Straight Outta Echo Park
It's probably safe to say that no one really predicted a second generation of pleasant lo-fi bands that emulate heroes such as Elliott Smith and Built to Spill. You start a band in hopes of becoming the next Beatles or Rolling Stones, not the next Death Cab for Cutie. And you would certainly be called cheeky if you dared surpass your predecessors, now peers, on the highway to success, all on the strength of spare little ditties flavored with '50s-style guitar licks and smart, quirky lyrics.
Born three years ago of a continuing informal songwriting partnership that flowered between guitarist Blake Sennett and singer Jenny Lewis in Echo Park (the Los Angeles 'burb that houses the only lotus stand this side of Asia), Rilo Kiley makes breaking into the business look as easy as beating George W. Bush at Jeopardy. What started out as a few friends creating together anonymously has catapulted this foursome into the limelight as the indie world's latest It Kids.
Once Sennett and Lewis decided they wanted to form a band, a bass-playing friend named Pierre de Reeder was recruited, as was Lewis's boyfriend's roommate, Dave Rock, on drums. (Rock is no longer with the band; he was replaced earlier this year with Jason Boesel.) The group is probably one of the few in history whose music has ever been featured on a movie soundtrack and a television show without the support of a label: Before the band released its debut album, Take Offs and Landings, in 2000, it released an EP that wound up in the hands of filmmaker Morgan J. Freeman. Freeman used a couple of Rilo Kiley's songs in the soundtrack to his film Desert Blue, which stars Christina Ricci, Casey Affleck and Kate Hudson, as well as in an episode of Dawson's Creek. Later he directed what Sennett describes as "a super, super low-budget video" for the band, which made its way through the corporate red tape and onto MTV's 120 Minutes.
"It's pretty random to see the most independent of independent bands on MTV," says Sennett.
There's independence and there's DIY, really. Rilo Kiley recorded Take Offs and Landings at home with an eight-track and a computer, then started selling copies to fans at shows. "We built a local following, and that somehow spilled into other states, and our CD made it up to Seattle and got to Barsuk [Records]," Sennett explains, "which happened to be on our...when we recorded Take Offs and Landings, we made a top-five list of labels we'd like to take it to, so when they called us up, we didn't look any further." What you see is what you get with the record: The band made negligible tweaks to one or two songs; the rest is what was being sold on the club set in the last year or so. According to Sennett, the only real difference between the two versions of the album is the cover art. "They gave us cooler paper," he chuckles.
That's not to say that the kids in Rilo Kiley are cynical about their luck. In fact, the converse is true. "We feel really, really super fortunate that Barsuk found us," says Sennett. It's rare and refreshing, in this world of jaded and irritable rockers who've been in the biz about five years too long, to hear such exuberance from a new band. Especially when its members are crossing the country crammed in a van, quite possibly the best vehicle for trapping all sorts of road-related odors.
Then again, there's not too much for the band to complain about at this point. Thus far in its short career, Rilo Kiley has toured with Nada Surf and the Breeders, opened for one of Weezer's double-secret club shows, and just got off a tour in support of Superchunk.
At a North Carolina show, on tour with Nada Surf, Lewis spotted Superchunk's guitarist, Jim Wilbur, working the club's door and urged Blake to give him a copy of their CD. He did, and not too long afterward, Rilo Kiley got the call saying that Superchunk wanted Rilo as their openers. "So we scrambled to get everything together to leave town for a month," says Lewis gleefully. "They're such an incredible band with such great history, and to think that they wanted us to come along with them on a national tour -- it still blows us away," says Lewis. "Every night we would watch their show and hear 'Slack Motherfucker' or whatever, we're like 'Holy shit! We're touring with Superchunk!'"
As the voice of Rilo Kiley, Lewis emits the kind of genuine, unpretentious charm that hooks you from the outset. Without your noticing, she can switch from a nearly country twang ("Go Ahead," which evokes an Appalachian feel) to a smooth '50s vibe ("Science vs. Romance") to the pouty indie affect that the kids are so fond of these days ("Wires and Waves"), and you'll like it. What's more, she (along with Sennett) is responsible for such brilliant, non-sequitur lyrics as "A problem is a task disguised in work clothes" ("Plane Crash in C"). She leads the charge, representing L.A.'s eclecticism in the guise of modern music: indie rock that invokes the spirit of bluegrass via banjo solos and gets those poodle skirts swaying with shimmery guitar glissandos.
"Our influences range from what we grew up listening to -- Oh, my God, it is so not time for the whoopee cushion right now!" Lewis says, pausing to admonish the boys, who are horsing around in the band van as it passes through a dark Northern Pennsylvania night -- "and we're such huge fans of modern rock. We're always the ones scampering for the set list after a show. We're always the kids that are right up in front, watching our favorite bands. I think we're pretty influenced by bands like Built to Spill and Neil Young. I grew up listening to a lot of Patsy Cline. And I know Blake loves Pink Floyd." (But, really, what red-blooded American boy doesn't?)
This eclectic approach extends to the players' multiple abilities as well. A band trademark is the game of musical chairs the members play during a show, swapping instruments as needed. In addition to singing, Lewis plays guitar, piano and bass. "I play the spoons, too!" she exclaims. "Okay, not really. I think we switch around to free up whoever is best on an instrument, and I'm okay at all three, but our bass player is a better guitar player than I am, so I take over on bass, and it allows us to open up a little bit." On record, it's nearly impossible to tell whose hands are plucking the bass strings, so the group gets extra points for continuity.
Again, though, it's the unsullied enthusiasm these folks possess that warms the heart. There's a purity to their exuberance that shines through in the music, although it's a subtle display, which makes it all the more endearing. It's like listening to your kid sister's band: Not only is the music consistently compelling and interesting, but you just really, really want them to do well. And when alt-rock cult icons like the Breeders, Weezer and Superchunk endorse a fledgling young band, you know that only bigger and better things are in store.
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