Features: The Willowz

(photo by Olivia Malone)

The Willowz: Driving Rock Music That Makes an Impression

By David Chiu

How resonant is the music of California rock band the Willowz?  A fan, who recently attended a Willowz gig in Los Angeles, had the lyrics of their song, “Making Certain,” tattooed on his chest!

“I was in shock,” says Willowz singer, guitarist and co-founder Richie James Follin. “It was a large tattoo.”

Adds fellow Willowz bassist and co-founder Jessica Reynoza: “I met that dude. Pretty awesome. It reminded me of that Slayer album where ‘slayer’ is carved into someone’s arm. I got a friend who has the word ‘poop’ tattooed on her butt, so I wasn’t shocked if that is what your asking.”

That fan’s unusual but touching gesture confirms the effect that the group’s music has on him and perhaps others. You can hear that on their latest album, Everyone, which pays homage to rock’s past: the Rolling Stones, Iggy and the Stooges, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are some examples. It’s traditional rock in one sense and yet it also has some contemporary credibility that will appeal to indie music fans. Follin’s emotive vocals and an arsenal of bombastic drums, urgent bass and shimmering guitar mark the bold sound. (Also, the entire album clocks just less than 30 minutes).

Everyone is the follow-up to the Willowz’s 2007 album Chautauqua. Follin says that the hiatus between recordings was due to the fact that the group toured a lot. “It took us a really long time to write and record an album. And then after that it took a year and a half to even come out.” And in explaining the difference between the sound between Chautauqua and this new record, he says: “I think the record before was heavy music, and this one is a lot more poppy and maybe more aggressive.”

Also around that time, the group, which formed eight years ago, underwent some personnel changes. In addition to original members Follin and Reynoza, the band features new guitarist William-Lewis Mclaren and drummer Loren Shane Humphrey.

“On guitar, Will has a softer approach on Everyone compared to our last album Chautauqua with our old guitarist Aric [Bohn],” says Reynoza. “He has helped with rounding out songs, since not only does he play guitar but he can sing, stand on his tippy toes, and play the keys. I think it is great!

“Loren has been with us for two albums and is able to mold into any style of drummer you want (to an extent). Having a solid drummer has definitely improved the bands skills as musicians. That boy loves band rehearsals more than anyone I know.”

Everyone’s opening track, “Break Your Back,” sounds like a hybrid from vintage early ‘70s Stones and the Velvet Underground’s classic “Heroin.” “Maybe [it’s] about me and Jessica being in a band,” says Follin, “the ups and downs of being in band.” Another track, “Way It Seems,” with its mix of punk in one instance and slow psychedelia in another, is a favorite track of Reynoza “because it was the track we truly squeezed out as a band. A track that I personally think waves the flag of what the Willowz sound is for 2009/2010.”

Reynoza couldn’t explain if the entire album has a lyrical thread. “I didn’t write the lyrics, Richie did. And even if I tried to figure if there was a relation in that sense, I wouldn’t be able to come up with an answer because Richie has such a fickle personality.”

Whatever the different roles or personalities play in the Willowz, something must be working, specifically the relationship between co-founders Follin and Reynoza. “We met right out of high school” says Follin about the group’s origins. “We kind of knew all the same bands.”

“It was hard to decide what kind of band we wanted to be,” says Reynoza. “Being the young immature teens that we were, we set our sound goal way to high. I am talking about, the Zombies/Chambers Brothers/Love/Stooges……ha ha ha I hadn’t even picked up a bass. It was awesome, so we started as a punk band because that was all we could play. Now eight years later, we are on a totally different planet.”

The group put out their debut seven-inch record for Posh Boy Records, a moment that Follin cited as a turning point. The other major one he mentioned was collaborating with film director Michel Gondry, who used the songs from the group’s 2003 debut album, Willowz, for his movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. “He had a dream about making a video to one of the songs and it kind of just happened,” Follin says.

Reynoza agrees that having the French director in their corner helped elevate the career. “Michel is an amazing artist and amazing artists have great taste. He really did do a lot for us with spreading the word about us and our music in his films.”

Right now the band is currently on a national tour through June. For those who have never seen a Willowz show, they’re pretty rocking live, judging by YouTube clips of past performances, Follin describes a Willowz show as being energetic and loud; he also reveals that “a lot of Jagerbombs [and] beer” account for their stamina onstage.

And as far as expectation for this new record Reynoza makes a reference to that dedicated person with the Willowz’ lyrics emblazoned on his chest. “I hope more lyrics are tattooed into people’s bodies,” she says. “I want people to do whatever they want with [Everyone] and I hope they get what they want from it. “

The Willowz will be playing on May 1 at the Mercury Lounge in New York City; and on May 5, 12, 19 and 26 at Public Assembly in Brooklyn. For information, visit the band’s Web site.

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