half alive, pulled into their spiritedness. There’s no surprise people were queuing up in impressive numbers to see them and their wholesome indie-pop tunes. And who knows, maybe some had even come from Penge.