IT’S (NOT) ONLY ROCK ‘N ROLL… BUT WE LIKE IT!
Hailing from New Jersey, Clayton Hopkins and Henry Ellis have been playing together since their early teens. Their earliest supporter was debut album co-producer Stephen Harris a.k.a. Haggis ex-guitarist for the Rick Rubin-produced Four Horsemen, one time Cult bassist, and occasional Guns N' Roses stand-in. Harris took a young Henry to see Velvet Revolver play on their Libertad tour. Backstage he introduced the high school drummer to Slash. HARRIS: "We hung out for ages in his dressing room, then Slash asked Henry if he wanted to go up on stage during soundcheck. I thought Henry’s head was going to explode." A few months later, Harris ended up at Henry and Clayton’s high school end-of-year concert. HARRIS: "They did the Stones’ ‘Satisfaction.’ Clayton was so tiny that his guitar looked like he was playing a cello sideways. Henry reminded me of Animal from The Muppets. I thought he was going to drive his drum-kit right off the stage. Their energy was brilliant. I told them they should make a record, but they were only about 13 fucking years old!"
Fast forward the boys through high school and a number of intermediary bands and Harris remained true to his word. One afternoon Harris squeezed the boys into a tiny studio overlooking Madison Square Garden and cut their first real song New York City Nightmare. Released on Welsh Indie label Punkhouse-Modern Records as a 1-sided white vinyl 7”, their debut recording attracted the attention of singer/songwriter Francis Dunnery. Impressed by what he heard, the ex-Robert Plant, Santana, Lauren Hill guitarist offered them the opening slot on his upcoming UK tour. DUNNERY: There was only 2 of them, so it was easy. They didn’t take up much space. "They just showed up with a guitar case, a pair of drumsticks, and a laptop, and killed it every night. Everybody loved them!"
Dunnery subsequently introduced the band to original E-Street Band keyboard player David Sancious, who ended up playing on three of the songs on their self-titled debut album. Clayton remembers the day they visited Sancious at his home studio. CLAYTON: "Henry’s mom drove us up to David’s home studio. It was in this giant house on top of a mountain in Woodstock. He (Sancious) sat us down in front of the mixing console and just hit play. Henry and I were looking at each other behind his back like ‘Fuck dude. The guy who played on Born To Run is jamming on our tunes!’ It blew our minds. Henry’s mom was quietly freaking out the whole time ‘cos she was the biggest Springsteen fan from her college days."
All three songs, The Void, Burnin’ Up, and No Good For Me, showcased the boys’ gift for complex melody-driven songwriting and a level of musicianship that few acts muster so early on in their recording career. Through Harris, Clayton befriended Bon Jovi guitarist Phil X. CLAYTON: "There hasn't been anything big in rock ‘n roll out of New Jersey since Bon Jovi. Of course, before that it was Bruce Springsteen… David Sancious playing on our record, then getting to spend time with Phil X… was like the universe telling us it’s time for New Jersey to represent again, ha-ha."
LET’S NOT FORM A BAND!
It was during the making of their debut album - still as a duo - that the boys were forced to consider expanding their act, as their
experience of playing rock n’ roll with only a laptop for accompaniment hadn’t always proven ideal.
HENRY: "One night on the first UK tour the laptop exploded during soundcheck so we had no choice but to just crank it up and play
as a 2-piece without a click track and all the other pre-recorded instruments. It was so much better. We grew up jamming on
Guns N’ Roses and Led Zeppelin. We love that interplay between live musicians, but it’s a real challenge to find the right people
and hold a line-up together in this day and age. You can’t expect people to just hang around until you find another tour to go on.
So we thought fuck it. Let’s NOT form a band!"
As kids who had grown up not just as fans of classic guitar-based rock n’ roll, but also witness to the rise of Hip Hop and R&B as the biggest commercial forces in popular music, the idea of breaking down the boundaries represented by the traditional structure of a ‘band’ seemed entirely natural. Adopting a more modern concept of collaboration and creative cross-pollination - seen far more commonly in Hip Hop - the boys decided to bring their vision into the future vs. remaining tied to the past. To Henry, the decision was an obvious progression.
HENRY: "We love Kanye West just as much as G N’ R. and he doesn’t have a permanent band as such."
True to their new approach, the boys met SKINS guitarist Daisy Spencer through a friend. Spencer offered to sub in on bass and backing vocals while her own band were taking a break from working with Rick Rubin.
CLAYTON: "We were finishing up the album and thought let’s have Daisy come by and sing on some stuff. It sounded so good we used it."
Spencer soon got busy with Rubin again. Now the boys needed someone to fill her shoes. Enter Amanda Lewis.
Fellow New Jersey teen Lewis emerged via an online ad.
CLAYTON: "She could sing her ass off, but she couldn’t play a note of bass. We thought, well that never stopped Paul Simonon when
he was asked to join The Clash".
The boys subsequently bought Lewis a cool looking bass and rehearsed for a few weeks, then started
playing gigs. The new lineup -
playing for the first time as a trio – soon went from thrashing about in front of 30 people at The Bowery Electric to kids dancing on the tables at a packed Bitter End.
Following another sold-out UK tour with Francis Dunnery, Lewis got accepted into nursing school and decided to leave. HENRY: "We were like ‘Fuck! How are we going to find someone else who can sing the female parts on the record live?" It turns out they didn’t have to wait long. Following a lead from a friend, the boys caught Long Island born singer/pianist April Rose Gabrielli playing a solo gig at a club on The Bowery. Gabrielli was classically trained, like the boys, and just wanted to play some live rock n’ roll. Adhering to their no boundaries philosophy, the boys invited Gabrielli to come and play with them. Gabrielli dragged her keyboard over to their rehearsal space the next day. The following week, bassist Ryan Wheeler, bounded into rehearsals with his homemade instrument and towering mop of curls. To say everything clicked would be an understatement. The band recorded their second ever show as a 4-piece for a live album
THE FUTURE NOW
Since then, the boys have been back in the studio with Gabrielli and Wheeler recording a trio of new songs, Remedy, 'Quit Fucking Araround With My Heart', and Something Is Everything, each of which are slated for release as limited edition 7” vinyl singles on Punkhouse-Modern throughout the first half of 2019. The first of these singles Remedy, is currently available.