The young men are barely awake, stumbling into a van outside their Albuquerque hotel for a quick 8 a.m. road trip. The radio is already blaring. "It's a little early for the metal, all right, dude?" growls Johnny 3 Tears from the backseat, slouching in his aviator shades with a tall cup of coffee. He lights a cigarette.
Morning has broken for the band Hollywood Undead, as three of its vocalists ride toward the local "new rock alternative" FM station, ready to talk up that night's concert and "Swan Songs," their debut album of anxious hip-hop and rock, just certified gold with sales of 500,000. The rest of the band is asleep at the hotel.
They are six young dudes in their early to mid-20s, about to wrap up a six-week tour while traveling under Elvis Presley's old motto: "Taking care of business," calling this the "TCB Tour," delivering brutal rhymes and roaring pop hooks from Canada to the American Southwest. (The band has yet to perform a true Los Angeles hometown gig but will appear Saturday at KROQ's Epicenter concert at the Fairplex in Pomona.)
In the van next to Johnny 3 Tears (a.k.a. George O'Ragan) is rapper-guitarist Charlie Scene (Jordon Terrell), and in the front passenger seat is rapper-keyboardist J-Dog (Jorel Decker), who is now imagining the healing potential of Ozzy Osbourne after an early death. "If I die, I want you and Charles to sing 'Changes' at my funeral." he says, referring to the Black Sabbath ballad.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 19, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Hollywood Undead: Two photo captions accompanying an article in Sunday's Calendar section about the band Hollywood Undead misspelled two band members' names. Jorel Decker's last name was given as Deckyr, and Jordon Terrell's first name was given as Jordan.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 23, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Hollywood Undead: Two captions with photos and an article last Sunday about the band Hollywood Undead misspelled two members' names. Jorel Decker's last name was given as Deckyr, and Jordon Terrell's first name was given as Jordan.
"If I die," answers Johnny 3 Tears, "I want you to sing 'Eleanor Rigby.' "
The exchange is something like their music: playful, morbid, ironic, with overlapping vocals and rude stories from the streets of contemporary Hollywood. It is a sound fueled on excitement and testosterone, of wild abandon and youthful aggression, hip-hop and hard rock.
They wear masks in public, each member in a disguise of his own design and personality: a simple, if vaguely threatening black bandana on Charlie Scene; a plastic mask adorned with butterflies on Johnny 3 Tears; a mask with bleeding eyeballs and a dollar bill for a mouth on J-Dog, for example. Hollywood Undead has worn them from the very beginning, ever since founding members J-Dog and Deuce (Aron Erlichman) uploaded their first recording, "The Kids," to the band's MySpace site.
The songs are abrasive and catchy, all sex and booze, confrontational and offensive by design. On the taunting "Everywhere I Go," Charlie Scene rhymes and prowls without apology:
Drink fast and enjoy your buzz
Take back streets to avoid the fuzz
I wanna take you home but your friends won't let ya
I got a 40 in my Ford Fiesta
"We were singing about aspects of our lives that were occurring at that time," says Johnny 3 Tears, who became a father of a baby girl the day before leaving on tour. "That doesn't mean, 'Hey, go out and do drugs, shoot people and [have sex with] as many girls as you can before you die.' The best thing about music is how you can take something hurtful . . . that you've done or was done to you and turn it into something actually beautiful."
The group's masked image draws comparisons to metal mystery men like Slipknot and Mudvayne, but the attitude is more Eminem than epic rage and is a next-generation rendering of the '90s rap-rock hybrid called "nu metal." Since 2005, Hollywood Undead has existed largely as an underground sensation, built on Internet buzz and forceful pop hooks, with modest radio airplay and virtually no press attention. The fans come anyway. "Swan Songs" represents a grass-roots success, lodged comfortably in the Billboard Hot 100 since its September release, and introduces a new L.A.-based sound that A&M/Octone Records President James Diener boasts is "some of the cleverest, and most progressive pop music being made today."
The morning radio interview is brief and uneventful, and the van returns the three to their hotel. J-Dog and Charlie Scene head back upstairs, but Johnny 3 Tears is wide awake after three cups of coffee. It's 9 a.m. He needs cigarettes. And a drink.
A shuttle drives him to a liquor store and deposits him back in front of the hotel, where he cracks open a tall can of light beer. But first, he has a shot of Southern Comfort. "It calms my nerves, man."
Showtime is still roughly 13 hours away.
First in line at the Sunshine Theater is Nicole Berka, 20. She has been sitting beneath the old marquee since 6:15 a.m., after driving 12 hours alone from Fort Collins, Colo. She got two speeding tickets and a flat tire.
Berka is a business major at Colorado State University, and after the show she will again drive all night, arriving home in time to start her shift at a burger restaurant.
"I just love the fact that they combine the rap with rock, and they're not afraid to speak their minds about anything," she says happily, a lime-green stud piercing her tongue. "The masks are gorgeous and describe their personalities on stage. But I actually prefer them without the masks because they have nice faces."