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Listening to "Paper Bag," the scuzzy, shuffling opening track from Phoenix-based garage rockers The Chandails' forthcoming EP, it's easy to imagine a good-for-nothing street gang, maybe the "cholos performing satanic rituals while eating pozolé" described on the band's Web site. But the group of 16- and 17-year-olds hardly casts that shadow. Despite its gloriously sloppy combination of surf rock jangle, vintage frat rock, and buzzing drums, the band couldn't be more well mannered. I join the boys — guitarist/vocalist Paul, drummer Noe, bassist/vocalist Julio, and guitarist/vocalist Jorge — at Cartel Coffee Labs on a busy Friday night.
As I arrive, the barista seems annoyed that the band are taking up table space but not drinking anything. "Let me know if I can get you anything," she sneers. "We are a coffee roaster who serves coffee, you know." I step up to the counter and order an americano in an attempt to make peace and try and persuade her to turn down the hipster electronica that's overloading the tiny mic I'm using to record our interview. "Those guys are a pretty kickass rock band," I say, thumbing back at the guys, gawkishly crowded around a table in the corner. "Oh, yeah?" she retorts as she takes my debit card, her face expressing some doubt at the notion that the boys are any sort of rabble rousers. I glance back, and even I'm having a hard time believing it, even though I've witnessed the boys blast out their distorted rave-ups firsthand.
The Chandails cut a clear contrast with their live show as they softly chuckle while Paul points out a suspicious black sock on the ground under their corner table. They're mostly family, and it shows; three of the boys are cousins, who attend St. Mary's Catholic School. Paul, who goes to a different school, sports a suit jacket and keeps to himself, ever the guitarist with mystique. The combination of hormone-driven Catholic guilt and three-chord punk seems a recipe for a bunch of rebellious hellions, but The Chandails couldn't be further removed from the thuggish image their music suggests. They're impossibly polite for a bunch of kids who cite Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, G.G. Allin, and The Velvet Underground as their primary influences. But onstage and on record, the band channels any rambunctious tendencies it may hide in private life, exhibiting bratty joy while wowing audiences with a sound that suggests a knowledge of rock 'n' roll history rarely found in musicians their age.
"A lot of people are surprised by how young we are," acknowledges Noe. "Sometimes I wonder if people would say the same stuff if we were five years older."
"We get a lot of positive feedback," says Jorge. "But sometimes I get kind of a weird vibe, like we aren't being taken seriously, and people are just saying stuff because we're so young." But no amount of novelty offered by the band's collective age accounts for their rising popularity. Despite their relative inexperience, the band has opened Phoenix gigs for big-name indie acts like The Vivian Girls, Abe Vigoda, and Ponytail.
The group's origins stem from the three cousins' formative jam sessions during their early teens. "We pretty much just played Strokes covers," Jorge says, laughing. Things took shape when Paul joined, bringing with him not just his impressive guitar work but an element the group was sorely missing: original songs. "We didn't really make music in the beginning," Jorge says. "But when we got Paul, we started actually writing songs."
Jorge, Paul, and Julio all contribute songs, employing a simple rule: Whoever comes up with the guitar riff sings the song.
"Lots of times we don't even come up with lyrics to sing live. We just sort of mumble until it's time to record the song," Paul says.
"Well, not me," Julio counters. "I write lyrics right away. We always have to record my songs first because the other guys are trying to get lyrics down."
The Chandails' recording process seems like something out of That Thing You Do. "My dad plays in a church band, and they had this really nice mixer they just quit using," Julio says. "He bought it from them, like, half off, and we just got a bunch of mics and recorded straight from that into GarageBand."
The quartet first tried its hand at multi-track recording, but the results didn't sound good. They switched gears and tried recording live, playing together and overdubbing vocals and guitar solos afterward. Noe didn't even bother playing to a click track, opting for a raw feel over precision. The recordings turned out better than even they expected, attracting the attention of Frances Michelle Lopez, who, in addition to being a New Times contributor, runs the Phoenix/L.A.-based Tiny Panda Records and is working on issuing the band's debut EP.
The fact that the band's outstanding recordings and raucous live show got so quickly noticed is hardly shocking. What is surprising is how nonchalant the crew is about its relative notoriety. I've always maintained that a fundamental aspect of playing rock music live is the inherent coolness of the act. While the current crop of sensitive boys decked out in Twilight-esque mascara proffer neutered, passive rock, The Chandails excel at primal, cocky jams, the kind of stuff that makes you want to reach for a leather jacket, a pair of Chucks, and some shades. But that seems like news to The Chandails themselves.