A Backstage Pass for PUBLIC



The rock-pop band PUBLIC played Webster Hall at the end of February while on tour with American Authors and Magic Giant.


PUBLIC, a rock-pop band consisting of lead singer John Vaughan, bass and synth player Matt Alvarado, and drummer Ben Lapps, opened for American Authors and Magic Giant at Webster Hall at the final show of their Band of Brothers tour. The band formed in high school, and the friendship at the core of PUBLIC was visible in their performance, with high energy throughout their set and a passion for music shining clear. As PUBLIC performed, they embodied the power of rock and roll and undoubtedly made a fan out of every audience member, interacting with the crowd and each other in a way that proved the power music has to connect all people. The Observer caught up with PUBLIC to discuss their experiences as a band and their thoughts on music.

The Observer (TO): What was the experience of transitioning as a band from high school to the present day? What has changed and what has stayed the same?

Matt Alvarado (MA): Social media is one of the biggest differences. Previously, information spread much more by word-of-mouth, and music was CD-oriented. 

John Vaughan (JV): We would put up physical posters for shows. 

MA: Today, it is much more accessible to get your hands on new music. Social media also plays a huge part in our current success because of TikTok, as one of our songs became popular on TikTok.

JV: Doing music professionally is another difference. We work with a label and management now, which is something we didn’t have in high school. We’ve also gotten to know the business side of things, which is a complete addition to just the music. We have grown a ton as a band but are still the same; we still function the same way at the core and still play the same way.

TO: What was it like to go viral on TikTok? Would you want it to happen again, or was going viral once enough?

MA: Any attention is good attention. 

Ben Lapps (BL): It was unexpected when it started and the way that it happened: Fans started tagging us in videos with the TikTok logo and the more we looked into this app, we realized our song “Make You Mine” was not only all over TikTok, but was one of the most popular sounds and had millions of videos. We had to learn how to embrace this while still being the band that we have always been to figure out how we could embrace this phenomenon and still stay true to ourselves. 

JV: It would be incredible if it happened to another song, but our strategy is to just stay a band and not TikTok stars, even though that dominates the way people consume media right now, especially for young people. 

BL: We aren’t trying to engineer a song for TikTok.

MA: The great thing about “Make You Mine” is that it happened very organically. There wasn’t a push to put it on TikTok. 

JV: It’s great that we’re there, but first and foremost we try to keep it about the music. Still, if it happens again, incredible.

TO: Individually or collectively as a band, what is your greatest source, or sources, of creative inspiration?

JV: My love of movies, music and storytelling. Watching a great film makes me want to write music. I go through waves of being in the mood to listen to music, and sometimes it feels like work because this is what I do. Storytelling and bands that are further along than us inspire me a lot. Just in the past year we saw the Jonas Brothers twice, and we work closely with some people they know. Have gotten to know what the Jonas Brothers are all about, and seeing three guys up there that are doing what they’re doing, is inspiring to me. Sometimes when you see someone doing what you do but they’ve been doing it longer, it’s inspiring. 

BL: The biggest thing that I am drawn to about being a musician is how much music, and specifically good groove, good rhythmic sounds, inspire me. It tickles something really deep inside of my heart when I listen to Earth, Wind & Fire or Sheik or Jamiraquai — all of this groove-based music. I’m the drummer in this band, so it’s my job to make sure that the rhythm and groove are covered, and I love trying to capture the same thing that has made such a big impact in my life. I love trying to capture it and then keep it going for other people.

MA: I’m split two different ways, with songwriting/performing. Just watching and touring with the bands we have, I always find something to pull from them whether it’s how they perform, or how they crowd-interact, or how they play, or how they warm up. There’s always something to take away for me. Talking with them and figuring out how they do things also helps ground me and learn more about my instrument. Also, with Island Records being our new label, looking at the people who have gone through there makes me want to step up my game in performing, in how we market ourselves and becoming more professional.

Second, songwriting is sporadic. If i’m in the mood to do it and start whistling something that’s not already a song, I’ll voice record it quickly and then start trying to figure out what that context looks like. For me it’s also usually instrumentals first. I’ll build a song around an emotion I’m feeling with the riff I have made and then write lyrics after that. I know what the song means to me before I even start the words.

TO: What is the most interesting show you’ve ever played? 

MA: The most chaotic show we played was the last show of the Oh Honey tour with Mitchy Collins, who is now in lovelytheband. We went on tour with them in 2015 and as a last tour prank, during “Make You Mine,” which was our closer, they started pulling off all our equipment on stage during the song. 

JV: They took the drums apart and unplugged the guitar. We just stood there and by the end of the song there was no sound. Another show was in New Orleans, playing a really small venue. A man who was thoroughly intoxicated climbed up on stage. It was the first time we had to stop a show so security could take him off. 

MA: There were maybe 10 to 20 people in there.

JV: He just popped up on stage. It was really odd. 


TO: What music would you want to listen to on a desert island?

BL: Earth, Wind & Fire: the album “I Am” (1979).

JV: Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin or maybe a Killers album.

MA: Killers and Maroon 5.

TO: What musician or musicians would be your dream collaboration?

MA: Writing with Nile Rogers, someone who has their pulse on everything and has for decades, would be amazing. Max Martin as well; he’s a huge deal. Performance-wise, we have always wanted to collaborate on an original song with a female vocalist. 

JV: It would be really cool to have a song where a female vocalist takes a chorus and a verse, back and forth.

TO: What’s something you would want to do professionally if you weren’t a musician?

BL: If I wasn’t a musician, I would love to be a chef. I love learning what makes all the different foods of the world so delicious, and I want to be able to do it. 

JV: I would be a storyteller as a filmmaker and actor. I’m actually trying to get into some of that now. It’s not incredibly far from music, but I increasingly realize how much that and storytelling touches me. I am really touched by some movies, and I want to make films that can do that for people.

MA: I used to want to be in Cirque du Soleil. I was a gymnast and athlete for a long time and ended up leaving it, but that was my first passion. I don’t know what role I would fill now, but something performing-wise would be fun.

TO: What’s a non-music related talent that you have?

MA: Gymnastics. I’m still really great at it. I can also whistle, which is still music-related, but it’s just an odd quirk that I don’t do a lot of for the band. I also played sax. We actually all met in jazz band, and that was my first instrument. I’m good at video games too and will spend a lot of time on one game — for six months to a year — because I need to unlock everything before I can move on.

JV: I do some cartooning, and it’s something that I’ve done since I was a kid. I do it to decompress when I don’t need to do anything else and just draw weird cartoons. I’ve also designed a few tattoos.

BL: I can say the alphabet backwards.

TO: What advice would you give someone who wants to start a band?

BL: First and foremost, never stop being inspired. Remember whatever made you want to start doing music in the first place, though it may change over time. 

John: You have to stay a fan of music.

MA: It’s also important to surround yourself with people who are looking out for you, not their own benefits. I think when you surround yourself with people who are doing the right things for the right reasons, it really helps strengthen you and support your team. Don’t be afraid to look into what’s trending right now as well. A lot of people are staying away from TikTok or Instagram because it can be a little bit too invasive, but there is a right way to use it. They can really help you in the long run in trying to figure out how to network and get to your demographic. 

JV: Also play every show you can and every opportunity you can. That’s what we did; you just have to get good at performing. 

MA: You never know who’s at what show too. It could be the smallest show and you could get picked up by your future manager, or a label rep could be there. 

JV: If you have something that makes your sound unique, really lean into that and develop it because you have to stand out. It’s going to be very hard, but if you believe in the music you’re writing, it will be worth it. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.