Starcrawler Wants to Freak You Out

On a mid-December day in Los Angeles, the members of Starcrawler sat in front of a Silver Lake restaurant nursing iced coffees and picking at a plate of soupy macaroni and cheese. A few days earlier they’d returned to L.A. from the Southwest to play the last show of a two and a half week American tour. With a self-titled debut album set for release this week through Rough Trade Records, most of their lives for the first months of 2018 will be booked solid, so they were enjoying a brief winter break. Drummer Austin Smith planned on drinking lots of smoothies and getting healthy. Lead singer Arrow de Wilde had been practicing for her driving test, when she wasn’t in bed playing Candy Crush like it was still 2012.

Unlike other young Angelenos back home for holidays, Starcrawler and school didn’t really connect. Smith (age 22) quit college a while ago, bassist Tim Franco (20) only lasted for one semester of higher education, de Wilde (18) just graduated from high school this past June, and guitarist Henri Cash (17) hasn’t even gotten that far. He had been doing online school to get his diploma but got kicked out. How exactly do you kicked out of online school? “By not doing it,” Cash said dryly.

De Wilde almost didn’t graduate either once the demands of the group’s growing notoriety took up more and more of her time. “Senior year, you can only be absent seven days. I was absent for, I don’t know how many days,” she said. “I think my mom ended up blocking the school’s number.”

But it was at Grand Arts, a magnet high school in downtown L.A., where de Wilde met Cash. He was carrying his tuba down a stairwell. Though she originally came to the school more interested in pursuing visual arts, de Wilde asked Cash to join the nascent music project she’d started with Smith. They quickly recorded the single “Ants,” a jittery bit of boogie about an ant infestation at Cash’s house that was produced by Redd Kross founder and SoCal punk journeyman Steven McDonald. It’s been championed by both Gerald Way of My Chemical Romance and Sir Elton John. Soon they recruited Franco to complete their lineup.

Starcrawler embraces a scuzzy glam sound that evokes the teensploitation films of the 1970s and that decade’s street-level Hollywood depravity, two worlds they reference in the video for “I Love L.A.” with its orange vans and stripper-friendly wig shops. But like that video, the seedier realities are tempered by the band’s goofball tendencies. Their sexiest song, “Chicken Woman,” is about a Chinatown fixture who pushes her poultry in a shopping cart to the nearby slaughterhouse.

De Wilde and Cash write most of Starcrawler’s songs together and often swap or share vocals, even if it means that he ends up singing from the perspective of a student at an all-girl school on the track “Pussy Tower.” As to what the album is about, de Wilde replied, “Girls, boys, heartbreak, head.”

Even though half the band is still in their teens, they’re so committed to their adopted era that more than one song features lines about calling people on the telephone. Cash is a vicious guitar player, unafraid to tear off guitar solos or stand on top of speaker stacks when playing them, while de Wilde revels in her unbridled persona. It’s reprobate music that’ll land you in detention for two weeks, as they spit out lines like, “They tell me life is a sin and you do bad things within. And if you take me out to die, then I’ll teach you how to fly, my friend.”

The band’s hard-rock tendencies are an outlier of the garage slacking and vintage synthesizer soup coming out of the L.A. music world these days. Still, Starcrawler has been embraced by multiple Southern California scenes. In 2017 their festival schedule included the psychedelic Joshua Tree happening Desert Daze, the Foo Fighters’ 1970s throwback Cal JAM in San Bernardino, and the indie-rock block party Echo Park Rising. To end the year, de Wilde appeared at a party called Blank Generation: A Night of ’70s New York Punk where she performed the Johnny Thunders version of “Chinese Rocks.”

In descriptions of their live sets, Cash has been compared to a young Jack White, while de Wilde has been likened to a demonic hellspawn. Cash is usually outfitted in a black blazer or Western shirts with elaborate fringe, while de Wilde starts sets off in a straitjacket. During the band’s December show at the Echo in L.A., de Wilde spent most of it in a sparkling gold bodice and matching underwear. As the show raged on, she contorted her face, hopped like a frog, languidly gyrated around the microphone, and folded her lanky six-foot-two body into a standing backbend so deep that her forehead nearly touched the stage.

Starcrawler has played Los Angeles enough times and have enough friends that by now local audiences are usually on its side. That isn’t the case when they’re out of town and the crowds usually don’t know what to make of their antics. “There’s always that one person with their arms crossed,” said Smith.

“Those people always get it the worst. I always mess with them the most,” said de Wilde. “I’ll get in their face. Touch them, kiss them. If they’re on their phone, I’ll just slap it out of their hand.” And then there was the guy in San Francisco who got a mouthful of fake blood spit in his face.

It was from their shows that the band got the attention of Ryan Adams, the prolific rock-and-roller and denim-jacket connoisseur who produced Starcrawler’s album at his Pax-Am Studio. “I was hearing rumblings about a few new bands in L.A. playing gigs in warehouses and abandoned strip malls, that sort of thing,” said Adams. “I found a few shows and there was nothing that especially spoke to my vibe. Then I went to see Starcrawler and it felt like being hit by four trains at once, musically. I was in after that. One single show in a weird alleyway and I might as well have been seeing KISS playing on the moon.”

But when a band is known for their live sets, the challenge becomes figuring out how to re-channel that dynamic within the stultifying realities of a studio session. Adams’s approach was to record them to tape with no corrections and let them do exactly what they wanted, only offering suggestions if they were stuck. “To me they were already a great band,” he said. “It irked me to think about some producer trying to mess with their sound or digitize their vibe. Seeing them live would explain why. It’s all there, all the sounds anybody needs. “

As to any worry Rough Trade might have had about being able to capture Starcrawler’s energy, the legendary label’s founder Geoff Travers replied, “At that age, energy is not the concern. Intelligence, structure, and songcraft are the concern. They passed the test.”

Photo by: Autumn de Wilde Photo: Courtesy of Starcrawler

Arrow de Wilde is part of her family’s third generation of Los Angeles artists, which means that the amount of stars and boho weirdos whose names pile up when recounting her history gets ridiculous. Four years ago, she appeared in the Lena Dunham–directed music video for Bleachers’ “I Wanna Get Better” and a picture of the back of her head was used for the song’s single art. The image was shot by her mother, Autumn de Wilde, the accomplished photographer whose work includes classic portraits and album covers for Elliott Smith, Beck, Jenny Lewis, and Childish Gambino. Autumn’s also the go-to photographer of the elegantly woodsy fashion label Rodarte. Back in the ’90s, she played in the indie band the Blondes, which also included Aaron Sperske, Arrow’s father. Sperske more famously was a member of L.A.’s nouveau psychedelic country band Beachwood Sparks and has since played with the likes of Ariel Pink, Father John Misty, and Tobias Jesso Jr.

Arrow’s grandfather is Jerry de Wilde, a photographer who documented the West Coast counterculture during the 1960s and is a friend of Roger Steffens, whose own images of that era are showcased in the popular Instagram account the Family Acid. Growing up in Brooklyn, Jerry’s dad didn’t have artistic inclinations, but his paternal grandfather was a well-known circus clown, ringmaster, and comedian in the Netherlands.

Jerry, Autumn, and the other de Wildes are fixtures at Starcrawler shows in L.A., and Arrow’s grandmother Mary even helped stitch her Velcro straitjacket. Reflecting on how his approach to parenting affected his descendants’ artistic directions, Jerry de Wilde said, “To me, life is about freedom and how precious is the gift of life. Eccentricity and creative endeavors are how you live that freedom. I felt it best to relate to the kids as roommates and try to get to an adult/adult relationship rather the parent/child. My job was to teach how to use the tools that express their ideas but not what their ideas should be. That was for them to discover.”

When Arrow de Wilde was growing up, going to shows was more about the social experience that came with hanging out backstage. Then she discovered Ozzy Osbourne’s early-1980s solo albums and became obsessed with the singer. Born long after his landmark works were originally released and too young to remember the height of Ozzfest and his doddering MTV reality-show era, de Wilde was instead transformed by the two Black Sabbath reunion shows she saw during the band’s recent comeback.

In de Wilde’s stage persona you can see a student of Osbourne’s blend of wickedness and camp. At a premature album release show at Amoeba Music in January, the band was shyly introduced by 10-year-old Tuesday Hansen (yes, Beck’s daughter), who also appears in a blood-stained white dress on the record’s cover. As the band began playing, a straitjacketed de Wilde was delivered to the stage in the arms of her massive uncle Jake, who manages to even tower over her. The event attracted dedicated teenage fans and appreciative rock industry veterans, and Starcrawler ripped through the set as if they were in a darkened club and not sharing space with customers scouring the bins for used anime Blu-Rays. As the band closed out with the fuzzy chug of “Chicken Woman,” de Wilde wiped some of the the fake blood from her lips and slapped the wall above her, leaving a dripping red handprint on the store’s proclamation, “WELCOME ALL RACES, RELIGIONS, ORIENTATIONS AND COUNTRIES WE STAND WITH YOU ALL.”

Then she scurried over the speakers and disappeared into the jazz and oldies section.

Starcrawler Wants to Freak You Out