Indie rockers FNTN tap The Beatles, ’90s Britpop and Frank Ocean for a unique, evolving sound

By Sarah Ahern

Local indie rockers FNTN gig at the Basement Tavern. Photo by Grace Muth

It may seem like a bad idea to weave covers of Drake, The Doors and The Pixies into a single set list, but somehow FNTN pulled it off. During their show at the Silverlake Lounge in December, the recent college grads successfully fused their 1960s surf rock and Beatles-influenced sound with their mutual love of pop and alternative rock — the music that brought them together from the start.

The four piece began with lead vocalist Gray Whisnant and guitarist Lucas De Oliveira meeting in their Virginia high school jazz band, then starting a Strokes and Rolling Stones-modeled rock band called Sweet Thursday, after the Steinbeck novel.

“Fourteen-year-old me thought, ‘Oh, this is so deep,’ but everybody else was like ‘That’s a terrible name,” said Whisnant, now a Westchester resident.

But it wasn’t until attending the University of Virginia that they met Topanga native Zeke Reed and, after a successful dorm jam session, began to nail down a sound of their own. They played lots of covers to figure out what kind of songs they wanted to write and ended up naming the band after Whisnant’s sophomore-year roommate, the band’s biggest booster and resident sage.

“We thought for one gig as a tribute we’d name the band after him,” says Whisnant, “and then all these people started referring to the band as Fenton, so it kind of just stuck.”

They’ve now rebranded as FNTN, removing the vowels to help listeners find them more easily on music streaming services.

For FNTN, emotional impact extracted from their songs is key to making their music appealing to audiences — specifically, allowing for a layer of interpretation from their listeners.

“You need a personal connection with things that the artist does, instead of just their proficiency,” De Oliveira says.

Whisnant, who writes the band’s lyrics, says that the words are the last piece of the puzzle: “I try to explain what the song is about emotionally first, then put the lyrics in after the fact. … A lot of the relationships in my life have revolved around music, and I think all of those songs are kind of wanting to connect with people and maybe not necessarily being able to.”

FNTN’s first EP, “Indigo,” contains somewhat cryptic lyrics that De Oliveira describes as “impressionistic” — completely up to the listener’s interpretation and mood.

“There are moments and glimpses and you kind of see what the emotions are that are working behind them,” De Oliveira says. “There’s a theme that runs through it, but it’s also not hitting you over the head with it.”

Their latest EP, “Lucid Dreams,” differs in that there is a more narrative thread between within each song, yet both contain what Whisnant describes as “mission statements” that are very clearly influenced by bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys.

What’s next for FNTN? After bringing in a new drummer this past fall, Amit Gilad, who has a background in both reggae and metal, Whisnant and De Oliveira want to focus on incorporating both more dissonant and rhythmic sounds into their new music.

But keeping their live shows engaging for new audiences remains critical, so expect a comingling of covers and originals that tap modern R&B influences like Frank Ocean and SZA as well as the energetic Britpop of Blur and Oasis.

“We’re always trying to challenge ourselves,” says Whisnant. “When I feel like I’ve nailed something, part of me is like ‘Now that we’ve done it, we’ve got to do something different.”

FNTN plays at 8 p.m. Thursday (Mar. 1) in The Basement Tavern below The Victorian, 2640 Main St., Santa Monica. No cover. 21+. (310) 396-2469