NoNeed began life as yet one more by-the-numbers reggae/ska-punk outfit, playing weekend bar gigs for college crowds in Tampa, Fla. With most of the members enrolled in the jazz program at nearby University of South Florida, they were an exceptionally polished crew. But their familiar brand of pop-Jamaican jam was unlikely to linger too long in the memory once the Red Stripe ran dry.
But between the band’s inaugural release of 2013’s “All That We Are” LP, and their aptly-titled 2016 “The Beginning” EP, NoNeed found new sources of songwriting inspiration, drawing broadly from the canon of modern popular music, and specifically from the work and career of songwriter/performer/producer Bruno Mars.
“Something about his story inspired us,” singer-guitarist Sebastian Tenorio says of Mars. “He listened to and studied pop music for a few years in the process of his becoming a producer and songwriter. So we decided to do that, too. We listened to artists like Mars and Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, and we asked ‘How can we do this? How do we make music that’s both interesting and palatable?'”
Speaking by phone on a break from the road, Tenorio recalls the earliest days of NoNeed, back in 2012 when founder/guitarist James Harnage, a reggae enthusiast, shared his love of island rhythms with fellow members of the fledgling band. Harnage has since stopped touring with NoNeed, but is still active as a songwriter and hometown performer.
“The rest of us really didn’t listen to reggae when we got together,” Tenorio tells. “The other guys were into crazy jazz stuff, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and music like that. But James was so into reggae, and he got the rest of us into it through his enthusiasm. We never tried to be traditional, roots reggae, but we definitely embraced a ska-punk-reggae thing.”
But the creeping influence of contemporary popsters like the aforementioned Mars, or of another NoNeed favorite, Maroon 5, had a curious effect on the young band. With the advent of last year’s “The Beginning,” NoNeed began to sound less like standard-issue reggae revisionists, and more like a viable pop-rock entity of their own making.
To be sure, the band’s songs were still possessed of the languid essence and telltale rhythmic skank that marked them as distinctly “reggae-esque.” But the tunes also featured bright, viscous pop hooks and succulent melodies, the whole of it led by Tenorio’s agile tenor, a versatile instrument capable of pulling off either cynical sangfroid or guileless charm, sometimes within the space of a single verse.
“We actually got a call from someone at Billboard after the release,” Tenorio relates. “They were sizing up the record, and the guy who called said, ‘I’m not entirely sure that you should be on the reggae chart, unless you can give me a good reason why.’ And we really couldn’t give him a reason. So they put us on the ‘alternative rock’ chart.”
In the meantime, Tenorio says band members had already committed to a more rigorous touring and writing schedule, in the interest of making a NoNeed a full-time proposition. Collectively, they purchased a van and a trailer, and began taking extended jaunts around the Southeast, soon followed by a couple of national tours.
Now they’re working on a full-length follow-up to last year’s “The Beginning,” a record Tenorio says will showcase the full measure of their newly cultivated songwriting savvy. “We learned a lot about the art of pop songwriting in making that EP,” he says. “We approached it as a learning process, and that’s what turned out to be.
“One of the things we picked up from Bruno Mars is how to recognize when we’ve written a good song. Someone asked him that question once, about how he could tell when he had written a ‘hit.’ His answer was that if a song gives him the same feeling when he performs it that he gets when he performs a song that’s already a hit, that’s when he knows. In our case, every song on our last record feels right when I sing it. That’s how we want all our songs to feel from now on.”
NoNeed will perform at Preservation Pub Thursday, Sept. 28 at 10 p.m.