By Rob Barbour
Instantly memorable power-pop choruses and big, fuzzy riffs: independently two of the best things in the world. But when they’re masterfully combined, true magic happens. Few bands, either before or since, have done it as well as Weezer on their 1994 debut. So it’s understandable that Rivers Cuomo and co. come up very frequently in relation to West Virginia quartet, Rozwell Kid. It’s hard to think of another band who so shamelessly bring hair metal-inflected, singalong guitar workouts to short, punchy punk rock songs. Frontman Jordan Hudkins has no problem with the comparison.
“They’re definitely a huge influence. Before I played guitar, I would play along to NOFX and all the Punk-O-Rama albums with a yardstick, but when I started actually playing the guitar then I transitioned to Nimrod and The Blue Album – they’re the reason I wanted to write songs.”
Starting off as a side-project when Hudkins was playing drums for a garage rock band, Rozwell Kid’s first album was effectively a solo record. The band came together when lead guitarist Adam Meisterhans played the recordings to some friends from the Virginia music scene, bassist Devin Donnolly and drummer Sean Hallock. Keen to be involved, they offered to form a band; one thing, as the cliché goes, lead to another.
“We all had other things going on, and it was just something fun to do. We didn’t have any lofty career goals. I just wanted to make records, and play shows. But one thing we did that I’m really proud of is when opportunities came up, we jumped at them. Yeah, hell yeah! Let’s do that! Someone wants to take us on a US tour? Why not?”
There’s an enthusiasm in Hudkins’ voice which can only come from someone who’s truly stoked to be doing what they do, and can’t quite believe their luck in getting to do it. The guitarist, singer and songwriter is enjoying some downtime at home in between tours – an increasing rarity since the release of their incredibly accomplished Precious Art record. Although it’s their fourth full-length, it’s their first for SideOneDummy; the first time they’ve had the resources for an international promotional campaign.
This higher profile is certain to put Rozwell Kid in front of thousands of people who might otherwise never have heard them. But it has also brought its own challenges – particularly in respect to the writing process.
“Before, I was working my 9-5, I’d come home in the evening, write a song. Work my 9-5, come home and write a song. And then, boom! Oh, wow, I have 10 songs. Let’s go make a record! Whereas with this, there’s a whole different schedule and lifestyle.”
Realising with a start that they’d been on tour solidly for 18 months without working on any new material, Hudkins had a minor crisis of confidence: “I got in my head after a while. ’Oh, shit. Do I even know how to write songs anymore? Do I even know what I’m doing? What even is a Rozwell Kid song?’” He fessed up to the new label that he was having, in his words, “a bit of a blockage”. SideOneDummy suggested that he come down to LA and spend some time collaborating with other songwriters to jump-start the creative process.
Although none of these collaborations found their way onto Precious Art, the learning experience was invaluable and helped Hudkins find a definitive sound for the album. And although that week, as told through album opener ‘Wendy’s Trash Can’, doesn’t sound like a lot of fun (“I’m up to my eyeballs in red neon suits and spray-on tans…I’ve found every shred of shit that makes me feel at home in a barren wasteland”), the singer insists it was quite the opposite.
“I was sleeping on an air mattress in the office for a week, hanging out in LA, going to shows and eating good food. It was awesome!”
LA’s sprawl is a world away from the small towns in which Rozwell Kid gestated, and whose DNA permeates the record.
“There’s a line in our song ‘MadTV’ – “there’s no such thing as a downtown”. The town I was in was so small, I didn’t live in a neighbourhood with a bunch of neighbour kids to hang out with. My friends lived distances away. You had to be pretty self-reliant on making your own fun. I found that through visual art first, and then with playing guitar. And obsessing over television and movies.”
It’s this pop-cultural obsession which really makes Precious Art stand out from so many other pop-tinged punk rock albums. The Weezer influence is clear, but there’s also shades of much-maligned 90s alt-rockers Fountains of Wayne. They may be best-remembered for the interminable ‘Stacy’s Mom’, but their 1996 self-titled debut album was full of upbeat, life-affirming songs with quirky nods to contemporary culture. Which is exactly what Rozwell Kid deal in.
The album is packed with references to the cultural touchstones that kept 90s and 00s kids from remote towns in touch with the outside world. From the song titles themselves – ‘MadTV’, ‘UHF on DVD’, ‘Michael Keaton’ – to lyrics about Ninja Turtles, Rozwell Kid manage to be referential without crossing the line into gratuitous wackiness.
“That was something we were conscious of on this record. Because a lot of people have brought up the humour on there, and when I gave the guys a demo for a song like ‘Booger’,” – sample lyric: “I don’t wanna let anything keep me from saying ‘I love you’/Not even a booger on my screen” – “We had a conversation about whether this was the route we wanted to go. And I believed strongly in it. This is a love song, and I like the marriage of something that seems sophomoric and stupid, married to this real heartache.”
While it’s important to Hudkins that the band are taken seriously, even if every word they say isn’t. As with his pop culture obsession, he credits this feel-good aspect to the band’s remote origins.
“No-one looks to West Virginia for what we’re doing. No-one looks to West Virginia for much, except for jokes about hillbillies. And I don’t think any of us expected to be able to do this – to get out of the state, to perform with the fucking Get-Up Kids. A band we grew up listening to! No band from where we’re from get to do that!”
Being afforded opportunities they never thought possible, Rozwell Kid aren’t about to disappear into a puff of melancholy pretension. So even when they’re playing more downbeat songs like ‘Total Mess’, they’re happy to be doing so. Or as Hudkins puts it: “We’re going to have a good-ass time playing this bummer song.”
And that’s the Rozwell Kid mission, in a nutshell. Take your music seriously, sure, but before anything else: have fun.
“I just want people, if they come to a show or listen to a record, to feel better at the end of the experience than they did going in.”
To hear Precious Art is to be submerged in audible joy; to hear a band discovering their calling and to experience a perfect summer soundtrack. Mission accomplished.
Precious Art is available now on SideOneDummy.