Rolling on the River

Two blocks down Sunset Boulevard from where River Phoenix died from a heroin overdose on a sidewalk, the Houston expatriates of River Fenix are preparing for the biggest show of their career. The most influential alternative radio station in America, KROQ FM in Los Angeles, added the band's "Speechless" song to its rotation two weeks ago, and suits from major labels have been hounding the band since. Tonight, on the opening night of the band's tour with Homegrown and Buck-O-Nine, there will be nearly 20 people from different labels hoping to sign River Fenix.

The band's accomplishment is the result of hard work, perseverance and lots of sacrifice. There is a grand lesson to be learned, kids: Stay in school, don't do drugs, and pray your toil will pay off.

"We're totally lucky. It just happened," says Damon, the band's guitarist. (Like quite a few self-respecting punks, the four band members don't use their last names.) "Our label [Drive-Thru] sent a CD [of their recent self-titled album] to KROQ, and they just liked it. They started playing it and it got requested. It went from nobody giving a shit about us to all kinds of people being into us."

Okay, so maybe it was all chance, but the band is in the preliminary stages of fielding offers that might make its members rich, might make them famous, might make them popular, or might even let them make the record they want to do. It's the stuff of air-guitars-in-the-bedroom dreams always on the cusp of becoming reality. This energy of Big Things to Come is evident around the band. In the makeshift backstage area, girlfriends of the members of River Fenix are joking that they don't even like the guys, that they're staying with them because of the looming record deal and the ability to pay the girls back all of the money they have lent the band.

Even people back home in Houston are joking about River Fenix's budding success and expected financial windfall. "They hope we do well, and they have the feeling that we might do well and they can gain something from it," says Willie, the band's front man, with a laugh. "I get my sister calling me and saying, 'Hey, have you got a million dollars yet, so I can borrow some? I want to buy a new limo.' "

This carefree attitude spills over to what the band is looking for from record companies. Damon sarcastically says that the quartet wants "lots and lots of money and cars and a Lexus with TVs in the headrest." But seriously, the band isn't in any hurry to make a decision on its future, postponing it at least until the end of its tour in May. And with a stint on the punk-ska-flavored Warped Tour beginning in June, there is only a small window of time that the band members will be at home, making it seem likely that the settlement will be later rather than sooner.

"I think we'll make the right decision when the time comes," says Damon. "It's a scary thing; it's like getting married. You're betting the rest of your life on these people that are telling you they'll do something for you, and you don't know these people at all. You just gotta feel it out."

The biggest step the band made toward success came in July, when the members left Houston for San Diego. After driving out to the West Coast to play well-received shows, they packed up and moved out. Given that one of the two main hubs for the music industry is two hours north, in Los Angeles, the band's decision to move to San Diego seems odd.

The city is, however, "where all our girlfriends lived," Willie and Damon say in unison. And even though the band was doing well in Houston (it was nominated last year for the Houston Press Music Awards' Best New Act), the band members credit the move for enabling their accomplishments, saying that none of this would have been possible if they had stayed in H-town.

"It's too hard to have people notice you when you're in Texas," says Damon. "Who's going to hear about you? We draw more out here than we ever did in Houston."

Willie agrees: "It's not like we play anything different; it's not like we've gotten any better. We play exactly the same shit that we've been playing for as long as we've been together."

In fact, the more fierce competition of the West Coast has forced the band to sharpen its live show. Onstage the group mentions the hoopla once, by way of introducing "Speechless," when Willie sarcastically says, "I think KROQ's played it once or twice." But other than the introduction, the song doesn't stand out much in the band's set. It is one of many hook-driven, melodic punk songs doled out in the hour the quartet is on stage. The band has a slight metal edge, particularly in the guitar section, and strong, sing-along choruses to make for a quick pop-punk attack. Songs such as "Minimum Wage" are bouncy and happy, punk-rock lite. But the appeal of "Speechless" isn't due to its great artistry or the band's good luck; River Fenix just plays the kind of powerful rock that sounds good on the radio. Live, the music melts together in a blur of power chords at fast tempos. It's not bad, but there certainly are lots of other West Coast punk bands trying to perfect what the Descendents did. River Fenix has just been blessed with luck and good word of mouth.

The majority of the people inside the packed club are between the ages of 14 and 18, making the record company execs in the back stand out even more. Willie ignores them in favor of speaking directly to the kids. Exhorting them to dance, he gives instructions between songs for the people to run around in circles and smash into each other or jump up and down. The kids do just as Willie tells them, in part because they are too young to be self-conscious about it, and also because Willie is a damn charismatic front man.

The rest of the band members show the crowd how to act at a pop-punk show. Damon and bassist Adam jump up and down and crisscross with each other (occasionally tangling their guitar cables) while drummer Donnie spits water at everybody. The kids go wild, and a mosh pit forms for a little while, but the oldest (and biggest) guy in the crowd purposely knocks people down. From the stage Willie teases the guy for ruining everyone's fun, but he tempers it with the acknowledgement that the guy "could kick my ass."

Another person out for River Fenix's butt might be the estate of River Phoenix. Lawyers have contacted River Fenix's current label to discuss the band's finding a new moniker. "River Phoenix's mom's attorney called, and I think somebody is mad about the name. We mean no disrespect," Damon says, adding that the band loves River Phoenix. "Hopefully we can talk to them and let them understand that we're not assholes.


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