It's sundown at the MOCA parking lot and a group of four misfits (one yet to finish high school) launch into their song "Pussy Tower." ("It's about giving head, whatever," shrugged Starcrawler's frontperson Arrow de Wilde, 18, at a sushi joint earlier.) Once the song gets underway, de Wilde disappears from view, then re-emerges and spews blood over the audience. Some scream, others laugh. It's some party trick.
Earlier in the set, de Wilde ran amok onstage in a hospital gown, offering crazed facial expressions cribbed from studying footage of schizophrenics. Her onstage persona is like a fictitious escapee from Arkham Asylum, or the spawn of Nick Cave and PJ Harvey. Beneath the hospital gown are sparkly Y-fronts. Eventually she strips down to them and flaps her arms like a bat — perhaps mimicking the one her hero Ozzy Osbourne once bit into.
Starcrawler have been gigging around L.A. for a year, often with fellow glam-punk revivalists The Lemon Twigs. Chances are you'll hear about their fluid-secreting rock & roll before you see it. Last month, de Wilde spat red at the crowd at Pappy and Harriet's in Joshua Tree. One woman was so upset by it that she rushed the stage with a knife.
"People think it's real blood," de Wilde says. Well, is it? "It's a secret formula. And it tastes horrible."
At MOCA, the foursome's set climaxes when de Wilde jumps from the stage and scurries through the crowd, inciting a punch-up in the mosh pit as her bandmates wage war with their instruments. Eventually, drummer Austin Smith, 22, throws his sticks into the crowd. "Thank you very much. Fuck you all," adds guitarist Henri Cash, 16.
Together with bassist Tim Franco, 20, Starcrawler are tonight's opening act. The other bands may as well go home.
Upstairs in the dressing room, de Wilde sits peacefully. "What just happened?" she asks. Good question.
Hours earlier, a genteel Cash greets all for soundcheck. The youngest and chattiest, he's a baby take on George Harrison by way of Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. When he was in preschool, he had a Ramones anthology and showed it to the other kids. "Nobody got it," he says.
Cash has played guitar since his hands were big enough. Today, he could rival his idol Jack White. He's often so lost in adrenaline he doesn't know his fingers are bleeding. At the Echo last year, he broke his nose onstage and didn't realize it until he saw his disfigured face at a photo shoot the next day.
Smith, the eldest, carries the air of a Venice skater but grew up in Hollywood. His rhythmic partner, Franco, is the quiet one. "I thought Tim looked like a prick [at first]," Cash says. "But he's the nicest guy."
If ever there were an attack on Starcrawler, de Wilde assures that the rhythm section would defend them. "They've got the guns," she says.
Cash pipes up. "Have you seen that video of Keith Richards hitting a dude coming after Mick Jagger onstage with his guitar?" He looks to the others. "We gotta rehearse that."
De Wilde was born into Echo Park arts community royalty, the daughter of drummer Aaron Sperske (Beachwood Sparks, Ariel Pink) and photographer Autumn de Wilde. Elliott Smith would hang around when she was a kid. She modeled for Teen Vogue and Paper and had appeared in a Bleachers video directed by Lena Dunham by the age of 16.
Starcrawler began two years ago when de Wilde and Smith connected via Facebook and started jamming. "We hung out a few times and thought, 'You're not terrible,'" Smith explains. De Wilde found Cash at the East L.A. performing arts school they both attended. She spotted him carrying a tuba case and asked if he played guitar. Franco was the only person de Wilde knew who played bass. He rode to his first rehearsal on his bike and arrived dripping in sweat. Was he eager? "I was late," he says, deadpan.
The band played their first show last spring at a space on Sunset that de Wilde describes as "a closet." They packed 40 people in, another dozen peering in from outside through the window. "We were the first band on. Everyone left right after," Smith remembers, laughing. "The other bands were so annoyed. I was like, 'Don't you guys have friends?'"
De Wilde thinks bands are "boring" nowadays. She prefers immersing herself in past mythology. "You'd wonder what [rock stars] would do backstage, what they were like," she says. "Now [bands] don't seem any higher than you. There's no mystery."
Thus, both de Wilde and Cash dress for the occasion. The hospital gown is one of two costumes she wears. Cash opts for a red shirt with black blazer. "Like The Beatles, man," he says. "The Beatles and Ramones had a uniform. Now bands are just hipsters in hats with guitars."
On Twitter, Starcrawler's byline is, "We will kill you." "We will!" Cash says.
"People get so shocked and scared at our shows. I didn't know that was still possible," de Wilde says. "They get angry. I like it."
Less enthusiastic onlookers have described them as "sick." "They think we're anorexic drug addicts, that we're disrespecting women," Cash scoffs. He reads out some hate mail he received today on the band's Instagram. De Wilde is usually the target. This message concludes: "There is nothing appealing about any female who looks like this, it is not OK to be a public figure and pretty much promote anorexia."
Fired up, Cash points at de Wilde's plate of tempura. "She's not anorexic. She eats! She's 6 foot 2! If you look at pictures of her mom at her age, it's the same thing."
"I don't care," de Wilde says. "I've been getting the anorexic thing for [a long time]. I don't want people to pity me. I could speak up about it but I know that if I bring it up to the public I'll just be more ..." She struggles to find the right words to respond.
The band are disappointed that de Wilde is attacked by self-described "body-positive feminists," particularly given her onstage remit. "I don't wanna be considered this amazing woman frontperson," she says. "I just wanna be a frontperson, the same as any other."
Her antics are inspired in equal parts by The Runaways and Ozzy Osbourne. Her affections for the latter run deep. "I heard Blizzard of Ozz and knew it was the best album I'd ever heard in my life. Then I watched every YouTube video, every interview. I read his book. My love for him is not romantic. Steven Tyler is fucking annoying now, but Ozzy doesn't try to wear the Spandex outfit he wore in the '80s. He's just so classy."
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When it comes to their music, Starcrawler are so conscientious that, in a bid to "look pro," they recorded their first single, "Ants," and its B-side, "Used to Know," before even playing a gig. "Ants" is a literal anthem about the summer ant infestation that plagues Cash's house annually. It's fast, furious and was written as quickly as it plays out. "I was angry," Cash says.
"Ants" was played on Beats 1 radio by Elton John. "It's funny 'cause people were like, 'Elton John's playing your song,'" Cash says. "And I was like, 'Yes! Now I have to do this math test.'"
Starcrawler have found a kindred guide in singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, who recorded their forthcoming debut LP on analog tape at his Pax-Am Studio in Hollywood. It's out next year via Rough Trade. Adams discovered the band while following de Wilde's mom Autumn on Instagram; like many rock musicians, Adams has been photographed by the elder de Wilde. When mom passed the message along to Arrow, her response was like someone hearing of a long-lost uncle: "Ryan Adams? I hadn't heard that name in years."
Asked to describe the album or the intentions behind it, Starcrawler keep tight-lipped. "Let us be your drug," Cash says. The way he says it, it sounds like a threat