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.
"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."
The band -- which also includes rapper Funny Man (Dylan Alvarez) and drummer-vocalist Da Kurlzz (Matthew Busek) -- soon arrives for an afternoon autograph session at a Hastings music and books superstore. Fans are lined up out the door.
"It's important that kids get those messages from us," says Da Kurlzz. "We respond to all our mail, all our online stuff."
There are strange encounters. At the store, a woman hands J-Dog a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey and a color photo of his grandfather and uncle standing beside a tall marijuana plant with the inscription: "James and Jim, 12-24-1981, La Puente, CA." Both are now dead. The woman tells him she was once married to his grandfather, a former Hells Angel.
Nearby is Lesha McDaniel, 21, a petite young mother covered in tattoos and 11 piercings "all over" her body. She's had severe body modification, and shows off her pointed ears and wiggles a forked tongue at the band. Deuce's signature is tattooed on her behind.
She's got two little girls: Katalyst, 5, and Michaela, 6, the eldest watching silently in her pink Hello Kitty jacket. "They're really shy right now," says McDaniel, "but in the car they were singing and dancing around."
Hollywood Undead settles in at a long table to sign CDs and posters for the hundreds in line. Some are as young as 11 and 12. An Albuquerque cop snaps pictures with his cellphone.
"I notice a lot of people have been listening to them lately," says Deidre Lee, 23, who drove three hours from the Navajo reservation with members of her family. "Their music, their lyrics, their beats, everything, man. Right when I heard it, I fell in love."
For more than two hours, fans pass in an orderly procession. One blond boy somehow loses his CD, but Johnny 3 Tears promises to replace it. "Don't worry, buddy," he says. "But it's a cruel world, isn't it?"
Later that night
Charlie Scene is in the alley behind the Sunshine Theater stage, waiting to go on, as the crowd chants: "Undead! Undead! Undead!"
"A lot of them wear the masks," he says. "They take the masks more seriously than we do. It's cool."
Soon, the band erupts onstage to the raging sounds of "Undead," but by "Dead in Ditches," the masks are gone. The front row is dominated by young women, and one of them has her sweater undone to reveal the bra underneath. She blows a kiss.
Funny Man leaps into the audience, followed by J-Dog, squeezing a full bottle of water to create an epic geyser, still rapping into his microphone.
At 2 a.m., the band's tour bus begins the overnight journey to Tempe, Ariz. "Where's J-Dog?" asks Funny Man.
"It's OK," says Johnny 3 Tears, "he crashed."
A moment later, J-Dog is back up and tumbling in from the bunks, the bottle of Jameson in his hand nearly empty. A few playful punches hit him as he falls forward.
On the bus is Doug Robinson, the singer from Long Island support act the Sleeping. He's passed out, head on the table. Crew and band members draw on his face with a Sharpie pen: tears, cat whiskers, a swastika. He sleeps through it all. The same thing happened to Da Kurlzz back in Panama City Beach.
Life on the road
Morning arrives late in Tempe for Johnny 3 Tears. He's still asleep at noon when guitarist Matt Carter from the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, another band on the tour, crawls into his bunk and flips on the light. He's right on top of him, laughing as he yells, "George, wake up! Wake up!" He pours a beer into Johnny 3 Tears' mouth.
Robinson is still at the table, but he's already scrubbed off the drawings from his face, except for red smudges beneath his ears and a tiny penis drawn onto the back of his hand. "It took 10 seconds," he shrugs. "If I pass out, go ahead and draw on me. Go . . . nuts. Just do something original."
It's the final day of the tour, and girlfriends are beginning to show up for the six-hour drive back into Los Angeles, but Funny Man is still waiting. He's already got a hotel room lined up. "I haven't seen my girlfriend in a month and a half," he barks, pacing inside the bus. "You know how . . . painful that is?"
At the rear of the bus is the Dungeon, the room where Deuce spends his downtime at work. He wears a camouflage Ben Sherman cap, folded at the brim, and sits behind a laptop connected to a small piano keyboard. He dials up a track he's working on called "As You Walk Alone." The sound is noticeably less confrontational, more laid-back, even contemplative.
The band began four years ago with a bedroom recording that Deuce e-mailed to J-Dog, who added some rhymes. "The Kids" became a local online sensation, a takeoff on characters from the L.A. club scene, including Jeffree Star, a cross-dressing, pink-haired model-singer-DJ with a huge Internet following that soon linked back to Hollywood Undead.
What followed was sudden online fame, fueled by more Hollywood Undead tracks uploaded to the band's MySpace page, and then an actual bidding contest between major record labels, before the group landed at A&M;/Octone, an imprint of Universal.
"It was weird because there were so few songs at the time," says Deuce. He laughs. "I made the songs really fast, and there were these labels calling, 'Dude, I want to sign you . . .' That was crazy. Is this real?"
At the final show of the tour, the members of Hollywood Undead are onstage at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe, once again leaping ecstatically into the crowd. Behind the microphone, Charlie Scene angrily tells of being ticketed by Tempe police for swimming in the river with his girlfriend. "I hate your police department," he screams, wiping his backside with the ticket. "I'm not going to pay it!"
For the encore, Hollywood Undead is back in masks. They're joined onstage by the support acts, crew, girlfriends, all of them bouncing and singing along to "No. 5." Funny Man turns to moon the crowd, and the tour is over.
Mingling outside their bus in the hours before leaving for Los Angeles, band members are laughing, drinking, smoking. Deuce smiles and calls the tour "a win." Everyone got along, and the album went gold. A trip to Japan is only days away. After that, the band will begin working on new material again.
He and Johnny 3 Tears had a falling-out during the last road trip. "We were the biggest troublemakers for a while. This tour we really patched that up," Deuce says. "We're on the same team. Together we'll kill it."