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Cons & Tricks

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.

 

Analyzingrock&rollnear-missesisa mess; usually, the reasons don't make sense. But as deals and advances and warm handshakes played tornado around this still mostly unknown suburban brat-rock band, you could wonder if people had forgotten to make sure there was still anything worth storming about. There were a lot of shows on that U.K. tour that felt like Monday nights at Chain Reaction. There were a lot of reasons why that could have happened. But there weren't a lot of polite ways to bring it up. The British deal backed away, something about opportunities not being right. One of the American ones dropped, too, despite word on the sidewalk along Hollywood Boulevard being that a certain record-company president just loved the band. Other bands got huge instead—perhaps you saw them in International Rock Writer's magazine or on TV, doing the things the Willowz would have done (as Richie once said, "As lame as TV is right now, I'd still like to be on it"). And while that was happening, the Willowz did other things instead.

Waiting for its May release on Long Beach independent Sympathy for the Record Industry (former home of the White Stripes; apparently, there are footsteps the Willowz don't mind following) is their new album, WeTalkinCircles—their PetSounds, Richie had joked, though you can tell they were really trying (they'd even taken field trips to record actual live pet sounds, manager/Richie's mom Heidi Follin said). It's their first as a four-piece, with new guitarist Dan Lowe; their first record that's really their own, instead of just a quick freehand scribble over the songs they've heard and absorbed ("What's up with that song that sounds like 'Gloria'?" I asked Alex once. He shrugged: "It is'Gloria'"). It's been going back and forth in demo and revision for (at least) months, starting with tracking sessions in Richie's step-dad's New York apartment right after the band came back from the U.K. It was written without Lowe, but he's on every track now, doing some of his overdubs into a multitrack recorder while sitting on the middle seat of the Willowz's minivan.

And now at 21, 21 and still 18 (plus 23-year-old Dan), the Willowz have put together a record that pushes breath back into the hype, have put together songs that are trim and fast and alive, instead of the clumsy Frankensteins they started with, have put together their own band in some new way that feels fuller and more purposeful than ever before. Richie has always had the ambition—as soon as he tracked his very first songs, he tried to walk them in to the office of the president of Universal Records. But now the Willowz have dropped the dead weight and streamlined their strengths: what Gondry called Richie's "rubber band" vocals, Richie's instinct for a catchy chorus (they just sold a song to a Renault commercial on the basis of his "Woo-hoos!"), Jessica's glamour-gal backups and Mo Tucker leads, and Alex's precociously ferocious drumming. And now Dan over it all, with a Telecaster sound as clear as cut crystal and a few diminished chords on an ill-gotten Rhodes keyboard. It's kind of different, avers Richie. But they must be proud. The very last lyric on the hourlong album is Jessica's, tired but triumphant: "Yeah, we can die now."

ItwasalonganduglydrivetoTexas.TheWillowz were going to South By Southwest for the same reason every other band goes: to see what would happen. They slept in their minivan alongside the Union Pacific tracks in Deming, New Mexico, eating Subway sandwiches (which everyone agreed were sodden and disgusting) and curling up for three hours in a below-freezing desert night before digging their thumbs into their eyes and getting back on the interstate. It took 31 hours. Their newest driver was named Scotty Diablo: he was neither a hippie (like the last one) nor a transvestite (like the one before that); he was very organized, calm and professional, and he said he'd asked to come on the tour because he loved the Willowz's music.

 

They had two shows. The first was in the whited-out Austin daylight for some empty tables, some hipsters cooking red and black in the sun, and ex-punker Keith Morris, who reportedly scouts for V2 Records and who watched the Willowz set while hanging halfway over a rough wooden railing. Their songs sounded happily and finally complete; they played nothing from the first album and even a fuck-up sounded casual and cute, a faux pas that somehow came off as charming, even though all the industry people were supposed to be cutthroat. But the next was on the last night of the fest, and it was the best show I'd seen them play. Richie's customary melodrama—kid loves to do the splits—turned into elaborate acrobatics; they started with an old song that ended up feeling about as vital as soggy clay once they began peeling out the new ones, and soon, fat, ugly drunks stumbled down from the bleachers—for some reason, the bar had bleachers—to offer sloppy, heartfelt encouragement.

Richie looked taller and skinnier than he does in real life, stretching his guitar from his knees to his neck, and Dan and Jessica dipped into scruffy harmonies over each of his shoulders as he hit a firecracker stream of high notes. They ended with that fake "Gloria," and Richie squeezed back behind Alex's drums to a Mickey Mouse piatathey'd hung up—the Willowz are fiercely proud of Anaheim, name-checking it between nearly every song—and started smashing his guitar into the piata'scrotch. It fell at three strokes and split at five, and then he hoisted it over his shoulder and shot-putted it high over the crowd, where it fluttered in pieces through streamers of feedback into a group of beer-bellied, black-T-shirted dudes. There was wide and generous applause. You gonna get a deal out of this? I asked Richie. "Hopefully," he said, grinning. I looked around for International Rock Writer, who I knew was in Texas, too, but he wasn't there to see it. So I e-mailed him later to see what he'd been up to and told him I was touring with the Willowz again. He wrote back briefly: "Could I fuck the girl from the Willowz?" In a way, it seemed like progress. Not yet, guys. But real soon now.


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