Cons & Tricks

The Willowz: Not yet, guys

Photo by James BunoanAnotherstorythatstartsinabar—with bands, that's where a lot of stories start—and that's where the Willowz were that night, a long flight away from the Anaheim garage where they practice to this red-lit bricked-up basement next to a tube stop in London, England. They had three of their songs in a famous movie, and they were supposedly going to be the American band that a huge British label was going to use to get equivalently huge in America, but they were also jet-lagged and distracted—bassist Jessica Reynoza's purse with her passport in it had been stolen from under her seat just minutes before at a different bar around the corner—and their U.K. debut couldn't rate many adjectives kinder than "hopeful." Too bad, then, because that was the night the International Rock Writer came out to see them.

He was from one of the big mags, the kind of publication that can sneeze a band into 50,000 records sold and a slot on LateNightwithConanO'Brien,a magazine that can makeyoufamous,and as the Willowz rolled their instruments back up, International Rock Writer was warming a dewy Tiger beer bottle with the palm of his hand and talking cheerful conversational bullshit. This band is good, that band is good; the usual show-biz gossip, with a bit of an extra charge to it because this man himself could make things happen, if he wanted. Naturally, after he made a nice joke, I gave him a little prod: What did you think of the Willowz?

"Fuck the Willowz," he said instantly. Then he laughed. Then he had a drink. And that was just one more time that superstardom leaned in and over, took a squinty look at these kids from Anaheim, and said, "Not yet, guys. Not yet."

TheWillowzstartedinAnaheimin2002, when drummer Alex Willow was still in high school—well, high school age,anyway. They were a trashy little teen garage combo, a little older than Annette'sGottheHits-era Red Cross when they started, but with a very similar record collection. They played music that had gotten famous with the Hives but had really been around forever, and they worked hard, and you'd begin to notice things like guitarist Richie Follin's distinctive gums-flapping-heart-pounding vocals and Alex's caveman-gone-crazy drum fills. And then, as it became clearer the band would not be content to forever open Monday-night shows at Chain Reaction, there developed—through the sort of thing Nixon might have called a muttering campaign—a reputation for these two then-19-year-olds and this one then-17-year-old as the Most Hated Band in Anaheim. When they got a profile in the Weeklyin November 2003, there was an angry letter about it in the very next issue: "I am greatly disappointed in your publication for provoking the unethical music (so-called) talents of the Willowz and most notably Richie Eaton [Follin]. I believe the only notable crumb of fact in the whole article was when the Willowz were called the most hated band in Anaheim. . . . Shame on you, OCWeekly."In retrospect, it should have been apparent right then that the Willowz would go on to big things.

The following spring, they fell across the line of sight of French director Michel Gondry, who, inspired or maybe even commanded by a dream after he found the band on the Internet, put the Willowz on the soundtrack for EternalSunshineoftheSpotlessMindand even made a video—at the time, in a sort of pay-me-when-you-can-mes-amies deal—for the song "I Wonder"; this then-largely unknown suburban brat-rock band fit strangely alongside other Gondry projects such as, say, the White Stripes, but there they were.

Their first single came out on venerable label Posh Boy—one of the original SoCal punk labels—because the Willowz happened to practice within earshot of Posh Boy owner/decision maker Robbie Fields, and then they negotiated that into a debut full-length on Dionysus, one of the big three or four garage-rock independents, and then the soundtrack for EternalSunshinecame out everywhere movies can be seen. This was the Willowz's real talent: they could connect one random lucky dot to another, and then to something else again, and whether it was bluff or not, it all soon constellated into the sort of outline a band likes to inspire—hot, young, hip, hungry and (of course) easy to work with. Six months later, they got that tour to the U.K., and they spent a nice afternoon at XL Recordings in London (once the home of the White Stripes overseas) and a nice afternoon at XFM Radio in London (which is like the U.K.'s KROQ), and they got another single out on an XL subsidiary with one of Jessica's paintings on the cover; that's a lot of industry talk, but underneath were promises of simple things such as money and fun and fame.

There are slow ways to get a band famous, and there are quick ways, and the Willowz were smart enough to pursue both at the same time: they kept up a draining touring schedule that only under-21s who lived at home and didn't necessarily have to go to school could maintain, and they pushed and schmoozed and lucked themselves into the sort of fluke events—say, inclusion on a Grammy-nominated film soundtrack—that could be gambled for something even better if you got the attention of the right people. (One night, sitting in a car with a Capitol A&R scout, listening to all the new music she wanted to make famous: there, between hip-ish radio darlings such as Razorlight and Bloc Party were the Willowz. International Rock Writer was there, too. "Bah," he said, turning to walk down Hollywood Boulevard. "Give me something new.") At 19, 19 and 17, the Willowz were already the Most Hated Band in Anaheim. By 20, 20 and 18, they seemed like they could soon be one of the Most Hated Bands in the World. That's nice work, if you can get it. But: not yet, guys.

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