From left: Ryan Thomas, guitar; Forrest Mitchell, drums; Zach Sorgen, vocals, piano; Chase Jackson, bass

Caught Between, the title of the Thirstbusters’ infectious sophomore album, is certainly apt.

On one hand, the four-piece Berkeley band is securing a Canadian licensing deal and just won a national songwriting prize.

On the other, their current tour bus is a minivan that belongs to the drummer’s parents.

“We discussed different possibilities for the title, and Caught Between really fit this point in our lives, between childhood and adulthood, us on the verge of finally being a full-time band,” said singer and pianist Zach Sorgen, the band’s oldest member and a recent Vassar College graduate.

Since the band members are split between coasts for most of the year, school has caused the group’s shows to be more sporadic than they would like. But during their four years making music together, the Thirstbusters have managed to record two albums of the distinctive brand of jazzy pop rock that has garnered them a dedicated group of fans and received extensive accolades. Following the release of Caught Between on July 5, the band will embark on a Northern California summer tour, with multiple gigs at East Bay venues.

All four Thirstbusters are highly trained musicians and music majors at their respective schools. Guitarist Ryan Thomas and drummer Forrest Mitchell study jazz performance through UCLA’s ethnomusicology department. Sorgen’s program at Vassar was classically oriented. And bassist Chase Jackson is majoring in jazz at Oberlin College’s music conservatory. They’re also all products of what Mitchell refers to as “Berkeley High’s legendary jazz program.”

This unique path to pop is wholly reflected in the band’s eclectic catalogue, and the new record includes everything from a party anthem and a piano riff inspired by a Beethoven sonata to a cameo by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. The album title is in part a reference to this diversity of sound, Sorgen said, and a suggestion that “everyone has multiple sides: a deeper, darker, more introspective side; a party side; and a political side — so we incorporated all of that.”

“Finders Keepers”, one of the two pre-released songs on the record, is a lively, contagious call to arms (see the music video of the song below).

Inspired by the bailout and the equity gap, the song is intended “to rile people about corporate greed and raise awareness,” Jackson said. Recorded along with the rest of the album last summer, “Finders Keepers” won the band a hefty first-place prize at the national Elfenworks Foundation social justice songwriting competition in June.

It’s no surprise that the album has a political element. “That’s our Berkeley roots,” Jackson said. After a brief stint in Los Angeles, where the band’s manager, attorney, and agent are located, the band members plan to live together in the Bay Area.

“A lot of our fans are in Berkeley, so it’s like a massive reunion every time we play here,” Mitchell said. Ashkenaz has become a home base of sorts for the band, and the last CD release show was at La Peña. This time around, in order to strengthen and cater to their local fan base, the group strategically dismissed the idea of a long-distance tour in favor of a Northern California lineup.

The other pre-released song, “Fight the Feeling”, was inspired by something more personal than political — one of Sorgen’s recurring nightmares. “The texture’s a little more epic and spacy and big-sounding,” Mitchell said.

“Fight the Feeling” in particular is a bit of a stylistic departure for the group, and exemplifies the tangible maturity of their new sound. The music video for “So There” — an unrequited love story filmed on the Berkeley High campus and the single from the Thirstbusters’ first album, Time You Awake — got them a partnership with Disney XD, airtime on the Hallmark channel, and fans around the globe. But after a couple more years of developing musically and growing up in general, the group opted to self-release their second record, so as to preserve their artistic integrity and to the showcase their progress.

“I think it’s much more mature, musically and lyrically,” said Sorgen of Caught Between. “We’re better songwriters, and we knew to record at a good studio so the sound quality’s better.”

With all signs pointing toward continued success, the young musicians have large business and aesthetic decisions to confront. “You have to guess and read where the music industry’s going, which is impossible,” said Mitchell, who along with Thomas is minoring in music business. “Indie music is growing and some of the main artists at major music festivals are indie bands—so on one hand, the radio is dominated by the same major pop artists but now there are some indie artists creeping up on that. So we’re all trying to recycle that information and figure out what makes sense for us.”

Sorgen said the band is dedicated to maintaining their classical-influenced style, but open to experimenting with more contemporary concepts as well. “Coming from jazz and classical, we really value live instruments, and real, acoustic sound. But we’re also thinking of incorporating more electronic sounds,” he said, explaining that the Thirstbusters are often compared to Coldplay, a pop group whose most recent album features a lot of synthesized sound.

Spread between states during the school year, the four typically have to tackle these questions and plan logistics over the phone. Then they buckle down and “get a year’s work done in a couple months” during winter and summer breaks, Mitchell said, so they’re ecstatic to be back in town together with a jam-packed tour schedule.

“Writing and recording is fun, but it’s so internal,” Sorgen said. “The best part of music is sharing it with other people and the rush of being on stage.”

Chances are the Thirstbusters’ next tour will involve a lot more than a minivan and 300 miles, so don’t miss your chance to witness their catchy music and on-stage energy when they release their CD this Thursday, July 5 at Oakland’s New Parish, 579 18th Street, Oakland. Tickets are $7-$10 and the show starts at 8 pm. The rest of their tour dates can be found on the band’s Facebook page. You can also watch the video of “Finders Keepers”:

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...