Straight Outta Scottsdale

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."

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse