Starcrawler: Rock and Roll’s Latest Savior
— Ryan Adams (@TheRyanAdams) October 26, 2016
There are a few distinguished people in life that you trust to know exactly what they are talking about. If Meryl Streep were to predict the greatest actor of the next generation, I think we’d all take her word for it. What if Karl Lagerfeld decided some random kid on the street was the future of fashion? I wouldn’t blink an eye. Should Tupac rise from the grave (or come out of hiding for all you conspiracy theorists out there), and announce that yes, Drake is the greatest rapper of all time. The “is he or isn’t he?” debate would be firmly put to rest.
So, when Ryan Adams— prolific songwriter behind 16 solo albums, and key figure in the early 2000s revival of rock— gave Starcrawler the above plug, naturally people paid attention.
Before this formal and public consecration, the four-piece hard rock band fronted by 19-year-old Arrow de Wilde were making waves in the LA music scene because of their eccentric live performances. De Wilde spits fake blood into the crowd and writhes around on stage in straitjackets and bejeweled jockstraps, imitating people experiencing schizophrenia or mental breakdowns (this is not a figure of speech— de Wilde has admitted to spending hours perusing YouTube for videos of such people to inspire her stage antics).
De Wilde founded the band in 2016, before even having graduated high school, and largely credits Ozzy Osbourne for her decision to pursue music. Much like fellow female frontwoman Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arrow’s stage persona appears to be precisely that— a character adopted for the stage and discarded when the amps are unplugged. In interviews, de Wilde mumbles and litters her answers with gratuitous “like,” and appears almost uncomfortably apathetic.
Despite Arrow’s tendency to overshadow the others, each member of the young band has their own unique identity. Austin Smith, the 22-year-old drummer and co-founder of the band, nods his head up and down at the back of the stage with his blonde hair curtaining his face as he pounds out simple beats and sparse fills that provide the backbone of the songs. Off the stage, Smith fulfills his role as the oldest and most mature in the band, which is demonstrated in interviews by his sincerity and willingness to show enthusiasm that the other band members lack; they’re going for more of the mysterious rockstar vibe. Smith comes across as sort of like the rest of the band’s cool, but not that cool uncle.
Youngest in the band is Henri Cash who acts as de Wilde’s maniacal, seizure-prone counterpart on stage, tearing up sludgy riffs expertly despite only being on this planet for 17 years. When interviewing, Cash has a calm composure that starkly contrasts his stage presence with a pretentious quality that is a little too reminiscent of his idol Jack White—who after 20 years and several revolutionary rock n’ roll albums has earned a right to be pretentious. In typical bassist fashion, 20-year-old Tim Franco gets a little lost among his rockstar bandmates, citing Motown and soul as primary influences, and giving off an “I just accidentally stumbled into this crazy band because every band needs, but never has a bass player” vibe.
Now, at this point you guys must be thinking, but what about the music? After weeks of studying this band, so much of the coverage I saw and so much of the opinions I developed centered around image, aesthetic, performance props, and the mythical concept of “saving rock n’ roll.” A role which seems to be placed upon a different band every year, suggesting perhaps that rock n’ roll doesn’t need saving.
This brings me back to Ryan Adams’ holy approval of the band and subsequent decision to produce their debut self-titled record, which was recorded entirely through analog in Adams’ Pax-Am studio. Adams explained the reasoning behind analog recording, being that the band was already a great band and they didn’t need any studio tricks or digitizing to mess with that— they just needed their raw sound. This kind of praise from one of modern rock’s most underrated legends can’t be taken lightly, or can it?
Cue the plot twist… Adams discovered the band through an Instagram post made by Arrow de Wilde’s mom, Autumn de Wilde, who is famous for photographing Adams’ equally iconic contemporaries— including The White Stripes and Beck. So, what does this mean for Starcrawler? Are they just some middle class art school kids with famous parents? Posers with fake blood, fake seizures, and real instruments? Future rock n’ roll gods who caught a rightful, albeit a lucky break because of industry connections?
The question of whether class, connections, and/or personal history interfere with the integrity of rock is one I’ve been asking myself for a while. It becomes a grey area, especially with the genres of hard rock and punk. Tony Iommi, guitarist for Black Sabbath who is one of heavy metal’s pioneers and one of Arrow de Wilde’s biggest influences, famously lost his fingertips in a factory machinery accident and was only able to keep shredding by wearing thimbles on the tip of his fingers… that’s rock n’ roll. Johnny Ramone, one of the first guitarists to inspire Starcrawler’s Henri Cash, was part of the biggest punk rock band to come out of America— a band that embodied the pure, unrefined anger of kids in Queens with no jobs, no money, and nothing fun to do, but throw bottles through windows… that’s rock n’ roll. Four kids with a lead singer whose mom landed them a sweet gig as Ryan Adams’ latest project… not exactly rock n’ roll.
However, the truth is, the industry has changed since these genres were born. The idea that rockstars have to be gritty, gutter punks with no future has been discarded, and that’s largely because of The Strokes impact on music in the early 2000s. The Strokes were five guys from New York City that went to various preppy boarding schools (some even all the way in Europe), and never had to worry about the pressures of making money. Much like Starcrawler’s Arrow de Wilde, The Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas was the son of John Casablancas— founder of Elite Model Management and the reason the band got a spread in such an established publication as V magazine before they had even released any music. The Strokes initially received a lot of criticism over their upper class backgrounds, but ultimately, their killer tunes and undeniable coolness allowed them to pass the rockstar test, and succeed in their generation’s search for a savior of rock n’ roll.
Since then, you don’t hear a lot of talk about a band’s socioeconomic background. The romanticized concept of coming from nothing to ruling the world with a guitar in hand and a faded leather jacket in the other from a musical narrative gave way to a romanticized concept of wealth— a result undoubtedly of not only bands like The Strokes, but the explosion of social media. Suddenly, it became cool not to need to work a nine-to-five before you could practice with your band. Instead, you could buy fancy clothes and fancy cars, do lots of drugs, take pictures of it all, and still have the money and time to be a rockstar. An updated version of “not giving a fuck.”
In this new generation of rock n’ roll, Starcrawler fits the rockstar bill perfectly. Catchy songs with screeching guitar riffs, and irresistable energy that makes a crowd of young punks jammed into a club want to shove each other around and bask in their own sweat? Check. Messy long hair, denim jackets covered in pins, and a frontwoman with a terrifying stage alter ego? Check. Photograph ready by dripping in cool aesthetic? Check.
The issue Starcrawler has that The Strokes didn’t have in fulfilling the awesome responsibility of saving rock n’ roll is that they don’t want to save 2018s rock n’ roll. Instead, they want to save 1970s rock n’ roll. Starcrawler isn’t interested in paving the way for a new understanding of rock; they want to bring back the old one. This is the same problem that makes them get dubbed as a nostalgia band so often— a title that de Wilde denounces in the same breath she says she wishes she were part of a different generation in an interview with Live4ever Media.
So, does it feel a little like cheating that Starcrawler got discovered because of their lead singer’s mom? Absolutely. Does it mean their music can’t hold its ground? Not necessarily, especially if legends like Ryan Adams, Alison Mosshart, Elton John, and Dave Grohl are impressed. Does it interfere with their rockstar cred? Well, that depends on what era’s definition of rockstar you are looking for.