Trace Cyrus, singer/guitarist of the emo-electro band Metro Station, has the words "Stay Gold" tattooed across the knuckles of both hands. It's from S.E. Hinton's young-adult novel "The Outsiders," a noirish and broken-hearted tale of teenage gang life canonical among tweens making their first rebellions and self-explorations through art.
It's a natural tattoo for the band's 18-year-old frontman, one of many that cover his forearms and androgynously skinny chest. Metro Station is positioned to siphon from the millions of fans of Cyrus' younger sister Miley (whom parents of any pre-adolescent girl will recognize as the star of Disney Channel's "Hannah Montana"), those interested in a band that's grittier and sexier than their old Disney-packaged pop extravaganzas.
Metro Station, including singer-guitarist Mason Musso, keyboardist Blake Healy and drummer Anthony Improgo, landed a record deal with Columbia and opening slots on A-list pop-punk tours (including Saturday's sold-out Troubadour show with Cobra Starship) through MySpace hustling and Hollywood word-of-mouth.
Metro Station's biggest challenge has been to escape its most obvious path to success, given that a Disney pedigree and a country-star adoptive father (Billy Ray Cyrus) are liabilities to winning teenage fans who have outgrown "High School Musical."
"I wanted to see how long we could go without anybody knowing," Cyrus said. "It's not like I didn't want to be associated with that, but I didn't want to be put in a genre where I had to be 'Approved for mothers and 12-year-olds.' I want to be myself."
Says Miley: "As you can see by going to his show or seeing a photo, we're very different. Trace's success has nothing to do with the family. He worked hard all on his own."
Cyrus and 18-year-old Musso were set up on a jam-date by their mothers in early 2006. (Musso's brother, Mitchel, plays Oliver Oken on "Hannah"). Cyrus worked in a Burbank mall on his way to dropping out of La Canada High School, while Musso attended acting auditions and music business classes at College of the Canyons.
After spotting 26-year-old Healy's band, the Bum Out Eternal, on MySpace, Cyrus and Musso asked him to join. Healy wasn't convinced at first.
"It felt like I was creepy hanging out with 17-year-olds," he said. "I had to ask my roommate, 'Hey, are these songs as good as I think they are?' "
The band's songs usually find Cyrus huffing breathy verses while the shaggier, stockier Musso belts giant choruses. Over lo-fi sugar-rush programming, the duo swap lyrics of youthful exuberance that are sometimes witty, sometimes overeager.
The sound clicked for local fans, who sent the track "Seventeen Forever" rocketing up the MySpace Unsigned charts and packed off-the-grid venues more accommodating to Metro Station's younger audience.
After enlisting 31-year-old drummer Improgo, Metro Station signed with the Columbia imprint Red Ink in late 2006 and released its debut. But family connections couldn't save them from the typical stumbling blocks of young rock bands.
"Their first show with us was a disaster," said Josh Cain, guitarist for Motion City Soundtrack, who co-produced the band's single "Kelsey." "Mason and Trace are just kids, and we told them 'You've got to step it up.' "
By the band members' own admission, they needed to be more professional onstage.
Things appeared on track, then Columbia slashed its staff, the band's publicist included.
Waiting outside the Wiltern before their December show, the band's members were catcalled by a female UPS delivery driver and leered at by Koreatown locals. Los Angeles seems to be the only city where the son of a country kingpin and the brother of a pop phenomenon can feel like an outsider -- and find a way to turn that into his own kind of fame.
"L.A. is the most accepting city I've ever been in," Cyrus said, belying a youth blemished by tattoos but not irony. "For me to dress like this and walk down the street, everyone's cool with it. We want to bring that to everyone else."