“It’s Like a Family Business, Except Rock Stars”: The Kindred Bond of We Don’t Ride Llamas

Afro rock sibling band is defiantly unconventional on new EP The Oracle

We Don't Ride Llamas: (l-r) Chase, Blake, Kit, and Max Mitchell (Photo by Jana Birchum)

For most zoomers and younger millennials, the entrance of the video game Rock Band into our childhood homes is not a memory associated with the buttressing of family ties. Speaking personally, it took only a few frustrated whacks upside my little sister's shins with nylon-tipped imitation drumsticks for my parents to forever consign the disc to the small valuables safe.

If there's an immediate case to be made for the potential longevity of We Don't Ride Llamas – the four siblings with potential to be our city's next musical breakout – it's in the inconceivable fact that not only did Rock Band make the Mitchell clan want to spend more time together, it provided a world-conquering ambition to unite their endeavors for decades to come.

“We went to our parents and we were like, ‘We want to be rock stars.’” – We Don’t Ride Llamas bassist Kit Mitchell, 16

"We were like, 'Yo, we're good at this,'" remembers drummer Blake, 20. "'What if we had actual instruments and played them together like we were in Rock Band?'"

"… but instead it's real," adds guitarist Chase, 24.

"Real life," agrees vocalist/lyricist Max, 21.

"We went to our parents and we were like, 'We want to be rock stars,'" says bassist Kit, 16.

A decade later, have these abstainers from pack-animal-based travel arrived at their destination? The answer's pending. Until such time that the Chronicle can devise a means to convert the group's precocious progress into Rock Band's 25-points-per-note, quad-tier scoring algorithm, somebody else will have to crunch these figures.

Ten dates opening for Willow Smith's sold-out Life tour in September; seven strikingly sophisticated tracks produced by a local musical genius to comprise their debut EP, March's The Oracle; nine performances at South By Southwest 2022 that more than lived up to their hype, and one Austin Music Award for Best Metal artist (though, as we'll discuss, this is a band that resists being penned in by any category that isn't of their own coinage).

One imagines that someday soon this C.V. will read quite well tucked between scrapped Machine Gun Kelly press releases on the desk of some jet-setting label exec. But to truly appreciate the Llamas' auspicious come-up, you simply must put down this article and give a listen to the defiantly unconventional music undergirding it. Taken in isolation from one another, the two Oracle tracks released as music videos – "Venus and Mars" and "Blueberries" – are marvels of multifaceted construction, almost willfully resistant to the reverse engineered playlist pigeonholing that lately brings many young artists to prominence. But try toggling between both clips … and oh brother, you've just contracted yourself a case of whiplash.

For those without internet access: "Venus and Mars" pivots from Max's smoky, Ella Fitzgerald-inspired verses into heavy wordless choruses before Chase's throttling post-punk guitar solo brings the track to its roaring finish. By contrast, "Blueberries" is pure neo-soul chill-out. A jazz-inflected central chord progression extends listeners a hazily inviting atmosphere while a cascade of blissful strings creeps behind them, easing any remaining muscle tension they may have retained from "Venus and Mars." Were it not for the Mitchell siblings' charismatic presence in each video, you'd be forgiven for thinking these songs represented two different bands. And even then you might not be so sure; WDRL's aesthetic predilections are informed by the same joyous mix-and-match that fuels their sonics. From the decadent, Afrofuturist fits the band rocks in "Venus and Mars" to the almost ostentatiously pure glam-angel gear they don in the "Blueberries" clip, it's easy to interpret each wardrobe as the punked-out response to the other.

If you can believe all that dazzling creativity is to be owed to the foundational influence of a couple plastic whammy boards, then there's a parallel universe nearby where nobody is writing this profile. The siblings say that convincing their father to shell out for that fateful Rock Band disc took nearly a year of begging. In fairness to Mykel Mitchell – a record label lifer with stints at Virgin, Interscope, and Def American, and cautionary tales aplenty about music industry shenanigans – the thought of his children picking up instruments, even fake ones, had good reason to make him wary. Today he atones for his prior hesitancy, instead directing those protective impulses toward his job as the band's manager – a role he shares with their mother. That means We Don't Ride Llamas is a fully in-house (and fully full-house) enterprise in the most literal sense of the term.

Blood Harmony

"It's like a family business, except rock-stars," laughs Blake.

"A lot of bands, when they're starting out, have to wear the entrepreneurial hat," Mykel explains. "[My wife and I] have tried to assist as much as possible by taking the burden of incorporation and booking and whatnot off them. Our responsibility is to ensure they're operating in a safe space and can therefore remain as creative as possible. We don't otherwise interfere."

Chase puts it more concisely: "It's nice to not have to worry about whether or not my manager is trying to fuck me over."

Of course, the professional intimacy of the blood-based contract simply means the Llamas have traded one sort of career anxiety for another, far closer to home. "We could be at dinner like, 'Pass the peas,' and then suddenly we're being interrogated about our plans for the next three years," they continue. "Like, 'What are you gonna do with such and such budget?'"

Sounds tough. Even still, it's hard not to share a similar helicopter-parent concern. As the band's profile elevates to the national level (a deal with Empire is supposedly on the horizon), the siblings are simultaneously plunging into a media landscape that increasingly responds to the fact of outside support as evidence of top-down corporate maneuvering. As eager as I am to see WDRL burn bright, visions of anonymous Twitter eggs lobbying baseless accusations of "industry plant" turn my blood cold. Certainly it's no help that the band's genre-agnostic fluidity may very well place them in commercial proximity to the rock-reviving Rodrigoites currently dominating their age bracket.

So let this profile stand as an early corrective. Tempting as it is to peg the Llamas as avatars for Gen Z market trends, to do so would be folly – belying the earnest nature of the siblings' diverse influences as well as the urgent political imperative that impels the band to unite them.

Indeed, asking the Llamas to list their personal and collective inspirations will conjure forth a staggeringly deep bench of musical touchstones: J Dilla, Doobie Brothers, Eddie Hazel, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Nile Rodgers, Faith Evans, Jimi Hendrix, and that's just a randomized selection from a much longer list. If it seems like the Llamas are drawing indiscriminately from the entire canon of popular music, well, that's kinda the idea.

When I inquire about a term used in their bio to describe the variety of genres they embrace – "shillelagh music" – the band is quick with an update.

"We need to change that, actually," laughs Blake. "We've begun using the term Afro rock to describe our 'genre' as encompassing all the styles that stem from rock music – nu-metal, classic rock, funk rock – which, of course, all stem from Black people."

"And the influences that birthed rock music also originate with Black people," Chase adds.

"Tying that together we reclaim everything that stems from rock music under one banner," continues Blake. "We're trying our best to use our visibility as young minorities to create spaces in music for the disenfranchised, Black people, queer people, differently abled people; encouraging other people to build community and creatively express themselves."

"We believe punk shouldn't have a set sound or dress code," says Kit. "It's almost more transgressive to wear all white with angel wings but still rep a rebellious mindset: building community, anti-capitalism, breaking barriers …"

We Don't Ride Llamas tears up the outside stage at Empire during Free Week in January (Photo by John Anderson)

"But everyone who shares those values can have a community with us," agrees Max. "We're all human beings."

"… but also spikes are cool, so I totally get why some punks might have a dress code," continues Kit, returning to finish their thought.

This isn't some ponderous, book-derived manifesto. Rather, the Llamas' broad outlook is the natural outgrowth of their upbringing. Across a childhood that shuttled from L.A. (where all four were born) to Austin and then back again in 2017, the Mitchell household's esteem for chaotic eclecticism has – oxymoronically – always remained its one stable constant.

"At our table, we can be talking about politics at the same time we're discussing favorite cereals and whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich," says Mykel. "Music has always been the same way, we can go from Frank Sinatra to the Sex Pistols pretty quick."

Considering such bedlam, it's unsurprising the siblings have a difficult time sorting through their memories to isolate the precise starting point of the band.

"In the baby stages I was band director," proposes Chase. "I was teaching Kit how to play the bass."

"Welllllllll," interrupts Blake. "Kit and I were the first to technically start the band becausssssse I joined Kit on the drums at her piano recital covering Stevie Wonder. Y'know, just pure rhythm section."

"Rhythm? Piano?" questions Kit. "What?"

"No, piano is also considered a rhythm section," corrects Chase, reverting to their seminal band director role.

"It's actually the only melodic rhythm instrument," adds Max, doubling down.

"OKAY!" Kit exclaims, relinquishing to their older siblings.

Thankfully, no similar division erupts when the band recalls the origin story behind their ear-catching name (apologies to all readers who have persisted this far anxiously awaiting such an explanation).

"In middle school there was a running joke where everyone who played in band would spread stuffed llamas all over the classroom," explains Blake. "So when anybody who wasn't in middle school band walked in, they'd gaslight them into believing that there weren't any llamas in the room when there clearly were."

Only one of several potential monikers bandied about as contenders, We Don't Ride Llamas took its decisive lead at one of the sibling's first performances. When a presiding adult tried to brand the nameless group with a particularly unappealing appellation – "The Mitchell Four" – the eccentric name tumbled out of their mouths in response. Call it a defensive impulse.

"There was a period where we felt ambivalent about the name. 'Why'd we choose that? It's too goofy.' But we definitely came around and embraced the silliness," explains Chase. "We can tell who's high-strung by how they respond to our band name."

You'd think most of those perplexed reactions would have occurred over the last year, but the band has actually been interfacing with audiences regularly since 2014. Odds are that locals may have even caught one of their formative school dance gigs or their recurring Sunday performances at the Domain Whole Foods. But by far the most crucial stage in expanding the Llamas' fan base was their own living room. The band owes nearly all of what's followed to their series of YouTube covers, uploaded at a near-weekly pitch over the past six years, and sometimes reposted by the covered artists themselves.

"That was the most staggering thing," effuses Mykal. "Seeing them have the discipline to learn a song and perfect it within four days. And none of them are formal readers of music, so it was always done purely by ear."

Consulting The Oracle

Though the apparent fruit of all that labor – an invite to, gulp, SXSW 2020 – seemingly died on the vine, the Llamas were quick to seize on pandemic-era opportunities. Having moved back to Austin in tandem with the canceled festival, they worked overtime building crucial local connections – most notably BLK ODYSSY, aka Sam Houston – and churning out bigger and better YouTube content. It was around that time that two converging covers of two very different Smiths – Morrissey and Willow – caught the eyes of their respective songsmiths (sorry). Within days of being invited to open for the former at Riot Fest, the band was on tour with the latter.

"It's really just been blessing after blessing. Everything aligning perfectly after basically everything fell apart," gushes Blake. "We're eternally grateful to Willow putting us on like that. She saw us and she realized that we were on the same wavelength because she's trying to build community as well.

"I don't think we were ever prepared for the love we received when we went on those stages, before we've even played. People cheering for us, but still being like, 'Oh my gosh, I don't know who you are,'" says Kit. "And that experience made us better! Goin' on in those bigger venues definitely added a lil sumpin' sumpin', and, when we came back to Austin, our performances were infinitely better."

The Mitchells accept their award for Best Metal band at the Austin Music Awards in March (Photo by John Anderson)
“We’ll go where we’re called to, but we’ll always come back to Austin.” – We Don’t Ride Llamas drummer Blake Mitchell, 20

Arguably the greatest of those performances were the studio sessions with Houston that resulted in The Oracle. Per the band, the EP was conceptualized as "an amalgamation of a bunch of different stories and experiences that were very spiritual and impactful throughout 2020 and 2021." Encapsulating a dazzling spectrum of moods, songs equating the joy of finding your soulmate with the exhilaration of robbing a bank (both Max and Chase are newly engaged) sit side by side with harrowing tales about dysfunctional relationships. And uh, there's also one about the band collectively capturing a demon in their backyard. It'll no doubt make listeners hungry for original material from earlier in the band's career, and indeed, hungry they will remain.

"There's a lot that will never ever be released for any reason," laughs Chase. "The buildup to now, technique-wise, has been a real journey."

"I'd like to think that when we slow down, because we've won soooo many awards, we can put out some demo tapes," says Blake. "Like, 'Yeah, they are kinda bad, but you love us, so …'"

"What's changed is we've learned how to create together and the dynamic is completely democratic. It would never ever work otherwise, please," insists Max. "We start from a common goal that sometimes comes right away and sometimes we arrive at it after a long time, but our contributions are very clear. Kit's basslines are always so well practiced. Chase does an excellent job on the guitar melodies …"

"THOSE SOLOS? BRO!" interjects Blake, clapping their sibling on the back.

"… And Blake just obviously goes apeshit on the drums," Max says, smiling back at them. "And I'm really blessed they allow me to bring it all together with lyrics and vocals."

"At the end of the day, it's a teamwork-type Voltron deal," adds Kit quite fittingly, swooping in to complete yet another tag-team repartee. "Historically, bands don't last well with resentment. And neither do familial relationships. So, we gotta last."

As for what fans should expect to see in the long haul to come, there's a lot. So much, in fact, the band has trouble limiting the checklist to a strict timeline.

"You're gonna see us on a couple of festivals," says Blake. "Definitely ad signings – you're gonna see us on ads."

"Definitely gonna be releasing some music," adds Chase.

"Probably a lot of collabs too," says Max.

"We'll go where we're called to, but we'll always come back to Austin," says Blake. "We love Austin, we rep Austin forever, our hearts are always here …"

There's a brief, contemplative pause, and then Max bursts in.

"We want to EGOT for sure," they exclaim. "We all definitely are super interested in a world tour, going platinum on everything. We want to be household names, obviously Rock Hall of Fame. And I don't know. Am I missing anything?"

Kit starts to answer, "A makeup line, a shoe line, I think."

Blake screams into the microphone. "Be long-lasting names that add influence to the culture foreverrrrrrrr!!!!!!!"

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We Don't Ride Llamas, Max Mitchell, Chase Mitchell, Kit Mitchell, Blake Mitchell, Sam Houston, BLK Odyssy

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