— by James Montgomery, with additional reporting by Conor Bezane
Sometimes a band's biography gets it exactly right.
For example, this gem from the bio for angsty Los Angeles rockers Rock Kills Kid: "Jeff Tucker wasn't one of those bright-eyed kids who begged his parents for guitar lessons. ... He was a socially withdrawn, barely employed, directionless 19-year-old. Writing songs saved him."
It's the perfect description for Tucker, the mastermind behind RKK. Though he's now 27, he's still the same shy, shiftless loner. The only difference is he's learned how to channel all those feelings of alienation into his songwriting.
"I don't know if I was depressed — I wasn't worried about killing myself or anything — but I was definitely down, you know?" he said. "So I started writing songs about how you need light for your soul when you're in a dark room. It made sense because I really was in a dark room for three years."
And he's not speaking metaphorically. After releasing an EP with Rock Kills Kid version 1.0 (the emo-punk years) on Fearless Records in 2001, Tucker refused to tour and found himself alone in Los Angeles. And so, for the next three years, he lived illegally in an L.A. recording studio. He had no money, no friends and no other options. With nothing else to do, he began to write songs, and he never really stopped. Over those three years, he penned more than 150 anthems of loneliness and isolation and tried in vain to maintain some semblance of a normal life under very surreal circumstances.
"There were no windows, no nothing. There was no shower in there, so I had to resort to baby wipes to keep myself clean. And I really had nothing else to do, so I wrote so many songs. It felt like I wrote 3,000 of them," he said. "I didn't rely on anybody except for our old label to pay for the studio, but nobody was buying me food or anything, so I had to learn how to survive. It was good for me, though. Well, it was good and bad for me."
But the songs were overwhelmingly good. So good that Tucker regained his spark and set out to make Rock Kills Kid a proper band. He recruited a cadre of L.A. musicians — guitarist Sean Stopnik, bassist Shawn Dailey, drummer Ian Hendrickson and keyboardist Reed Calhoun — and headed into Hollywood Sound with producer Mark Trombino (Blink-182's Dude Ranch, Jimmy Eat World's Clarity) determined to make the record of his life.
"It was incredibly difficult, because all the songs were so different, so we just tried to take the best songs, not the coolest, but the best pop songs," Tucker said. "If we didn't do that, it would've been this mess of electronica and crazy techno, and we probably wouldn't be sitting here right now."
What they ended up with was Are You Nervous? (May 16), a collection of 10 sweeping, skittery songs that's equal parts early U2, Radiohead and Franz Ferdinand. The first single, "Paralyzed," rides a thudding dance-punk backbeat and angular chorus all the way to glory, and it's already become a hit on tastemaking L.A. radio station KROQ-FM, which was an experience unto itself for the awkward frontman.
"We left for a tour, and all of a sudden the song went to KROQ, and by the time week three of the tour rolled around, everyone in the audience was singing along and loving the song," Tucker said. "It's sort of mind-blowing. I'm just trying to take it all in, absorb it like a sponge, you know?"
"It's funny, when I joined the band, we would play to empty rooms with, like, eight people there who didn't know the words," Calhoun added. "And now to have people respond to these dark, personal songs is really, truly amazing."
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