“The music I love has influenced me in some ways as a musician,” Ross Lynch, one half of The Driver Era, explains enthusiastically when asked about his musical influences. “I’d have to say Prince, Michael Jackson, Outkast and The Killers. Pharrell is also a big influence for The Driver Era. The list goes on but these are on the top of my head.” Furthermore, his music playlist on Spotify also revealed more clues regarding his listening trends. “It’s eclectic and I’m literally reading you names off of my playlist right now. From Jai Paul, my buddies Nat and Alex Wolff, Jeff Buckley, Duke Ellington, Childish Gambino and Anderson .Paak, it’s a wild mix of genres,” the 25-year-old adds. Credit definitely goes to Spotify’s algorithms in Ross’ new music discovery.
It is this eclecticism that shapes The Driver Era’s musicality. Written and produced by brothers Ross and Rocky Lynch at their home studio in the garage during the pandemic, the songs in their recently released sophomore album Girlfriend are tied together by their personal experiences and emotions instead of having an overall thematic approach. The tracks showcase various genres, notably pulling on the American duo’s love of hip-hop producers like will.i.am and rock legends INXS and Bruce Springsteen.
“We kind of bend genres. And I love that because there are no restrictions. I’ve never really felt pigeonholed into a specific genre because I know that’ll be someone else’s opinion,” Ross says. “We’ve been doing [music] for a long time to care about others’ opinions and be able to proceed. It’s a trick for young musicians out there. You got to learn how to not care about people’s opinions because they’re subjective.” Currently, the band fit comfortably as alternative and experimental but with an end goal to be pop.
Before The Driver Era, Ross and Rocky Lynch were in pop-rock band R5 from 2009 to 2018 with the rest of their siblings (Rydel and Riker) and family friend Ellington Ratliff. Ross and Rocky became particular about the evolution of their music before R5’s dissolution and felt it was time to start anew. This gave them a blank slate to build a different catalogue with a new sound which the duo have been cultivating in the studio. Eventually, they birthed and made a splash with the electronic-tinged edgy-funk ‘Preacher Man’. As the lead single off their debut 2019 album X, this current endeavour exhibited Ross and Rocky’s maturity in music. The band has since accumulated 115 million streams, with over 20 million global followers on social media.
Fast forward to the present on the release of Girlfriend. This follow-up second record, which encapsulates the past few years of their lives, includes songs that date back to 2016 alongside newer ones written in 2021. Notably, early singles ‘A Kiss’ and ‘Forever Always’ were released in 2019. On this juxtaposition, Ross attributes it to spontaneity. “We feel like the songs picked themselves. We have a bunch of songs that we thought might be on Girlfriend, but other songs ‘raised their hand’ first.”
The band was scheduled to go on tour in April 2020, but they had to be grounded at home in Los Angeles because of the pandemic, which added to the difficulty in releasing Girlfriend. “There’s always a struggle to release music [even before the pandemic]. I’ve talked to friends who are also musicians and it’s almost across the board that there’s this vulnerability to releasing music. An anxiousness when you know people are about to hear a project that you’ve spent hours, blood, sweat and tears into. Furthermore, there are some that want to understand, or appreciate the amount of effort and love that we’ve given.”
Thus, the upbeat nature of Girlfriend brings a beacon of hope to listeners, especially those who are facing a rough patch during the pandemic. Ross says The Driver Era aspire to make their audience feel good and better. “Those [who] come to our shows, we want them to have the best night of their lives. I have a theory that the world will always need more good music. And I tell this to my musician friends there’s no need for us to be competitive. And I’m definitely an advocate of new pop songs. I’m about the future.”
Girlfriend has been lauded for its catchy synth-driven ’80s sound. Ross raves about the Roland Juno 106, a classic ’80s synthesiser that’s one of the band’s go-to instruments. “It creates a nice analogue grain to the record. That’s why we love making music. It’s almost like witnessing magic. That’s my favourite aspect of it.” The album also taps onto the talents of R5 drummer Ratliff, who’s behind the horns on the soulful ‘Leave Me Feeling Confident’.
Of the songs in Girlfriend, the groovy ‘Cray Z Babe E’ marks the first time the brothers shared lead vocals on a Driver Era tune. But they share almost equal duties in co-writing and co-producing. “How we cooperate is that I’m usually singing, writing and playing the guitar or piano. And then Rocky’s more on drum sampling and the engineering end, which is producing. But we both do equal parts. We also both could switch positions. Although that’s where we end up naturally.” Ross doesn’t rule out the opportunity of Rocky helming the vocals more, whereas he’ll see himself producing more in the future. Girlfriend also contains beautiful harmonies where Rocky shines. “We have similar voices because we’re brothers. But they’re different enough to notice if you listen carefully.”
Having a sibling as your bandmate means the working relationship extends after work hours. It could be a boon or bane depending on the individual’s personality. Other contemporaries in the field like Haim, Kings of Leon and Angus & Julia Stone also deal with managing a band with other family members. “Working with your family, especially in music, is a very natural circumstance. Because music’s a personal thing, you have to be open and willing to express yourself. And with someone as close to me as Rocky, it makes that easier for me to open up or for him to open up and be totally honest. It works really well for us.”
The duo live under the same roof, which Ross describes as an obscene amount of time spent together. As such, their mum was gung-ho about making sure the brothers developed a good relationship while growing up, though there was the occasional quarrel. Friends-wise, they have their respective circles. Thus, both spend a good amount of time apart and accumulate various experiences respectively.
The brothers also bonded over playing ice hockey. Being a sport that Ross is passionate about, it forms a great community between their friends and them to gel while having a workout. (“I’m actually playing a game tonight. Wish me luck.”)
Besides being in The Driver Era, Ross is also recognisable for his acting from Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and biopic film My Friend Dahmer, after spending five years playing Austin Moon on the popular Disney Channel original series Austin and Ally. The duo have written various songs for Ross’s acting projects (prior to The Driver Era) such as ‘Drowning’ for the movie Status Update and the soundtracks for Austin and Ally.
Between acting and music, Ross leans towards the latter if he has to choose one but adds that he certainly enjoys both forms. “Acting is a different form of expression. Because it’s less personal and more explored. You get to explore someone else’s reality, perspective and emotions. It’s really fun because you can completely lose yourself being in someone else’s shoes. It sounds strange, but it can be exciting and transformative, which teaches a lot about life,” he says. “Music’s expression is more about diving into yourself, and being present with yourself, whereas acting actually requires tremendous presence.
“My goal with The Driver Era is to continue to pull myself out of my comfort zone and try to be better all the time. I’ll do what I can to reach my potential. Part of me wants to freakin’ kill it and have a number one record. And the other part of me just wants to keep being an artist that stays true to what I believe in.”
Girlfriend is available for purchase and streaming on Apple Music and Spotify.