Six guys, ten instruments, one van, and a lot of tacos. It sounds like the beginning of a 90’s sitcom but it’s actually the setting for Paradise Fears, an alt-pop rock band hailing from the tiny town of Vermillion, South Dakota. You won’t hear them on the regular FM radio, but if you sail youtube or Spotify, chances are you’ll stumble upon them and their fans pretty quickly.
Established in 2008, Paradise Fears is comprised of Sam Miller, Cole Andre, Jordan Merrigan, Marcus Sands, Michael Walker, and Lucas Zimmerman. The six were friends in high school and had decided that, upon graduation, they would give themselves one year to work and save up money to write, produce, and record their debut album, Yours Truly. For a very brief time, the band was named Paradise Fears the Turtle, but upon deliberation it was found that the name was, well, stupid. They dropped the “turtle” and the new name was picked up by their very loyal fans.
The band's six members are the absolute nicest guys you’ll ever meet (though I suppose, as their friend, I could be a little biased – see photo; that's me with vocalist Sam Miller) and they pride themselves on their interactions with their fans by responding to tweets, staying late after concerts for hugs and photos, and including fans in their music videos. In return they have gained what has to be the most passionate, dedicated group of fans any underground band has ever had: the Turtles.
Musically, their influences derive from “virtually anything ever made by Coldplay,” as stated by vocalist Sam Miller, the Script, Jack’s Mannequin, and a flurry of 1990’s bands. Lyrically, they take influence from everyone from Conor Oberst, to Drake, to spoken word poet Anis Mojgani.
Dedicated to getting their music heard, the guys started out by chatting with people waiting in lines for concerts, letting them listen to their tracks, selling them copies of Yours Truly. Eventually they gained enough of a following that they got the attention of a few bigger bands, leading to the opportunity in 2011 to open for alt-punk band All Time Low on the “Rise and Fall of My Pants” tour. This opened a flood gate for Paradise Fears. In 2012, they opened for The Cab and The Summer Set on the “Everything’s Fine Symphony Soldier” tour, prompting them to do their first solo tour in the style of private house shows. They piled into their passenger van, drove across the country, stayed with fans and did house parties. They played original songs, covers, and, according to Cole Andre, “some mad Dance Dance Revolution” with fans across the country.
Later that summer the band announced that they had re-written and recorded their earlier single, “Sanctuary,” and were going to do their first headlining mini-tour in honor of the song. The new recording now included a speech in the middle, written by Sam Miller, letting the fans know that “no matter what you did, I promise we forgave it.” After the great success of the mini-tour, the band buckled down and recorded several covers of major pop songs, including Maroon 5’s “Payphone,” which quickly passed over 300,000 views.
At this point, the Turtle base had grown beyond capacity. Fans would send tweets, post on Tumblr, and would meet the band after concerts with letters they had written, many that were about how the band, the guys, and the music had saved their lives. Deeply touched by all of this, they always try their hardest to respond to as many contacts as possible, spend as much time outside concert venues as they can, and never hesitate to help a fan in need. When asked if all the attention was too much, Sam and Cole responded “it can be a little overwhelming sometimes but I really don’t think you can have too much love. It’s an honor to know that we have impacted people’s lives the way we have. We keep every letter and every gift.”
For the next two years the band wrote, recorded, produced, and toured nearly non-stop, while still doing house parties on the side for eager fans. In 2014, drummer Lucas Zimmerman announced that he would be leaving the band to pursue school and to work in the humanities. In his farewell letter, he expressed his continued love and support for the band and the Turtles. Paradise Fears went on two major tours in 2015, releasing a new album, Life in Real Time in December of that year.
2016 was an odd year for the fans. Paradise Fears had always been active on social media; be it Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, or Tumblr, someone from the band was always posting something. Prompted by sudden near radio silence, a number of people on social media starting asking the guys different forms of the same question— “where have you guys been? Why aren’t you touring? Why aren’t you posting on Twitter? Is Paradise Fears no longer a thing? Did something happen? Is there a fight? Was it violent? Is there a video of the fight?”
The band finally answered, in a blog, in October 2016: “The simple answer is yes, Paradise Fears is always and forever a thing. We’re still here. Still a band, still friends, still hanging out, & still making music together. The reason we’ve been so quiet lately is that now, we’re a bunch of other things, too.”
Michael was living in Florida with his fiancée (now wife!), Jordan has been doing photography, Cole, Marcus, and Sam have been working on college degrees, and Lucas is working as an engineer. Each member is still rooted in Paradise Fears but they have also begun to add their own individual photos to their metaphorical shelves. They announced the release of a new acoustic album, Someone Else’s Dream, and that they would be doing three shows in Boston, New York, and Chicago, including the return of Lucas on drums.
All three shows quickly sold out. The guys showed up, and there were lines out the doors. It was emotional and beautiful. At each show, there were people screaming, singing, crying because they were so happy. This prompted an emotional speech from Sam mid-show:
“It’s a hard time to be a human being right now. A lot of people are disappointed…in their country and what it stands for…maybe I’m a little bit one of them. A lot of people recently found out that maybe the people they know don’t care, and the ones that do are too wrapped up in their own shit to do anything. It can seem like a dark, horrible place. But it’s not. This is still our world. My parent’s world, your world, a world with amazing things and bands and people. So thank you, for showing me that the magic is still very much alive.” (Sam Miller, Boston 2017)
After each show, the band hosted an after-party that lasted well into the night, time they spent reconnecting with people who had been coming to their shows for years, meeting new fans, and reliving the magic that they thought they had lost. At the Boston show, a couple got engaged and credited the band for them meeting. In New York a girl thanked them for their dedication and kind words over the years, telling them that “Battle Scars” had saved her life. In Chicago, you could barely hear the band. Every person in the room was singing. There hasn’t been much from the band since the shows but there is a restored faith in their fans as they await what comes next, both from the band and from the guys as individuals.
“As long as we have you to believe in, we will always be Paradise Fears” (Sam Miller, Chicago 2017)