Logging onto my usual video call platform, I wait as five flashing squares blink to life, full of colour and chaos, as the members of PRETTYMUCH dial in from their current corners of the country: Edwin in New York, Brandon having freshly returned from his 21st birthday celebration, whilst Zion is on some leg of a mystery car journey when he gets attacked by a giant grasshopper. Getting passed the first hurdle (I asked them to introduce the square next to them - easier said than done), I begin to get a better picture of PRETTYMUCH, a band on the brink of something big. They are a patchwork of personalities pushing each other to new heights, and never failing to bring one another back down to earth again - because that’s how you refine a diamond, so Austin tells me.
I meet Austin Porter, Brandon Arreaga, Edwin Honoret, Nick Mara, and Zion Kuwonu on the eve of PRETTYMUCH 2.0 - the dawn of a new year, new record label, and new intentions to match. Whilst the ability to focus on their ‘transitional phase’ provided purpose over 2020, the year that we lost, the time for reflection is behind us. The plan has already been hatched, cemented, and set in motion so that in this EP, you will find five artists hungry and ready to take full ownership for whatever comes next.
We talk about the difference between boyband and boy band, what it’s like being boys under the spotlight in a band, and why it can be lonely at the top. It’s a place that none of them are inclined to reach alone, and their gratitude for one another runs deep. Amber McKee pays homage to this energy in an iconic series. Disrupting the vast skies of Los Angeles as much as they are the "boyband" paradigm, it is the spaces in between, the challenges and trials, that keep the group moving forward and onto better and bolder things.
Who is PRETTYMUCH? Describe each other!
Nick: Austin now is the dad of the group, ironically speaking, because I was the dad of the group but he actually has the child now! Austin is a fun, wild card. He enjoys video games a lot. He's the oldest but he's also, like, our child.
Austin: I'm mentally the youngest I would say.
Nick: He likes candy.
Austin: I have a super childish sense of humour.
Brandon: Edwin is the 'Wants To Learn Everything About Everything' Guru. He loves stocks. He's a producer, a writer. He produces on Ableton, which is pretty crazy. And he's the fashion man. He can basically pull off anything - even down to his hair. He dyes his hair all kinds of colours. That's Edwin in a nutshell. And he cooks! Doesn't get better than that. Oh, and he's a vegan! That's why he cooks.
Edwin: That's the only reason that I cook because I'm vegan - I have to keep myself nutriated. Is that a word?
Brandon: I think he just created a word for the day.
Edwin: Thank you, Nick.
Austin: I would say Nick is the very logical and book smart one of the group. To me, Nick is the guy that I've always gone to in any general "down" situation. He's always been like a brother to pick me up. He's super into sports. Any team that's New York, he's rooting for it, even though they suck. He's got a phenomenal voice and is a super kind, caring guy.
Edwin: And he's got the moves! He's slick.
Austin: You've got the moves like Jagger, for real.
Edwin: Nick is for the boys.
Nick: Yeah, I'm definitely for the boys but I mean, I'm for the girls too, guys. I'm straight. Just to clarify... Right, Zion is like the open and honest man of the group. He's not afraid to speak his mind and put his foot down when we need to. Not that we shy away from things, but if we need someone to step up and be like, "Alright, yo, we need this", you can count on Zion to whip us into shape. He's also the video game man as well. He's not afraid to just say how he feels and how the band feels collectively. He's very adventurous as well. Right now he's on a skydiving kick.
Brandon: And he's contacting aliens. He's dealing with a lot of big stuff.
Zion: I have no idea what you're talking about. Brandon is a fucking producing prodigy, he's been producing since he was fucking seven. He's better than everybody and no one knows it but they'll know it soon. Facts. He's just insane at making music. That's all I can say.
You guys each seem to have a very unique and individual style and sense of self. How do you think this influences the group dynamic? Who adds what flavour to the band?
Brandon: I feel like we all have our own thing, but they all vary. So what's dope is that we always tend to fill whatever is needed. If we need a little bit more "casual", Austin will probably bring some more casual Dad vibes. If we need more of a high-end designer look, Edwin will probably hold that down. If we need more of a sports look, Nick will hold that down.
Austin: If we all decided to go to Comic-Con, I'd hold that down, you know, Guru over here.
Edwin: I feel like we are also open to challenging ourselves, which is why our style individually has developed so much because we've pushed each other to try new things. And to get out of our comfort zones. If I didn't have someone to tell me this is dope, or it's not dope, I probably would be going down a path of un-dopeness.
Nick: I feel like at face value, we look like five guys who come from very different backgrounds and may not really look like we would be friends. Obviously, we live together, we're like brothers now. So I think that helps and gives the band a different perspective on everything. If there's a certain different genre that one person likes, we can tap into that because we're going into their world. It's five different perspectives. It helps a lot.
Austin: This might be a weird comparison for you because you may have never watched this, but I feel like we're the kids from Recess, or Kids Next Door, like we all come from very drastically different understandings of life but we're all friends for some reason. It's like a weird high school group of kids - sporty kids, geeky kids - but one person pulled them into a group of people. And that was us.
Edwin: Like The Breakfast Club.
Speaking of identity, we’re chatting on the dawn of PRETTYMUCH 2.0 with the release of your brand new EP and more music on the horizon. How does it feel to have reached a place of total authenticity?
Edwin: It feels lit.
Brandon: It's the best. It feels so exciting. For a while, there was a period where we'd be coming up with ideas, and because none of them were really being used it felt like I started to doubt my ideas and the value of them. Now that there are people who are telling us, "Yo, we do see the value in this," and they're letting us express that, it finally feels like we're in our element a little bit more; we're finally doing the thing that we were meant to do. I also feel like it's going to be a lot more rewarding in the end. I'm excited for fans to hear it and to really feel where we're coming from.
Edwin: And to that same point too, seeing what people think is exciting because we're now allowed to be honest. Whereas before, a lot of the doubts stemmed from not really knowing if it was ultimately "our fault". Now we know that if things start to shift in a different direction, whatever the outcome is going to be, at least we can take responsibility and blame ourselves, and then reposition ourselves for the next thing to come. But you can only do that if you take full ownership and full authenticity moving forward. The same thing applies amongst us: we can be more honest because we're being so honest. It's like the fear of being honest isn't there anymore, because it's ultimately now what we signed up for.
Nick: Things before were done in such a way where we had to fit the whole "boyband" mould. Now, we're not looking at it through a boyband lens. We're just looking through a different lens of, 'we just want to make good music and want to make people feel good'. Rather than just be like, "Oh, we want to make music that people think a boyband would make".
It sounds like there's a lot more accountability now which must be quite a scary thing, but also really exciting.
Brandon: Yeah, definitely more exciting than scary.
Austin: I think the feeling of freedom trumps the fear of failing. Just because when you have that ability to freely express yourself, it's almost impossible to fail.
Brandon: Completely, you just learn. You learn and then you do it again.
Austin: Whenever you're failing, you're only learning.
Edwin: At the end of the day, we're making music and making art. Someone is going to fuck with it, regardless. It's just a matter of how many people fuck with it! And then, I guess, just catering to those who do and then those who don't, they figure it out!
Has it ever scared you, the idea of making mistakes in such a public sphere?
Brandon: 100%. That's one of my biggest fears.
Edwin: But I feel like the fear is the same thing as authenticity. As long as you're being you, and you're not being disrespectful in any way whatsoever, and your intentions are right, and you have a good heart, then the only real fuck up is if you go against your words. That was the biggest thing with us. The image was set for us. We had to live up to the image, but we didn't necessarily decide on that image so the fear was not being able to live up to that expectation. Now we have something that we can actually live up to that we agreed as a group and individually as well.
What can listeners expect from this new era?
Austin: Everything that should have come first, if I'm being real honest. It was weird. I remember the first time I felt this feeling - I don't know if you guys have ever felt this - but whenever we made music together just the five of us, there would be a track that we'd all get hyped about and it was only the five of us. We would just love that shit and then that song is what's leading this, you know? This new release is the day we found a song that we all really liked and it was on some different level.
Brandon: It's more evolved. It's more curated, it's more authentic. There are still some tracks with a lot of energy, and then there are some tracks that are more ballads. But our whole thing now is about being authentic and having intention. We want to do a lot of creative, cool stuff, and kind of like you said about the diversity - we have five perspectives so we're going to try to include it all. But the most important thing is that there's always an intention behind everything we do. I feel like with this new stuff, that's going to be the consistency.
Austin: All the walls are gone, too. So it's like there really are no limits. The glass elevator is broken.
In that same breath, with five different voices to contribute, what does your creative process look like? How are you able to balance each other's ideas?
Edwin: I think we do a good job of admitting when something's dope. If it doesn't work out, then we just reevaluate and go on with the next idea. But I think that, at least for me, personally, I want to keep everybody happy. I also don't think that I'm the best, I don't think I have all the right answers. So I think that admitting something's dope and then trying it will lead you to a more imaginative place.
Brandon: And I think we kind of work on the idea of an 'idea meritocracy': the best idea wins. Quality comes first. And we always try to find opportunities for us to shine, obviously, in our own lights, whether it's in the video or in the storyline, or having a lead in the song or producing it. But definitely, we prioritise the quality and ideas and what's being brought to the table - even with the people we work with. We've always said we don't want to exclusively work with big names or people who are super successful, we want to work with people who are hungry and are raw talented because their work speaks for itself.
Austin: I'd definitely say I always bring the extreme to the table. For the Stars music video, I had this crazy, elaborate story idea that was never physically possible for us. One of the guys would bring me back down to earth a little bit. That's when you find a rough diamond and you refine it down to sharpen it.
What is one piece of advice or lesson that you wish you'd been told at the start of your journeys?
Brandon: Don't doubt yourself. Believe in yourself.
Edwin: You can't rush success.
Austin: You can't count on a single song to take you all the way.
Zion: Yes, facts.
And where would you guys be right now if not for music?
Austin: Back in North Carolina, doing nothing.
Zion: Homeless! I wasn't going to school.
Edwin: I'd be selling candy on the 5 train.
Zion: I'd be - what do they call it? The pilot? The conductor.
Growing up, was music something you were drawn to as an easy form of self-expression? Were you able to easily express yourselves creatively?
Edwin: I didn't feel like I could. I knew the potential was there, and I also loved music, but I always shied away from expressing myself through music. It wasn't until high school when people started acknowledging me as a musician. I was like, 'okay, I could actually do this'.
Nick: I started dancing at a young age. So early on, I just felt like I learned how to express myself through music. It helped me through different moods, like if I'm happy, I go a little crazy, if I'm sad I'll do a little contemporary.
What about emotionally, then. Were you able to openly voice your feelings in that regard?
Edwin: I feel like now I'm better - we're better - at it.
Brandon: I agree. Growing up, my dad always had a piano in the house, so I was playing music and stuff. By the time I was thirteen, I had earned enough money to buy a laptop and everything, so that was the way that I kind of expressed myself in high school. I'm not a very emotional person, but I am in my music. That's where I think I've learned since a teenager to let out my emotion.
Zion: *interrupts* Guys I'm freaking out. A grasshopper just climbed onto my car. I can't get out.
Maybe this is a massive question for you, Austin, but how do you hope to encourage your son to be able to healthily express himself?
Austin: It's funny you say that. My girlfriend's like super - do you know the term "crunchy mum"? They're mums that are super natural - natural birth, all, this, that, everything raw - whatever. She's very particular about how she wanted to go about raising him so that he had the choice from the minute he was born; whether he wanted to play with baby dolls, or whether we wanted to play with trucks, he has both of those available to him. We have plushy toys that - if you want to gender-separate them - would be for a "girl", but we also have stuff for him that's obviously "for boys". We're just going to let him decide at a certain point, whenever he can get up and dress himself and walk around. If he wants to wear a tutu and go play in the mud, he can wear a tutu and go play in the mud.
How have you each managed to stay grounded - I would say on tour, but tour has not been a thing for the last 12 months - throughout the past year? What were your methods or routines?
Austin: At least for me, the whole fatherhood thing has just kept me busy!
Edwin: We had each other, for the most part, and we had this transitional phase into the new label so we were just attacking that which kept us busy. I don't feel like COVID really did us too much damage, considering that we had this new phase. We had something that we were hopeful for. But I think it also reset us to be able to make music, instead of going out and having a bunch of other things to do. Music is at our house and we do it so it just made it that much easier to work.
Nick: It gave us a way to step back and actually create a solid plan on what's next, rather than just go with the motions. It helped us sit back and really devise a plan for what we want, where we want this band to go, and what we want to be.
Austin: Yeah, and we had time to actually let the plan play out, in the sense of not rushing to set it up, not rushing to get things in and out and ready to go, to put up and post. Everything had its time to be fully created to its best potential, we weren't rushed to get it there.
Brandon: I just looked at it as us having so much time on our hands now that we didn't have before. Trying to take advantage of the extra time, reflect, work, learn new things evolve, grow, keep pushing forward.
Without the usual distractions, was there ever a period where you'd had enough of music? And if so, what did you turn to in those times?
Edwin: Yeah, I feel like, for me, it was the emotional part. I didn't really have anything to express. I'm not the type of person that makes music about events and news and stuff. I'm not going to write a song about quarantine. There wasn't really much life to be lived during that time so I feel like I was running out of inspiration and experience. That's why I started to hone in on more of the production part of it. It's got to a point now where I feel like I'm way more comfortable, and way more efficient when it comes to producing than I am writing.
Having each started in the industry as solo artists, what has this experience of coming together taught you about yourselves?
Brandon: Well, we always say we all love being in a band. We have this one line that we wrote recently, "You know that I'm with the gang because it's lonely up at the top," and we always talk about how we hear solo success stories, and they make their money, whatever, but it's just them. We always think about and are grateful for the fact that we have each other because it's like having four new family members - but four people who are going through the exact same things. It's taught us a lot about sharing and being selfless and making sure there's enough for everybody. Having people to gas you up and to support you in your own desires and dreams is also tight.
Maybe that answers my next question, which is do you think the pressures of the industry are lessened because you are able to share them amongst each other?
Brandon: To an extent, definitely.
Austin: When something happens to one of us, I feel like I could talk to my mum about it, she'd be there to comfort me, but she wouldn't really understand. Same thing with my dad, or my girlfriend, or whoever. But these boys actually understand because they're the only other people experiencing the exact same thing as me, as far as being involved in music and all that. They know how long a session takes, how hard it is to write during a session, and stuff like that.
Brandon: Sometimes it's hard to explain things. I can get frustrated really easily sometimes when I'm not feeling like I'm killing it in my work, or even if it's just a rough day, it's a long day, whatever. But sometimes it's hard to explain that. If I'm feeling frustrated, I don't really have to explain that to the guys because they already know. There's an understanding that's already there, so it's easier to just be there for each other. And we don't even always have to 'be there' for each other in a sappy way, we'll just link together and just play Smash Bros, and then over 30 minutes we're kicking it.
What does it mean, then, to be a boyband on the brink of stardom in 2021?
Edwin: I don't know, man.
Brandon: I think that's one of the things we're trying to - not break down - but we don't want the emphasis to be on the brand of a boyband. We don't want to be the "boyband brand". We're just a boy band. And I think that the goal is to really redefine what that could look like.
Edwin: One Direction counts, and I definitely will never discredit their success. But I feel like the world didn't know the impact of One Direction as much as the fans knew about the impact of One Direction. They were able to sell out stadiums, but they didn't win a Grammy. They only had a couple of number ones in their five-year trajectory as a band yet they were able to sell out stadiums, right? And that, to me is crazy - because we want that. I will never discredit their success. But I don't think that people gave them enough credit outside of the fan base. And that's what we want to do. We want to be able to sell out stadiums because our fans want us to, but I feel like we're too dope individually, and we're such a powerhouse as a group, that I want the world to take us seriously - not just credit us as just another boyband. We want to be the shit to everybody else as well. Personally, I look up to so many artists and I would love for all those artists to be like, "Yo, you're dope too". Sometimes the stigma of a boyband can put you in a little niche.
What do you think are the biggest pressures that young men of today face, in or out of the spotlight?
Brandon: It goes back to just being true to yourself, not feeling like you have to fit a certain image. For us, it's the boyband thing but I can imagine for other people it's the need to maybe live up to your parents' expectations, to live up to your friends' expectations, as opposed to doing what you authentically love yourself. That's something that I think is huge.
Edwin: I feel like it's different for every genre and every artist, but even rappers these days - there's a lot of very young rappers who are super successful, but even then, having to live up to that rapper persona can be detrimental sometimes. I mean, we see what happened to Juice WRLD and all these people who had expectations that they had to live up to when in reality, they didn't even know whether or not they were being true to themselves because that kind of gets messed up with fame and the people around them. So yes, it's the same thing as Brandon was saying: as long as you're true to yourself, mentally you can make it far.
Austin: Yeah, and also that kind of spirals back to the question of 'are we happy that we're in a band together', and I think that's a really important thing. This is something I didn't want to touch on but now that you're touching on it, I think it's important to say this: when artists are by themselves, they feel alone even though they have so many people surrounding them; they kind of gather a posse, and sometimes that posse will get in your ear about things and then you won't know what's left and what's right. You get so many people in your ear, you don't even know what's going on. I'm glad that we all have each other because we all keep each other grounded. We are all artists, it's almost like you took an individual artist and split that into five brains: we all keep each other accountable, make sure not one of us is losing our way or hurting ourselves. We're looking out for each other. And that's what's really important, that those people don't have.
I think that feeds back to what Nick said at the beginning because you have such distinct identities and come from such different backgrounds, I can imagine that is really helpful when trying to ground each other and call each other out.
Austin: Zion is the best at that. He keeps everyone grounded.
Whether you like it or not.
Austin: Whether you like it or not! Tough love from that kid.
Your work has always been accompanied by strong visuals – and you also started a band vlog last year. Why is visual storytelling so important to PRETTYMUCH’s identity?
Edwin: We're all very creative - like what Austin was saying about his music video idea for Stars. We've always tried to be as hands-on as we can because we love it and it's fun. But with the visuals, I think it's just another level - and the same thing with the live show. It's another level of impressiveness that we want to bring. We have the ideas so why not just express them?
Nick: It's also another element that people can grab on to. Listening to a song, there's an understanding, it's relatable. But when you have the visual it helps amplify the music as well and give you something to latch on to and be like okay so, "This is how I feel", like one of our songs literally has this story within the music video. It makes you love the song even more.
Brandon: That goes back to what we're saying - everything has an intention. Sometimes the intention is to impress, sometimes the intention is to make someone feel different. I've been reading a bunch and one of the things that I've been learning a lot about over quarantine is the brain. As humans, we only have like 30-second attention spans. As Nick said, we're always looking to incorporate new ways to activate that interest and to show off a little bit. We want to make sure that all the skills that we have, we're going to start to put forward and to showcase.
What else are you guys hopeful for in 2021?
Brandon: Hopefully, some kind of either touring or live stream. I'm most hopeful just to see our fans again.
Edwin: I'm excited to be able to get down and dirty with the label. Now that we have the opportunity to collaboratively work together, I'm excited to see what everyone is willing to bring to the table.