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It's a Thursday night in Hollywood, and Rocco DeLuca and the Burden are bitch-slapping a stage in a room that used to host Masonic rituals. Rocco slams his right hand against the body of his Dobro steel guitar like he's banging on a drum as a riotous crowd marvels.
In one respect, it's just another night at the office for DeLuca, no stranger to small and midsize venues. Sure, there are A-listers in the room—Kiefer Sutherland, Jimmy Kimmel, Sarah Effin Silverman. But in this town, shit like that happens. What makes tonight different are the cameras and TV monitors displaying, in real time, what will beam into the heart of the American night the following evening: Jimmy Kimmel Live! DeLuca is the musical guest on the show, a gig he got in part because Sutherland, who is also a guest, co-owns Ironworks Music, the record label that produced his month-old debut record, I Trust You to Kill Me.
The gig is merely one in an astonishing series of events in the whirlwind of DeLuca's life the past year: shows in Berlin, Dublin and Tokyo; a documentary and music videos financed by Ironworks; his name in the tabloids last December (after Sutherland tackled a 16-foot Christmas tree in London following a gig). He even has a mascot, a human-sized pink bunny who drinks and chain-smokes at his gigs.
Most important, he has a wickedly passionate and polished debut record that superbly blends blues, punk, metal, folk and—no kidding—Ravi Shankar into something as fresh and compelling as it is old-school.
After years of playing dingy clubs, of being ignored or talked over, of insecurity and long dark nights of the soul, of crawling into his music as a way to make sense of an often senseless world, Rocco DeLuca is making it in one of the most cutthroat of all businesses. Bitch, moan and complain all you want. Cast your covetous eyes upon his success, dismiss it as the product of Kiefer Sutherland's celebrity. Forget his raw talent. DeLuca is living the dream—and many of us would gladly switch places.
"I've always played music to play music, and the reason I do it is to connect with people and to see something light up in them when I play," DeLuca said moments before a sound check at a little crib in Hollywood called the Playboy Mansion. "I never expected a pat on my back or a reward for that. And even though I'm playing bigger venues and different places, I still feel that same connection. But with that said, it's absolutely mind-blowing to think about everything that's happened recently. If anything, it's like I have a job now. A career. I get to actually do this full time and play music with my band mates, who are also my very good friends. It's fucking unbelievable."
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DeLuca, 30, grew up in Long Beach, Torrance and Lake Elsinore. He credits a two-year Tuesday-night residency at the Gypsy Lounge in Lake Forest for helping launch his real career.
"I learned how much I could drink and play," he says. "I learned how to fall on my face. Some nights I'd play my sitar for 45 minutes or write a song to perform just that night."
But he was developing more than a style. The residency "started making me feel comfortable with stretching out, creating and, after a while, wanting a taste for something more. It convinced me to stop being a scared little punk pretending [to be a musician] by hiding in a smoky bar. And once I turned that corner, everything seemed to fall into place."
The key moment came in October 2003, when Mark Walbaum, a.k.a. DarkMark, a fixture on the LA music scene since the early 1980s and the first A&R representative hired by the fledgling Ironworks, stumbled across DeLuca on a psychedelic-tinged early Sunday morning. Neither DeLuca nor Walbaum really wanted to be at the Radiohead-themed party, but after 30 seconds of hearing DeLuca sing "Creep,"followed by some originals, it didn't matter.
"I was completely mesmerized," Walbaum says. "He just absolutely blew my mind. He had everything—the songwriting, the singing, the unbelievable guitar playing and this incredible energy. The whole package."
Walbaum introduced DeLuca to Sutherland and Ironworks partner Jude Cole. Both shared Walbaum's opinion. They offered DeLuca the company's first record deal. He accepted because they assured him he could "make the record I wanted to make. I said fuck it and accepted because if nothing else, I'd have the best record I could ever make and I would never have to explain or apologize ever again for not having it."
Along with that Cole-produced album, DeLuca, for the first time in his musical odyssey, has a full-time backing band (drummer Ryan Carman, percussionist Greg Velasquez and bassist Dave Beste) called the Burden—not because they're a hindrance, DeLuca insists, but because they're partners on a journey. "Anything you hold precious is a burden because there is a deep responsibility that comes along with it whether you ask for it or not," he says. "It's a weight that carries with it a lot of sorrow and joy. It's a burden. And our burden is doing something that matters and something we believe in. And being on TV or the radio is fine with me because I believe in the music. I mean, why wave a flag if you don't want anyone to see it?"