On a sunny October afternoon, 19-year-old Will "Harsh" Hoag strutted across Cousin Simple's makeshift stage in front of New Albany High School's campus green.
Some students milled about during the school's afternoon fall festival while others watched the band. Hoag, his face partially covered by blue sunglasses, performed enthusiastically for all of them.
Performing is what the band members love to do, said Hoag, a freshman at Ohio State University and lead singer (and occasional bass player) for the nascent alternative-rock group.
"For the most part, if we get asked to play, we play," Hoag said.
It should be no surprise, then, the band has played some 50 shows in the past two years. Those are the first steps on Cousin Simple's quest to show the world it belongs on the big stage.
The time on stage has helped the band members mature in both their sound and their showmanship, Hoag said. The band gauges the audience's reactions, he said, and implements what works during the next show.
Interviews with the band reveal those performances also have created a level of comfort and cheerful familiarity that is difficult to replicate.
From lively conversations about "occupational hazards" of being a rocker to jocular one-word descriptions each member has for the others, to the most ambitious "dream concert" venue (Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado is one on which most of them agree), Cousin Simple simply is not five central Ohio teenagers trying to be a band.
They are a band.
In addition to Hoag, two others are freshmen at Ohio State: Clintonville resident Ryan Ulibarri, 18, who plays guitar for the outfit, and Westerville resident Mitch Whittaker, 18, who plays bass, keyboard and ukulele.
The quintet also features Westerville resident Luke Hamrock, a 19-year-old Ohio State sophomore who plays guitar and keyboard and served as the band's drummer before the baby of the group, 16-year-old New Albany High School junior Joel Lorenz, joined. Lorenz, a New Albany resident, previously played in the band Love U, a duo with his older brother, Nick.
They are versatile musicians, sometimes switching instruments to accommodate the lineup needed for a certain song. (Hoag explained no one initially knew how to play bass, so he and Whittaker both learned.)
They cite various personal influences, but people sometimes compare the group to a mix of the Arctic Monkeys, Vampire Weekend and the Rolling Stones, Hoag said. He tries to channel the latter band's frontman, Mick Jagger, both onstage and in song writing.
"I'm just an energetic person on stage," he said.
They also follow Ohio musicians who have made it, particularly the Black Keys of Akron and Twenty One Pilots of Columbus, and that gives them hope they can make it big, too, Hoag said.
Making the band
Cousin Simple got its start before most of the members began high school.
But first, a note on the name: The band's moniker originated with one of Hoag's childhood memories.
When Hoag was 5, he said, he attended a "Mommy and Me" dance and won a video containing three "Scooby-Doo" episodes in a raffle. The Cousin Simple character showed up in an episode, and, though he had no lines, the name stuck with Hoag.
Eventually, he said, he, Ulibarri and Whittaker became friends at Our Lady of Peace School, a Catholic elementary school and middle school in Clintonville.
There they began experimenting with instruments, Whittaker said. Although Whittaker had played piano since kindergarten, in eighth grade, Ulibarri and Hoag began learning to play guitar with the intent of forming a band.
On the last day of eighth grade, the trio performed Coldplay's "The Scientist" in front of their class.
"I guess that was our first show," Ulibarri said.
As upperclassmen at St. Charles Preparatory School in Bexley, Hamrock, Hoag, Ulibarri and Whittaker decided they wanted to take the concept of a band more seriously and began writing songs, Whittaker said.
In February 2017, the band played its first show, at Groove U's annual Instaband battle-of-the-bands competition, to an audience full of classmates. They practiced twice a week before school started and made T-shirts for the event, Whittaker said.
More shows followed in quick succession.
One was a frigid outdoor concert the guys had played in January 2018 to celebrate the grand opening of a COhatch co-working space in Worthington.
Hoag started the show in multiple layers of clothing and shed most of them during the set.
"We were basically playing to our parents," said Ulibarri, who required hand warmers to play his guitar.
The next month brought a more salubrious locale.
In February, the group played in a battle of the bands at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, taking second out of 52 bands. More than 1,000 people showed up -- the band's largest audience to date, Whittaker said.
That second-place showing qualified them to play at Vans Warped Tour on July 18 at Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls. That was a big deal for the band, Ulibarri said.
They also have developed a local following.
Cousin Simple played a sold-out concert May 25 at the A&R Music Bar in Columbus' Arena District, and a number of classmates showed up to see them play, Whittaker said. The audience knew all the words to the songs, he said.
Most recently, the band played Dec. 21 at the Basement, an Arena District venue next door to Express Live! that bills itself as featuring "both national and local bands on the rise."
The high-energy show -- described by Hamrock as "sweaty, in the best possible way" -- drew a sell-out crowd of 300, which included Jerry DePizzo of O.A.R., a band that became popular when its members were students at Ohio State.
Lorenz called it "by far one of the best shows I've ever played."
Hoag waxed poetic: "Unforgettable. Absolute tangle of youth."
In September 2017, the group released its first album, "And We Would Never End," a collection of nine songs, many of them marked by catchy rhythms and upbeat lyrics.
They had been working on a 12-track follow-up album, but Hoag said it is on pause and the plan is first to release a single, "Honey Bee," with the help of producer David Kershenbaum, who has worked with such artists as Bryan Adams, Tori Amos, Duran Duran and Cat Stevens.
Kershenbaum is coming to Columbus this month, Hoag said, to oversee the recording of the single, which doesn't have a release date.
Typically, each band member gets to have his fingerprint on a song.
Hoag said he or Ulibarri typically will come up with a melody or riff and then build a structure for the song around that. Then they take it to the rest of the band members, who add their parts.
A common practice, Hoag said, is to keep notes in his notebook or cellphone, and those notes often become the foundation for songs.
Cousin Simple's "Song to Emma," for example, was built around the phrase, "With your hand stuck to mine."
Although the band is juggling production with Kershenbaum and live shows, Cousin Simple is awaiting more big news this month.
On Nov. 12, Cousin Simple attended a live audition for "America's Got Talent" in Detroit and will find out later in January whether the band will appear on the show, Lorenz said.
Trying out for "America's Got Talent" was a new experience for the band, Hoag said.
"There is a lot of incredible talent out there, and we were humbled to be a part of it," he said.
Now that most of the band members are at Ohio State, they can play around campus and have the opportunity to reach a much larger crowd, Hoag said. The goal, he said, is to make a career out of Cousin Simple.
So where do they go from here?
Newport Music Hall is the next goal for a local venue. Hoag put it this way: Selling out the Newport is a "notch in the belt" for bands looking to establish themselves.
"Then you've made the cut," he said.
Leaving Columbus to go on tour also is an option, Hoag said, and the band is taking opportunities as they come.
"We want to get as big as we can," he said.
Follow Cousin Simple at cousinsimple.com, at www.facebook.com/cousinsimple on Facebook, at @cousin_simple on Twitter and at @cousinsimpleband on Instagram.