A recent USA Today cover story boasts that "kids are listening to their parents. Their parents' music, that is." Looking past the dubious attempt at wit, there is some weight to this statement. According to the paper's research, more and more teens are buying and downloading classic rock rather than contemporary music. But the research is suspect. The real proof of this phenomenon is in the music of Orange County, California's trio the Willowz. These kids aren't just listening to their parents' music. They're re-writing it.
"My parents grew up in the punk scene," 19-year-old vocalist-guitarist Richie James says. "My mom went out with Henry Rollins in high school. She was Dee Dee Ramone's art dealer. Everything that I've always been interested in, they've been around."
The self-titled debut album by the trio of recent high-school grads bears uncanny similarity to '80s trash-pop progenitors Redd Kross and Angry Samoans. There's nothing intentionally "retro" about its sound and image, but the influences are undeniable.
"I'd never listened to Redd Kross until we started getting comparisons to them," explains James, who wasn't even born when that teenage trio released its debut album, Born Innocent, in 1982. "I think we're influenced by the same music that they were back then."
It's been more than 20 years since those L.A. punk bands gnawed off and spat out their own mangled version of '60s acts like the Zombies, the Troggs, the Stooges and Love. But the spirited, catchy and sloppy rock of the Willowz--which includes 19-year-old bassist Jessica Reynoza and 17-year-old drummer Alex Nowicki--somehow sounds just like a band from two decades ago playing music influenced by groups from 40 years ago. Despite this fact, or perhaps because of it, the band has garnered a lot of attention from record labels lately.
Beginning with its very first shows less than two years ago, the trio claims to have been besieged with sketchy offers from various managers, major labels and sleazy sycophants. "They all wanted us to sign these deals taking, like, 90 percent of publishing rights and paying no mechanical royalties--just trying to fuck us over because we're young," explains James, delving into a level of detail a 19-year-old would usually reserve for describing his bong. Perhaps an upbringing around adults who shirked corporate rock explains the Willowz's music-biz savvy.
The Willowz eventually did sign with the indie label Dionysus Records and kept all of their rights. Songs from the resulting release caught the ear of director Michel Gondry and landed in his recent, critically acclaimed film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. One of the songs, "Keep on Looking," plays while sexpot actress Kirsten Dunst dances in her underwear. Gondry, who has shot videos for the White Stripes, Björk and Foo Fighters, was so taken with the band that he directed its first video, for the song "Meet Your Demise."
Certainly, good fortune--and perhaps nepotism--has shone on the young band, its album ridiculously adorned with credits to numerous music-biz interlopers. But no amount of name-dropping credentials can change the fact that the Willowz are simply a great, energetic rock band filled with honest exuberance.
The young band's sound evolves rapidly from the beginning to the end of its nine-song, 20-minute album. Songs like "Equation #6" and "Get Down" play up the chant-along choruses and choppy barre-chord bop of Reagan-era power pop. "Something" effectively matches the poetic nonchalance of Loaded-era Velvet Underground. "Keep on Looking" blasts off from an ominous, slow-building guitar riff as James' eager wail (sounding dangerously similar to Jack White) repeats the mantra, "You know you can own this world, child/ You just got to try."
The band's fickle tastes are the reason for its multiple musical personalities, says James. "What we listen to always changes, so the songs that we write are always changing."
Thursday's show marks the first Willowz performance in Portland, even though the group has toured the U.S. twice in its brief existence. James, a fan of the Rose City's garage-punk scene, blames the Oregon Liquor Control Commission's now-defunct Minor Entertainers Rule for his band's inability to perform here. "We've never been able to play in Oregon because there's some law that says if you're under 21, you can't play without a permit." At the time they were setting up their tour, the rule was still in effect, so the Willowz opted for an all-ages show. And, that makes sense--who would appreciate '80s-style trash rock more than kids who weren't even born until after the genre was?
The Willows play with the Flip-Tops and Red Shag Thursday, April 8 at I.C. Mummy, 332 NE San Raphael St., 210-9243. 9 pm. Cover. All ages.