Public Access T.V. Talks Surviving Booze, A Gas Explosion & A Label Deal Gone South Ahead of Debut Album 'Never Enough'

Burak Cingi/Redferns
Public Access T.V. performs live on day 1 of Governors Ball festival at Randall's Island on June 3, 2016 in New York City.  

Do the kids really not like rock n' roll anymore? So asserts the opening line of “End Of An Era,” a kinetic track with an exploding chorus from Never Enough, the just-dropped debut album from New York’s Public Access T.V., a band that has definitely not turned its back on guitars. Time of death has been called on rock for the better part of a generation now, and while the music has an undeniably diminished place on U.S. pop radio (and in the cultural conversation compared to 20-30 years ago), there’s still rock out there. It just doesn’t sound a lot like Public Access T.V. There’s a reason the band’s singer and songwriter John Eatherly uses the retro-y term “rock n 'roll”: PATV make the sort of taut, melodic power pop rarely heard since the days of The Romantics, early Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. Still, if it’s all the same, Eatherly would rather not be seen as some banner-waving champion of rock.

“It’s funny, because ‘End Of An Era’ is probably the most poppy song on the record,” he explains, laughing. “It’s supposed to be kind of tongue-in-cheek, a fantasy world. And I feel like yeah, it’s kind of true, but it’s not that serious. I don’t wanna be retro just for the sake of being retro. I wanna be fresh. I’m not really listening to a lot of rock n' roll now, but I think I was when a lot of these songs were written.” On the Friday before Never Enough’s release, Eatherly, in a plain white tee, takes the stage with his PATV mates -- guitarist Xan Aird, bassist Max Peebles and drummer Pete Star -- to rip through a hook-laden set that includes “On Location,” rave-up “In Love and Alone” and “I Don’t Wanna Live in California," the new name of a slightly reconfigured, irresistible favorite formerly known as “Metropolis.”

The scene isn't one you’d call particularly retro, but there's nevertheless something evergreen about it. We’re at Mercury Lounge, on Houston Street, the seam between the East Village and Lower East Side -- New York’s two neighborhoods that, until the rise of Brooklyn in the 2000s, were most synonymous with rock. On this night, Public Access T.V. could time travel to other stages without missing a beat: Luna Lounge in 1998, The Bottom Line in 1985, or to the Bowery in 1977, home to grimy Great Gildersleeves, and of course, the mecca, CBGB, which hosted its final show ten years ago next month.

Two years after that final show, when CB’s had already become a John Varvatos store, 18-year-old John Eatherly arrived in the big city from Tennessee to pursue his rock n' roll dreams, and aimed to plant his flag firmly in the storied neighborhood. “At first I lived in Brooklyn, in Greenpoint, until like 2010,” he admits. “But when I moved to New York from Tennessee, the idea was always that I wanted to live in Manhattan.” So he did, and PATV is an East Village band in many ways. The guys played their first show at the tiny neighborhood mainstay Niagara. I first saw them at a CMJ showcase on Ludlow Street favorite Pianos. Three of the four band members live on East 4th Street -- not far from their former home that was destroyed under horrific circumstances (more on that later). And they’ve reinforced the connection to their hometown in a string of ragtag, DIY music videos, which are often peppered with basements, bodegas, dive bars, subways stations and local landmarks in the LES, Chinatown and other parts of New York.

While they embrace the imagery proudly, Eatherly resists the “East Village band” tag, with all the attendant fashionista hangers-on that trope implies. “I just hate that shit,” he says. We’re seated, along with PATV drummer Pete Star, at a table in Black & White -- yes, another East Village watering hole -- a few days before their Mercury show, and the singer gets especially worked up over a press tendency to write about his band as part of a “scene,” lumping them in with other young, supposedly like-minded NYC outfits of recent years. And maybe most egregious to Eatherly is the inevitable Strokes mention in most anything written about his band (except for fan favorite “On Location,” the more ebullient PATV sound nothing like Casablancas & Co). “It’s just ridiculous,” he vents. “I’m sure NME calls a band ‘the new Strokes’ every week, like literally. Seriously, there’s another East Village band that I know, and somebody just the other day sent me something and it was like, ‘Check out Manhattan’s newest Strokes’ or something. Whatever. If the NME likes us that’s cool. But that is so lazy and ridiculous. I mean c’mon, it’s been 15 years, right, since The Strokes came out? Isn’t there anything else to talk about?”

Like many a scrappy American band before them, it was England that first fell for Public Access T.V. nearly three years ago, hard and in a blindingly fast way. “It was immediate,” Eatherly recalls. “Just stupid. Like we put [early song] “Monaco” on the internet and right away it was like, ‘Well, England’s down!’” The aforementioned NME quickly dubbed them “New York’s Hottest New Band” when they hardly even were a band. No less than The Guardian, in the spring of 2014, posited whether the success of the band heralded the return of a new American New Wave. And before you knew it, PATV’s ship had seemingly come in: a deal with UK heavyweight Polydor. A year later though, that ship had hit the rocks.

Eatherly and the band knew that they were on the clock, as one always is with shiny-new-thing-enamored England, where one day it’s “buzz band” and the next it’s rubbish bin. So they turned to singles as a stopgap measure. All told, half of the tracks on the new PATV LP have previously been released individually, albeit in different forms. “We were putting out so many singles, and the EP [2015’s Public Access EP], just to be keeping the momentum going, while we really figured things out. You know, we probably could have put out a record really quickly and been a buzz band that faded, if we hadn’t taken the time. People were saying like, ‘Oh you guys are taking a long time to make a record.’ But we hadn’t toured, we hadn’t even had band practice. So I needed to wrap my head around this whole thing.”

They boosted their profile at South By Southwest 2015, then honed their live chops on tours with UK vets Gang Of Four and UK hotshots Palma Violets, which in turn led to the Violets’ cocksure bassist Chilli Jesson and cohort Milo Ross co-producing what was to be Public Access T.V.’s debut album. In the summer of 2015 they worked at two studios in England -- one in London and one in Oxfordshire, a live-in facility called “The Doghouse,” at which Jesson claimed the big bedroom for himself, and continued his kingly ways in the studio. “He and Milo had this rule of like, no overdubs, nothing, just play the song,” Eatherly recalls. “They wanted that live, energetic take.” “There was no click track,” adds Star. “It was just live like we played it on stage.”

While that balls-out approach worked for the more raucous songs -- about half of Never Enough­ come from those sessions -- Eatherly felt other tracks demanded more nuance, and so the album was finished in the ensuing months in New Jersey and at New York’s iconic Electric Lady studio. Meanwhile, that Polydor deal went south, after a label attempt to get Eatherly to work solo with outside producers had disastrous results. But the label released them, they say, with all the rights to their music, and PATV found a new home in New York’s Cinematic, primarily a hip-hop imprint. “The thing is with them, they trust us, you know?,” the singer explains. “That was clear from the beginning, as far as aesthetics go, and sound. And it wasn’t this thing where there is somebody breathing down your neck to have an opinion for opinion’s sake, regardless of where it was coming from. I mean, I don’t know if anybody at Polydor truly knew what the fuck they were talking about, but they just needed to feel like they said something, and guided it in a direction.”

Eatherly is no novice, nor is Star. Having done their time as hired guns in other bands, they know the deal. Star, who played with 2010’s wunderkind Oberhofer, calls PATV one of the more democratic situations he’s been a part of. “It’s an actual band -- four individual guys,” he says. “That’s why I like this group a lot.” And Eatherly, who seems a font of irrepressible, boundless enthusiasm for PATV, also has the wisdom of having been a part of a few bands that caught fire and then flamed out quickly: Be Your Own Pet, the Nashville garage punk outfit that Eatherly dropped out of school to play drums for at 16; The Virgins, the trendy LES dance punkers whose mythos exceeded its music output; and Smith Westerns, late-aughts indie darlings led by the stylin’ Omori brothers, who Eatherly played with on exactly one album and one show, but declined to join. “I think I was a little jealous,” he says. “I thought they were pretty cool, and their whole sense of entertainment, their weird ‘I only eat seaweed salad’ shit was funny and cool.” 

But the cool pose of an Omori, or for that matter a Casablancas, isn’t Eatherly’s style. Slightly goofy and genuinely driven and amped is more like it, and sober too -- or at least, alcohol-free. He gave it up ten months ago, after ten years of hardly going without it. “From the time that I joined Be Your Own Pet there wasn’t a day that I didn’t have a drink, ever,” he admits. But it became a thing that I was young when I started touring, and it accumulatively started to affect me in a different way.” Not that he was an obnoxious drunk. “But unlike those kids who grew up drinking wine at dinner and know how to handle it, I just needed to get obliterated. And that was fine and cute maybe, until a point when it wasn’t cute.” It became so regular that it had a name within the band: “Juan” was John’s relentless, drunk alter ego. “Juan became a problem, and he had to go,” adds Star. “He wasn’t aggressive, just very annoying.” So after one too many out-of-control nights, Eatherly quit, and he says it’s been “pretty easy”. “I tried like AA and stuff in the beginning, to make it feel like a real decision that I was making. But I couldn’t relate to it.” Maybe not coincidentally, he’s also recently been in the healthiest relationship of his life. “I’m very much in love,” he says. “That happened maybe three months after I stopped drinking. And had I been drinking I would have fucked it up within the first week.”

But a busted record deal and giving up booze hardly qualify as the biggest challenge Public Access T.V. have faced in the band’s short life. The darkest chapter is one that the guys have tired of discussing, but bears mentioning. In March of 2015, while they were on tour in California, the New York home of three band members and manager Ben Goldstein was destroyed when gas explosion led to a massive fire that took down three buildings. As the band watched online from a continent away, all of their belongings were destroyed. “We didn’t know what we were gonna do,” says Eatherly. “So we hung out in California a few days, then drove back. It took maybe five days. And when we got in at night we drove down Second Avenue, and it was so weird. It was just rubble.” “I remember picking them up outside that building a month before,” recalls Star, the only band member who hadn’t been living there. And then coming back, it was just a hole.”

Today, the lot where the band’s building stood is surrounded by a chain link fence on which are taped photos of two young men who lost their lives in the freak accident. And in mid-September, PATV played an afternoon street show around the corner, in support of the Cooper Square Committee, the community that helped find new housing for them and their many displaced neighbors. While it was a “sweet vibe” and a “cheery afternoon,” according to Eatherly, it brought with it another round of revisiting a tragedy that happened eighteen months ago, including being asked to pose for a picture in front of the old lot for The New York Times. “We did live there, but I can’t help but be over the apartment vibe,” says Eatherly. While the event will always be with them, the band needs to move on.

And why shouldn’t they? What Public Access T.V. do may not be revolutionary, but their debut album is as chock full of maddening hooks as any you’ll hear this year -- and there’s more to come, possibly soon. One thing Eatherly loves about being with Cinematic is the label’s chill, mixtape mentality approach to new releases. “It’s just, the vibe is easy,” he says. “And I think you need that nowadays with anything. Who knows, I might want to put out a single or a new EP right after this record. Or, I feel like we could make a video that looks kinda shitty but I think is cool, and they’d be like, ‘Word. I’m trusting you.’”

Public Access T.V.’s Never Enough is out now. The band begins a UK tour Oct. 23 in Bristol.