Willobee Carlan marches around the main floor of the Dragonflye, clutching a guest list that reads like a headhunter's guide to music-industry lawyers, agents, A&R reps and midlevel record-company managers. His hair is slicked back. He is wearing sunglasses. He looks tense. Willobee manages a rock band. The band calls him "the Willobeast."
He's had a busy day in Hollywood.
This morning, the band shot a sitcom on the Warner Bros. lot. Now it's sound-checking for a crucial industry showcase that's supposed to start at 9 p.m., which means 9:30. It's 8:35, and the guitar player's amp stack just blew. Carlan gets it replaced with a spare from the van. The guest list turns out to be two-thirds wish list, but by 9:30, the crowd is peppered with enough record-industry big names and their hipster minions to make the night important. A representative from The Late Show With David Letterman is also in the audience.
Nicole Brown Simpson used to hang out at the Dragonflye. At least, people keep telling one another so. Either way, the central Hollywood club is a cool space. Lots of blue glass and exposed steel. Luxurious, blood-red leather booths with good angles on the stage. The sound's crisp, too. Loud. Perfect for the band's style--commercial punk rock, with a strong hip-hop flava. Rage Against the Machine meets 311 meets the Phunk Junkeez meets Bloodhound Gang. It's clearly derivative, but that's not the point here. The band's tight, and the lead singer stalks the stage like a cheetah, spitting rhymes in a voice that sounds like a cross between Mike D. of the Beastie Boys and that Anthrax guy who rapped with Public Enemy on "Bring the Noise."
Also, the lead singer is five-foot-three.
Hot new Japanese girl band?
No, Chronic Future. Hot new Phoenix kid band.
With four members, Chronic Future's average age is 14.5. There's Barry Collins, 14, on drums. His brother Ben, 15, on lead guitar. Brandon Lee, also 15, plays bass. And little Mike Busse--a master of Scooby Doo and wanna-be gangster impersonations--rocks the mike with 14 years and counting.
Chronic Future's debut recording on a Phoenix-based indie label recently leaped to the top of the sales charts for regional music distributors in the Southwest, selling 2,000 records in Arizona alone over a six-week period. That's what sent up a flare for the music industry. That and play on 157 college radio stations, plus a saturation-point 56 spins a week on Phoenix modern-rock station KEDJ-FM "The Edge."
There's a buzz around this band, and tonight Chronic Future is on the block, flexing for the big-money buyers. The crowd has formed a horseshoe facing the band, but at the back of the club, with a good 20 feet between the foot of the stage and the nearest person. That's so people can slip out if they so desire. But most stay, and by the time Chronic Future slashes its 30-minute set to a close with its quicksilver pop/punk song "Insomniac," many of the suits have even uncrossed their arms.
The simple fact that Chronic Future's label rented the Dragonflye for half a night set the stage for a good first impression, and the showcase has been a success. Chronic Future stayed together onstage; the members played catchy, hard-edged pop songs with a skate-punk aesthetic--a scorching hot sound last business quarter; their arrangements were buffed to a professional sheen. And they've got the look--skate punks your mother would love. The marketers in the audience must be licking their chops.
Chronic Future isn't the first of its kind. In 1989, a New York City punk band called Old Skull--four kids ages 12 to 14--scored a minor hit with a recording called "Get Outta School." And, in recent years, the music industry put a number of soft-core kid-band horrors on public display, including Menudo, New Kids on the Block, and the hip-hop demon kinder of Kris Kross.
Then came Silverchair--three teenage boys from Australia, ages 13, 14 and 15, whose slick grunge stylings, combined with golden boy lead singer/guitarist Daniel Johns' Tiger Beat star quality, lit up the charts like a triple-bar jackpot. 'Chair's 1995 debut, Frogstomp, went triple platinum. The only thing 12- to 16-year-olds liked better than listening to grown-ups play grunge, it turned out, was listening to other 12- to 16-year-olds who could play grunge like grown-ups--in many cases, better.
"Silverchair opened the door for us," says Chronic Future guitarist Ben Collins. "So we know the comparisons are inevitable. What troubles me, though, is how quick adults are to label kids as rip-off artists."
Ben's little brother Barry cuts him off. He does that a lot, and vice versa.
"I think what Ben's trying to say is, there's gonna be a lot of comparisons between us and Silverchair, and they sort of paved the way for us, but we sound nothing like them, so the comparisons should stop at our age. We may be getting so much attention so fast because of our age, but what are we supposed to do, not be 14 anymore? Art doesn't have an age limit."
The members of Chronic Future have two things in common: They all live in north Scottsdale, and their parents are all divorced. "When my marriage fell apart, there was a custody battle, during which Barry became very withdrawn," says Chuck Collins, father of the brothers. "He would just go to his room and crank up the music and stay there. I thought this isolation wasn't good, so I talked to them both and said, 'Why don't you guys learn to play some instruments?' Ben had just turned 12, and Barry was still 10."
Collins bought a guitar for each of his sons.
Ben, being the older brother, wasn't about to let himself be outdone, and Collins says that soon he began taunting his younger brother by playing licks Barry couldn't reproduce. Barry became dejected, his father says, so he took him to a pawnshop and bought a set of drums.
"Of course, Ben picked up the sticks right away and wanted to show Barry that he could play drums, too. But I said, 'Ben, you are forbidden to play the drums. The drums are Barry's, the guitar is yours.'"
A few weeks later, Collins says, his sons told him they'd written a song and wanted him to listen. They were set up in the garage, and played 'Miles to Go,' one of 12 tracks on Chronic Future's first album. "I told them if they got eight songs together, we'd go into a studio and make a tape."
Other than Chuck, Chronic Future's first audience was Ben and Barry's in-line hockey team, which practiced on the full-length basketball court at their house. The two brothers would jam for the team after practice. Then one of their teammates, Brandon Lee, started jamming with them on bass. This was late 1994. Ben came up with the name "Chronic Future," and the trio had its first real gig early the next year, when it played for the sixth-grade class of Laguna Elementary School. A friend was doing a project on rock music; the trio performed as part of his presentation.
"Corny as it sounds now, that show solidified us," says Ben. "We liked being in front of people, and we were like, 'That's it, we're a fuckin' band.'"
Mike Busse joined the group in mid-1995, and took over lead vocals from Ben. The first song all four played together was "Love It Loud," a cover of the Phunk Junkeez cover of the KISS song. One day during summer vacation, the band members started calling around to local clubs, hoping to get booked for a gig in the early fall. At that point, they only had a couple of original songs, some Green Day covers, and a notebook full of riffs and lyrics Ben had come up with.
"We were at practice and the guys were making calls. I heard the ice cream man go by outside and I ran outside," Barry recalls. "When I came back in, Ben was crapping his pants, yelling, 'We've got a show in two weeks! We have to practice every day!'"
The show was at the Mason Jar. Mike stayed over at Ben and Barry's for the next 15 nights straight, and the band wrote eight songs, all of which are on Chronic Future. Brandon Lee was away at surfing camp, but got back just in time to add bass parts.
Chronic Future was scheduled to go on at the Jar right after the Nipple Heads, a punk band that's never been heard from again. It was a Saturday night, and the Nipple Heads had started to party early. "They were wasted as hell," Barry says. "They were totally punk, too. They had guys onstage slam-dancing who weren't even in the band." Mason Jar owner Franco Gagliano yanked the plug on the Nipple Heads after someone knocked over an equipment box onstage, and told Chronic Future, "You're on."
Luckily, it was an all-ages show, and the crowd was packed with friends. The band played its eight-song set twice, and rocked the house. Chuck Collins kept his deal, and booked time for the band at Phase Four studios. Ben says Joe Valiente, co-founder and lead singer for longtime Valley skate-rap heroes the Phunk Junkeez, happened to come by the studio, said he had heard of Chronic Future, watched the band record for a while, then asked Ben ". . . how the guys would feel about playing a couple songs before us on Saturday." The Junkeez were scheduled to play a homecoming show at Electric Ballroom in Tempe to close out a national tour. "I almost took a shit in my pants," says Ben. "We were going from playing 200 people at the Mason Jar to 1,400 in a sold-out show at the Ballroom."
Next, Valiente hooked them up with an opening spot for 311 when the platinum-selling California punk/rap group played the Valley, and Chronic Future was effectively catapulted to the forefront of the local music scene.
Valiente wasn't the only one working behind the scenes.
Chuck Collins isn't just Barry and Ben's dad--he's the president of their record label. A few months after Chronic Future opened for the Junkeez, Chuck formed Retrograde Records with his friend Rich Knopf, a retired hair-salon franchiser, and Jay Lean, a producer and studio engineer with several platinum recordings to his name. The first album Retrograde released was Chronic Future. Three months ago, the label issued an album by the Houston, Texas, band Aftershock, and recently signed the Generiks, a veteran Phoenix punk group.
Knopf, 46, used to own the Supercuts salons in Arizona and Nevada. Then he sold them and retired. Then he got bored. Chuck hit up Knopf with the idea of starting a record company, and he said what the hell. Knopf holds an MBA from MIT. He directs the business side of Retrograde.
"It's been a long time since I was interested in contemporary rock," says Knopf. "So this is like a renaissance for me. My kids can't believe that dad listens to the Edge. And a lot of the stuff I hear, I'm like, 'Wow, I dig it.' Also, seeing the fans go wild is fulfilling beyond anything in business I had ever experienced."
Jay Lean has produced, mixed and engineered albums for artists ranging from Tupac Shakur and Rage Against the Machine to Sting, Patti LaBelle and Boyz II Men. He calls Chronic Future's music "young, aggressive rock. Nowadays, rock bands sound like hip-hop bands."
Lean says he did extensive preproduction work with the group. Barry says Jay "popped open several cans of whup-ass."
"I did what any producer would have done," says Lean. "I moved the arrangements toward a more radio-ready, commercial format, and I helped them extract their best performances."
Chronic Future was released last September, with national distribution. Since then, according to SoundScan figures, it's sold more than 7,000 units. To put that in perspective--29,000 albums with national distribution were released in 1995. Fewer than one fifth of them exceeded the 5,000 sales mark.
"Scottsdale"--a single from the album where Busse rails on white, wanna-be gangbangers--quickly went from a highly requested song on KEDJ's Sunday-night local-music show Triple XXXPosure to a two-week peak of 108 spins in early January.
The station has cooled off the recording somewhat. Last week, "Scottsdale" got 21 spins, which is still an unprecedented level of commercial radio support for a local band in the Valley, of any caliber. Willobee Carlan was the music director and morning-show host for KEDJ from 1992 to 1995. Some might think there's a connection. Au contraire, says Carlan.
"Frankly, I'm surprised at the level of support the Edge has given us. Some people may look at this from the outside and say, 'Oh, yeah, Will's pulling the strings,' but what they don't realize is, the ruling regime has changed completely since I was there."
That's almost true. Neither Curley, KEDJ's music director, nor Shellie Hart, the station's program director, held any position at KEDJ during Carlan's tenure as music director. Triple XXXPosure host Greg Paul did, however. He was Carlan's intern. It's worth pointing out, though, that Carlan manages several other local bands, including Fred Green, that get the same amount of radio play as other Valley bands--that is, virtually nil.
By now, the members of Chronic Future all but shrug it off when they hear "Scottsdale" come over the car radio. Old news. Still, they credit the radio play with helping them sell out the 1,400-capacity Electric Ballroom as a headline act the night of February 1--an unprecedented accomplishment for a local band without at least a major-label contract, if not a hit video.
The band signed a four-album deal with Retrograde Records, but Carlan says it's "virtually certain" a larger label will buy out that contract before April Fools' Day.
So far, the longest Chronic Future has been out on the road is two weeks for an arc through the Midwest and Texas last fall. "The first week was awesome," Mike says. "The first couple of days after the midpoint were like, 'Well, this is just okay.' Then the last three or four days it was like, 'I miss my friends. I miss my parents. I want my own bed. I just want to go home.'"
When the band signs a new deal, the boys will have to take time off from school to record and tour--at least a third of the year, cumulative, for as long as the ride lasts. During their recent trip to Los Angeles, the band members planned to audition several entertainment lawyers, but settled on the first one they met--a woman who wore Doc Marten boots and denim overalls and had platinum records on the wall from clients like 311 and Cypress Hill. Among other things, she told them the horror story of a former client who was in a major heavy-metal band that broke when he was 14. He dropped out of school to tour, she said, and when the fun was over five years later, all his money was gone and he had no education. Now, she said, he's a telemarketer.
The kids didn't look fazed. Any contract they sign must be ratified by their parents and a judge. The judge will probably insist on a clause requiring a tutor to tour with them. The kids say their parents definitely will.
Jay Lean recently used a contact at Warner Bros. to help Chronic Future land a cameo appearance on the popular cable sitcom Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher, which stars the kid from Sleepless in Seattle as the lovable class hellion. On the set, Chronic Future went to school with the cast of the show, catching lessons between scenes.
The Nick Freno episode, which will air sometime in May, is titled "Jamapalooza, Part II." It centers on a controversial field trip to a fictional alternative-rock festival (hence the name). When Nick Freno and class arrive at Jamapalooza, Chronic Future is playing. Brandon Lee has the only line. Freno does a stage dive, and Brandon says, "Nice form." Originally, the director wanted him to "do that surf-punk thing" and say, "Duuuude! Nice form!" Brandon said "no."
The members of Chronic Future watch over their image like gargoyles. Two weeks ago, Carlan booked them to appear at an NBA-sponsored "stay in school" rally. There was only one potential problem, he informed them--the promoters wanted them to lip-synch, not play live. The band told him to cancel the show. Barry and Ben say Chronic Future has already turned down an offer from a major label that wanted to hype the "kid band" angle too much.
"They wanted to turn us into another New Kids on the Block," says Barry. "Which is bullshit, because our dance moves and three-part harmonies are way better." Another company wanted the band to self-censor its songs, both for language and pro-pot messages. Same answer--no. Finally, after the "Jamapalooza" episode, a studio photographer asked the members of Chronic Future to pose with Mitch Mullany, the actor who plays Nick Freno, for a TV Guide publicity still. Then he asked them to act like they were playing air guitar. Chronic Future refused, and laughed at him in the van on the way to the hotel.
For a band with one regional hit, Chronic Future travels in style. Its tour vehicle is a 1995 Suburban, customized by StarCraft to include wood paneling and a small television/VCR (recent titles the band viewed on road trips to San Diego and Los Angeles ranged from the Beastie Boys concert video Sabotage and skateboarding videos to the 1985 Steven Spielberg family adventure film The Goonies). When Chronic Future was in L.A. for the industry showcase gig, the members stayed two to a room in $240-a-night suites at Le Parc, a well-appointed hotel favored by rock musicians for its proximity to Hollywood clubs. The band members' equipment is first-rate, and they pack it in high-grade, blue metal tour crates, plastered with stickers and stencil-stamped "Chronic Future."
Chuck says the van is his, and he personally bought a lot of Chronic Future's equipment. Retrograde Records, he says, has invested about $200,000 in Chronic Future so far.
In the 1980s, Collins, 47, won seven Emmy Awards as an investigative reporter for NBC News, specializing in high-risk, hidden-camera operations. In 1986, he captured police officials in Thailand offering to sell him children for pornography and snuff films. Collins made it out of the country with the videotapes, but his two-member crew was on a later flight, and police gunned them down at the airport, curbside. Collins still has a hard time talking about it, and a few months after his crew was shot, he retired from journalism and moved to the Valley, where he helped his parents run a graphic-design school.
The family business flourished, but Chuck's marriage dissolved. He won custody of his sons, but there was a distance between them. "They didn't socialize much as brothers, and we probably weren't as close as we are now," he says. The day Ben and Barry played a song for him in the garage, Chuck says, "I cried like a baby because the song was beautiful, and they were doing something together as brothers, and they were sharing it with me."
Chuck tried to keep his involvement in Retrograde a secret until a TV reporter for Tucson's NBC affiliate outed him late last year. "I'm sensitive to the issue because I don't write their songs, I don't play their songs, and if I even suggest a line, they tell me to stick it. I just don't want them to get saddled with 'the only reason they made it is because their dad helped them out.' Perhaps I was able to get them exposure, but I certainly didn't get them acceptance."
"All right, kids, single-file line, hold hands with your partner." That's Sol. He used to work road crew for the Phunk Junkeez. Now he's Chronic Future's driver/handler/roadie/fifth Musketeer.
Make that "Mouseketeer."
The band members played a club gig in Ocean Beach the night before, then drove from San Diego to Anaheim and checked into the Disneyland Best Western. They've been inside the park since 9:30 a.m., systematically working their way through all the rides marked on the "Disneyland Today" map with a circle-and-slash symbol to warn away pregnant mothers and anyone with a heart condition. By noon, they've hit three of 10.
Sol keeps up with the field-trip monologue. "Remember, we've got to get you kids home by 4:30 for cartoons."
The kids are giddy. Two of them let slip that the band is close to signing a deal with a new label Epitaph Records founder/punk-rock mogul Brett Gurewitz is starting up with Tommy Silverman of Tommy Boy Records in New York City. Chronic Future, they say, will be the first band released. Carlan puts a quick hush on the topic and shifts the discussion to his infatuation with a Hawaiian waitress at the Best Western.
One of the kids suddenly stops in his tracks, points at Carlan and blurts out, "Wait a minute--isn't that Will Carlan!?" "Hey, yeah!" another responds. "Everybody, it's Will Carlan!" This happens every half-hour or so. Chronic Future cracks on Carlan like the Partridge Family kids did on Reuben Kincaid.
"The Willobeast is known to many tribes in the Serengeti," Ben narrates as the band waits in line for the Indiana Jones ride. "He's been clocked at over 80 mph, due perhaps to the aerodynamic hair."
Carlan, who says he's "just entering my 90s, in dog years," has been in the music business since he was 18, when he worked as hospitality director for a promoter in Chicago. "I was in the dressing rooms with all these nutso bands, counting the brown M&Ms and stuff." When he was station director for a commercial rock station in Santa Barbara, California, Carlan says, he discovered a promising UCSB garage band called Overdrive and guided it to a record deal with Columbia. The band changed its name to Ugly Kid Joe and released a recording just after Carlan sold his management contract to his lawyer. "Five million records later, I've still got my own boot up my ass," he says.
When Chronic Future goes on the road, Carlan is not only the band members' manager--he's their mom and dad. Carlan possesses written permission to take the minors over state lines, and travels with legal papers giving him the right to authorize emergency medical treatment for any of the four band members.
"Will can be mean sometimes, but he gets shit done," says Barry. "And he's not some guy in a suit behind a desk. He's out on the road with us, and sometimes we chill."
"Do I feel like a baby sitter?" Carlan says. "Yes and no. I watch out for them more than any other band I've worked with, because all the other bands I've worked with have been adults. They're gonna do whatever they want, and I can't stop them. In this case, I can. Also, I know I have to be a good role model. Being in this business as long as I have, I've seen all the dark sides--sex, drugs, all that--and I won't allow them to subject themselves to that. Not at this age."
Tell that to the music editor at High Times magazine. He named one of Chronic Future's songs, a pro-hemp protest anthem called "DARE," to the High Times "Pot Ten of '96."
Barry says Chronic Future is not necessarily pro-pot. "We're pro-legalization and pro-knowledge and pro-industrial cultivation of hemp. Safer fuel, save the rain forests, one acre of hemp produces as much hemp as four acres of trees, all that stuff. But we're not here to tell kids to smoke pot. That's entirely their decision."
"DARE," the band says, was inspired by the "just say no" drug education program of the same name, which all four were subjected to in the Valley's public school system. "The lies they tell in DARE are dangerous," Brandon says. "Their propaganda line is that marijuana is a drug, and all drugs are bad. So some kid tries pot, and he gets high, and when he comes down he feels fine. And so he thinks that might be true for hard drugs, and maybe he tries crack because DARE puts crack and marijuana in the same category. It's pretty ridiculous."
All four guys in the band are fans of the leftist, polemic pop/punk band Rage Against the Machine, and a lot of their songs are political, including "DARE," "Ode to the Pigs" and "Star-Spangled Lie" (others are more what you'd expect, such as the self-explanatory "Drunk Babysitter"). Ben says the band's politics are "radical left."
"I bought a pair of Sheriff Joe's pink boxers just because I wanted to rub my ass on his name," he says. "More and more, people are relinquishing their constitutional rights to feel safe. They would rather live in a less free society and feel safe than live in a free society and fe-"
"I think what Ben's trying to say," Barry interrupts (again), "is that people would rather have less rights and feel safer than have it be less safer and have more rights."
There is a long pause.
Mike chimes in: "I think we just need to keep it real."
The silence melds into laughter. It's an inside joke, based on the premise that any question in a music interview can be answered with some variation on the hip-hop catch phrase "Keep it real."
Ice Cube is at Disneyland the same day as Chronic Future, presumably keeping it real. The first time the kids see the progenitive gangsta rapper, he's strutting down Main Street, chatting on a cell phone while a gargantuan bodyguard clears a path before him. A few hours later, in Tomorrowland, the band spots Ice Cube on the terrace of the Launching Pad Cafe, sucking a lollipop and holding hands with a woman across the table while his bodyguard keeps a throng of tittering fans at bay. "God, that's gotta suck," says Barry. "Look at that--he can't even take his girl to the 'Happiest Place on Earth.' I hope we never get that big."
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No one recognizes Chronic Future at Disneyland. Not yet, anyway. Yesterday when the band members pulled into Ocean Beach, they saw a weathered Chronic Future sticker on a road pylon. How it got there is anyone's guess, but for the most part, Chronic Future is only famous in the Valley and Tucson. They signed autographs for 90 minutes after the Electric Ballroom show, and cops in Tucson shut down a recent in-store appearance at Zia Record Exchange because the crowd grew too large and unruly.
"We have to remember who our friends are," says Ben. "I know a lot of kids who treated me one way before the fame started, and they acted like my best friend once the band was on the radio. And while I'm never going to be like, 'Fuck you. Where were you then, man?' I don't consider them genuine friends. Genuine friends are the kids I used to hang out in my backyard with.
"At the last show, a girl came up to me, and she was like, 'Are you in Chronic Future?' And I said, 'Yeah,' and she was like, 'Where are the other guys?' I was with four of my other friends who have nothing to do with the band, but I was like, 'Oh, they're right here.' I was just joking, but these girls attached themselves to my friends, started hugging and kissing them, and asking them for autographs. Then other people started gathering around, asking them for autographs. I was left standing there, going, 'What the hell?' That taught me the lesson that fame can be shallow."
Mike clasps Ben on the shoulder and looks him solemnly in the eye. "It'll be all right, man. We just have to keep it real.