Boulder’s Summa: Balancing the rock equation

Local band brings equal parts indie rock and pop to Bohemian Biergarten

Courtesy photo

Jake O’Neal, the front man of local indie rock outfit Summa, is neither left-brained nor right-brained. He’s both a falsetto-wielding singer-songwriter who pens lyrics charged with emotion and an electrical engineer who graduated summa cum laude from CU-Boulder last year (hence the name “Summa”). But there’s another piece to O’Neal’s perspective, one that partly inspired the single “Microlove” off the band’s new EP — O’Neal grew up on a farm in Holyoke.

“I was driving a tractor from when I was 8 years old — it was a completely different life,” O’Neal says about his upbringing. “You help with pretty much everything on a farm, and it definitely teaches you how to work hard. And I like that; I still go back to the farm for every harvest.”

As his budding band steadily climbs to new heights, it’s clear that O’Neal is someone who knows how to work hard. Summa was born in December when he and drummer/producer Max Grossman left electronic rock group Kronen in search of their own sound. Eventually landing on a brand of indie pop that still cuts with a hard-rock edge, they scored a Fox Theatre gig opening for Technicolor Tone Factory early on and soon began playing venues like Cervantes’ Other Side and Larimer Lounge.

Featuring instrumentation by Michael Kang of The String Cheese Incident on the groovy, sultry track “Sex Gun” and the distorted “Forces,” the duo released its inaugural five-song Microlove EP in July. In the last few months, they welcomed 16-year-old Miles Bragg on bass, and added guitarist James Thorpe just weeks ago in a step to further round out their sound.

As a self-described “practical math and science his music seriously. It was his decision to audition person,” O’Neal wasn’t always this set on pursuing for the 2012 CU Idol competition during his senior ear that ended up changing everything.

“I actually tried out my junior year and didn’t even get in,” O’Neal laughs. “But placing second in CU Idol my senior year … I’ve been playing music since I was a little kid, so it was a turning point for me. It made me think I could do music as more than just a hobby and as a full-time thing.”

However, O’Neal has found that launching his music career with Summa to be especially tricky in a town like Boulder. While it’s no secret that Boulder is a paradise for bluegrass and jam bands, the flip-side is that many local indie rock groups find it easier to head to Denver than attempt to woo Boulder fans. O’Neal points out that reggae-funk group Intuit, a band he plays with on the side, fits the local vibe seamlessly and rarely struggles to draw a crowd, whereas Boulder audiences needed time to warm to Summa’s darker lyrics and heavy guitar lines. He says this challenge most likely lies in the feel-good attitude the area is known for.

“It’s really difficult, borderline impossible, I think,” O’Neal says of breaking into the Boulder scene with a group like Summa. “Boulder is so laid back and it has beautiful scenery, and people here like happy music. Summa is much more intense and emotional, and it’s not that people don’t like it, but there’s definitely a certain sound that people gravitate to here more.”

Despite a slower start getting off the ground, O’Neal is enthusiastic about the chance to carve out a new niche in Boulder’s music scene and the success the group has found already. Summa stops next at the Bohemian Biergarten on Sept. 18 and will play original tracks off their Microlove EP. O’Neal says that the main goal with their EP was to simulate a live Summa show: raw, intense and with an even mix of hard and soft.

“It’s funny because our style is changing all the time. I used to be obsessed with writing intimate, poppy songs like Microlove, but we’ve been kind of moving toward really hard rock songs too,” O’Neal says. “On our EP we want to show we can write pop songs with catchy hooks, but we can also rock hard; it’s a balance between both.”

Summa plays Bohemian Biergarten Wednesday, Sept. 18. All Chiefs, No Indians also plays. Show starts at 9 p.m. 2017 13th St., Boulder, 720-328-8828.