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Unlike most musicians, Jeff Tucker wasn’t one of those bright-eyed kids who begged his parents for guitar lessons at age 3. He didn’t sing along to Queen in front of a mirror, using a shampoo bottle as a microphone, at age 12. He didn’t star as Teyve in his high school’s production of Grease. His family didn’t urge him to follow his dreams of being a rock star. Because he didn’t have any.
Instead, Jeff Tucker, now lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter for Los Angeles-based alt-rock quintet Rock Kills Kid, was a socially withdrawn, barely employed, directionless 19 year old. Writing songs saved him. You can hear it all over the 11 jagged tracks he wrote for Rock Kills Kid’s debut Are You Nervous. The album’s emotional tension recalls some of the most angst-filled recordings of the late ’70s and ’80s by U2, The Cure, Joy Division and The Smiths.
“Many of the songs tackle the same theme,” Tucker says, “which is just me dealing with isolation. For several years, I was alone, alone. I didn’t go out at all. People called me ‘The Hermit.’ So I had a lot of time to reflect on who I was. That’s what our first single, ‘Paralyzed’ is about—being stuck and unable to move forward.”
Tucker grew up in conservative Orange County and first picked up a guitar at age 16, but it didn’t occur to him to be a musician. He graduated from high school, but says, “I wasn’t interested in anything. Or being anything.” He worked sporadically at the loading dock of his father’s printing company. Then he tried being a waiter, but “I was the worst waiter on the planet. People would ask me if I was on drugs. They’d ask me for a Coke and I’d bring them a salad.”
Eventually Tucker found the impetus to hook up with a couple of punk bands and began to write songs because no one else was. Tucker and two of his band-mates recorded a demo, which found its way into the hands of Cali indie punk label Fearless Records. Fearless signed them in 2000 and released Rock Kills Kid’s self-titled 5-song EP in early 2001. It sold respectably, but the band never toured, so Tucker found himself with a lot of time on his hands. With no money and no place to live, he began sleeping at the recording studio Fearless was paying for in Los Angeles. It had no shower, and Tucker had to clean up with BabyWipes he bought at the Sav-On drugstore across the street, but “it was better than trying to bum off my friends,” he says.
Over the next three years, Tucker barely left his illegal squat and just wrote steadily. “I didn’t have anything else to do and writing became my cushion. I got used to it. Then I got addicted to it.” By the end of 2003 Tucker had written at least 150 songs. Rock Kills Kid was still a band in name, but the line-up was in flux. Members came and went. Bassist Shawn Dailey and keyboardist Reed Calhoun were recruited from a band called Bright Life; drummer Ian Hendrickson answered an ad; and guitarist Sean Stopnik joined after his band Stairwell broke up. “Getting Stopnik was a big plus, because he’s the most responsible one in the band,” Tucker says. “We can’t tie our shoes without him.”
In February, the five members went into Hollywood Sound in Los Angeles with producer Mark Trombino (Jimmy Eat World and Blink-182) to record Are You Nervous. With its echoing, nervy guitars, driving rhythms, and new wave synths, the album slots in nicely alongside some of Rock Kills Kid’s contemporary post-punk peers, such as the Killers and Interpol. Songs like “Paralyzed,” “Hideaway,” and the dancefloor friendly “Midnight” are highly addictive, dark-edged, atmospheric tracks. Think a young Bono fronting a more raucous version of The Cure and you’re not far off.
While recording the album, Rock Kills Kid also performed several shows and eventually signed with Reprise Records in June. Once it became clear that the band were going to be touring frequently, Tucker realized his abilities on stage would be looked at closer than ever. “I asked my dad who the greatest live acts of all time were and he said ‘The Boss and U2’.” Tucker got DVDs of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Live in New York City and U2’s Elevation Tour 2001 — Live From Boston and watched them for two days straight. Taking from these two legends and adding his own spin as well, Tucker realized, “You just have to love what you’re doing and the audience feeds off that.”
Compared to his life of seclusion, connecting with audiences has been a happy adjustment for Tucker. “This is a new start for me,” he says. Hence the most hopeful track on the album, “Back To Life.” It’s the last song he wrote for Are You Nervous? and the lyrics couldn’t be more fitting. “I have waited for this day / To feel I’m fitting in. And I have longed to feel this way / To be alive again. / I came back, back to life.”
“That song is me coming out of my hole,” he says. “And it feels great.”