When Mom Rock got an invite to perform on the Rock Boat in 2020, they presumed it was a spam email, or a joke. This was a five-day cruise from Miami through the Caribbean headlined by veteran acts like Switchfoot and Sister Hazel, and they were a bunch of college students who’d never played anything bigger than a basement house party. “We were about to write it off before we actually realized it was a real thing,” says Mom Rock singer-guitarist Curtis Heimburger. “We had no idea how we got asked. We eventually just said, ‘Alright, this is amazing fortune and we’re going to run with it.’”
That amazing fortune, it turns out, extended beyond just the Rock Boat gig, and it’s well-deserved. Since forming in 2017 at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, drawing inspiration from Weezer, Talking Heads, and Bleachers, Mom Rock have honed an addictive mix of power pop and alt-rock; the first two songs they uploaded to Spotify (“Conversation,” “Grand Romantic Life”) racked up more than a million plays each, and and they’re gearing up for a November tour with the Spill Canvas that will find them playing the biggest venues of their career. They’ve also been named Rolling Stone’s newest Hot Band in our annual Hot Issue.
“At first, I thought everything that was happening was a fluke,” says bassist Tara Maggiulli. “But then we started getting offers for festivals and people started showing up to gigs in our merchandise and knowing our songs … our growth has been like a logarithmic graph. We had this huge leap at first, and from then on we’ve just been inching up.”
(As for the mystery of their Rock Boat booking, Sister Hazel frontman Ken Block would explain that his daughter found their music on Spotify and insisted he bring them onboard.)
It all began back in 2017, when Heimbuger met Josh Polack at a basement jam session at one of the freshman dorms on the Berklee campus. Polack grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and loved 2000s pop rock and alternative, while Heimburger came from Vancouver, British Columbia, and preferred earlier, more eclectic music, like Devo, War, and Fela Kuti. “There were about 15 people down there, and we were trying to figure out just one song we knew collectively,” says Heimburger. “Josh started playing an Alabama Shakes song and I was really into them.”
They started hanging out between classes and talk quickly went to the idea of forming a band, far from an uncommon activity at Berklee. “Most freshman are in like 10 different bands,” Polack told Rolling Stone weeks before he parted ways with Mom Rock. “They all pan out differently since you often realize you don’t like the people or you’re too busy to play with all of them or you don’t like the music.”
Polack sat near drummer Wilson Reardon at his Intro to Music Technology class, and he felt he’d be a good fit since they both shared a passion for Weezer. Bassist Miguel Aragon was also roped into the project. Without a lot of thought, Heimburger proposed that they call themselves Mom Rock in a group text. “Dad Rock is a pretty common phenomenon and we can all kind of pinpoint bands that that are in that kind of genre,” he says. “But Mom Rock felt like something else. I had never heard of anyone talk about Mom Rock or define that as a phenomenon or genre, so I thought it was funny.”
Aragon and Reardon loved the idea, but Polack was far from sold. “I was like, ‘I guess we can use that as a working name until we come up with something actually good,’” he said. “Then we started using it, and the more we used it, the more I realized how smart it was. We were playing all these house shows, and people stayed around since they wanted to see what the fuck Mom Rock is.”
After a few months gigging around campus, Aragon left the group before the start of his sophomore year, and the remaining band members posted a message on Instagram saying they were looking for a new bass player. It caught the eye of Northeastern student Maggiulli, who’d met Polack a couple years earlier when they were both selected to play a nationwide tour as part of the School of Rock All Stars. “They asked if you loved your mom, played bass, and had cool outfits,” says Maggiulli. “I didn’t know about cool outfits, but I love my mom and I play bass. So I messaged Josh and was like, ‘Do you want to jam or something?’”
They clicked right away. “She wasn’t just laying down the bass notes,” says Heimburger. “She was doing little riffs and adding something to every one of the songs. It was pretty immediate that we wanted her in the band, especially when we realized she could sing and we could do three-part harmonies. She just blew us away.”
Maggiulli vividly recalls walking back to her dorm after that first audition. “We played ‘Conversation’ and ‘The In-Between,’ and I was humming both of those songs on the way back,” she says. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a good hook if it got in my ear that fast. Not every song can do that. I was like, ‘This could be something that really connects with people.’”
With a new lineup in place, Mom Rock began recording new songs around campus and uploading them to Spotify. They also started dressing in bright jumpsuits at their live shows and acting wilder and wilder onstage with each passing gig. As the months ticked by, a small crew of Mom Rock fans emerged online and at their performances. But nobody was prepared to see “Conversation” and “Grand Romantic Life” stream in the millions.
“I thought for sure somebody in the band was doing something shady, like paying for something,” says Reardon. “I was like, ‘There is no way. We have no followers. How can this be happening?’”
Nobody in the band is quite able to answer that question, but from the best they can tell, the songs popped up on a few small playlists before they appeared on Spotify’s Discover Weekly algorithmic playlist for users that enjoyed similar (albeit much more popular) bands. In the aftermath, the group started posting more and more songs to the streaming service that they recorded with help from their fellow Berklee students.
The four members shared credit equally on all the songs, though Heimburger and Polack were the primary writers. Both harvested deeply personal feelings in their lyrics. The mournful ballad “If I Had Better Friends” was written by Polack at the peak of the pandemic after a disappointing evening with his friends watching The Bachelor, where he felt totally alone. “I remember walking back and going, ‘God, if I had better friends, how much better would I be feeling now?’” he said. “A couple of days later, I just started singing the chorus to myself in the shower. I jumped out, grabbed the guitar, and just cranked out the song.”
Heimburger wrote the absurdly catchy “Till One of Us Stops Lying” after breaking up with his girlfriend. “Personally, I felt I was giving more into the relationship than she was,” he says. “And the song is about all the anxieties that surfaced trying to stay together during Covid and keep that relationship alive. There were so many weird emotions and being depressed and not liking the person you are.”
Despite the Spotify success, Mom Rock kept a low profile until November 2021, when they flew down to Miami to perform on the Rock Boat. They brought new wild outfits and worked out different sets for each day. The response from fans was unlike anything they expected as one of the least-known bands on the ship. “Shout out to the Rock Boaters since they love live music more than anything else,” says Maggiulli. “They really connected with us on the boat for reasons that I have yet to fully understand. People want to see us in concert now because they saw us on the Rock Boat.”
The Rock Boat also gave them a chance to meet Bowling for Soup and pump them for priceless info about how to tour across America on a micro-budget. More importantly, they met Josh Terry of Workshop Management and booking agent Jordan Burger, and inked deals with both of them. This allowed them to finally book a cross-country tour, from March 16 to April 16, when they somehow played 25 cities in 30 days.
It was a grueling run where they saved money by crashing with family, friends, and even random fans. Maggiulli left her job at a clothing store to make the trip, but she accepted a gig as a customer-service rep that required her to set up a hot spot in a little corner of the van so she could answer emails, take meetings on Zoom, and respond to phone calls. Her shift lasted from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. EST.
“We would just be screwing around or listening to the radio, and she’s just a foot and a half away from us on a Zoom using her customer-service voice,” says Reardon. “I don’t know how she dealt with the frustrations of work and the frustrations of living in a van with three smelly boys. It’s pretty quite impressive.”
Some nights, few people that weren’t friends or family showed up; but in many markets they were stunned to see devoted fans wearing Mom Rock baseball jerseys. “When we come to a new city and anyone knows our music or wears a jersey, it’s pretty mind-blowing,” says Reardon. “It’s pretty wild to realize some people are genuine fans of our music.”
They planned on taking just a short break when the tour wrapped before heading out on a nationwide tour opening up for Less Than Jake, Bowling for Soup, and the Aquabats, but they were forced to pull out at the last minute when Polack left the band. Both sides admit he didn’t leave voluntarily, but they’re hesitant to get into any of the details. “We had a lot of creative differences and a lot of personal differences,” says Heimburger. “Things came to a head at the end of this tour [and] we all had to make a tough decision. It was incredibly difficult, but we all felt the best decision was to continue as a three-piece.”
“It’s professional differences,” Polack said when reached for comment. “I’m also going through a lot personally. I hope I can return at some point.”
Mom Rock is readjusting to life as a three-piece. They’re entertaining the idea of maybe bringing in a “hired gun” or two to flesh out their lineup, dealing with complex visa issues with the Canadian government that will likely prevent Heimburger from being able to work in America until the fall, and writing songs as a group for the first time. “It’s like we went through a divorce,” says Heimburger. “As much as we feel it was the right decision, we can’t help but feel that we lost part of the band. It’s hard to move from that.”
Money remains tight since Mom Rock is unable to play live this summer, so the band is crashing with friends and family and taking odd jobs. Reardon has a part-time gig delivering groceries in Austin, and Maggiulli is staying in her childhood home in Long Island and working the same job she had on tour. “The money has to come from somewhere,” she says. “So that’s my life right now. I’m a customer-service rep by day and a rock star, with a question mark next to that term, by night.”
This piece appears in Rolling Stone’s annual Hot List, in the July/August issue of the magazine.