Years ago, when The Mowgli's were just starting out, when the band was rushing to play club shows and house parties in the same night, one song in particular always seemed to connect with audiences.
"San Francisco," an ode to the communal love that bonds people together, made an impression time and time again as the band traversed L.A., playing hundreds of shows in a few short years, performing at cafes, art galleries, warehouses, farmer's markets and typical venues that kept getting bigger.
Once the band drew attention from the Island Def Jam-affiliated Photo Finish Records, "San Francisco" became the first single from Waiting for the Dawn (reaching as high as 11 on Billboard's alternative chart) and the song The Mowgli's brought to The Tonight Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live and Conan.
"It's an interesting song because we've had that one since the band started. That song was there day one," says singer-guitarist Colin Dieden. "When we signed to the record label, they said this is your single and it hit really hard. That moment our lives changed."
This year has been one of rapid ascension for the band, with a tour that included stops at major music festivals like Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits. Dieden credits much of the band's success to "San Francisco," but says it's come as a bit of a surprise.
"It's weird because we've had it for so long, but I never saw it coming. It seemed like our strongest song back in the day. Our fans in L.A. would sing the loudest to that song and we always had a feeling about it, but I never thought it would launch us like that," he says.
With its positivity, infectious pop-rock hooks and big-band sound, "San Francisco" is a song that perfectly encapsulates the eight-member band. The sing-along chorus functions as a statement of purpose for The Mowgli's: "Do you feel the love? I feel the love / C'mon c'mon, lets start it up! / Let it pour out of your soul."
"The goal from the start was to create happy music because we'd all created some unhappy music in the past," says Dieden in a phone interview from Austin last week. "We set the intention that we'd make music to promote goodness."
The Mowgli's began as an art collective as much as a band.
Dieden, guitarist/vocalist Josh Hogan and percussionist/multinstrumentalist Spencer Trent migrated to Los Angeles from points east, but the rest of the band grew up together, attending high school in Calabasas. The octet took the name from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (via a former band member's dog) and set out as an "indie, gospel, folk, love-rock" band.
"A lot of bands make rock 'n' roll, but I'm not sure artists realize the amount of power they have and a lot of them use it for self-aggrandizing reasons," Dieden says. "We have love for our audience and we're hoping that if we can create happiness in these people, they in turn will go out and treat other people better."
The peace-and-love message has had the band tagged as hippies on occasion, but even when meant derisively, the band takes no offense.
"That's what they call anything that looks remotely like we do," Dieden says. "I get it. I'm not sure if it's not that. It may be a recollection back to the '60s and '70s and we are highly influenced by the beatnik poetic movement and the hippie movement, at least the ideals, so it doesn't bother us at all."
The band self-released its debut album, Sound the Drum, in 2010, while gigging heavily all around Los Angeles, feeling out the creativity and logistics of being an eight-piece.
"We were all learning how to tap into the true spirit of collaboration. Not only are you working with other people, but it's seven other people. It has to work harmoniously or else it's a total nightmare," Dieden says. "I've grown as a musician immensely playing with so many folks I respect deeply and it's really pushed me to become a better musician and a better writer. Now it would be weird to be in a normal band with only four people."
Songwriting has evolved in a truly collaborative way. The Mowgli's feel that the diversity of voices makes for richer music. Waiting for the Dawn reflects that diversity, from the pop candy of "Love Is Easy" to the acoustic country-influenced "Time" to "The Great Divide," the powerful, synth-driven second single.
"Everyone comes from a different place and when anyone brings a song in, everyone has to touch it before it becomes a Mowgli's song," Dieden says. "Maybe there are too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to band decisions, but there's never too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to the creative process."
The Mowgli's take their musical inspiration from several eras of classic California music, the folk-rock Laurel Canyon scene, a bit of San Francisco psychedelic rock and sand-and-sun harmonies, as well as contemporaries like Grouplove and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
"There's amazing music coming out of L.A. right now. I've seen a shift and it feels good to be a part of it and come from there and move beyond," Dieden says.
After performing at the Austin City Limits festival, The Mowgli's will resume a tour opening for Walk the Moon, including a Tucson stop Oct. 15 at the Rialto Theatre, before hitting the road again for a headlining tour in November.
"We're just in the middle of this crazy tour and we've been on the road all the time. We need to be out there as much as possible and playing for people as much as we can," Dieden says. "I don't know when things will settle down, or if they ever will."