Here We Go Again
The Riddlin' Kids get slapped with a DWI
It's not often, but sometimes a music video is more than a music video. In the case of Austin's Riddlin' Kids and their clip for "I Feel Fine," it's damn near art imitating life.
On paper, treatment called for fairly standard pop-punk video fare: a combination of lip-synched live performance and surgically enhanced babes. As with so many other things in life, the difference came down to location, location, location.
In this case, the setting was a pizza parlor, and if anyone knows pizza parlors, it's the Riddlin' Kids. Guitarist Dustin Stroud and frontman Clint Baker met while working at Gumby's Oltorf & Congress location and later financed the band's demos with the proceeds of subsequent gigs at Papa John's and Domino's. When the script for their major-label video debut called for Stroud to knead a wad of dough, then throw it overhead and have it land on his face, instincts took over.
"I got to show off my method-acting skills," laughs Stroud. "When we finished the performance pieces and moved to the kitchen, I told the director, 'I'm way more qualified to do this pizza stuff than I am to play the guitar.'"
Indeed, Stroud wound up shaving an hour and a few grand of man-hours off the shoot when he nailed his part in one take. Even so, "I Feel Fine" is no cheapie.
With the ongoing radio and sales success of pop-punk, Columbia Records thinks it has a winner in the Riddlin' Kids' debut Hurry Up and Wait, a dynamic collision of witty songwriting, radio-ready melodies, and muscular rhythms. The label has already convinced MTV2 to add "I Feel Fine" to its rotation, and reportedly has its radio and publicity teams working similarly serious inroads.
In fact, the Riddlin' Kids' debut isn't just a priority for the label, it's a "DWI." That's an in-house acronym for "Donnie Wants It," as in Don Ienner, the chairman of the Columbia Records Group. Not bad for a band that's officially signed to Aware Records, Columbia's farm league cousin that's traditionally served as an incubator for baby bands.
"We didn't expect to get on the radar that fast," admits Stroud, who says the band has the interest of Ienner's teenage son to thank. "It's ultimately more stress than relief. You hear about being a 'DWI' and you know the stakes are higher."
If Stroud seems pragmatic about the Riddlin' Kids recent run of good fortune, it's for good reason. On the strength of local airplay for their self-financed demo, Baker, Stroud, bassist Mark Johnson, and drummer Dave Keel signed on the dotted line June 2000, and quickly headed to Nashville to record Hurry Up and Wait with producer Paul Ebersold (Sister Hazel, 3 Doors Down).
"When we were in the studio somebody told us how it took Destiny's Child two years to wind their way through Columbia's machinery," says Baker. "I told them you'd find me dangling from a ceiling fan somewhere if it took two years. That was two years ago."
In truth, the Riddlin' Kids were hardly left in Austin to cool their heels. Last year, as is typical of Aware's grassroots ideals, the label laid some serious foundation work by releasing a five-song EP, Any Day Now, offering the Kids a chance to tour with product under their belt. While the title of both of their discs hint at frustration, the local quartet has witnessed firsthand that patience is a virtue.
This summer, for instance, the Riddlin' Kids have been playing to enthusiastic crowds on the Warped Tour. On the East Coast and into Florida, where they've concentrated the bulk of a year's worth of touring, the band boasts sold-out headlining club gigs where the kids know all the words. Columbia's delays have clearly put the band in a better position to break, even if the unintended result is that group's hometown record release party is at the Back Room, instead of outside at Stubb's.
"For Austin, it must seem like ages ago that things flared up for us," posits Baker. "As far as they're concerned, nothing happened. People probably think we're one of those bands that got signed and had their record shelved. I can totally see how people at home think we're already just another major-label casualty."
If it's surprising that the Riddlin' Kids are on Columbia's radar without household-name status in Austin, perhaps you're not in a household with kids.
Pop-punk heroes like Sum 41 and Blink-182 have gone compound platinum on the back of teenage allowances and all-ages shows. It's a genre driven by a target audience more well versed in Harry Potter and PlayStation than R.E.M.'s Document and a Patrick Dempsey pay channel cable classic from 1989, Loverboy.
Yet even if Hurry Up and Wait's blitzkrieg cover of "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" and a video based on Dempsey's pizza-delivering lothario hints at their real ages, the Riddlin' Kids remain timeless thanks to their label. Each member has a "Columbia age" and an age determined by their birth certificates.
"They doctor the bios a bit," Stroud says. "Clint is 25, but 21 if you ask Columbia."
Even with the fudging, the Riddlin' Kids are relatively youthful; Keel is the oldest at 31, but his run in Gals Panic and Missile Command covers the age differential with experience. It's not Baker and Stroud's first time around the block either. When they met at Gumby's, and later decided to share an apartment, both were in promising young punk bands playing Emo's and the Flamingo Cantina; Baker with Little Boy Henry, and Stroud with the Nimoys.
"We were the guys in our bands busting ass to get stuff done," says Baker. "We thought it would be cool to have a band where it's not just one guy on the phone doing everything."
What started as "Igmo" ("ignorant motherfucker") eventually morphed into the Ritalin Kids, and later the less litigious Riddlin' Kids. With a Spinal Tap-worthy array of rhythm sections, Baker and Stroud spent much of 1997-98 earning a small, but loyal following at the Back Room and Flamingo Cantina. Eventually, they forged a scene with other River City acts like Dynamite Boy, Cruiserweight, and Born to Lose that led to local opening slots for touring acts like Ataris, New Found Glory, Fenix TX, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
With no luck on landing an indie recording deal, Baker and Stroud decided to take matters into their own hands, spending their pizza money on sessions they hoped to sell to an indie as an EP or a potential split-LP with another band. After spending $7,000 to piece together five sonically stunning songs, they still couldn't make inroads to an indie.
"Every indie you've ever heard of passed," admits Baker. "We weren't from New Jersey or California -- we weren't buddies with the rest of the bands on their labels. Others would say they're only signing touring bands. But we couldn't tour much, because we spent every dime on getting our gear out of the pawnshop and recording. We jumped around waving our arms screaming, 'Look at us! Look at us!' and they all passed."
Bruised, but not broken, they refocused their efforts at home, relentlessly fliering, calling radio stations pretending to be fans requesting their songs, and playing any access television show that would have them. After 101X airplay for Dynamite Hack's "Boyz-N-the-Hood" spread to Dallas and a major-label bidding war, the Riddlin' Kids set their sights on Alan Smith, the station's then-program director [Ed. note: Andy Langer's The Next Big Thing appears on 101X].
When they began what they characterize now as a "harassment campaign" to get Smith to listen, they'd only had one spin on the station -- earned by bribing the station's "Like It or Spike It" deejay with a pizza. They told Smith repeatedly, and in no uncertain terms, that they had the hooks and production values to match anything on the station's playlist.
"We acted confident on the phone with Alan, but it was kind of a joke," Stroud says. "We knew he'd hang up going, 'Who the hell do these guys think they are?'"
Duly impressed when he listened to the demo a month later, Smith added "Blind" to 101X's lightest rotation. At that point, the ball was in the Riddlin' Kids' court.
"We printed up a bunch of CDs with stickers that had the [101X] request number," explains Baker. "Then we brought them to the Blink-182 show at the Erwin Center. We realized there's two kinds of kids that like the music we play. One is the cool kid that knows all the underground bands.
"The other is the normal kids that like poppy stuff and it's not their fault they're out of the loop. They watch MTV and listen to the radio, because they don't have the older brother or the cool friend that knows the local underground to lead the way. It hit me there would be thousands of those kids at the Erwin Center that we could turn into fans."
At the same time, the band solidified its current lineup by adding bassist Mark Johnson. He'd been playing guitar in Peepin' Tom, a band he says allowed him to sell his souped-up Mustang to buy better gear knowing full well they'd be firing him two weeks later. It was bass gear he wound up needing.
"I sold my dream car, got fired, got kicked out of my house, and lost my girlfriend all at once," acknowledges Johnson. "The next day I'm a Riddlin' Kid."
The day after that, Smith, buoyed by what was now a legitimate local hit, coaxed Aware President Gregg Latterman to Austin to take in a performance by the band.
"That showcase and a gig a few days later is when we knew we had the perfect chemistry," nods Baker. "The lineup and the opportunity we worked so hard to find fell in place across two days.
"And we were ready for the opportunity. There's people that talk about us as do-it-yourself geniuses, but it really isn't genius. You just have to keep going and pushing. If you're too tight to invest part of your paycheck into what you love, then maybe you're in the wrong business. It's what we did and we haven't looked back since."
If there's anybody in the Riddlin' Kids camp with second thoughts or misgivings, it's Baker's mother. Baker admits the bulk of his songs are of the "bitter, droll" variety, and that many, like "I Feel Fine" and "Here We Go Again" detail real-life relationships.
"My mom's worried girls are going to think I'm a woman-hater," he chuckles. "She says, 'Why don't you write a positive song about a girl?' I tell her I don't know any positive girls. I write about the mean girls that give the good girls a bad name."
That said, Baker is unapologetic about his disinterest in reinventing the songwriting wheel; faster than a critic shouting "Green Day," he admits that within the punk-pop realm, songs about mean girls written in the familiar verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-double-chorus formula are par for the course. Stroud takes it one step further.
"The same formula that works for Britney Spears works for us," he says. "We have some ridiculously bubble-gum pop-style songs. But for it to work as a Riddlin' Kids song it has to first and foremost have a rock foundation. We've thrown out plenty of songs with great pop choruses because they didn't rock."
That is, after all, where the Riddlin' Kids stand apart, in addition to having two guitarists in a trio-dominated genre: Their rhythm section, Keel and Johnson, play pop-punk like they're on Ozzfest, not Warped. "We had a promoter in Grand Rapids tell us recently that we're, 'One boisterous singer away from being the best metal band he's seen in his life,'" reveals Keel. "It's probably not far from the truth."
If the delay in releasing Hurry Up and Wait has an obvious upside, it's that the Riddlin' Kids have had nearly two years to impress promoters and fans by jelling live. And because they've toured without a full-length album, the band has had to ramp-up their show to a level that impresses crowds that have no idea who they are or what they're about.
"Punk kids will initially stand there with their arms crossed as if to say, 'You're not Goldfinger, get off the stage,'" says Baker. And yet, early on, the Riddlin' Kids picked up the bulk of their new fans on Goldfinger's Crouching Fish/Hidden Finger tour.
"More than anything Columbia has done, we've won fans with our show," claims Stroud. "The kids can see we're not trying to be anything we're not. Kids will only be fooled by marketing for so long. They're buying into this, because we make a connection and it's not being sold to them that hard."
As a full-fledged DWI priority for Columbia, the marketing push is intensifying. Along with video play, the label has secured a week-of-release spot for the band on Craig Kilborn. And that's just the high-profile end of it. Columbia has also helped finance grassroots street team efforts on behalf of the Riddlin' Kids, samplers being passed out by fans at shows by compatible bands, as well as at every extreme sport event imaginable. The way Baker sees it, Columbia's efforts expand a network of fans they've developed on their own.
"Kids are so awesome," enthuses Baker. "If they love the band, it's their band -- they tell their friends. If you need fliers put up, it's done. They e-mail us offering to bring us magazines if we need entertainment, food if we're hungry. We've had people offer us mittens and socks in the cold places. And we hang out with them and they love us for it.
"Most bands don't take time to hang with the kids and it's ridiculous they don't. We're not doing it to sell ourselves. We do it because we have a blast with them. And why wouldn't we hang with them? We're just kids ourselves."
They may be kids at heart, but it's entirely possible their DWI could fade as quickly as it came. Sure, their album hasn't even made it onto store shelves yet, but the handwriting is always on the wall: Even bands tagged as major-label priorities fail more often than they succeed. It's a reality the Riddlin' Kids have had two years to prepare for.
"Dustin's motto has always been, 'If you have something to fall back on, you will,'" Baker says. "We don't have anything to fall back on. We can't afford to fail. We have to succeed, so we will. If it means we're a band that pops up with this record and it doesn't do as well as it's supposed to, then at least we're gonna get all this promotion. Kids will know who we are and we will keep touring and touring.
"We've always done our best and worked as hard as we can. Otherwise it's back to the pizza. Next time you open your door it could be one of us again. And I'm not going out like that. No way."
The Riddlin' Kids' CD release is Tuesday, Aug. 6, at the Back Room. The show is all-ages.