Each summer, droves of New Yorkers hop on the A train and make the 90-minute-long trek to Rockaway Beach in Queens, the largest urban beach in the country, which stretches for miles along the Atlantic. But when the cold weather rolls in and the crowds dissipate, it’s musicians like Patti Smith, Mac DeMarco and experimental folk-rock duo Lewis Del Mar that remain year-round.
Danny Miller (vocalist-guitarist) and Max Harwood (drummer-producer), both 26, were washing dishes in Manhattan when they first went out to the Rockaways to surf in 2014. “We loved it,” recalls Miller. “We walked in [to what is now our bungalow] and knew it was where we were going to make the album. It was over after that.”
After breaking their lease in Bushwick, Brooklyn, the longtime best friends, who have known each other since they were 9 and grew up in Washington, D.C., made the bungalow their creative hub. “We really strive to create a hybrid of natural and industrial soundscapes,” says Miller. “It’s sort of Charlie Parker 101. You have to live it to make it come to life.”
Though it’s barely big enough for two, the 1,650-square-foot space houses everything they need: surfboards, vinyl collection, weed (of which there is no shortage) and a DIY recording studio where they’ve honed their sound — a hypnotic blend of acoustic guitar and island-tinged vocals fused with hip-hop-inspired production.
The isolation, which they say informed the songwriting process for their forthcoming debut album on Columbia’s StarTime International imprint, has served them well. Two days after the viral 2015 single “Loud(y)” was released, major labels got in touch. “All of this has just been really humbling, and we’re so fortunate to be able to do it together,” Miller adds. “I’ve known Max since I was nine, and so much of it is augmented by the fact that we’re doing it together.”
This summer, they’ll tour in support of Børns and Glass Animals, as well as play several festival dates including The Great Escape in the U.K. and Lollapalooza and Outside Lands stateside. “We’re playing two dates this summer on the same day as Radiohead,” Miller tells Billboard. “And it’s cooler than anything else we’re doing.” But they already know what their first stop will be once they’re back. “Whit’s,” says Miller of the pizzeria. “We come in several times a day, and when we did the music video shoot here we had the whole cast in. They’ve always known we make music but they’ve been able to slowly figure it out. We’ve had a lot of publishers and label people out here and we always come here and order the $60 rib-eye, so they kind of know what’s going on. We want to rent it out for our record-release party, invite all you guys and bus everyone out from the city.”
Driving past the borough’s Fort Tilden beach en route to The End, a private shore for residents only, the duo tells Billboard that they’re more focused on caring less about what people think. “We talk a lot about just trying to be more hip-hop,” Miller explains. “It’s sort of a joke but we were at South By and our manager recognized the dude that’s coordinating all of the MTV shit at South By. And he’s like, ‘Travis Scott didn’t show up and I have Future waiting side stage in his place, but he won’t go on until I give him $50,000 cash.’ And I was just like, ‘We need to give less f–ks like that!'”
At SXSW, the group also found a new fan in Wyclef Jean. “Usually the rule of thumb is when you meet your heroes or the people you really respect in the game, they’re not who you want them to be,” Miller explains. “Wyclef was a huge exception — he was the coolest guy, so nice, so kind and completely wise — the way he spoke to us and imparted knowledge to us about navigating the industry was really on point and clear.”
But there’s one artist (and new Rockaway local) the boys are hoping to get acquainted with — Patti Smith. “I actually wrote a letter to Patti ‘cause I just feel like there’s all these commonalities in the way that we think about art,” Miller says. “So I wrote her a letter and gave it to Rob [Stringer, president of Columbia].”
“Oh yeah?” Harwood asks.
“She might respond. Still waiting to hear back from Patti Smith.”
Click here to see more photos of Lewis Del Mar’s favorite Rockaway Beach haunts here.
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 7 issue of Billboard.