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Marty Larson-Xu is confused. "I woke up and didn't know where I was," he says. "Was like, 'What the hell is that smell?' Then I looked out the window and remembered, 'Yeah, I'm in L.A.'"
It's not quite home, but it works for now as Larson-Xu and his Eugene, Oregon-based band the Rock 'n' Roll Soldiers prepare to mount their first full-length attack in March (So Many Musicians to Kill). In fact, that's why he's in L.A. at the moment: last-minute touches. After nine years as the Soldiers' front man -- strutting like Mick Jagger, packing a closet with scarves that'd make Steven Tyler howl, and learning to work a mic stand like Astaire handled Rogers -- the end, oh yes, the end is finally in sight: the debut's release date.
But let's get some perspective, people: The Rock 'n' Roll Soldiers -- including guitarist Kevin Scious, bassist Evan Seroffsky, and drummer Oliver Brown -- are barely in their 20s. A few of them look like teenage street urchins that you awwwed once before lying, "Sorry, no change today." Consider this: If, say, 5 percent of high school bands actually survive into their 20s and maybe 1 percent of those ever get signed (somewhere, anywhere), what do you think the odds are that a band formed in seventh grade might go on to be signed by Atlantic Records? Well, the Rock 'n' Roll Soldiers are that clouds-parting, angels-trumpeting, divine exception that gives kids everywhere the chance to shout at their oblivious parents, "It can happen!" and be right about it.
Ah, but things weren't always so easy for Larson-Xu and company. "We had this reputation as weird kids who thought they had a band. The reality is, we were just terrible," he says. Actually, none of them even knew how to play instruments when they formed. "After school, every day, we'd go to Oliver's house, practice, and drink Sunny D and vodka. Sometimes we'd get through songs, and sometimes no songs would happen at all."
By the time high school rolled around, their passion for Australian punk rockers Radio Birdman had become the driving impetus behind their sound -- which still sounded pretty much like shit. "We'd play shows around town, but it wasn't so much about the music," Larson-Xu explains. "It was more just about crazy partying and the weird shit we could think about doing onstage. Like we brought these canisters to a show and filled them with gas and rags and lit them on fire. They fell over and started burning everywhere, so fire extinguishers came out. We just wanted to have the craziest time we could for 30 minutes."
Their developing sound, whatever it would become, was not going over well in Eugene, your typical small college town. Theirs was a jam-band community with hippies to spare, and the Soldiers often got stuck playing at communes and spacy house parties where the audience response was less than favorable. Mostly, they were desperate for stimulation, and, like understimulated teens throughout recent history, drinking, drinking, breaking-and-entering, and then drinking was the solution.
"We'd break into the local baseball stadiums and we'd steal all the alcohol out of their beer gardens," Larson-Xu confesses, pretty much guaranteeing Eugene's mayor will never hand over a key to the city to him and his compatriots. "I had this really old Impala piece of shit, and we'd pull it up and unload gallon jugs of beer into my car. You know, I don't know how we never got arrested. We got really lucky, for all the shit we did."
Something amazing happened along the way, though. The Rock 'n' Roll Soldiers got good. Like The Stooges, they found a way to transform raw, sloppy garage punk into something greater than the sum of their parts. Hell, Iggy could reach out a hand, huskily growl, "Soldiers, I am your father," and it would make perfect sense.
Folks started noticing the band, too, along with San Francisco label Gearhead Records. The Soldiers' high school graduation followed the recording of their punk rock EP The High School Sessions. Unfortunately, an album doesn't pay the electricity bill or, it turns out, the waste removal bill.
"When we got a house, things got bad," Larson-Xu sighs. "Oliver had got this job delivering phone books. He decided to quit halfway through, so we had like 10,000 phone books in the backyard and all this trash because we didn't have a trash service. We'd just light it on fire and let it all go."
"That place was so nasty," he continues. "Stuff just piled up on the kitchen floor. I remember I'd go to bed and, when I turned the lights off, I could hear these mice running around." He lets loose an audible shiver. "Oh, God."
Then came the big break; after playing showcases for a slew of major labels, Atlantic Records snatched them up. One hitch, though: Atlantic hated the band's name. The debate didn't last long; after nearly a decade swinging the oft-mocked moniker around, the Soldiers were unwilling to budge. It had been the name of a Radio Birdman tour once, and now it was their name -- that's all there was to it. "It's not supposed to be some serious thing, but people don't understand that," Larson-Xu says. "So we wrote a theme song ['Anthem'], which is basically like a Rock 'n' Roll Soldiers 'fuck you.'"
But names have a habit of shaping who we become, and, for better or worse, the Rock 'n' Roll Soldiers will live or die by their name: If they rock (which they do, in the greasiest, grimiest way), then glory will be theirs. Their music might sound like it's sucked through a time warp connected to a radio in the late '70s, but not one lick of it smacks of insincerity or the sort of inauthentic aural masturbation produced by so many hipster bands today.
"We don't really give a shit about what our name is or any other music, for that matter," Larson-Xu insists. "We really just want to play the music we love and rock out. That simple."