“Come with me, you pretty thing, and we’ll celebrate with amputations.”
Ryann Donnelly is an American teenage rock ‘n’ roll machine. Nineteen years old, she’s been singing in the Schoolyard Heroes since she was 14, and she just lurves it.
“It’s the best thing. I’ve been doing this five years, and I know it’s what I want to do with my life. It’s obviously what we all want to do; otherwise we wouldn’t still be with it. We’re not even thinking about our future. We’re just putting everything into what we have right now, and trying to make it work, because it’s what we love,”
What Donnelly has, and loves with a passion, is a genuinely kick ass rock ‘n’ roll band on the verge of emerging from its comfortable hometown Seattle scene to do battle on a whole different front. A four-piece so tight that even Mike Myers’ Dutch stallion Goldmember would approve—tight like a tiger. A band that hits hard, early and often, throwing disguised punches from difficult angles until you’re left rocking on your heels and digging their vision.
The headline news here is all about the song titles. On their debut album, Funeral Sciences, the Schoolyard Heroes offered up “The Curse of the Werewolf”, “Dawn of the Dead”, and—my personal favorite, a tale of unspecified high school trauma—“Bury the Tooth of the Hydra and a Skeleton Army Will Arise”. It’s a B-movie orgy that’s continued on their new release, Fantastic Wounds; but the subtext is all about evolution, baby.
Listen to the Schoolyard Heroes’ schooldays demos, and you’re listening to a juvenile pop-punk outfit with a full collection of Undertones singles and a couple of neat lyrical ideas. By the time they recorded Funeral Sciences, they’d become a Maiden-Meteors-Misfits cross with several dashes of Rez(v)illos’ charm thrown in for good measure. A novelty act, in short.
Fantastic Wounds, however, is a thing of pure kinetic beauty. The new record is novel, but the act has been polished, perfected and just generally worked up into something quiet shiny and special. On the debut, the influences were everywhere, suffocating the spark. But the new songs, with names like “Panic in the Year Zero”, “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” and “The Girl Who Was Born Without a Face” are confident, complex and strong enough to give this young band its own fierce identity.
The Schoolyard Heroes have come along way since the ninth grade, but Donnelly has been singing ever since she can remember.
“I started singing when I was eight, or at least that’s when I started getting vocal lessons. I’ve been singing forever! I come from a musical theater background, which is where I learned how to project, how to be loud and kinda snotty sounding. And then when I was in high school, I was in this play with a girl who said that if I wanted to develop my higher ranges, I might want to work with her vocal coach who teaches opera. And I was up for it, so I started studying opera as well.”
As you might expect, her voice is, well, different. Picture a glamorous punk rock drama queen, high on attitude and youth, stomping across the stage, her voice alternately soaring and sneering, wailing and cajoling, audience in the palm of her hand. That’s what I see when I listen to Fantastic Wounds—a young Patty Donahue on the good drugs. With a master’s degree in vocal gymnastics and acrobatics.
Ryann Donnelly can see the unlikely but accurate Waitresses resemblance, but she’s had a hard time hearing local journalists assert that she’s a Gwen Stefani clone and Schoolyard Heroes are the next No Doubt. It’s nonsense, of course, and her acknowledged influences are much more worthwhile:
“I was always fascinated by Ella Fitzgerald and Etta King, my mom was always playing those beautiful old records. Debbie Harry. I don’t think I ever tried to emulate her singing style, but I was so fascinated by the way she looked and the way she carried herself. She’s such a beautiful woman.
“And despite the unfortunate demise she’s had over the past few years, Courtney Love has always been an inspiration to me because she wasn’t even a singer necessarily, but she was determined that she was going to do it, and everyone was going to love it, and if they didn’t then they could all go to hell. She was just so tough, and there was so much guts and emotion in her singing. She sang through gritted teeth really.
“Live Through This is such an amazing record. And Celebrity Skin is completely different, a pop album but it’s excellent all the way through. America’s Sweetheart, though ... I find it really hard to listen to that record, it doesn’t stand in comparison to the earlier records. There’s no life there, it’s contrived, just blank.”
“We’ve crunched these numbers and we’ve found that your soul is null and void”
The three musicians in Schoolyard Heroes are guitarist Steve Bonnell, 20, bassist Jonah Bergman, 23, and drummer Brian Turner, also 23. Together they make a glorious noise that balances and sometimes even overpowers Donnelly’s singing with its use of intricate patterns, sledgehammer power and abrupt changes of direction. No longer Iron Maiden wannabes, this band now calls to mind influences as diverse and respectable as post-2112 Rush, At the Drive-In, the Gang of Four, and a very metal Fall—without sounding much like any of them. Donnelly, however, tells me that they all listen to a lot of Queen.
Whatever. With Fantastic Wounds, the Schoolyard Heroes bring us a deft, scientific, economic rock music layered with horror movie themes and blessed with both humor and depth. It’s like a serial killer party thrown at an evil Rushmore.
“Of course, it’s never really about the horror movies, or monsters, or zombies,” says Donnelly. “It’s always about something much more real. There’s so much genuine evil in the world. That said, I love that people take all kinds of different things away from our songs, and invest so much of themselves in their interpretations.”
“This disease will make your heart explode, melt your teeth and flesh ... turn your blood grey”
My own preconception had been that Donnelly brought a feminist sense of self to songs about body image, eating disorders, disfigurement and surgery. But not so, although all four members of the band bring their talents to play on the arrangements, the songs are—essentially—Bergman’s. Which just goes to show.
Fantastic Wounds opens with “Body Shots”, a frantic thrashing howling exhortation to the “young children of the night”—the band’s predominantly young and enthusiastic following, the Skeleton Army.
“It’s not like a death metal scene or anything. They’re just good kids that like to bounce around. Mostly high school kids—we don’t play bar shows, we don’t play over-21 shows.
“I always wear dresses on stage—like a mismatch of cool Betsey Johnson frocks and vintage stuff that I cut up. And there’s girls who’ve made their own dresses to look like mine. It’s amazing and heart-warming. We love it.”
“Body Shots” lasts barely a minute. The nine following songs average out at four minutes apiece and flow with seamless precision and yes, all the tightness of the proverbial striped predator. Schoolyard Heroes rocks hard, and to the point. There’s only one guitar solo on the whole album, on the last track naturally. And Ryann Donnelly is justifiably proud of the band’s succinct achievement.
“I am so very happy with this record—both with the performances and the production. Blood, sweat and tears went into its making. It was the longest we’d spent on anything ever we’ve done. We knew how we wanted it to sound and we wanted to get it perfect, so yeah, we spent a long time on it. And I tell you; we had to make a lot of tough choices, with the sequencing. We wanted it to be perfect, we wanted all the different energies to flow into each other just so.”
Clearly, the radical improvement album-to-album is no accident. The question is, how high can this band go?
“I don’t think our progress is luck at all. We work hard. We practice five days a week. We all live together in the same house. I think that’s important, it’s just so convenient when you have an idea and you want to start working on it right away. Or when you come home from practice and you want to keep going. It’s perfect.
“And we listen to so much music, so much different music, that we’re always learning. We just want to get better and better.”
The next step for the Schoolyard Heroes is the release of Fantastic Wounds. Although several record shops in the Seattle area are advertising launch parties, the official bash will be a free live in-store at Sonic Boom Records’ Ballard store on Monday, June 20 at 11pm. The album will go on sale immediately afterwards.
“It’s going to be an acoustic show, which’ll be interesting. We’ve only done one acoustic practice so far, and obviously I have to tone my vocals down, otherwise it would overpower the instruments. So I change keys in some parts, or I do little different melodies or harmonies that sort of accommodate that acoustic sound.”
Personally, I’d pay good money to hear “The Girl Who Was Born Without a Face” unplugged. An acoustic rendering of lyrics like “Every time I look into your sweet disfiguration, I’m convinced you’d be so gorgeous if your face existed ... Every time I place my fist inside your plastic ribcage, I crush your artificial heart but somehow you’re still breathing” would be worth a shiny new presidential dollar in anybody’s money, but I’m going to have to wait. Fortunately, the Schoolyard Heroes will spend much of the summer touring behind Fantastic Wounds, and I’m looking forward to it almost as much as Donnelly is.
“If we could be locked up in a van and sent off touring all round the county for a very long time, well, that would make us all sublimely happy.”
It would be nice to see America take the Schoolyard Heroes to its heart. If only because, to paraphrase the Fantastic Wounds standout, “They Live”: God doesn’t want them back, baby.