Inside the rise of Cheekface, the scrappy LA band revered by an army of “Cheek Freaks”
In late July, Greg Katz, the lead singer of Cheekface, mailed identical postcards to fans who had bought merch from the Los Angeles indie-rock trio. On one side was an announcement of a new record, which would be surprise-released Aug. 2. “Depending on when you are reading this, our new album Too Much to Ask is out now, or it’s about to come out,” Katz wrote. On the other was an illustration of a pleading-faced dog — the album’s artwork, designed by bassist Amanda “Mandy” Tannen.
The postcard’s return address identified the sender as “America’s Local Band Cheekface.”
Industry wisdom suggests that surprise-releasing an album on a Tuesday with no advance notice except a piece of snail mail is not how an indie band should operate in 2022. But Cheekface, whose euphorically dorky music combines power-pop hooks with Katz’s quippy, deadpan talk-singing, has not amassed a small but passionate following by heeding conventional wisdom. With Too Much to Ask, Cheekface deliver their third album in three-and-a-half years, each one brimming with cheerful songs about anxiety, climate collapse and the jumbled absurdity of late capitalism — songs that are now shouted back at concerts by “Cheek Freaks” (the Cheekface equivalent of a Deadhead).
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“Over the past year, we wanted to tour a lot more, and we didn't,” Tannen says, who sings backing vocals and co-writes with Katz. “We just sat there, like, 'What do we do now?' I was like, ‘Well, we have a bunch of songs written. Why don't we just record them and put out an album instead?’” With no loyalty to the traditional album roll-out cycle — “to me, that process never made that much sense,” Katz says — they decided to surprise their fans.
And there’s plenty here to surprise Cheek Freaks. Although Too Much to Ask doesn’t stray far from Cheekface’s signature mix of extremely online non-sequiturs and exuberant choruses, the band sought to make a more eclectic album than 2021’s Emphatically No. and, in Katz’s words, “expand the Overton window of acceptable Cheekface sounds.” So we get a strummy duet with Boston songwriter Sidney Gish (“Election Day,” the closest thing to a Cheekface ballad) next door to an uptempo protest anthem called “You Always Want to Bomb the Middle East,” with its am-I-hearing-that-correctly chorus.
And we get a propulsive, dancy experiment like “Featured Singer,” which — if not for its shout-outs to TikTok teens and Venmoing someone for ketamine — could have been on an early LCD Soundsystem album. The song grew out of a poem Katz wrote, imagining what it might be like to quit slumming in bands and just be the faceless vocalist on a hit EDM song. It was built around a loop of a bassline Tannen sent Katz during lockdown: “I was like, ‘Damn, that bassline goes crazy,’” Katz recalls.
If “Featured Singer” is the album’s centerpiece, “Noodles” is its volatile wildcard. The minute-long tune achieves that Ween trick of repeating some absurd phrase over and over so obnoxiously that it dares you to join in. In fact, Katz admits it was heavily inspired by Ween’s rejected Pizza Hut jingle “Where'd The Cheese Go?” “When we brought it to Greg Cortez, who produced the record, he was like, ‘Well, you guys are fully on your Ween shit with this one,’” Katz laughs.
[Photo by Miriam Brummel]
The trio (Katz, Tannen and drummer Mark “Echo” Edwards) is chatting via Zoom as their tour van glides through the Arizona desert. They’ve just finished a small tour through the South and Midwest, playing less-frequented cities that fans have been DMing them from, asking them to play. The night before the interview, they played a show in Phoenix that coincided with severe thunderstorms and flooding.
“We were sitting in the green room between sets, getting a flash flood warning that was like, ‘Stay where you are. This is a life-threatening situation.’ Water was coming down the walls of the green room,” Katz says.
The band figured no one would come to the show. They were wrong; Phoenix’s Valley Bar was soon populated with fans bobbing up and down and participating in the call-and-response fervor of "Listen to Your Heart." "No,” a tune about the insistent messages your brain sends you when you’re dealing with mental illness.
“I think that shows you the commitment of the Cheek Freaks,” Katz says, “that they are willing to face the government warning of imminent death and say, ‘Fuck it, I'ma go see Cheekface.’”
Cheekface are hardly a cool band. Katz — whose voice is more Jonathan Richman than Jeff Buckley — is the kind of frontman who performs in a DEVO-like jumpsuit and leads his band in a cover of “Cha Cha Slide” to the confusion of Zoomers who think it’s an original. While their reliance on talk-singing might be the geeky American answer to Wet Leg or Dry Cleaning, Cheekface have more in common with Cake, They Might Be Giants, Dead Milkmen or even Das Racist (a major influence on Katz) — fun, smartass groups that freely mixed humor and music and appealed to impassioned weirdos.
Meanwhile, despite no real label support, Cheekface have built a small but loyal grassroots following, which on Spotify amounts to nearly 90,000 monthly listeners. The Cheek Freaks are passionate; some get Cheekface-inspired tattoos, while others sketch the band’s lyrics. One fan recently became so obsessed that he drew an ad for a fake 1980s cartoon show about Cheekface.
“Me and Mandy started writing these songs without thinking people were ever going to hear them,” Katz says. “We were just making some weird stuff for fun. So the fact that it’s not just reached people, but really spoken to some people, is something we were not expecting, anticipating, planning for or thinking of.”
Although Cheekface are still a young band (formed in 2017, they released debut album Therapy Island in 2019), the individual members are all over 30 and have been involved in music since long before Cheekface’s inception.
Katz, who grew up in Orange County, has been in and out of bands since middle school, but Cheekface is his first time as lead singer. “I’d always been, like, the second person in a band,” Katz says. “I’ve been the person who sings one or two songs in the set.”
In the mid-2000s, Katz studied philosophy at UCLA, where he managed the campus radio station and was roommates with music critic David Greenwald. "Greg was maybe the only person on campus who owned a Dismemberment Plan shirt when I met him,” Greenwald says. “He struck me as a seriously talented, encyclopedic person who could out-snob or out-perform anyone but put his energy back into the community and his friends instead. He was the kind of guy who would give you a last-minute ride to and from Disneyland, no questions asked, but would also not hesitate to roast bro culture or my penchant for Foreman-grilling fish in our apartment. That double-edged sword of bone-dry humor and caring a lot that you hear in Cheekface's lyrics — that's Greg. Listening to the band feels like talking to my friend."
After graduating into the Great Recession, Katz worked various A&R jobs and played bass in a band called LA Font. In 2011, he got laid off and decided to launch his own record label, New Professor Music, which proved to be a crash course in every aspect of the industry.
Around 2017, Katz met Tannen, a graphic designer who had moved from New York to Los Angeles. “A couple years into living in L.A., I was thinking, ‘I want to start playing again, but I really don't know anyone here,’” Tannen says. She had a graphic designer friend who was dating Katz and suggested the two start collaborating. “We'd see each other at shows and say, ‘Heeyy! Wanna write?’ ‘Yeah, let's write someday!’” Tannen recalls. “It took a while, and then Greg was just like, ‘We're writing tomorrow.’ And I'm like, ‘OK!’”
A classically trained cellist in her youth, Tannen had pivoted to rock in college and played bass for the goth-flavored New York band Stellastarr*, which became a buzzy name during the mid-2000s post-punk revival. Stellastarr* signed to RCA and even toured with the Killers in 2004 (the Killers were the opener!). But Stellastarr*’s second album, 2005’s Harmonies for the Haunted, got swallowed up by RCA’s merger with Sony and never took off. The band self-released one more album in 2009 and fizzled out.
With Cheekface, Tannen wanted to try something different: a band that revel in its dorkiness. A band where she could be silly and fulfilled and fully herself. “When Greg and I formed the band, it was just like, 'I wanna be in a band that is not cool.' Like, specifically,” Tannen says. “We both just wanted to have fun and leave all the marketing, business, the whole machine behind music, behind.” They considered names such as Plumping and Ryan Gosling’s Huge Freakin’ Delts before settling on Cheekface.
[Photo by Miriam Brummel]
After recruiting Echo, a drummer Katz knew from the LA music scene, the musicians spent 2017 writing songs. A leftist political sensibility was central from the start. One of the first songs they wrote was “Dry Heat/Nice Town,” a tune that satirizes the idea of a socialist utopia where green juice is free. It became Cheekface’s breakout single.
The track also established Cheekface’s default style, with Katz talking through the verses before breaking into a hooky, sung-through chorus. They tried writing more conventionally melodic songs. But when they veered in a more spoken direction, “we just got more and more excited about what we were doing,” Katz told me in 2021.
Early tracks such as “Glendale” and “Sexy National Anthem” (in which Katz instructs the listener to “bury me with a sock tan”) were unabashedly comedic, so it’s no wonder Cheekface’s songwriting process sounds like a writer’s room. “When Mandy and I are spitballing lyric ideas, if one of us laughs, then we're just like, ‘Cool, that's going in the song,’” Katz says. Tannen interjects: “Even if it's a laugh over, ‘Wow, that’s really dark.’”
By 2018, the band were performing regularly around LA — opening sets, backyard birthday parties, tiny venues, whatever. They expected nothing. Crowds were sparse.
Then came the exact moment Katz realized people were paying attention. It was during a show at LA’s The Satellite in 2019.
“There weren't a lot of people there for us, but there were like five or six people I didn't know, and they all screamed a lyric back at me from ‘Eternity Leave,’” Katz recalls. “I was so surprised that I forgot the next couple of lines. I was like, ‘What were all those people yelling about?’ And then I was like, ‘Oh. Those were a bunch of people I don't know screaming one of the lyrics we wrote back at me!’”
If you’re not sure whether or not you like Cheekface, listen to 30 seconds of a song. Any song. You’ll know pretty quickly.
Cheekface like their humor the way they like their vocal monitors: dry. (A note on their stage plot instructs venue staff: “no reverb, no delay, lyrics should be clear.”) A typical Cheekface song is a jumble of free-association one-liners (“Life is long like a CVS receipt”), sociopolitical dread (“The climate changed and I left it on read”), oddball namechecks (“Dr. Bronner was not a real doctor”) and cultural callbacks (“Boyfriend with a soul patch/I know, I know, it’s serious”) mixed with disarming doses of sincerity. If Cheekface were around in 2004, this writer would have had a Cheekface lyric as his AOL away message.
A Cheekface song thrives on juxtaposition: the juxtaposition between verse and chorus. The juxtaposition between Katz’s talk-singing and Tannen’s more melodic cooing. The juxtaposition between morbid subject matter and laughter. The juxtaposition between the meaningless absurdity of modern life and the genuine meaning people find in music and creativity.
Anxiety is a recurring theme. “I think that for people in this band, anxiety and therapy are true and authentic topics to us,” Katz says. The band’s first album was called Therapy Island. On their second, Katz sang the word “anxiety” within the first 10 seconds. On the new record, Katz declares that his “brain is full of barking dogs” on a song titled “I Feel So Weird!”
Cheekface have never wooed labels or aspired to be the next the 1975. They’ve always been independent. Indie labels have approached them, and they’ve had those conversations, but it never felt like a fit. Tannen admits she was heartbroken from her previous experiences on RCA, and Katz likes putting out the records himself on New Professor. He coined the nickname “America’s Local Band” as a tribute to his fondness for obscure local bands that will never get huge but are beloved in their communities.
“What we do is pretty idiosyncratic,” Katz says. “I think that anyone who owns a label senses that disconnect, that we can be modestly popular and that can work for us. But being modestly popular doesn't work that well for labels.”
Though their songs cull freely from the irony and context collapse of overly online humor — yes, that’s Echo saying “Sir, this is a Wendy’s” on “Pledge Drive” — Cheekface express no cynicism about this modest popularity. They are earnestly and sincerely thrilled by the fact that people are listening. Their families are thrilled, too.
“My parents have come see me play in a lot of failing bands over the years,” Katz says, “and I think they are excited that this one has some spark of something around it.”