Hail! Hail! (the new) Rock’n’Roll

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Rock’n’roll isn’t dead. It’s just been sleeping. And any time now, it’s going to rise from its slumber.

One of the bands prodding it with a stick is Rival Sons. You’ll know the name. These four Californians have been written about in these pages many times in the last three years. Jimmy Page – a man whose barometer for great music is better than yours or mine – has been impressed enough to namecheck them in the press. Aerosmith invited them to open on their current US tour, with Steven Tyler even sitting in on their set. Their songs have even been sung on American Idol, though we shouldn’t hold that against them.

Together with a handful of other largely unconnected bands, they are in the vanguard of something exciting, something urgent, something alive. Let’s call it The New Rock’N’Roll, for argument’s sake.

The Old Rock’N’Roll still exists. It’s never going to go away, not after all this time. And no one’s arguing that it wasn’t great fun. In the right hands, it still is. But the point is, it’s been done. Its clichés have been exhausted, its tropes spent, its spark nearly stamped out by uniformity and mediocrity. Look on the charts, ye mighty, and despair.

The New Rock’N’Roll takes what came before and chops away the dead wood. It has no time for cliché or bullshit or pale imitations. It isn’t reinventing the wheel, but it is repaving the road. It’s drawing a line from the past, through today, and into the future. Jack White, The Black Keys, Tame Impala, Rival Sons – they all get it.

Let’s not be too pretentious. It’s not a scene. Far from it. But it is a way forward. And the roadmap is in the hands of bands like Rival Sons.

“Rock’n’roll has lost its heart, it’s lost its identity,” says Scott Holiday, Rival Sons’ extravagantly moustachioed guitarist. “It should be a visceral, immediate, powerful thing. People are aching for it. They’re dying for it. And that pendulum is swinging back.”

Rival Sons are in London to kick off the promotional cycle for their new album, Great Western Valkyrie. Or at least two of them are. Scott Holiday and singer Jay Buchanan are being shuttled from photo shoots to acoustic sessions to label meetings and, eventually, to a bowling alley in Central London. Drummer Michael Miley and new-boy bassist Dave Beste are elsewhere, the former in Eastern Europe, the latter in Los Angeles, both well away from the necessary-yet-soul-crushing grind that is the promo tour.

It will be worth the pain. Great Western Valkyrie is their fourth album in real terms, though the third since they truly found their voice. It’s a stellar record, one that continues the momentum that began with their 2011 calling card Pressure And Time, and continued through the following year’s restless and electrifying Head Down. It’s the sort of record that tops end-of-year charts, even in June.

Like its predecessors Great Western Valkyrie draws inspiration from two of the great musical languages of America: rock’n’roll and the blues. But this isn’t the sound of a band regurgitating the past. While it doesn’t attempt to hide where it came from, it has both eyes on where it’s going. It’s the sound of rock’n’roll’s past, present and future in one. “Music should grab hold of you and shake you around,” says Holiday. “It’s always shaken things up. Fucking pop, alternative, indie… none of that shit is really shaking you up. It might be great, but it’s not rock’n’roll.”

And that, more than anything else, is why Rival Sons are on the cover of this magazine. There’s an urgency to them that’s been missing for far too long. They might not be your favourite band – not unless Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath or The Clash or The Fall or Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts or whoever is wiped from history. But they might just be your favourite new band.

The urgency that makes them so exciting manifests itself in their work rate. Great Western Valkyrie is their third album in four years. Par for the course 40 years ago, but an anomaly now.

“We’re trying to capture immediacy,” says Holiday of his band’s MO, “that spark of creation. We want to capture something rather than whittle it down and overwork it too much.”

Usually they give themselves 20 to 25 days to make a record, from start to finish. This time they pushed the boat out. Great Western Valkyrie took six weeks. Before anyone starts flinging around accusations of tardiness, that’s six weeks to write, record, mix, finesse, finagle and wrap the whole damn thing up in a bow. Six weeks. It would take most bands that long to turn on the studio lights.

“Listen to Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis Presley,” says Holiday. “Those older recordings seem to be much more off-the-cuff, so much in the moment. At this point, rock’n’roll has became less immediate and you can hear it. It doesn’t have the same energy and the same excitement. It sounds tired.”

The state of rock’n’roll in 2014 is something the members of Rival Sons return to time and time again. They’re not the only band aware that it needs a kick up the arse. The difference is that they’re one of the few who are actually doing it. Though it’s not without its obstacles.

“The climate in the States is weird,” says Michael Miley. “We literally had radio people looking us in the eye and saying: ‘This is the best record I’ve heard in 25 years but I can’t play it. It doesn’t fit our playlist.’ We’re stuck in an era of rock music that is stagnant. I feel like rock’n’roll still has breath in it.”

Rival Sons isn’t Scott Holiday’s first rodeo, not by a long chalk. Nor is it Michael Miley’s or Jay Buchanan’s either. Between them, they’ve notched up a good few decades in the music business. Each has come close to what’s laughingly been called The Big Time, only to have it crumble under their feet. “Yeah, we’ve put in our time,” says the guitarist, smiling.

We’re talking in the courtyard of a high-end photo studio in one of the more moneyed parts of South London where Holiday and Buchanan have spent the past few hours – and several changes of outfit – posing for the Classic Rock camera.

The guitarist has the rock star look nailed: swept-back jet black hair, quietly expensive tailored coat, sunglasses in the shade. He’s got the talk to go with it. Along with the absent Miley, he’s the band’s garrulous salesman – certainly more so that the brooding Buchanan. “Absolutely, and Jay will agree,” he nods. “He’s got a sense of humour and he’s sociable, but he’s a classic brooding artist. Me, I’m more of a dork.”

Holiday is happy to discuss the accusations that have been levelled at his band that they’re a purely retro act. “I think it’s lazy,” he says, with the patience of a man who has heard it before but has no truck with it. “We’re not retro because we’re now. We’re four people living in this age. Sure, we suck the influence of someone like The Animals. But I’m influenced just as much by Radiohead. We’re making something new, with all our heart, that’s full of honesty. It’s contemporary and it’s relevant.”

He’s more guarded when it comes to personal matters, not least spirituality. Like Miley and Buchanan, the guitarist follows a specific belief system (in his case, Hare Krishna), though the guitarist is the most reticent of the three to talk about it.

“Oh man, speaking about politics or religion in a rock’n’roll magazine is of low taste,” he says at one point, cannily deflecting the topic before it even comes up. Later, when I ask him what’s the one thing he’d save if his house was on fire, his answer is no less vague: “Let’s just go with spiritual artefacts.”

While he’s talked about it in the past, there’s a sense he’s concerned that Rival Sons will be seen as a ‘spiritual’ band. “I think we’ve already been tagged with that a little bit early on,” he says. “But we don’t focus on that so much, and I think that’s on purpose. As much as we’re all involved in our spiritual lives, there’s more going on.”

Religion aside, Holiday’s backstory is no different to that of any other musicians of his generation. Born in the surf town of Huntington Beach, he grew up listening to his parents’ old Stones and Hendrix cassettes before a guitar-playing uncle taught him the instrument. “The first things I learnt, aside from Wipe Out and The Pink Panther theme, were Whole Lotta Love and Wish You Were Here,” he says.

He played in bands throughout the 90s, worked as a studio engineer, even recorded samples for a CD company. In the early 00s, he joined HumanLab, a local band put together by various refugees from LA’s ailing nu metal scene. Their earthy, hippie-ish rock prompted a classic record industry bidding war. The band signed a huge deal with Atlantic (“seven-figure huge – I bought a Land Rover for $50,000 out of it”) and recorded an album with Red Hot Chili Peppers producer Michael Beinhorn.

But if HumanLab’s music was great, their timing was lousy. They arrived just as the music industry entered its great post-Napster meltdown. Executives were fired, departments were closed, bands were dropped. The band found themselves one of the casualties. Their million-dollar album was shelved. “I equate the music industry in that period to a burning building,” says Holiday. Everyone was rushing out of the door or jumping out of the windows. It was brutal.”

Whoever said that lightning never strikes twice hadn’t worked in the music industry. Following HumanLab’s collapse, a determined Holiday put together a new band, Black Summer Crush with future Rival Sons bandmates Miley and original bassist Robin Everhart, plus singer Thomas Flowers of post-grunge footsoldiers Oleander. The band recorded an album, got on the soundtrack of a big movie (2008 timeshift flick Jumper) and then… nothing. No hit single, no success, not even an officially released album to their name. When Thomas Flowers left, Holiday was back at square one. “It wasn’t as brutal as before, but it was still not ideal,” he says. “But I don’t think the band was perfect at the time. We were still finding our legs.”

He smiles politely when I bring up the fact that Black Summer Crush was his second strike; one more and he’d be out. “You could call them strikes or you could call them opportunities,” he says equably. “The next time, I was gonna build it from the ground up, with a stronger foundation. I was gonna find the right players and the right formula, and whether I got a billion dollar deal or not, the music would hold its own, have its own worth.”

Rival Sons might not have got the billion-dollar deal, but they did get Jay Buchanan. With the singer onboard, the band re-recorded the album they’d made as Black Summer Crush and released it in 2009 as Before The Fire. It’s far from a bad record, but it is a halfway house between what they were and what they would become (and, on songs such as Flames Of Lanka and Nanda-Nandana, Holiday gave away much more in the way of his spiritual inclinations than he does today). Six years on, the foundation Holiday talks of is holding steady.

“Whenever anyone talks about being successful, I tell them the same thing: ‘I hope you like the taste of crow’,” he says. “Because you’ve gotta eat a lot of it while you’re getting there.”

Google’s central London HQ looks and feels exactly like you’d imagine the hub of a digital-age internet company with the motto ‘Don’t be evil’ to look and feel. Endless blank white corridors are broken up by shabby-chic airlock doors with heavy wheels on them and irksomely informal signs of the ‘You don’t have to be zanily creative to work here, but it helps’ type. It looks like the Starship Enterprise as re-imagined by the world’s most annoying hippie.

Behind one of these doors, inside a darkened, windowless room, Holiday and Buchanan are preparing to record acoustic versions of new tracks Open My Eyes and Where I’ve Been for the cameras. Google staff with trendy glasses and hipster beards tinker with cameras and sound levels, while representatives from the band’s label, Earache, quietly discuss marketing strategies and Facebook feeds, while Holiday and Buchanan perch on a leather sofa in the middle of the room, the former looking relaxed, the latter looking mildly uncomfortable and quietly impatient.

The connection with Earache is one of the more unusual aspects of the Rival Sons story. The label made its name as the cradle of grindcore and death metal in the 80s and 90s, and while it has since diversified, Rival Sons still stand out.

“I said out loud: ‘I’m not playing the major label game again,’” says Holiday. “Major labels don’t have the time or money or energy to put into things that aren’t selling millions of records. When Earache came to us, it seemed like a joke. But they understood what we were doing and the value of it. And when every other label is burning down, here’s one that has actually stood the test of time.”

In the Google HQ, Holiday and Buchanan finally get to record their two songs after an hour or so of camera and audio tests. Unadorned and largely stripped of weighty instrumentation, the singer’s voice is otherwordly.

“When I first saw him, I thought he sounded like Joni Mitchell,” says Michael Miley. “He’s got a voice that’s acrobatic yet deeply centred. He’s never had a vocal lesson in his life, yet he can make his voice do anything he wants.”

The drummer is talking a week after I meet his two bandmates. I’m in London, he’s speaking down the phone from an LA hotel room, where he’s waiting to pick up a keyboard player the band are auditioning from the airport. Though he was born in Southern California, Miley is only a part-time citizen of Los Angeles these days. For a chunk of the year, he calls Estonia home.

“I met a girl, she was Estonian, still lives there,” he says. “We fell in love, got married, had a baby. Half the year I’m either on the road or busy with Rival Sons, and then half the year we’re in Estonia.”

Miley is just as outgoing as Holiday, if less guarded. Unlike the guitarist, he has no issues talking about his own spiritual beliefs. “I’ve been a constant searcher, a seeker,” he says. “I always knew there was something beyond this. I was never an atheist, but I never wanted to buy into religion. Then lo and behold, I ended up becoming a straight up Roman Catholic.”

He draws parallels between the “fake illusion” that rock’n’roll offers and what religion teaches. “It’s that this life is temporary and that there’s something beyond it, so be honest and truthful in your actions with people. I thought Jesus was the most revolutionary dude in that vein. He revolutionised the Jewish people at the time. He was punk rock, man.” (If he sounds like a religious crank when he says this, then it’s misleading. Instead, he speaks with the curiosity of a man who looks at everything from all angles.)

Like his bandmates, Miley’s career has had its share of twists, turns and false starts. He’s played in everything from school jazz bands to blues bands at university, from calypso bands to indie rock bands (he was a member of Veruca Salt in the mid-00s). He’s appeared onstage with Ricky Martin and Carlos Santana, played benefit shows at Isaac Hayes’ house and even been in the house band on US talk show Late Night With Carson Daly. Like Holiday, he experienced the near-miss of Black Summer Crush. “The music business, it rips your frickin’ heart out,” he says simply of the latter’s failure upon take-off.

Miley’s friendship with Jay Buchanan pre-dates even Black Summer Crush. The pair first came into each others’ orbits around the turn of the millennium, when friends urged the drummer to come see a singer they knew, a guy from the mountains of California. “I walked into this club, and it was a big empty room,” he recalls. “There was just me, my friends, the bar staff and the guy onstage, who was Jay. He’s sitting on a chair, with an acoustic guitar, blowing our minds.”

By 2002, Miley and Buchanan were playing together in the singer’s band, Buchanan. It didn’t last, but they stayed in touch. When Black Summer Crush crashed and burnt, it was Miley that exhorted Scott Holiday to check out Buchanan. “One of the best teachers I had always said: ‘Find the talent’,” he recalls. “Jay was the most talented person I knew. I knew he was the right person for us, though I’m not sure he did at first.”

Like his bandmates, Miley places little stock in the clichés of rock’n’roll. Partly this is down a collective spiritual awareness, partly it’s down to the fact that they’ve seen that movie before. “That’s kind of a parody, man,” he says. “The crazy druggy standing on top of a roof, jumping in the swimming pool. It’s Almost Famous stuff. You walk offstage and you have to be a man of the world. You know, Jay’s not going to start walking round in fur pants and wings, at least not yet.” He laughs. “But if he did, I’ll bet he’d have a good reason for it.”

Back at Google HQ, Holiday and Buchanan finish their two-song set. “Are we done now?” asks the vocalist when its over. Not quite. They’ve still got another video interview to record, and then there’s a meeting with their label. Rock’n’roll doesn’t let anyone clock off early.

Jay Buchanan is the first to admit that he shouldn’t be the singer in Rival Sons. “I had resigned from rock’n’roll by the time I was 19,” he says. “I was over it. It seemed so adolescent. I thought: ‘If I see another fucking Ramones T-shirt…’ It wasn’t until I got with this band that I had any interest in getting back into all that, because it all seemed so predictable.”

We talk the morning after the Google session, at the ungodly hour of 11am. The stark walls and airless rooms have been swapped for the warm, six-string Nirvana that is the Gibson Guitar Rooms, the London hub of the venerable guitar maker’s British arm. Instruments of all models and colours are stacked around the building. It’s to most rock’n’roll musicians what Willy Wonka’s factory is to your average chocoholic.

But then Buchanan isn’t most rock’n’roll musicians. Where Holiday and Miley are outgoing, the singer is intense and introspective. That’s not to say he’s unfriendly, or holds back from saying what’s on his mind – far from it. It’s just that everything he does say has the full weight of thought behind it.

Buchanan is a complex character, with an equally complex history and worldview. He’s a follower of the Red Road, a Native American belief system that ties into his personal heritage, though he’s cautious when talking about aspects of it – he politely declines to discuss either the circular red talisman he sometimes wears or the tattoo that adorns his chest, the only visible parts of which are the horns and feathers that reach up the lower part of his neck. Other aspects he’s happy to touch on. Like the fact that band loses “a significant amount of money because I have to go to ceremony right during tour season. I have an obligation.”

He spent his early years in the industrial Californian city of Fontana (“a miniature Detroit”) and, later, in the remote mountaintop town of Wrightwood. Money was tight and music provided an escape for the family. His father was, he says, “a phenomenal guitarist” who would play for 45 minutes every day to slough off the drudgery of working in the local steel mill. Buchanan’s two grandmothers – one a Pentecostal Christian, the other a Creek Indian – both sang. “You’d hear those voices and you’d think: ‘That sounds like it grew out of the earth’,” he says.

Buchanan picked up the guitar early, but even at a young age it was the earthiness of the blues and not the flashiness of rock’n’roll that drew him in. When he was 11, a schoolfriend invited him to come over to his house and jam together.

“He was a drummer and his whole thing was Mötley Crüe, full drumkit, everything. He asked me to bring my guitar over, so I came over with my acoustic and played a little bit of slide. He’s like: ‘Where’s your amp? You’re not a real guitar player.’ I was, like: ‘Yeah, actually I am – this is just a different kind of guitar’. He was, like: ‘Fuck that.’ That kid was Travis Barker from Blink 182.”

Where Barker’s route to fame was fairly straightforward, Buchanan’s was anything but. At 15 he reluctantly joined his school choir after the choral director promised him he would be exempt from physical education lessons. He soon found himself handling the solos, to the chagrin of the other choristers. “It was problematic for the people who were actually into it,” he says. His voice got him noticed early on. When the choir took part in a state-wide singing competition, his voice brought him to the attention of one of the judges, a producer for A&M Records. Buchanan was invited to LA to record in a proper studio, where he was treated like a precious new talent by his new record industry friends. “All those nights I spent writing in my bedroom when my friends were out getting high, doing their thing… ‘I knew it – this is why I’m on the face of the earth!’”

He was soon bought back down to earth. “A short while later we’re talking, and he says the magic words: ‘I think you could be the Debbie Gibson of your generation’.” He laughs out loud at the memory. “He starts putting hip hop beats behind the songs, and I just went, [shakes head]: ‘Oh my god’. To be pumped up so big, then suddenly be flattened. That’s the way it’s been ever since. A career of peaks and valleys.”

At 20, Buchanan had what he only half-jokingly calls “my mid-life crisis”. He was going to college, working two jobs, struggling to deal with a relationship. He sold everything he owned, bought a plane ticket and flew to Alaska. There, he grew a beard and lived like a vagabond for several months. He hitch-hiked into whichever town he was camping on the edge of, trying to find whatever work he could. He ate at soup kitchens or got hot meals at churches.

“I learned to trust myself. It was my rite of passage for myself. Putting myself to the test. From then on, I lived life the way I wanted to. It cleared my head and it confirmed my wanderlust.”

When he returned to the Lower 48, it was with a renewed sense of purpose. He returned to college and focused his energies properly on music. He busked on streets and parks and in front of cinema queues. He couch surfed or slept in his truck. He held down jobs as a janitor, barista, even a mortuary worker.

“I was a service advisory,” says of the latter. “You would open and close every funeral. You’d drive the hearse, lead the procession. We would go and pick up bodies from houses and bring them back to the mortuary so that the mortician could do their thing. I would assist, and watch off all this. You’d bury four or five people a day.”

The latter job impacted on him in a profound way. “Death is life to me. It’s the other side of the coin. I view death very romantically. Our culture is so afraid of it. All day long, there’s fear in people’s eyes about meeting their maker, that the light-switch is going to be turned off and the reality they’ve built around themselves will be gone. Here’s what’s beautiful about that job: you’re around something undeniably real. Whereas in my job, if we’re on tour, I get ninety minutes of real. That’s the music, when we’re onstage.”

For much of the 00s, he focused on his own band, Buchanan, for whom he sang and played guitar. They released three albums that ranged between the earthy and the transcendent, building up a name for themselves in LA, even if they never quite broke through to the next level. Then, suddenly, Buchanan ended it. It was, he says, the hardest thing he’d ever done.

“I was getting to see the country, making records, it was doing well. But I felt constricted, even though it was my music. I didn’t think I was being genuine enough. Everyone was telling me that it was great, and that it hit them in a certain way. But there was an alarm going off. People told me it was career suicide. They said I was crazy.”

He threw the hard drive containing all the contacts he’d built up in the trash, and began to reassess what he was doing and why he was doing it. “Every few years, I’d like to choose a different outlook and change something significant about myself,” he says. “You’re always looking to add a new slice in the pie chart that makes up who you are.”

The most recent slice of that pie chart came in the shape of Rival Sons. Buchanan was renting a movie in Blockbusters with his young son when Michael Miley called him. The drummer asked Buchanan if he wanted to join his new band.

“I went ‘no thanks’,” says the singer. “I’d gotten emails from him, but I hadn’t checked them out all because of the appearance of double-necked guitars and everything. Much the same as many people probably look at Rival Sons and just write us off.”

Persistence on Miley’s part eventually persuaded Buchanan to make contact with Scott Holiday. The pair chatted on the phone, then in person. It was the guitarist’s deep love of the blues that persuaded Buchanan that it was worth trying. “I thought: ‘Whatever I have going on in my life, this doesn’t make any sense at all, but it feels real,” he says. “It felt like I was being tapped on the shoulder. Like: ‘You need to do this. It needs to be done’.”

He admits there were reservations. “Yeah, of course there were doubts,” he says. “I’d played guitar all my life and now, what, I’ve got to be a frontman? I can’t dance. I don’t want to anything to do with of the trappings of rock’n’roll that frontmen are expected to have, or you’re expected to have in a rock’n’roll band for that matter, and any of that crap. It bores the hell out of me.”

A very real example of Buchanan’s rejection of the clichés of The Old Rock’N’Roll came when Rival Sons were voted Breakthrough Band at the Classic Rock Awards in 2012. The singer arrived at the ceremony with a large and utterly noticeable flower in his hair. He looked ridiculous. But it seems that was the whole point. “The whole thing seemed so ridiculous to me,” he says now.”

What, the Classic Rock Awards? Rock’n’roll as whole? “Yeah, the whole thing. You know, to show up and to watch all of these old men glad-handling and back-patting each other while in the meantime rock’n’roll dies in the streets. The flower? I’ve always been a bit of a peacock. But I guess I’m an instigator as well.”

What were you instigating? “Provocation. Half the time I don’t know why. Sometimes you get a hair up your ass, and that hair tells you to walk into a crowd of people and cause a little bit of trouble. Perhaps it’s a form of control: ‘I’m going to set myself apart here.’ I don’t think that’s anything new in any way.”

Are there aspects of being in Rival Sons that you don’t like?

“Absolutely.”

What are they?

“I think a lot of this whole thing is complete bullshit. I look around and it’s about lifestyle. So little of it is about music.”

So far, this existential conflict has worked in Rival Sons’ favour. Because of it, Buchanan and Holiday aren’t the stereotypical singer-guitarist combo: they’re not Mick’n’Keef, not Axl ’n’ Slash. Like Rival Sons in and of themselves, they’re something familiar when you look at it from one angle but something different when you look at it from another. Something new.

Of course, it could become a problem down the line. Could. Though if Rival Sons do ever run their course, it will be because they’ve fallen into exactly the trap they’ve managed to avoid so far. Given the people involved, that’s hugely unlikely.

“The sell-by-date will be when it doesn’t feel right,” says Scott Holiday. When it doesn’t feel vital or honest, or that we’re doing something new. That’s when it might be time to take a break.”

The last time I see Holiday and Buchanan, it’s in a bowling alley in Bloomsbury, London’s literary district. In one lane, the singer sits perched on the edge of a chair, staring straight ahead, waiting for his turn, pondering god-alone-knows what. In the next lane, the guitarist is the centre of attention, whooping and high-fiving for every strike he gets. If you want a snapshot of the pair, this is it.

“We’re four different people with four different sets of influences and four different opinions,” explains Holiday. “But the one thing we have in common is that we believe in this thing we’re doing together. Nobody is afraid of becoming more popular and reaching more people. We’re not trying to be up our own asses and be so hipster that we don’t want to reach everybody.”

Beyond the clatter of bowling balls and high fives, there’s another, more indistinct noise. That sound? It’s the pendulum swinging back.

Great Western Valkyrie is out now via Earache.