Time slows down when you’re on the brink of something big. For Avi Dell, Lin Takrudtong, Austin Russell and John Paul Arrotti, that something was looming over their heads like a lightning cloud ready to illuminate the room in a passing instant.

The four men of AyOH pace in, out and around their backstage space, giving the already small quarters the suffocating quality of a holding cell. They offer distracted smiles and kind words to anyone who passes through, but it’s clear their minds are already onstage.This is their moment.

If you happened to be anywhere near the vicinity of Lincoln Hall on the night of Dec. 11, you would have felt time slowing down too.

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Since forming in 2010, AyOH has been on an upward trajectory. Riding a high from playing at SXSW in Austin, Texas this year with an expected return in 2016 as well as a sold out House of Blues show in November, the upbeat pop-rock band is finally headlining in the city it calls home. CUSP Magazine attended the band’s sold out show at Lincoln Hall + Schubas on that uncharacteristically warm night, and it couldn’t have been more electric. After heart-pumping performances from their notable openers Ballroom Boxer, Big Paraid and Tall Walker, AyOH delivered a set with an energy that rivaled those of internationally popular bands. In addition to hits off their album “Dangerous Questions and their 2012 EP “Take It To The People,” the band performed a hypnotizing rendition of their new single “Boom” with alumni of the Chicago Children’s Choir.

There was no mistaking the packed Lincoln Park venue — packed full of screaming girls and a crowd singing along to almost every song — for anything other than a reception befit for the next best band to come out of the windy city. Before they took the stage, CUSP Magazine sat down with Avi, Lin, Austin and John of AyOH at their rehearsal space in Fort Knox to talk about everything they have in store.

Q&A – CUSP Magazine & AyOH

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CUSP Magazine: How was AyOH started?

Avi Dell: I moved to Chicago in an effort to start a band. That was what I wanted to do. I was playing open mics and gigs and doing everything that I possibly could to meet people and get my name out there. A friend of mine that I had been jamming with knew John, and we invited John to come play. [He] was a good match. He seemed ambitious and seemed to like the music we were creating. It wasn’t until months later when we had been playing and working on songs, and we had even played a show, when he walks in. I have a piano that we usually set up when we’re writing, and he just sat down and started playing piano. I was like, “I didn’t know you were a great piano player.” He had all these songs and these great ideas, and that was really the beginning of our creative partnership. That was 2010. “Say It Anyway” was the first song we wrote . . . it wasn’t on the first record. We put it on the second one, but that was the first song we wrote together. John and Lin had played together for years in a different band. Lin came and auditioned, and he seemed like a good guy. I would say that was probably one of the best choices I ever made as a musician. Lin just turned out to be so absolutely perfect for the band, for what we needed. Shortly after, Austin came into the picture and joined us.

Austin Russel: I’m from Seattle. I came here to go to Columbia [College]. I’m a business major.

CM: So you guys are fairly new then? Five years is not that long.

Avi: Yeah. The truth is that we sort of figured it out two and a half years ago, but it’s so hard to say. In my mind, when I’m answering these questions, there are two pieces of me. There’s me the fan that’s listening, and there’s me the ambitious, creative musician that’s trying to emulate what the mes of the world are doing. I feel like I can tell you the stories the fan wants to hear, and I can tell you the story the musician and entrepreneurial, creative guy wants to hear. So I’m kind of stuck in my duality.

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CM: Can you explain that duality a little bit?

Avi: There’s the fan side of it, and there’s the magical side of it. There’s the idea that something we do is special, when in actuality it’s just four guys working really hard and playing music. I say this a lot, and I hope someday it’s truly understood, but the biggest thing about this band is doing what you say you’re going to do and being your best critic. That’s it. We did an interview the other day and someone said, “What’s something you would tell an artist coming up?” And I said, “Just be good.” They all laughed at me, but what I was trying to say was just be honest to yourself. If you haven’t practiced enough to play in front of people, don’t. If you can’t come through on a commitment you’ve made, don’t make that commitment.

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CM: Talking about duality, when thinking about your first EP and “Dangerous Questions,” there’s almost a common theme of careful songwriting with a soulful element in them, although they’re both different. Is there a difference between who you guys are as a band when you compare one to the other?

John Paul Arotti: On the first EP, we did those first four songs. Those are all songs Avi had written before he ever met me or before he even had this band in his head. Those were all pretty much completed songs, but all four of them needed a little something here and there. So, me, our producer Steve Gilis and Lin each threw in small ideas here and there and moved some things around. In general, those were all songs Avi had written before AyOH was anything. “Dangerous Questions” has seven songs that [we all] wrote and put together. I think that’s why there are elements from “Take It To The People” that are very similar and familiar, but with “Take It To The People,” we were going for a Foo Fighters, rock band sound. With “Dangerous Questions,” we learned that we worked pretty well with cool synth lines and dance beats in our songs. I think the cool part about “Dangerous Questions,” at least in my opinion, is that’s when this band really figured out who this band is, what our sound is going to be and what we want to  do. It was much more an expression of all of us.

CM: How do you guys approach a song?

Avi: The easiest way to describe it is that there is no method for us. John is a phenomenal writer, as is Lin and Austin. I’m much less so. I’m more of a lyricist and a storyteller. What happens is that someone brings an idea and we jam it. There’s no idea we’re not willing to try. I think that’s really important and indicative of our success. Our ability to play any idea and at least try it for half an hour. If we’re all feeling it, then we’ll keep pushing at it. It’s hard to say — sometimes songs just happen, where we’re ready to form it, and boom — it’s great. Other times it takes longer. It takes a lot of revisiting and forgetting it and coming back to it for a while. [We approach songwriting] with open arms.

CM: Can you talk specifically about how Chicago has been as an audience since AyOH started?

Avi: From the very beginning it was receptive, but indifferent. From day one, people were like, “Oh yeah, you guys are good, but . . .” You know what I mean? But I think that’s everyone’s story, right? How do you create a sense of urgency? How do you develop the magic that begins to happen for a brand or a name that people begin to recognize? I was telling the guys the other day that. I was at a cafe and the waitress was like, “Do I know you? You look so familiar to me.” It was totally because she had seen our band somewhere else. It’s really not a big deal, it’s just that she happened to see us play a show and that’s it. But the fact that she remembered me from a show that she liked and she heard about us from a person that she liked? Things like that, it just takes so much time.

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CM: A lot of Chicago musicians seem to feel the same way. In your experience, why do you think that is?

Avi: I don’t know. I don’t really subscribe to the idea of Chicago’s “scene” versus L.A. People are different everywhere. You’re fighting a war of attrition, nobody cares. We just have to care so much among ourselves that it permeates everything in our lives. It’s like putting a lightbulb in your hands. There’s nothing you can do to keep the light from coming out. That’s how strongly we had to believe in what we’re doing in this little box. We’re just getting to a point where people are starting to notice, like, “What’s that light?” It’s so delicate. People can put their shades up and not see you.

John: I don’t think it’s specific to Chicago at all. I think it’s human nature to kind of be a little turned off to something that’s very new to you. The big turning point for me, in this band, was eventually we got to a point where we realized that it doesn’t matter that much what people are thinking about you. As long as the four of us in our team believe that we’re the best damn band in the city of Chicago, you know what I mean? Everyone has been to a concert where the band has no confidence and no energy, and you don’t like it. I don’t care how good their music is, you don’t like it. Everyone’s also been to a concert where the music wasn’t that good, but the band was going crazy. You can tell they’re having the time of their lives. I feel like we’re lucky because we’ve got the music, the energy and the love for what we’re doing. I think it’s a very important turning point when we realized that it’s not everything to make sure everyone in the city loves you.

Avi – “I don’t really subscribe to the idea of Chicago’s “scene” versus L.A. People are different everywhere. You’re fighting a war of attrition, nobody cares. We just have to care so much among ourselves that it permeates everything in our lives. It’s like putting a lightbulb in your hands. There’s nothing you can do to keep the light from coming out. That’s how strongly we had to believe in what we’re doing in this little box.”

CM: I was able to see the performance you put on here [at Fort Knox] last week, and you guys definitely have that vibe. You believe what you do is really good.

Avi: It’s a weird thing to say, but I need to be onstage. That’s where I live. I’ve been doing this since I was 12. There’s nowhere that I feel more confident and more capable than when I’m onstage with these guys. We hold each other up.

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CM: Can you talk about your SXSW experience?

Avi: It was the most singular experience of my life. I didn’t quite understand what it would be like where every single person had committed to this thing, this creative entity called rock ‘n’ roll entertainment. It was like, everywhere you go, bands were just playing like it was their last chance. It was probably the worst show we played, but we were just up onstage and we were just being us — being theatrical and giving everything we could give. And these two guys walked up to us afterward and they were representatives from music dealers here in Chicago. They opened so many doors to us. And we could’ve just been like, “This is a shitty show and we’re all tired.” I was losing my voice, but we didn’t. We just brought it.

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CM: Do you have any other memorable moments as a band?

Austin: The Melanie Martinez show at House of Blues. It was a totally different experience than what we’re used to. Opening for a completely different demographic that was overall really receptive at the end. It was great.

Avi: For me, it was JBTV. That was awesome. That footage still hasn’t seen the light of day and we’re waiting patiently for that, but that was so cool. This Lincoln Hall thing is crazy. I almost don’t even want to talk about it too much. Just thinking about it — the idea that we’re headlining at Lincoln Hall. We call the shots. They asked us to headline the show. You sit around as a band and you wanna play a show and they say no because they have no idea who you are. Or, you ask one of the bands on the bill and they say no, because they don’t control who goes on. Everybody says, “When we call the shots, we’re going to do it our way.” Everybody says that, and so few people actually do it. We said the only way we’ll do this is if we have other bands that we like opening for us. We don’t want anyone else telling us who can play with us. If it’s going to be our show, we want it to be our show. Every little piece about it is exactly how we wanted it to happen. I don’t think I could’ve dreamt this up.

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CM: What is next for AyOH?

John: We’re going to SXSW again, that’s our next big timeframe as far as playing live. I’m sure we’ll have shows throughout the region. The cool part about this band is that we’re constantly writing new stuff that we’re excited about. We just finished a song with Bobby Lord and Sean O’ Keefe, and they turned out incredible. They haven’t been released or anything, we’re just trying to plan. Hopefully, early next year we’ll get back into some studio and we’ll be recording more songs.

CM: Is there a band or a business in Chicago that you think we should reach out to?

Avi: Yeah. Whitney Middleton does fashion design. She does all the fashion for Chance the Rapper and does some stuff for us. She’s doing a whole wardrobe for me for some shows to get really theatrical with things. I’m really excited about that. Chris Hershman is an incredible videographer. He’s already broken out of Chicago, but he’s the sweetest dude. He’s also the bass player for Tall Walker. He’s badass.

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To stay up to date with AyOH and their music, check out their website and follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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Alexandra Wedro
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