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Enumclaw Won't Stop Until They're No. 1

The Washington indie band have ambitions of stadium shows, private jets, and being as big as Oasis. Their album 'Save the Baby' is a start

“I wake up every day and think I’m gonna be famous the next day,” says Aramis Johnson, frontman of the Tacoma, Washington indie rock band Enumclaw. The group (completed by guitarist Nathan Cornell, bassist Eli Edwards — Johnson’s younger brother — and drummer LaDaniel Gipson) are set to release their debut album, Save the Baby, on October 14. It’s a scuzzy yet melodic record, inspired by ’90s greats like Nirvana and Oasis. Though it rocks, it doesn’t sound like anything on the radio in 2022; but that doesn’t stop Johnson from shooting for the big leagues. “I think we have what it takes to be the next Jack Harlow,” he tells MTV News, entirely sincerely, and it’s hard not to believe him.

Johnson grew up in Lakewood, a working-class suburb of Tacoma. His dad died when he was 10; his mom worked a low-paying job at Subway and slept on the couch of the family’s two-bedroom home. He was never dissuaded from dreaming big, though. “The first thing I ever wanted to do with my life, when I was in second grade, was be the first Black president,” he recalls. He was a confident kid — class president and a competitive wrestler. He wasn’t necessarily popular, he adds, and his confidence has never translated to ego. “I still don’t feel like the guy. And I definitely didn’t when I was in high school. I think when the band first started to get a little bit of attention, I definitely felt like the man. But sitting in it now, it’s like… people for the most part don’t care, at least in Tacoma. I don’t know, I feel very humbled at the moment.”

Yet to Johnson, there’s no other option than pushing toward his dream of musical fame. “My older brother called me one day, like, ‘At what point do you say when? At what age are you gonna be like, alright, I didn’t do it, I’m gonna move on?’ And it was really eye-opening to me, because I had never thought about it. There was never a time in my life where I had stopped and thought, ‘If I don’t make it by this time I’m gonna quit.’ ‘Cause I had never thought about the possibility of what my life could look like if I didn’t do this.”

Johnson fell in love with hip-hop around middle school. First it was Drake and Lil Wayne. Then, after being kicked out of Spanish class one day, he was introduced to Chance the Rapper by another kid wandering the halls. “I listened to [Acid Rap] so much that summer that I’m surprised the CD didn’t break,” he recounts. His journey of discovering indie rock, meanwhile, began with the movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which introduced him to The Smiths. He grew to love King Krule, Girlpool, and his favorite band, Oasis.

He soon hit the hip-hop scene as a DJ, producer, and promoter. But after several years of that, he felt burned out. At a karaoke night with Cornell and Gipson, friends he’d made from going to shows, they tossed around the idea of starting a new indie rock band that would become Enumclaw (named for a city 30 miles east of Tacoma). Though the music was different from what he’d been used to, his DIY approach stayed the same. “[The hip-hop scene] really taught me how to build relationships with people in a genuine way, and definitely influenced my approach to marketing and pushing the band. It really taught me how to shake hands and kiss babies.”

The band worked with producer Gabe Wax, known for his atmospheric collaborations with Soccer Mommy, to craft Save the Baby in Tacoma. Family and friends would visit them in the studio each day; Johnson’s mom would make them all dinner every evening. Yet despite the laidback, cozy vibe of the process, the album itself is moody and intense. Johnson was dealing with the fallout from impulsively ending a promising budding relationship. When the pandemic started, he had no choice but to sit with his regret and shame, which he combs through across the album, most memorably on tracks like “Can’t Have It” and “Jimmy Neutron.”

“[It was] my first taste of real regret,” he explains. “I had definitely let my ego ruin a good thing for me. And it’s like, am I going to continue to make these kinds of decisions? That’s kinda what the album’s about, is saving myself from that. I’m the baby, and I felt like I needed to save myself.”

The album also deals with a kind of survivor’s guilt. On “Park Lodge,” Johnson explores the feeling of achieving success after his tough upbringing. “Where I’m from, dreams aren’t made on a sunny day,” he sings. He goes on to address his childhood best friend, who has been living with schizophrenia: “Thinking of all the time we spent talking about our dreams / Who would have thought they’d all come true, but only for me?” “We met in the fourth grade, and from that moment on he was my number-one confidant,” Johnson remembers. “When I decided I wanted to pursue a career in music, he was the first person I told. So to fast forward to today and to be having everything I envision start to finally come true, and for him to not be in the right headspace to be here with me, has been really hard.”

Washington band Enumclaw poses in a field.

Colin Matsui

To make it big with the band would be meaningful for Johnson beyond his own ambition. He wants to show other members of the Black community with similar upbringings that success can take many more shapes than they may think. “I know a lot of people who have been all-star basketball players their whole lives, and in a split second they tear their ACL. And then it’s like, ‘Well fuck, I’m 21, I’ve put my all into making it to the NBA,’” he says. “I think in the Black community, there’s a lack of access, so there’s a lack of knowing. I hope to be able to shine some light on the [different] possibilities for people who look like me.”

But as for that personal ambition — well, there’s plenty of it. “I wanna be the fucking number-one artist on Spotify, I wanna sell out stadiums, I wanna fly to the show on a PJ,” he says, abbreviating “private jet.” “We’re not saying we wanna be the biggest band in the world because we have the ego of whoever the big TikToker at the moment is. We wanna be the biggest band in the world because we have the same drive and ambition as a Tiger Woods, or a Serena Williams, or a Prince. Like, I wanna be known for making great music and having written great songs, first and foremost. And in my head still, when you do those things, you’re forced to become super famous.”

Whether or not they ever reach their Oasis moment, playing to 125,000 fans at Knebworth, Johnson still believes in Enumclaw. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the [idea] that I’ll never get to do music to that degree. I think that we’re gonna break the mold. Just because somebody else can’t do it, doesn’t mean we can’t.”

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