Charlie Hustle would be proud. Indie rockers Little Big League aren’t afraid to make the most of what they’ve got — one great single and an impressively intense stage presence. They just want to play, whether it’s at Johnny Brenda’s, a North Carolina punk house or an Indiana cornfield.
The band didn’t even really exist a year ago when singer-guitarist Michelle Zauner and the project she was then calling Hoop Dreams won a Deli Magazine contest for two free days of studio time with Kyle “Slick” Johnson, beating out more-established groups.
“I sort of entered on a whim,” says Zauner. She’s being modest. A performer since her teens, Zauner and her previous band, Post Post, piqued our interest with their smart, perky pop. After that group fell apart, she and bassist Kevin O’Halloran grappled with how to move on. “It took about a year for me to start writing and formulating songs again,” says Zauner. “There was a lot of self-doubt left over.”
With O’Halloran switching to guitar, they teamed up with Strand of Oaks bassist Deven Craige and former Titus Andronicus drummer Ian Dykstra. While being the quartet’s only woman is something of a switch for Zauner, whose last band started with an all-girl lineup (at Bryn Mawr, natch), it doesn’t faze her.
“I think I was always really interested in things I felt were aimed to exclude me,” she says. “I grew up in a small city in Oregon. When I started playing music, I didn’t really know any other girls that were doing it, so it felt like I was sort of inserting myself into this boy’s game, and I really liked that.”
Zauner’s gender is an integral part of Little Big League, whose key ingredients include her girlish voice and uneasy lyrics. “Our bodies jointed and julienned in the sun / Clean-shaven and pressed down to pleading pulp,” she sings on “Tokyo Drift,” the moody A-side of a single recorded with Johnson last year. Inspired by Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “The Fish Factory,” Zauner wrote the song from the perspective of a girl left for dead, as Oates wrote, “on a dirty tarpaulin in the weeds.”
“That really resonated with me,” says Zauner. “I had read it while I was in the process of moving out of the suburbs into a city and was feeling bombarded by all these stories from and about women who had been assaulted or murdered or raped and just beginning to recognize this insistent fear that coincides with the possession a female body.”
Despite the heavy subject matter, Little Big League is as obsessed with The Simpsons, baseball and the ideal sauce-to-cheese ratio as most 20-something rockers. O’Halloran and Craige’s pizza-delivery experience paid off when it was time to bike all over town in April, dropping off the band’s 7-inch at every record store they knew.
The result: It’s easier to find one of the 300 self-released copies of “Tokyo Drift” — in places from Old City’s A.K.A. to West Philly’s The Marvelous — than albums from artists with much more money behind them. And the phenomenon isn’t limited to their hometown: They unloaded more singles last month on a two-week tour of the South and Midwest. “While we were on the road, we would just ask around town and find out where the cool record stores were,” says Craige.
Dykstra cites another advantage of the road trip: The band got time to bond before heading into the studio to record a full-length with Auctioneer’s Craig Hendrix.
“We really haven’t known each other for that long,” says Dykstra. “And I think we’re still getting used to each other musically and personality-wise. … Touring and butting heads about stupid stuff helped us learn to communicate and work better together as a band.”
Spoken like a true team player.