Music

Precious Home, ‘Precious Art’: Exploring Rozwell Kid’s West Virginia

Past

Jordan Hudkins is standing behind the microphone for the first time, guitar in hand. He feels uncomfortable: he’s used to being the drummer in bands, hidden in the back, but being able to move around, being front and center isn’t what comes natural to him. Nervous but grateful, Hudkins gives a big speech of gratitude.

Then someone in the crowd yells, “Shut up and play already!”

And that’s how Rozwell Kid started their first show, playing in the corner of a hip restaurant in the college town of Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on October 13, 2011.

Originally the drummer for his roommate, Adam Meisterhans’ band, The Demon Beat, Hudkins started Rozwell Kid mostly by accident: He had written a couple songs and had the chance to do a split 7″ with a friend’s band. (Before drumming, he played saxophone in middle school and tuba in high school.) The short release fell apart, but Hudkins did not, deciding to record a full album and put it out himself. As Hudkins and Meisterhans were roommates, Meisterhans was one of the first to hear the finished product.

“When I got the record back and it was finished, Adam was recording this other band at our house that Devin Donnelly [Rozwell Kid bassist] and Sean Hallock [Rozwell Kid drummer] were in,” Hudkins says. “Adam played them the record and they were like ‘whoa, this is awesome, if he wants to put a band together, we wanna play this stuff.’ Adam told me that and I was like ‘well, OK, let’s get together and practice and book a show.’”

“We did, it was fun, so we played another show; then I put the record up on Bandcamp and people started asking us to come to their town, to the middle of Pennsylvania, to Roaring Springs, and play a show,” he said. “We started doing stuff, but it was never a real motivated attempt to make this band anything.”

Some seven years later and Rozwell Kid already is something, already fit for packed rock clubs and obsessed fans. Their new album, Precious Art, is set to take them from the most fun rock and roll band that’s already covered on music blogs (and already called “excellent” by The New York Times) to one of the undisputed treasures of music when it comes out June 23 on SideOne Dummy Records. With beautiful power pop literally about Season 3 of The Simpsons and a thing of hummus, it’s hard to qualify what makes Rozwell Kid great, other than the pure joy I feel when their music comes on.

That’s what spurred me to drive down to West Virginia and spend a few days with Jordan Hudkins in his hometown.

***

When I pull into the driveway of the huge property where Hudkins lives, he’s waiting for me with open arms. (Literally: We hug.) This is my first personal interaction with him, and it’s a far better experience than the first time I saw Rozwell Kid live.

At South By Southwest 2015, they played a showcase at Hole in the Wall for Stereogum and Exploding in Sound Records. I went to see Pile on three hours sleep, hungover as hell from the night before, having drank four cups of coffee to power me through the day with little-to-no positive impact on my energy level but a large impact on my stress management capabilities. I ran into Kevin Duquette from Topshelf Records, who asked how I was doing. (I responded by saying “I’m tired” six times before realizing I had spent six sentences saying the same two words over and over verbatim. I was pretty tired.) A friend from Philadelphia pulled me aside to say “Rozwell Kid are the best band in the world,” and to force me to stick around and watch them. So I did, even though I was in a headspace that couldn’t possibly like new music.

What I caught was a band with Thin Lizzy guitar harmonies, Beatles-style song structures and incomparably catchy melodies, delivered with so much pride and joy that it was borderline obnoxious. Hudkins lead a literal “music is tight” chant multiple times. My head was pounding. I didn’t quite “get it.”

Then I accidentally saw them two more times in the next six months, despite never wanting to, and the third time, found that I knew all the words to “Halloween 3.5” despite having only heard it three times. I accepted my unexpected fate: I loved Rozwell Kid. Still, I didn’t know that a few years later, I’d be hugging the songwriter at his house after driving all day to get there, and we’d watch The Simpsons DVDs over IPAs before going to bed.

Present

The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die is in a meeting with the employees of the label they’re about to sign with, Epitaph Records, to discuss the then-upcoming tour with The Hotelier and Rozwell Kid. Epitaph hasn’t heard of Rozwell Kid.

“They sound like Weezer,” is what the band tell the label, ignoring that Epitaph released Weezer’s Hurley in 2010.

Rozwell Kid gets this comparison all too often: Pitchfork said they are “charming and guileless like early Weezer,” Stereogum called them “post-Weezer,” and they’ve appeared on a blog called Songs That Sound Like Early Weezer. The comparison isn’t inaccurate, but it doesn’t do the band justice: There is more wit to Rozwell’s view of the world, more childlike wonder and less complaining about the mundane, more unmacho, dweebish joy and less nerdish validation-seeking, and more anthemic pop and guitar work than Weezer has packed into any of their recent rock albums.

“My favorite music is that kind of style,” Hudkins tells me. “I love the energy of it, and the melody; melody is the most important thing for me personally. I like melody heavy music with big rock guitars. I learned to play from Weezer and Green Day.”

It wasn’t that tour that exposed The World Is to Rozwell Kid, the band was already familiar with their music; lead vocalist David Bello even recorded a cover of “Halloween” with his significant other, Sarah Cowell of For Everest.

“We did a tour with Rozwell Kid a few years back,” Cowell says. “We would always end up with ‘Halloween 3.5’ stuck in our heads after each show. David is from West Virginia and has known them since Jordan and Adam were in The Demon Beat, and was at the very first few Rozwell Kid shows.”

“I booked them a few years back in a Brooklyn basement, and one of them crowd surfed and broke a light bulb. No one got hurt, but it was sick,” he said.

Nonetheless, it was that tour with The World Is that sent Rozwell Kid on their path.

“We hit the road hard,” Hudkins says. “Before the tour with The World Is was over, we got offered a tour with You Blew It!. Before that tour was over, we got offered a tour with Superheaven. It was like, ‘This is great, why would we turn these down?’ I didn’t see any drawbacks. It was like, if we’re gonna do this, let’s hit the ground running and try our best and see what happens.”

“I wouldn’t describe anything we’ve done as a meteoric rise to fame. There are still so many people who don’t know who we are,” he said. “But we got very busy very fast.”

It may not be a meteoric rise in their mind, but it has been a faster, more natural rise than most bands get: Rozwell Kid somewhat accidentally did everything a band is supposed to do in an album release cycle with a pretty good success rate. And their fans are hungry for the new album.

“We’ve been in love with those dudes and their music forever,” Cowell says. “Our love for them is endless. I haven’t heard the new album yet, David has. I’m so jealous.”

***

Jordan Hudkins makes a perfect omelet, customized to however he’s feeling that day. The next morning, he makes me a spicy chorizo omelet that would’ve made Gordon Ramsey happy. Cooking omelets is almost a hobby to him: He quietly runs a blog, Jordan’s Omelettes, dedicated to the craft.

“I was visiting a friend of mine and he made omelets for breakfast,” he tells me. “They were delicious and I found myself simultaneously impressed with the skill and upset at the thought that I couldn’t make a simple omelet if you held a gun to my head. It seemed like something I should just know how to do.”

“Not long after this revelation, my girlfriend and I got six chickens,” he continued. “Between the urge to learn and a glut of fresh eggs, my quest to perfect the omelet was underway.”

Hudkins is showing me the two places where the songs on the album were written: the first, where the majority was written, is his living room, connected directly to the kitchen where the omelets are perfected. Guitars are buried in the corner; when he goes through them all, he inadvertently reveals to me that he never uses a high E string on any of his guitars. Ever. Even the guitar displayed on the cover of their latest EP, Good Graphics, is based on his first guitar and lacks the high E string. I’ve literally tabbed out multiple Rozwell Kid songs and never noticed this.

“When I was starting to write what would become the first Rozwell Kid songs, Adam gave me a shitty strat that he’s taken the high E tuner from to put on another guitar,” Hudkins says. “I never bothered to remedy the situation and kept writing songs. This was eventually the same guitar I used for the first few Rozwell Kid shows, and when I got around to buying a new guitar, playing with six strings felt weird. So I took the high E tuner off and I’ve been rolling five deep ever since.

To be specific, he’s been rolling five deep since the release of Rozwell Kid’s first self-titled album of sorts, The Rozwell Kid LP which came out in 2011 and was followed up by Unmacho in 2013, Too Shabby in 2014, and the EP in 2015. Precious Art is both their fourth album and the band’s first record with SideOne Dummy. At this point, it’s become part of the Rozwell Kid sound.

“Also, at some point someone mentioned to me that Keith Richards only uses five strings, too. That’s my official bullshit rock and roll excuse to keep not-actually-learning-how-to-play-a-real-guitar-well.”

It’s the living room and the basement of this house where Hudkins writes the songs and demos them, still playing every instrument himself before letting the other players do their own versions and run wild, expanding on his original ideas. (He excitedly tells me of when he recorded the demo to “Halloween 3.5” with one microphone in the basement, then ran with the computer to the living room to record the guitar and bass.) It’s this living room where he wrote a Rozwell Kid ska song that no one has heard (but I have been informed exists — he also wrote a Rozwell Kid country song spontaneously at a studio in Nashville that I was lucky enough to hear.)

The other place the songwriting happens are a bit more unusual.

“I was looking for a storage unit and this guy at an airplane hanger, he also rents out garages to guys who work on muscle cars,” Hudkins says. “I was like, ‘I’m looking for a place to set up drums that I can just play whenever, as loud as I want. A storage space like that.’ And he was like, ‘I actually have something better that has heat and air conditioning.’ ‘Well, OK!’ I said. So it’s seriously just an empty space in a series of airplane hangars. I’d play or write or record music late at night.”

“There are giant planes all around in these hangars. They don’t look like they’re going to be able to lift off the ground, but they do, and it’s so loud. They’re massive.”

After showing me the hangar, he takes me to Burkittsville, Maryland, where The Blair Witch Project takes place. I coincidentally watched the film on Netflix the night before, and when I mention it to Hudkins, he can’t help but take me to the town less than ten minutes away where it takes place. True to form, it is tiny, and it is creepy. Bassist Donnelly later tells me he no longer goes there after an eerie interaction with one of the townsfolk.

Seeing where Rozwell Kid hangs out and where they make music only makes me more anxious to hear the new album.

“I feel like this record is more cohesive,” I’m told. “We had more time in the studio and got try out more ideas there. It feels like an album, rather than ten songs. Not to discredit anything we’ve done before, but everything else was done in a bit of hurry. This was done at our pace.”

Future

When you see Rozwell Kid live, regardless of where it is — a basement show or a festival or a club or on Youtube — their energy makes it feel like a stadium show, like you are front row seeing Queen in the ’70s or Beyonce today, like you’re a choreographed light show short of seeing the greatest, wildest rock band ever. What once felt obnoxious to me as a hungover man in Austin feels slick sober, feels hip as a fan: They don’t stop running, jumping, power stancing, shredding, or leading chants until everyone goes home happy.

On their tour with fellow SideOne Dummy punk act Pup, they took it to another level.

“They were doing this amazing thing at the end of their set,” Pup frontman Stefan Babcock says. “They’d get to the second to the last note of their very last song, and then just freeze in a power stance, and hold it tableau style, without hitting the last note. So, for instance, they’d be jumping around, and then suddenly they’d just freeze: Jordan would have his guitar in the air and his head thrown back, Adam would have his finger in the air rocking out, Devin would be full-on spread legged power stance and Sean would be just about to smash his cymbals.”

“And they’d just hold this pose for an uncomfortably long time. And the crowd would lose their mind, and then, at some invisible cue from Jordan, the band would crash down on the last note of the song, then walk off stage. It was f*cking amazing.”

The hold-in-place swallows time whole. When they played in Connecticut last summer, they did it for forty five seconds, per a video I filmed on my phone. Even that felt like forever to me when it happened, but that’s nowhere near what they would go on to do.

“The first show of the tour, they pulled this stunt, and I think they probably held the power pose for like 10 seconds or something, which is actually a really long time,” Babcock says. “The crowd loved it. Every show after that, they kept trying to outdo themselves. They started holding the pose for 15 seconds or 20 seconds or whatever. By halfway through the tour it was like a minute long. And what would happen is they’d freeze, and the audience would just burst out laughing for like 20 seconds. And then the laughter would die down and it would get awkward because they were still frozen. And then maybe 20 seconds later someone would start giggling and the whole room would just go off again, and then finally, they’d crash down on that last note.”

Halfway through the tour, PUP started timing the length of the awkward pause.

“By the last night of the tour, we were doing a sold out show in New York City, and Rozwell Kid did the power pose, and held it for a full 3 minutes and 15 seconds,” Babcock says. “Which is absolutely ridiculous. That’s like the length of a normal song. They were only doing 35 minute sets, so it was like 10% of their whole set was them frozen. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen onstage, and also, one of the most uncomfortable.”

It fits who they are: a band of wild basement showgoers with stadium-level songwriting playing rock clubs. They embrace the power stance, the over-the-top jumping around, the unchoreographed-but-still-synchronized headbang. What I didn’t realize when I first heard those “music is tight” chants was that they meant it, that putting on a good show for music fans wasn’t just an important thing to them, but the only thing. The ridiculous antics only seal the deal of who they are as people: fun loving guys who want not merely to have a good time, but to share it.

“F*ck, I love those guys,” Babcock adds.

Some of Rozwell Kid’s past albums have captured that energy and put the lightning in a bottle — Too Shabby may go down as one of the greatest cult rock and roll records of all time — but Precious Art is building on that.

While we’re driving around, Hudkins asks if I want to hear some songs from the record. He plays me the opening song, the aptly titled “Wendy’s Trash Can,” a fitting ode to fast food, tour life, and trash cans, featuring one of the fastest, catchiest riffs they’ve ever done, and a melody that lingers in my brain hours after listening to it once.

He asks if I want to hear more, offering me song titles with no context or idea what each song will be like. He plays “Total Mess” and I wonder if it’s a stronger song than the first — one of them is certainly the lead single, but they’re both such perfect melodies, high energy and driving forward frenetically, like a rollercoaster that looks serene but still leaves you excited and woozy afterward. I listen to “Michael Keaton”, a song that sways between quiet and loud, pushing and pulling the same way “Only In Dreams” does but with a little more tongue in its cheek.

He plays me yet another song, and I’m instantly blown away: It shimmers Beach Boys harmonies over strong but simple piano playing, oohing and ahhing with just a touch of guitar. I’m sinking into waves of music I never thought this band would play — somehow it fits everything else he’s played from the album, but it feels nothing like what the band has ever attempted before. It’s ’60s pop mixed with guitar power pop. It’s ethereal; I think in audio but I can feel it shimmer. I’m internally screaming: is Rozwell Kid no longer a guitar band? Is Hudkins moving in a bold new direction? Am I the first person to hear what they are about to become?

The song ends after a minute or so and Hudkins laughs.

“That one’s an interlude. It’s called ‘South By.'”

I laugh too. We drive around for a while longer before stopping at a gas station. Hudkins tells me that, apart from SideOne Dummy, his girlfriend, and his bandmates, I am the only person that has heard Precious Art. He wants my sincere opinion on the album and all I’ve heard.

I want to tell him it’s beautiful, that I’ve watched a fun rock and roll group grow from the weirdos I enjoyed hearing sing about being, well, weirdos, to a band destined for stadium lights and sold out headlining slots. But this is the guy who knew without looking which disc had my favorite episode of The Simpsons on it.

I want to tell him it was beautiful. Instead I say, “It’s sick.” This is the band that pauses all physical movement for 195 seconds for amusement, that leads the crowd in publicly appreciating music and life and friends, that feels no shame in writing about hummus and only pride for their organized chaos of a live show. I don’t need to pontificate with Hudkins for my review to be complete: Rozwell Kid are sick.

The next day, Hudkins and I walk around Shepherdstown. I shop for a West Virginia postcard to mail a pen pal before we part ways with another hug. I debate what music to listen to on my drive home, but for the first half hour, I drive in silence. I hum the melody to “Wendy’s Trash Can” until I’m in Pennsylvania, until it’s out of my head, until I’m on my way home.

Precious Art is out 6/23 via SideOne Dummy Records.

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