Taylor Momsen, Rock's Smartest Wild Child

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Taylor Momsen can name her rock and roll heroes with a disarming amount of speed. Her father's record collection instilled in her a love of loud guitars and thunderous drums from childhood, says the 21-year-old former Gossip Girl actress, who then rattles off the greats like her band The Pretty Reckless attacking one of the songs on its second album, Going to Hell.

"Since the day I was born, it was the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, AC/DC," she says in short order. "Once you go through each track you can't go back. It's just always been a part of who I am, I guess. When I got older I really got into the '90s stuff, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains."

Going to Hell, the follow-up to the band's 2010 debut Light Me Up, throws all those bands and then some into a blender and spits it back out with plenty of leather-and-tattoo attitude, helping it become arguably 2014's most successful rock album. Hit single "Heaven Knows" has already conquered the Rock (14 weeks on top) and Alternative charts and has even been making inroads on Top 40 lately.

Furthermore, last week the band became the first female-fronted group since Chrissie Hynde's Pretenders to have back-to-back No. 1 songs on rock radio when "Messed Up World" hit the top. And to think the first time Momsen heard "Heaven Knows" in the car she thought someone had turned the CD player on.

"Then we realized it was on the radio," Momsen swears. "Pink Floyd was on right before it, which was wicked cool, and AC/DC came on right afterward. But in the middle of the song we turned to each other and said, 'This is not a fuckin' hit. This song is nothing like anything on the radio. There's no way this is gonna be a hit.' And we were wrong."

It's been that kind of year for Momsen, who was calling before a Pretty Reckless gig at House of Blues in Myrtle Beach, S.C., a couple of days after her band broke the record.

Rocks Off: The new record has a pretty clear theme from the title on down. Do you believe in hell? Taylor Momsen: I believe in the metaphor of hell. I think hell is something everyone's living in on a [constant] basis. But religion is...it's a metaphor, and sometimes I think people take it a little too literally. Do I think there's a giant burning hole in the ground? No, but I could be wrong. I don't know.

But I'm not really a religious person, more spiritual. I grew up Catholic, so the religious metaphors are just in my vernacular and that's what comes out in my writing. But again, it's a metaphor that's been used since the very, very early blues. "Sold my soul to the devil at the crossroads," "Highway to hell." It's a simple analogy for good and evil I think everyone can understand no matter where you're from.

Do you remember the first record you bought with your own money? I get asked that a lot, and I kind of just make up answers. My dad had everything, so I didn't need to buy records. I think when CDs started coming around. I grew up on vinyl, and my dad would make me mix cassette tapes to listen to in my little cassette player in my room.

I think when CDs came around the first one I bought was either [the Beatles'] Revolver or it might have been Garbage. I already had all the Beatles so it might have been the first Garbage record.

Tell me a little bit more about your bandmates. My best friends. I've had 'em since, what, almost eight years now? I met Ben [Phillips, guitar] through our producer Kato [Khandwala], and we started writing together. Mark [Damon, bass] and Jamie [Perkins, drums] were in a band at the time; multiple bands, but they were playing together. I met them and we all just kind of hit it off immediately. I essentially took their band, wrote a new record and said, 'Hey, I'm your new lead singer.'

And here we go. Six years later, they're family. And wicked musicians, by the way. I don't know if you've seen our show yet, but we've recently had to go from playing festivals, which are very short, 30-minute punch-you-in-the-face sets to headlining hour-and-a-half shows. We had to really develop it.

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What have been three of your favorite gigs in 2014 so far? That's so fuckin' hard, man. [Germany's] Rock am Ring [and] Rock Im Park [were] awesome. Isle of Wight was awesome, because we'd never played that. Rock on the Range in America was really great because that was a big showcase show for us and we did really well there. That definitely boosted our notoriety in America, so that show in particular was a fuckin' blast.

But now we're headlining and I'm not going to lie, I'm fuckin' psyched to be back inside, at night, with lights. The festivals are awesome -- it's cool as shit playing to 90,000 people, but you're playing at 4 p.m., and singing "Going to Hell" in the daylight feels a little off. So we're really psyched to be back inside and have it be on our terms.

What is your ideal day off on tour? I don't think there is such a thing. You're always working. The band is sound-checking right now, I'm talking to you, I'm about to run down to sound check. Then I've got another interview, and we've got a meet and greet and another acoustic performance, then to get ready for the show.

You've got about an hour to put your makeup on, and then you're onstage. Then you're rolling out and into the next city, so "days off" are travel days-slash-press days.

Guns N' Roses or Metallica? That's impossible, man. Both. We played with Guns N' Roses and they were fuckin' awesome. Axl fuckin' killed it every night. Amazing, amazing show. Haven't played with Metallica yet but I did see them at Big 4 and it was unbelievable. So I'll let you know once I get on a Metallica bill, how about that?

The Pretty Reckless plays House of Blues Sunday night with Adelita's Way and Falling Through April. Doors open at 6 p.m.


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