Richie James Follin—who leads the Willowz from behind a curtain of straight, brown, past-the-shoulders hair that would not have seemed out of place on David Cassidy of the Partridge Family in 1974 or Steven McDonald of Redd Kross in 1984—is a second-generation punk. His mom, Heidi—also the Willowz’ manager—was Dee Dee Ramone’s art dealer, and long ago dated Henry Rollins. His stepfather, Paul Kostabi—also the Willowz’ producer, and brother of noted painter Mark—did time in an early version of White Zombie and collaborated with Dee Dee on both music and canvases. For the record, Paul’s style bristles with the rough energy of Basquiat, while Dee Dee’s is, naturally, more cartoony.
The Willowz Are Coming—a half-hour debut album released last year, and recorded in a garage when the band were still a three-piece and still in their teens—is raw, gleeful, and full of the unrestrained joy of a group suddenly realizing that the world is a paper bag and their instruments a way of tearing it to shreds, as in “Something,” which Michel Gondry picked for the soundtrack of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Early punk bands come to mind, bands that made a sound out of their love of what they did, amateurs and professionals playing amateurs: X-Ray Spex, Kleenex, the Germs. But punk is only part of the Willowz’ heritage. From the start, their sound spreads out. Their songs are as much shapes as tunes, short but not easily summarized. This is not the sound of a style or a time. It’s more the sound of a place: the sprawl of suburban Los Angeles, where they grew up. Orange County, Anaheim to be precise. Strip malls, middle-class subdivisions, Disneyland. A world where the past is not more than a generation deep, the present is ever expanding, and the future is permanently under construction.
On the new, hour-long Talk in Circles, styles flash by like signs along the road: glitter, boogie, ’60s pop, overheated garage r&b, short metallic eruptions, gentle acoustic rambles. The songs sketch thwarted desires and grand ambitions, often in fractured language that seems half lyric, half journal-spill. The Willowz are now a four-piece, and only drummer Alex Nowicki remains in his teens. Their music is no longer wobbly—detailed guitar fills and buried keyboard countermelodies have found their way in. Yet the spirit of spontaneous invention remains. When Follin yowls his way up from underneath a note, the Willowz sound almost as hungry as the New York Dolls looking for a kiss or a hook, whichever can be found first.
So what is it like to be one of America’s most promising young bands? Some nights it is like this: You look out from beneath a curtain of straight, brown, past-the-shoulders hair at a sparse crowd that peaks at about 60, many of them not paying customers, six of them there to document the show. This was the picture at Southpaw a few Fridays ago, though to be fair, it was the Willowz’ fifth area gig in a week, and bassist Jessica Reynoza was sick. They played 10 songs, half of which achieved miraculous liftoff, one of which was a cover that nodded to their L.A. roots (Love’s “My Flash on You”), and one of which turned into a jam with trumpet and timbale. At the end of 30 minutes, Follin thanked us politely for paying attention. If you aren’t, you really ought to be. They’re desperate and exuberant at the same time, one of rock & roll’s greatest tricks, and chances are they’re only going to get more desperate and exuberant as life throws them for a loop or throws them a party, as the case may be.