By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
In LA, the Henry Clay People are loved—handpicked as openers for giant tours with Airborne Toxic Event, and correctly so, as they are the band that a city still full of crummy cars and cheap guitars and divey bars has been crying for ever since Springsteen and Chilton and Westerberg tried to haul this kind of rock & roll over to the other side of the Continental Divide.
But the Henry Clays came from here, not there. Songwriters and front brothers Andy and Joey Siara (guitar/vocals and vocals/guitar, respectively) were raised in the Whittier hills with a family who liked to play Kinks and Beatles songs on holiday mornings, something that likely informs the ramshackle covers medley (including Lou Reed, Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Operation Ivy, Pavement and more as the mood takes them, all lashed at the ankles to the same couple of chords) that’s a climax of their live set. They moved to Yorba Linda to take advantage of the school system, where the usual OC ennui—the kind that absorbs some people completely but spits out the indigestible—helped develop the Henry Clay People into the band they are now.
“I think it was really important for us to grow up there,” Joey says. “When you grow up in a place, you either embrace or stand against it.”
And the Clay stance on a city that, as Andy helpfully points out, has more presidential libraries than bars? For decorum’s sake, let’s just note that they spent most of their downtime in Fullerton instead, where Andy’s first date with his girlfriend was to buy vintage clothes from Black Hole Records. When they started the band, they’d take any show that was offered them, which meant driving up to LA two or three times in any given week. If they weren’t the hardest-grinding indie band then—“If you saw what we did every day, you definitely wouldn’t think that!” Joey says—they were uncommonly fearless and enthusiastic, which kept them together after the catharsis-on-the-way-to-catastrophe that finished their 2007 full-length, Blacklist the Kid With the Red Moustache (with marquee indie producers Colin Stewart and Howard Bilerman).
That left the band broke, shell-shocked and fighting over their last $1.50 in a park in Montreal, but it rolled them into a new sound, too. They dropped nervous Pavement/Modest Mouse-isms and picked out three indestructible chords—Joey thinks D, A and G are his favorites—for absolutely winning rock & roll. Last year’s For Cheap Or for Free was 11 drunk-proof rebel-rousers in the finest refusenik tradition—Westerberg sentiment, Chilton-ian guitar breaks (“This Ain’t a Scene”) and a proudly ridiculous sense of humor (“I’m too lazy to get a passport, baby!”) that pulled you right into the record. And they’d pull you onstage if you were there, for the kind of last-call sing-alongs found only at Cheap Trick karaoke.
In “Fine Print,” they’d sing about “trying to connect ourselves to something.” That’s because people want to feel that their history is important, says Joey. “That the legacy you’re gonna leave behind is important and meaningful. I’m wondering what our legacy is gonna be. It’s kind of the same ‘Bastards of Young’ theme—that anxiety about if our generation is ever gonna have anything substantial to connect to.”
But they’ve got connections everywhere, so many loops and tangles around them that they might as well have halos—or maybe that’s just the blur from the neon by the bar. “Working Part Time” (described as “probably the best song to come out of the eastside [LA] scene ever”) and “Something In the Water” (with its “roomful of kids, singing ‘for cheap for free!’”) and Take Out the Trash ripper “Fine Print” (“We were tired! Of leaving our futures up to fate!”) all hooked right back into the long history of kids from overdeveloped cities who developed their own idea of what guitars were supposed to do.
When a band like this does this good, Mr. Narrator comes in, it’s thanks to the Minutemen’s Mr. Watt, who also knew what it was like to play with your buddies in a little California town. If this isn’t Bob Dylan to you, it’ll certainly be Bob Stinson, and when the D chord falls over into the A chord and the G chord, you’ll know just what to do.