In a Van Down by the River
Move over, James Brown -- there's a new hardest-working band in show business. With more than 600 shows played in its three years of toddlerhood, the rock 'n' roll experience known as River City High barely stops to fuel the van. Having squeezed out two EPs and one full-length CD (recorded on rare nights off the road), River City High is poised for world domination or a used-auto-parts store -- whichever comes first.
Richmond, Virginia, gave birth to River City High in March 1999, when singer/bassist James Menefee and guitarist Mark Avery teamed up after long stints in respective rival bands Inquisition (which later re-formed as Ann Beretta) and Funsize. Rather than go the tried-and-true route of developing a local following before touring and releasing an album, Avery and Menefee recorded the four-song Richmond Motel EP and immediately hit the road for four months. Only one tune per month? "We had to talk a lot in between songs," Menefee chuckles. Filling a 15-minute set wasn't the only challenge River City High faced: Booking a lengthy tour for an unknown band also proved to be quite a challenge. "We found out who was doing basement and hall shows, and we played every single venue possible," he says. More often than not, that "who" would turn out to be some 16-year-old who'd given out his parents' number as a booking line. "I know at least five kids who stopped having anything to do with punk rock just because they got daily 3 a.m. phone calls on school nights. I'd rather deal with someone whose voice had already changed," Menefee snickers.
RCH returned to Richmond and sold out its first hometown show at the now-defunct hardcore joint Twisters. After that hero's welcome, Avery and Menefee lost their drummer and second guitarist. Replacements were installed, and the band hit the road again in earnest, landing a booking agent who hooked it up with a middle slot on the New Found Glory/Hot Rod Circuit/Dashboard Confessional tour. "Everyone got famous off that except us," chuckles Menefee. "New Found Glory were blowing up, and if nobody knew who Dashboard was, then they sure did after."
Playing in front of a thousand people a night for months proved invaluable as RCH solidified its lineup with guitarist Bob Anderson and drummer Jay McMillan and landed a new record label, Boston's Big Wheel Recreation. In May 2000, the imprint rereleased Richmond Motel and put out the group's new six-song EP, Forgets Their Manners. The latter effort, produced by Brian Paulson (Wilco, Superchunk) perfectly captured the band's Samiam-meets-Thin Lizzy guitar sound.
Encouraged by their studio success, an even-more-determined RCH returned to the grind, cranking out 200 shows in under a year with the likes of Less Than Jake, the Juliana Theory, and Blink-182. With so much time as road dogs, the quartet found plenty of opportunity for trouble. "We have a bad habit of picking up other people's girlfriends," Menefee slyly grins. "Boyfriends are always trying to kick our ass. One night after [a] gig, I was so drunk that I didn't even notice that this girl I was hitting on had a monster boyfriend sitting right next to her. He ended up throwing a condom filled with water at me, and I was trying to figure out if I had wet my pants."
In April 2001, the fearless boyfriend-killers returned to Boston to record their debut full-length, Won¹t Turn Down, with producer Tim O'Heir (Sebadoh, Superdrag), who helped the band excise the direct pop-punk influence of Samiam and the Descendants. In its place were massive, Pet Sounds vocal harmonies wrapped around Avery and Anderson's twin guitar attack and McMillan's Bun E. Carlos bashing. "We've always been into classic rock," Menefee affirms. "I think that's why we have more of an appeal than most pop-punk bands. If you only listen to one style, you'll put out the same record over and over again." While its components may have left punk behind, Won¹t Turn Down rocks so hard it keeps River City High firmly entrenched in the genre. As a roots record, it's much more successful than what Ryan Adams and his ilk are rolling out for the over-30 set. "Left Behind," "Belle Said," and "Just Wonderin'" are rock anthems that would fit like an old pair of flares between blocks of Cheap Trick and Tom Petty on the local Clear Channel station, as well as hold the attention of their mallpunk offspring. On Won¹t Turn Down's dual closer, "Hello November A.M./Hello November F.M.," the band bares its Virginia upbringing with a little honky-tonkin' on "A.M." before cranking it back up with "F.M.," the disc's one unabashed pop-punk tune -- until Avery sneaks the steel guitar back in, that is.
In February 2002, River City High ran out of places to play in North America and hit Europe for a two-month stretch with German punkers the Beatsteaks. "We played a bunch of dates in East German squats, and it was wild," Menefee relates. "Huge abandoned government buildings that the punks had taken over to live in and throw shows." Upon their return to the States, the foursome embarked on its first headlining tour, continuing even as we speak. "We're still hitting some towns where we'll play to 50 people, but it's usually 200-300 kids," Menefee enthuses. With MCA and a host of other major labels hot in pursuit of their next record, River City High is content to hog the road and let the chips fall where they may. "Whoever wants to contribute to our progress is welcome to help," says Menefee. "We're just going to continue to keep our nose to the ground and rock out."
Clearly a work ethic we should all try to live by.
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