Young & Sick

Young & Sick, aka Nick Van Hofwegen, has been on the road for five months by the time I catch his gig in Denver. Since his first ever concert with a live band this past February, Young & Sick has clocked just under 20,000 miles. New York, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, and now on the tail end of their American tour, my correspondence with the band has been conducted on their end from sprinter vans racing down the German autobahn, various international airports, and a bus heading from LA to Oregon. And Young & Sick is just getting started. In 2013 Van Hofwegen recorded Young & Sick’s self-titled debut album in the basement of an art gallery in Brooklyn. The recording setting speaks to his other creative talents, specifically as a visual artist: he’s created album art for Maroon Five and Robin Thicke, not to mention a 148 ft-tall mural, currently the largest on the West Coast, for Foster the People’s sophomore album release.

“All the people I’ve done art for over the years quickly rallied behind my music. The support was truly special,” states Van Hofwegen, whose early friendship with Mark Foster of Foster the People (and prior to Foster’s break-out hit “Pumped-Up Kicks”), helped to later catalyze his musical career—that is, once he decided his sound was ready to share. Young & Sick makes nouveau electro-soul, breathless and hypnotic, melodious yet minimal. Synths and layered vocals wrap around Van Hofwegen’s lead falsetto and dripping, almost psychedelic, cadence. It’s the music of love affairs—magnetically seductive and hopelessly optimistic, but with a touch of sadness. The effect feels at once nostalgic and yet profoundly new, unburdened by musical precedents. Born in The Netherlands, Van Hofwegen moved to London before settling in Los Angeles, where he currently resides (Brooklyn remains a second home). His look and style feel vaguely European, but are perhaps more immediately influenced by the California surf culture. He performs bare foot, his wide blue eyes relentlessly obscured behind dirty blonde hair.

In late 2013, Harvest Records, which also reps Morrissey and belongs to Columbia Records, signed the 27-year-old artist, just one year after the digitally release of his first single “House of Spirits.” The first album debuted this past April, available only on Vinyl LPs with original artworks by Van Hofwegen, whose graphic style has been likened to legendary artist Keith Haring’s, inserted at random into 50 record sleeves.

That same month, Young & Sick played Coachella and have been touring non-stop ever since. In the interim, Young & Sick has become something of a critical darling, awarded “Band of the Week” by The Guardian, “Band to Watch” by SPIN’s blog “Stereogum,” and has been featured in Vogue, The Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone. Beyond the hype, Van Hofwegen is mesmerizing on stage. Backed by three accompanists, Young & Sick’s live show was meticulously arranged to propel the album from the solitary studio context to the concert arena, with emphasis on instrumental and vocal harmonies, brisk and expertly negotiated percussion and sublime acoustic moments.

“Going from the vacuum of a studio to a tiny band practice room made the songs coalescence in ways that Nick and I hadn’t previously envisioned,” says Luke Woods, a Brooklyn-based musician and writer who Van Hofwegen approached with the task of helping take the album live: “Soon the scope of the live show changed, incorporating guitar, violins, and acoustic drums.”

In an interview with music critic Adriana Albert, Van Hofwegen explained the seemingly retroactive process behind building the band around the album, “Basically, I finished the album in New York in the winter…Right after the masters came back, we had about a month and a half to two months before the first shows were booked…We started looking around like crazy trying to find the right people, and found out that it’s harder than it might seem. So a friend gave us this contact, Luke Woods…He came in and took over the whole project, and together we found the two other members, Kayleigh Goldsworthy and Steven Bryant.”

With only weeks to prepare before Young & Sick’s debut showcase at SXSW, the band first needed to re-compose their sound for the stage”. The biggest obstacle in taking the album live was finding a balance between staying true to the album’s sonic palette without being locked into fixed arrangements,” explains Woods. “There is always a compromise when it comes to using electronics in a live band scenario; you run the risk of either jettisoning spontaneity and improvisation or abandoning the production techniques that define Young & Sick. The hybrid approach allows us to reproduce Nick’s signature harmonies and synth patches, while at the same time giving us the flexibility to extend and recompose the songs on a night-by-night basis.”

This commitment to the premise of performance art differentiates Young & Sick from other primarily electronic musicians. The dialogue between Von Hofwegen’s visual art and his musical project continues to propel him further into pop culture’s lauded embrace, traversing creative genres and building communities around his prolific creative endeavors. “I hope that the art will continue to draw people to my music, and that my music will draw people to my art,” says Van Hofwegen. “My favorite bands and artists make me truly feel something. The most I can hope for my art and music, is that it does the same for others.”

Text by Emilie Trice
Photography by Jean Baptiste Mondino and Galen Oaks