Music Features

The Learned Vulnerability of Heyrocco

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Heyrocco’s youth belies their experience. The Charleston, SC rock ‘n roll trio has been playing together for over a decade and perform with the casual confidence of a band that’s done this a thousand times. When they took the stage at the Highland Park Bowl a few weeks ago, lead singer and guitarist Nate Merli promptly leaned into the mic to casually say, “I find the best sound check is a song.” Tanner Cooper—Taco, as he later introduced himself—signaled the start with a quiet-but-dramatic flourish on the ride before Chris Cool joined in with a melodic, moving bassline. They got a feel for the room with a prolonged intro to their dream-grunge track “On My Skateboard,” before launching into song in a seamless transition from sound check to set. There was no posturing, nothing to prove, with a performance both earnest and intricate.

When I talk to the band a few days later, Merli meets me on the street outside the Koreatown apartment he shares with the rest of the band, wearing a hand-scissored Johnny Cochran “Lawyers for Justice” t-shirt that’s seen better days. He’s quiet and polite as he leads the way into the complex, and only once we’re inside the apartment does he mention that he was worried he had locked himself out. “12 months went by and I didn’t have a house key.” He’s as unfussed about this as you might expect from someone who’s spent the last five years bouncing from Charleston to Nashville then back to Charleston before a brief stint in Gardena, CA that led to Heyrocco’s current residence in Los Angeles. Add that to their cross-country and UK tours, and it’s not hard to see that a take-it-as-it comes attitude and adaptable disposition is a requirement for—or result of—such a lifestyle.

Merli plays the part of both showman and host, giving a tour of the apartment before firing up the deep fryer to make the most traditional of Southern comfort foods: hot chicken. It’s not long before Cool arrives and joins us in the kitchen. With Falco’s synthpop single, “Der Kommissar” spinning, Merli gestures around with a what-can-you-do shrug and sums up his daily life as he turns the chicken in the oil: “This song is always playing, the fryer’s always going.”

An invitation to a stranger’s house and home-cooked fried chicken isn’t part of a standard Los Angeles evening, but it’s likely familiar to anyone brought up below the Mason-Dixon. Folks down South are raised to know the equal importance of hospitality and entertainment. Regardless of region of origin, most bands value at least the latter tenet, but Heyrocco’s Southern roots run deep: their music isn’t just about the performance, but about creating a full experience. “The three of us possess an energy, and it’s hard to explain. We’re just trying to figure out how to make it its own world…” Merli trails off, and Cool finishes for him. “And bring people into that world.” Nodding, Merli adds, “I can stick my arm into it, if that makes sense.”

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Merli fusses over the chicken wings, asking if they’re any good while assuring us they’re terrible (they’re not), and when everyone’s eaten, we head up to the roof. The skyline of downtown is lit up against a night still glowing with the remnants of sunset, but it soon fades to a darkness broken only by the stars and far-off streetlights. As they unroll a yoga mat and settle in, Merli and Cool make sure to mention that Taco is only absent because he’s printing t-shirts with the artwork from their latest release, MEXICAN ASHTRAY. “He’s a dedicated worker for the band,” Merli reassures.

With the heart of Los Angeles glowing in the near distance, I ask about the transition from South Carolina to California, and Cool shrugs. “I subscribe to [the idea] that everywhere is almost exactly the same, no matter where you go in the world. People are 99% the same, but there’s that 1% that is very different.”

“What you hear is the difference,” Merli says. “You walk outside [in LA], and you hear Mariachi music first. You don’t hear a squirrel running across a wire. The nearest thing is probably a truck firing up.” Cool adds, “And it’s probably flicking you off.”

Photo Credit: A.E. Hodge

This familiarity—filling in each other’s sentences, laughing at each other’s jokes before they’re finished—is apparent in their music too. Live, they perform with a fluidity rarely seen in bands so young, and each record they release explores and experiments further than the last. They released their first LP in 2015, titled TEENAGE MOVIE SOUNDTRACK. Sonically, it’s set in a liminal space where ‘90s shoegaze meets ‘70s rock, with lyrics that alternate between gut-punch angst and self-aware playfulness. Next out was their EP, WAITING ON COOL, opening with “Yeah,” a roaring, Vyvanse-fueled journey that culminates in a car-crash crescendo, and closes with “Perfect World,” a lilting and melancholic ‘90s pseudo-ballad that utilizes an unexpected canned laugh track to make the song’s pain visceral. Then this August saw the release of MEXICAN ASHTRAY, a desert dream-rock EP that puts all their best skills on display. Standout track “Mexico” is at heart a country song, fueled by the heartbreak of leaving a girl behind as the narrator flees the country, but the grungy guitar and light-but-driving percussion keep it fitting perfectly beside the psychedelia-influenced “Destroyer” and the fuzzy, melodic “Kenny’s Last Day.” They continue to take risks that make every release sound both timeless and new.

Heyrocco 1

Photo Credit: A.E. Hodge

This combination of familiarity and innovation is a large part of what makes Heyrocco’s music so inviting, and it’s echoed in their worldview. “The idea of being in a band, the idea of even going to a show is that you feel like you’re a part of it,” Cool explains. “We don’t want it to feel like you’re a spectator.” Merli agrees, adding “It’s more like recess really. Everybody can just stop their pretend personality [they use] to keep a job and bullshit. You can get wasted and go up front and shake the barrier until you get kicked out or you can stand in the back, and either way it’s all cool.” Cool nods, “We want to bring people into our world, [not] keep people out of it.”

And the world they’re creating isn’t something separate from themselves, it’s the relationship that they have with each other. There’s an openness between them that’s been palpable in their music since the beginning. (TEENAGE MOVIE SOUNDTRACK features both “Loser Denial,” which turns the pains of being uncool into melodies of caustic frustration, and “Melt,” a shameless, rock ‘n roll lament about premature ejaculation.) But no matter how heavy or silly the subject matter of a song, Heyrocco’s approach is one of honesty—the pain is never self-indulgent, the joy is never performative.

“We want to […] talk about things that people don’t want to talk about, but in a really accepting, understanding, progressive way,” Cool says. But the acceptance they want isn’t complacency; they want to create an environment where everyone is pushing each other forward. “Because that’s what we do every day. No matter what’s going on in our lives, we’re constantly trying to motivate each other to be the best possible versions of ourselves.” Cool looks to Merli as he says this, Merli remaining quiet. “And that’s what going to a Heyrocco show should feel like,” Cool concludes. “A bunch of people having a great time and accepting each other and being the best people that can be.”

It’s a beautiful sentiment, and the peace of it settles into the air for a moment before Merli snorts and says with a smile, “I’m glad it’s so fun for you, for me it’s a torture chamber of sharing my feelings into a PA system.”

“[It’s] because you’re the martyr,” Cool tells him, only half-joking. Being the voice of the band’s vulnerability comes with inevitable insecurity. Merli speaks with a quiet honesty when he says, “I sometimes feel chained down [on stage] by this heavy guitar and the obvious influences. I’m not a gimmick, man. It’s not a game for me.” The pained and anti-social side of himself has been the voice of their music, but he wants the next step to tap into a new part of his psyche and show that “the lead singer of Heyrocco loves himself and is happy with what he’s made,” and it’s this willingness to be vulnerable with their audience that’s a hallmark of Heyrocco’s music.

Still, the burden of publicly expressing bare emotion can wear on Merli. “I think we all have those two voices in our heads all the time, either [saying] ‘I’m great’ or ‘fuck you.’” Then, sounding like he’s talking to himself as much as me, he adds, “And you have to constantly choose [to accept] that whatever side of you is being hard on yourself and judging yourself is normal. It’s not a big deal. Everyone has that all day, probably every day.” But even that he second guesses, suddenly seeming self-conscious as he looks up. “I don’t think I’m sounding that weird.”

It’s an incredibly human sentiment—one that most people have struggled with—and those voices only get louder when your personal identity is inextricable from your public art. Merli lets out a resigned sigh. “I’m just a harsh critic, I’m hard on myself. It’s like the chicken wings.” Looking to me for backup, Cool says “The wings were great, right?” But Merli brushes him off. “I blame my old man. Any meal he made, he’d sit down and it’s like ‘Oh, it’s trash,’ and it’s like, ‘No come on, it’s really good!’ and it’s like, ‘Nah, this is overcooked, I didn’t get it right’.” He gives a plaintive grin. “And I do the same thing.” It’s the traditional humility that gets hammered into Southern children and breeds self-doubt. Yet despite these insecurities, that’s never stopped him or the band from continuing to create and to experiment with new sonic elements.

Throughout the night, Merli continually brings up drum machines. With frustration, Merli talks about a house show where he was listening to someone argue about whether or not Nirvana had used a drum machine on one of their songs, as if that would determine whether or not the song was authentic. Merli shakes his head as he remembers thinking, “Why are we sitting here talking about this? It doesn’t matter [if they used a drum machine]. They just created energy.”

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That’s exactly what Heyrocco does. Though they’ve yet to submerge themselves into the world of drum machines, their music has never been bound to any strict genre. Anything is on the table as long as it sounds good, and nowhere is this more apparent than when they play live. No matter how many times you listen to a Heyrocco record, going to a gig will always bring a few new surprises. The mournful “Perfect World” is often turned into a desperate punk song that reveals a different kind of grief beneath the lyrics. A tender cover of the Carpenters’ “Close to You” might be followed by their unreleased, live staple “Flump,” in which the chorus is just screaming the word “Flump.” They perform freely, never bound by their own compositions.

Perking up, Merli gestures emphatically as he says, “That’s what’s cool, that’s what’s fun to me. You go to our shows and the soundcheck is, in my opinion, the most fun part! Because you’re up there and there’s no restrictions.” He sits suddenly upright, as if doing an impression of himself on stage. “It’s like, ‘Wow we could just start playing anything right now.’” He slumps back down with a smile. “And that’s powerful.”

This freedom to experiment is integral to the band’s DNA, and it all comes from the trio’s relationship. There’s an almost bewildered contentedness in Cool’s voice as he tells me, “A lot of times we just start playing, and we just don’t stop for like 10 minutes because it’s just going well. We don’t know what we played, but that sometimes is the best feeling. That’s why we play music.” And if you listen to a Heyrocco record or better yet, go to a show, you’ll get that feeling too. Don’t be afraid to stick your arm into it.

A.E. Hodge
A.E. Hodge is a Tennessee writer, currently based in Los Angeles. If you'd like to know more, that's just too bad.

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