Periodically, a young guitar band will come along and be tasked with saving rock’n’roll. Hyperbole rarely stops to define its terms, of course. Perhaps it should, since the idea that rock’n’roll as some sort of citadel in need of succour is pretty problematic.
What does it need saving from, and why? Great white hopes touted as torchbearers are often just that – white. Pleas for a wholesale return to some golden era of leather-jacketed swagger can easily dovetail into a worrying disinclination towards other, less white, genres.
The Los Angeles-based Starcrawler, whose youngest member is still in high school, closely track the fantasy photofit of a primal great white hope. They are the sort of young band that really, really excite gatekeepers of a certain age and inclination.
In an age dominated by sleek digital sounds, Starcrawler are twentynothings playing niche old music loud and outrageously. They live and die by a feral din filched from antecedents like the Stooges and Nirvana. Starcrawler’s music sulks, rants and poses fetchingly. Their eponymous debut is just out on Rough Trade – a label that knows a thing or two about great white hopes, having brought the Strokes to fame at the turn of the millennium.
As well as the lurch of reanimated grunge, there’s a Ramones-y, bubblegum so-whatness to Starcrawler tunes like I Love LA – about their plastic but quirky home town – that can turn quickly into real menace and detuned Black Sabbath riffing. The album rips by in about half an hour.
Starcrawler are throwbacks, then, whose commitment to a back-to-basics, vaudevillian iteration of rock’n’roll is intriguing. If you have a stage beneath you – they might argue – why would you not just go nuts? Starcrawler’s lead singer runs on stage during Castaway – the first song on the first night of their brief UK tour – looking like she’s just finished the last gig of the entire European leg (in Brussels, next week). Her fringed white satin trousers are stained, her nude-coloured vest top is sagging, her purple-red hair is a mess. This is Arrow de Wilde, 18, inspired to rock by discovering Ozzy Osbourne around the Blizzard of Ozz era.
De Wilde finished school last June, and now spends her time regurgitating fake blood on herself, pouring attitude into a microphone, and sometimes shoving that microphone down her trousers and seemingly masturbating, at least on one song called Pussy Tower. Her delivery is mostly deadpan. The insectile singer spends much of this short, uproarious gig folding her elongated shape into perilous back-bends and rolling her eyes like a zombie. Her top, the front row discovers, isn’t quite up to the job of clothing her 100% of the time.
Out front with De Wilde, going nuts, is wunderkind guitarist Henri Cash, who, at 17, is being excused from his final year of school to drag rock’n’roll back to these sludgy yet tuneful basics – provided he does his coursework online. Jack White in embryo he may be, but his current new-band status means he still has to wander across the stage to swap guitars every few songs, rather than have a flaming axe thrown to him by a roadie.
If De Wilde and Cash believe there is not point standing up if you are not jutting out a hip, Starcrawler’s mayhem is anchored by a rhythm section yin to the showoffs’ yang. Long-haired drummer Austin Smith, the oldest at 22, keeps metronomic time without moving anything apart from his wrists. The gutsy basslines of soul-loving Tim Franco do more than just keep the chaos underpinned. They may be intentionally rudimentary, but Starcrawler are tight. At the end of the set, Cash heads straight for the merchandise stall, where seemingly half the audience – young, older, in between – roll up to buy the album directly from its guitarist the night before its release. It’s a great touch.
Inevitably, quite apart from the concept of rock’n’roll torch-bearing, issues are thrown up by Starcrawler themselves.
Their path to notoriety may have been smoothed to some extent by LA’s inherent showbiz-ness and De Wilde’s own background – her father is Aaron Sperske, the former drummer for Beachwood Sparks (and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti), while her mother, Autumn de Wilde, is a well-known rock photographer. It is somewhat unlikely that bohemian LA youths such as these would end up as dentists. Ryan Adams, an old friend of the family, produced their album.
And then there is De Wilde herself – a startling 6ft 2in of elbows, knees, eyeballs and not much else. She inevitably causes onlookers to wonder, and not just because of the fake blood. In an interview with LA Weekly, the band discussed how some online commentators have concluded that De Wilde is promoting an unhealthy size-zero aesthetic.
The band counter that De Wilde does not have an eating disorder, that she is just exceptionally gangly, and that if she promotes anything, it’s gymnastic androgyny. Live, it seems clear that De Wilde is probably not being starved by a modelling agency – much less an indie label. Like Joey Ramone or Jarvis Cocker, Arrow de Wilde is just not built like your average human, and – crucially – uses her atypical form to rock’n’roll, rather than waifish, ends.
Late in the set, What I Want could be Starcrawler’s grungy statement of core values – values that echo down the ages through pretty much every surly guitar outfit that has gone before, and that emphatically remain worth restating. “I don’t wanna be anything but me,” intones De Wilde, before handing the microphone to a guy in the audience, and then a girl, so they can shout it too.
It all ends with a dirgey set-closer, Chicken Woman, and a Cash guitar freakout. Even given what’s gone before – her contortions, her Regan-from-The Exorcist derangement – De Wilde still has one actual shock left in her arsenal. She vaults from the stage straight on to the bar, scattering drinks and fans, and rampages around the audience. Cash ends the night by pulling a young fan on stage and handing his guitar over to him so he can shred like a boss. Because if you could, why wouldn’t you?