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On the Rise

22 April 2024, 15:15
Words by Steven Loftin

Photography by David Black

As Peel, Sean Cimino and Isom Innis are making sonics steeped in the sound of post-punk and rave-era Manchester - and finding new creative highs in the process.

Peel is a pairing decades in the making. While multi-instrumentalists Isom Innis and Sean Cimino have only known each other 14 years – first meeting when becoming hired guns for Foster The People (both now official and live members) – their childhoods were equally surrounded by music and a fierce love of creating.

The LA duo's recent debut album Acid Star brings together this childhood innocence alongside influences ranging from Madchester to post-punk, shoving them through an indie-pop and dance compacter. Building on a 2020 debut self-titled EP, the pair's musical partnership feels as natural as their inclination to break into hypnotic psyche-led rhythms. It's all by design, to scratch that creative itch.

Both were raised in musical families. Cimino's introduction to music was a natural one – his father played in a post-punk band: "Growing up there was a lot of music in my household, he was a guitar player," Cimino tells me. "My first instrument was guitar, and that was the trajectory for me."

While following the obvious route of simply playing his instrument, Cimino began to grow more interested in what lay beyond the limitations of six strings. Mentioning how he preferred to toy with it as a "source of sounds" akin to Radiohead by creating soundscapes that erupt into dazzling cocophony, his fixation started him on the path of endlessly creating of demos that would come to pass further down the line.


It was a similar start for Innis; first receiving a small drum kit at five, he turned to piano when his family moved to Oxford at the age of seven – but it was when they returned to the US that his drumming career truly began. Recalling getting a proper kit at a garage sale, he wound up doing jazz gigs with his dad around town. "We were living in Colorado Springs at the time," he tells me. "And then I started playing in church, and then once I went to high school, that's when I started writing songs."

Taking these tunes and recruiting a childhood classmate, Innis and his chum's starry-eyed ambitions were fuelled by watching Coldplay's 2002 live concert documentary Coldplay: Live 2003: "I remember watching that when I was either in eighth grade or a freshman in high school, and I was so drawn to what the lifestyle was being in a band, and touring, and making music. And that really was a big inspiration point for me to continue writing songs and to pursue being in a band."


In 2010 Innis and Cimino's ambitions entwined. They were brought together by Foster The People's Mark Foster who needed to establish an ensemble on the back of his one-man-band breakout smash hit "Pumped Up Kicks". Finding themselves thrown into the same whirlwind life their partnership quickly found solid foundations. "Over the years of touring with Foster The People, we were both immersed in culture at the same time," Cimino explains. "We were caught up in this cultural whirlwind; on tour we're seeing the same bands together, we're seeing the same movies, we're going to the same record stores. We're in it, and so I feel like that does something to a creative partnership." It was one experience in particular that cemented their fate.


"I think it was our first van tour," Cimino begins to tell me. "And we had a gig in San Francisco. Three of the guys in Foster the People had to do some press thing in Portland, so they flew there, and then Isoman and I, and the sound guy, had to drive the van up to Portland from San Francisco overnight. It was a very long drive…and it was winter…and it was snowing – it was super dangerous. We were all so tired, but I remember during that time, Isoman and I were talking about childhood influences and he started showing me his first demos that he made. And it really showed where he was coming from, and then I did the same…and I felt like, then is when I understood where he was coming from. We have a tonne in common, we're all drawing from the same pool of inspiration. And then over time, Isom is developing as a musician, and I'm developing, and those likenesses tend to meld."

Laughing, Innis recoils, before adding: "It's so funny, I have this joke with my dad that's based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when they have to answer the three riddles. But we have this joke that says, 'If you would like me to let you be, then you must first listen to my demos three'. That is really what we were doing! Being a musician in general, at the core, we all have a bazillion demos, and it's the best to be stuck in a van, driving through the mountains and listening to childhood demos."

As they toured the world the pair began turning this kindred spirit they held into a musical outlet. Stealing recording sessions and amassing demos over the years, it was when the pair noticed a throughline appearing that Peel came into existence. In 2019 Foster The People took a break, so the pair decided to undertake some more recording sessions. Innis explains: "I was living right above the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, and I had a studio on the top floor and we did this month long session where we wrote the first Peel EP."

While they had some other irons in the fire, it was as they neared finishing what was to become their debut EP that the pair realised something was different. "We discovered that it had an identity," Innis fondly says. "That there was an identity with the music that I really wanted the world to hear." "Yeah, I agree with you on that," Sean nods. "It felt like there was just a little bit too much of our DNA in them. It felt like there was a lot of us and it would have been a shame for it to get pushed to the side. It felt like this is something we should put out and not overthink. It sparked our imaginations of what it could be."

From this self-titled EP, the framework for Peel was established. With single "Citizen X" finding its feet with an EA Sports FIFA 2021 appearance, the pair's sonic delving into more electronic-led elements with a presciently human spine was a byproduct of Innis being pushed to his limit by Cimino: "Sean programmes drum machines and that can be really hard to play on time with…but when it starts working this counterbalance happens," he explains. Hypnotically entrancing, they stuck with it for their debut album. But, instead of following an obtuse winding path, they opted for one that serves a more direct post-punk, '90s-electronica one.

"When we started the album, we were inspired by trying to make dance music that was filtered through a band lens," Innis explains. "And that was an itch that I've always wanted to scratch – I'm a drummer – particularly with the drums and making something really energetic…but by the time we had finished the album, what I was chasing shifted." Recalling the last couple of songs created in this time, particularly closer "The Cloak", Innis likens it to the come-down rooms he learned of after recently watching a documentary on '90s rave culture: "It was a tent where they would play ambient and slow music that you could come down to once you'd been dancing all night and going crazy."

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This '90s imprint brings together all of their influences and exposure to the decade's culture as children – both from near and far. They cite a list of the usual Madchester suspects, including Factory Records, Creation Records, alongside Joy Division, New Order, Oasis, Blur, and the like, and of course, the 2002 scene biopic 24 Hour Party People. As to what it is about this time, place, and the sound that enthralled them, it takes them both a minute to piece it together. For Cimino, he puts it down to "An attitude or something, well, the songwriting first of all, is a big thing. The bands that were coming out of Manchester, it's just so believable to me, the idea of the band." While in his home country, grunge and the like were in full swing, he admits he "never really looked up to any American bands that had this 'conquer the world mentality'…I just gravitated towards this feeling of the epitome of what a band; four guys solely trying to create this sound and they're all in it. It's just such a good, tough question. It's a feeling to me. But the songs I think were the most important, [they] just resonated so deeply."

Innis's experience was different. Growing up with mid-90s-early-00s American mainstream radio, it wasn't until he "started peeling the layers back" on the artists he was listening to that he discovered post-punk. "So post-punk was this mysterious genre of music that I didn't discover until my early 20s," he admits. "Post-punk and krautrock, and chasing what I think the influences are on some of the bands that I love. But one of the things I'm really drawn to is the hypnotic element. And Sean was touching on it, there's a mood to the music, that it's a mixture to me of energetic performances, with that make you want to move that elicit a certain response. And then with the lyrics and the songwriting, the way post punk songs are arranged, it just elicits a certain atmosphere and emotion that is very unique to that genre, and that time period. It's something, as a producer, that I wanted to unpack like, how are these bands achieving this sound with four people playing?”

Peel are destined to be those two creative minds chasing an endless creative thread. Two kindred spirits that are as parallel as they are productive, constantly looking to move to the next path while channelling those forbearers, such as infamous visionary producer Martin Hannett for Innis. But unfurling the next layer is the fun part, and what sonics Peel will delve into is as much a mystery to us as is it is to them. "I think it's scratching certain itches," Innis reckons of the pair's creativity. "There are these intangible reference points that I have sometimes where it's just an instinctual thing that I want to try to achieve. And most of the time, it's impossible to achieve," he muses before eagerly ending, "[But] it's something that I keep chasing."

Acid Star is out now via Innovative Leisure

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