The Kids Who Fell To Earth: on the road with The 100, the It band of summer
CLARKE GRIFFIN and Bellamy Blake are sleeping together. We are deep in enemy territory, night is falling fast, and this may very well be their last night on earth.
Maybe I should back up.
A YEAR ago, nobody knew who either of the frontmen (or rather, frontpersons) for The 100 were. They each had a small, devoted fanbase, but it was the sort of fanbase that signed up to be on “street teams” to promote each gig so that the artists could pay for gas. The Top 40 charts were a mirage in the desert, something to strive for, but something that was also by nature unattainable.
Blake was fronting his band The Brother Keepers, playing dive bars and people’s basements in a broken-down van, and brushing his teeth in truck stop bathrooms. Griffin was doing a mall tour and slowly losing her mind (“I felt like one of those pianos that plays itself at the airport”). Both had become the biggest fish in exceptionally small ponds. Then they got in bed together.
THE TWO were first asked to collaborate by their label, ARK Records, for a charity cover album, Under The Covers. You might remember them by their promotional photo — each set of dueting artists posed in bed together for the album jacket. Blake and Griffin were seated on top of the blankets, angled away from each other, on opposite sides of the bed, looking like nothing so much as a couple in the midst of a fight about someone’s mother-in-law. While the obvious distaste in the photo was promoted as intentional, I manage to ask the photographer about it at an ARK promotional party prior to writing this article. “Don’t fuckin’ ask me about that fuckin’ shoot with those two fuckin’ lunatics,” is his only comment, his eyes getting the glassy, haunted look of a man who’s seen combat.
But regardless of what actually went on behind the scenes, their cover of “Crazy In Love” had fans confused and salivating from Blake’s first breathy “Uh-oh, uh-oh, I’m gonna…” When Griffin’s voice kicked in a second later, the internet collectively lost its shit. omg they sound like they’re having sex was retweeted by a no-doubt well-intentioned intern at ARK and the song shot to the top of ARK’s sales charts. Adding to the mystery of the whole thing was the fact that none of Blake and Griffin’s respective fans had any idea whatsoever who that other person “sounding like he’s singin’ into her damn neck” (thanks, Twitter user rohandwarf23) was.
BELLAMY BLAKE was born and raised in the Bronx, and started sneaking into local punk shows when he was ten, playing in them when he was twelve (he lied and said he was sixteen), and started his first one on his own when he was fifteen. He’s been doing basically the same thing for ten years, it’s just that now it’s a lot less likely to get bottled mid-show, although apparently the danger is still there if the scar he shows me on the back of his head is any indication. (“Scar stories” are apparently a time-honored tradition where he’s from, and he will happily launch into the extremely grisly and blood-soaked origin stories of each and every one of his with very little prompting.) Through it all, the one constant, in his bands and in his personal life, was his baby sister, Octavia.
“Bellamy pretty much had to raise me on his own,” says Octavia Blake, tiny, bright, with intimidatingly perfect eyebrows. They have the same eyes and the same tendency to only smile with half of their mouths, but other than that they don’t actually look much alike. They’ve admitted in previous interviews that they’re not sure if they have the same biological dad, although they decline to discus it with me. “We didn’t have a great time at home,” Octavia allows, “our dad wasn’t in the picture and our mom was just sort of doing her own thing, so he kind of had to grow up really fast.” So fast indeed, that when their mother passed away unexpectedly when Bellamy was eighteen and Octavia was twelve, he successfully petitioned the court to be appointed her legal guardian. “He packed me in the backseat with the sound equipment and that was that,” says Octavia, rolling her eyes.
Although this was hardly the first time Bellamy had schlepped his little sister along to gigs, even taking her on tour with him for a month without informing either his mother or Octavia’s middle school. “My mom had a really skeezy boyfriend I didn’t want anywhere near my sister,” Bellamy says bluntly, on his reasons for hauling a ten year old to various and sundry night clubs and dive bars across the East Coast. “I figured I’d rather have her have to make up some math homework than be around that. At least that way I could keep an eye on her.”
It’s that philosophy that led the Blake siblings to eventually form their own band and go on tour together, essentially picking up where they left off once Octavia got her GED. (“Homeschool, bitches,” she says with a grin of triumph.)
Their childhood can be heard plainly in songs like “Badlands,” Forgive me, I know exactly what I do / I’ll swallow every bad thing, so they can’t swallow you.
MEANWHILE, ON the opposite coast, Clarke Griffin was leading a charmed life. A classically trained pianist, she studied at Juilliard for a year before leaving when she was signed to Sky Box, a small imprint of ARK, and put out her debut EP within a year.
“I always thought I would finish school first. But when the end-game of that education is to be supporting yourself by making music, and you’re given the opportunity to do just that earlier than you thought? I think most people would jump at it. I was seventeen,” she adds after a moment, which makes me think she might make a different decision if presented with the same choice now.
With her blond hair and clear blue eyes, she is a California Girl in looks and technicality only. Everything else about Clarke Griffin is cool in the literal sense of the word. She speaks in the same low alto with which she sings, speaking slowly and carefully, each sentence clearly weighed for its potential pros and cons as a sound bite. She does not smile often, and she seems to have taken some sort of anti-fidgeting course. She maintains eye contact when she speaks to you, and she can do that one-raised-eyebrow thing. She comes up to my chin and I’m a little terrified of her.
Her connection to ARK Records looked a lot like nepotism (or at the very least, favoritism) to some people. And maybe it was, although if another label didn’t sign her first, it certainly wasn’t for lack of talent. ARK CEO Thelonious Jaha’s son, Wells, and Griffin were inseparable essentially since birth, and Jaha has been quite open in interviews about thinking of her as a kind of surrogate daughter (he was best friends with Griffin’s late father, Jake). When Wells Jaha was killed in a mugging gone wrong in downtown LA when he and Griffin were both eighteen, it reportedly sent both Jaha and Griffin into a tail-spin. Jaha temporarily stepped down as ARK’s head and Griffin went radio silent for six months before putting out her third EP, 319, with virtually no built-up or press. “For Wells” appears in small italics on the inside cover of the CD, but beyond that acknowledgement, his death is something Griffin has refused to talk about, in interviews or any other context, ever, so I don’t bother trying to get under her thick armor by poking at still-unhealed wounds.
319 was also notable for being the last album she put out with her old label. When her next album came out (her first full-length, Touchdown) it was with Mt. Weather, another small imprint of ARK. It also ushered in a new era, a new sound, and a new image for Griffin: singer-songwriter.
“It was necessitated by the fact that no one wants to listen to the sort of music I like to do,” she says of her complete shift from girl-with-piano-playing-classical to something more along the lines of Rachael Yamagata or Fiona Apple without all the Fiona Apple…ness. “If I could do whatever I wanted and still pay all my bills, I’d just put out Chopin CDs. But unless you’re Yo-Yo Ma, there’s just not a big enough market for that, there’s no crossover. You’re stuck in this tiny little bucket swimming in circles, doing the same thing over and over again for the same people.” And her switch in representation?
“I was in jail,” she says flatly.
THE STAGE was set for the two to meet, but a series of catalysts were needed first. The Brother Keepers suddenly and definitively disbanded when Bellamy Blake and his drummer John Murphy got into the mother of all fights after a show in Philly. Reports of the run-in range from “a loud argument” to “Murphy trying to strangle Blake with an extension cord.” (Murphy was not available to comment, as he is currently serving time for an unrelated crime. Draw from that what you will.) Bellamy and Octavia were temporarily not on speaking terms (a common event among Blakes) (don’t worry, they made up, they always do), leaving him a frontman with nothing to front. At the roughly the same time, Griffin’s backing band all left her simultaneously to start an organic fruit preserves company (“California,” Griffin says darkly, in a tone that also suggests that any local youths should get off her lawn). But more than just needing someone to play with, they were both ready for a change, for something new, completely different than anything they’d done before. A summer fling, if you will. Then ARK called about Under The Covers.
What did they think of their proposed odd-coupling?
“We work well together, although I don’t think we necessarily realized that at the time,” Griffin says diplomatically.
“They hated each other,” Octavia fills in with a Blake half-grin. “But money talks, and that record made ARK a lot of money. Everyone was pushing them to do something else together, and I think eventually they just ran out of reasons not to.”
So the bones of The 100 were formed, but Griffin and Blake (both of them) were each such strong personalities that “a certain comic relief buffer” was needed to keep everyone involved from killing each other, says Jasper Jordan, one of said buffers. “Me and Monty are like all the sex jokes in a Shakespeare play. Clarke and Bellamy are like the soliloquies and everyone getting stabbed to death.”
Which one of them is which in that scenario?
“Clarke is definitely the last act of Hamlet where everybody dies,” Jordan says without hesitation. Really? I would have pegged Blake as the everyone-is-stabbed-or-poisoned sort of the two. “Nah, man. Bellamy loves a good monologue.”
If Blake enjoys hearing himself talk (he does), it’s probably because he’s very good at it. He charms audiences, talk show hosts, and yes, Rolling Stone writers alike with a frightening ease, although at times I can easily imagine him going full Henry Rollins with just a little provocation.
Jordan and his best friend since kindergarten, Monty Green, had put out out a very well-produced, but little-listened-to EP of britpop-infused synth pop the previous year with ARK, and their producer, Marcus Kane, thought that a change of scenery might be what they needed to finally push them over the edge into profitability. But Kane thought they still needed that something extra to add a bit of flash to their grit-and-shine.
Enter Finn Collins. You remember that “Spacewalker” song that was on every radio all the time for the entirety of last summer? Yeah, that one. Your little sister had a poster of him on her wall. He was the one with the hair. Kane put Collins in touch with the Blake, Griffin & Co. to write and produce the bones of an album, throw it at a wall, and see what stuck. If you think the slick Collins seemed like an unlikely match for Blake’s spontaneous improvisation or Griffin’s fanatical attention to detail, you weren’t the only one.
“He didn’t seem like our style, but you couldn’t deny the kid could write a song,” Blake agrees. “I figured if he could write a hook that could get in your head like ‘Spacewalker’ did, then we could figure out a way to make it work.”
The catch, however, was that it turned out Collins hadn’t written the hook for “Spacewalker,” or any of the other songs on his album.
“A month into the process it became pretty obvious that he didn’t have a fucking clue what he was doing,” says Blake, something like a snarl working its way into his voice. “He’d been coasting on other people’s work and getting credit for it.” (Collins declined to comment on this article.)
Blake was frustrated enough to want to burn the whole thing down, but Griffin suggested an alternative solution: find the person who actually wrote “Spacewalker” and recruit them.
This is where Raven Reyes came in. Before becoming a musician full-time, the New Jersey native was a mechanic, doing everything from fixing washing machines to restoring classic cars to pay the bills (she apparently has a whole herd of Craigslist junkers in her backyard that she repairs and then resells for a profit when she’s at home to make a few extra bucks). I see her help no less than three other bands when their buses or vans start making weird noises. She tinkers with electronics the way other people knit. I once watch her take apart a toaster and put in back together for an hour just for something to do.
“I don’t like being bored,” is her only comment when I bring up the toaster incident.
And, yes, she “helped” her then-boyfriend Collins write the entirety of his debut album, which was funded in large part due to a cult following based on his Youtube channel, where he did occasionally answer fan questions about his hair.
“The idea was that people would respond to him more if they thought he and his music were totally self-contained,” Kane says over the phone (Reyes flat-out refuses to discuss Collins, and he remains a largely taboo subject on The 100’s tour bus). “Or at least, that’s what became clear after some investigation. It’s not that anyone thinks music is created in a bubble,” he’s quick to clarify. “But it was the deception itself that led to all Finn’s problems with Bellamy and Clarke and the others. They were expecting him to give them something he never had to begin with. He A Million Little Pieces’d himself, if you will.” Kane chuckles over the phone.
Kane had his staff do some investigation that unearthed Reyes, shortly after Collins was politely asked to leave the album production — but not before photos of Collins and Griffin looking affectionate appeared on the band’s Instagram page, causing an uproar with fans once Reyes’s (current) status as Collins’s significant other was revealed. Besides causing a Team Edward/Team Jacob-like schism between certain fans, Collins was also referred to as a “manwhore” by no less than two thousand people on Twitter. (The photos were later removed and Griffin also refuses to discuss Collins aside from describing him as “a very capable singer.”)
The end result of Reyes’s collaboration with the band in the studio they jury-rigged in a friend’s basement was “Crash Land,” the song that would in just three short months rocket them onto just about every Top Ten list imaginable.
“We were gonna call it ‘Radioactive,’ but Imagine Dragons fucked us over,” says Green with a grin. The best revenge, as it turns out, really is living well. The completed album, Who We Are And Who We Need To Be, goes gold a week after this conversation.
I’M SENT by Rolling Stone to shadow The 100 for two weeks to document a very precise moment in time for their careers. They're about to be pushed over the edge into superstardom, and I’m lucky enough to catch them at the moment when their fingertips are just starting to slip from the precipice.
We meet in neutral territory in a private room at ARK headquarters in LA. They’re spread out around a vegan-leather couch like a NYLON photoshoot. Blake the Elder is sprawled on the sofa, legs spread wide, arms comfortably extended across the back of the couch, studiedly relaxed in a way that suggests he’s anything but. Clarke Griffin is seated next to him with a tight, polite smile, back ram-rod straight. Jasper Jordan is on the floor by their feet, mouth slightly open (I’ve interrupted an intense game of Flappy Bird). Monty Green is perched on an arm rest looking uncomfortable and about twelve years old. Raven Reyes is standing behind them all, arms crossed, looking like she’s got about a thousand more useful things she could be doing with her time and also kind of like she wants to beat me up.
They’re just kids.
(If you’re wondering why I’ve left Octavia Blake off this introduction, it’s because she’s recently quit the band, an occurrence I’m assured happens on an almost weekly basis. Although it should be noted that she has since started the folksy duet The Antidotes with Lincoln from The Grounders.) (More on this later.) (No, he doesn’t appear to have a last name.)
I’m escorted to my home for the next two weeks, the tour bus (a luxury that is a first for everyone but Griffin) they’re living out of during this leg of the Stars & Satellites Tour, a sprawling festival-style affair that covers thirty-eight states all told. I don’t get a bunk since they’re all taken already, but I’m assured that the kitchen table comes down and is totally comfy with an air mattress. The bus is suspiciously clean for the extremely small home of five-to-six people all under the age of twenty-five. They are very polite and very quiet for three hours until the sun starts to set and they get hungry. They’re like wolves that way.
THEIR NORMAL dynamics (that is, when Mom and Dad, aka Griffin and Blake, haven’t put them on their best behavior for my benefit) come out over dinner. The group avoid craft services after what they will only refer to vaguely as “the salmonella incident” six months ago, and make most meals in the tiny kitchen on their tour bus. They don’t take turns, but each person seems to have a clearly established role — Blake provides the carbs, Green and Jordan handle the vegetables, Reyes does the meat, and Griffin…supervises. (“Clarke’s probably the smartest person I know, but she burns things like it’s her job,” Green whispers while handing me some onions to chop.)
Dinner is a “grab it or go hungry” affair, elbows flying and forks missing fingers by millimeters. Griffin and Blake are constantly aggravating each other (but seem to enjoy it to a certain degree), Jordan and Green finish each other’s sentences, Reyes quietly-but-exasperatedly tolerates everyone else. Griffin is more patient with the oft-prickly Reyes than the other way around. Reyes delights in tormenting Blake. Jordan hero-worships Blake and adores Griffin. Green likes everybody.
The first few days I feel like I’m observing animals in the wild, documenting their every habit for science:
Reyes is the first one up, always. A compulsive runner, she’s usually completed a three-mile trek and a shower before anyone else’s alarms have even thought about going off. Blake is the lightest sleeper I’ve ever seen and will spring up, seemingly completely awake, at the slightest out-of-place noise. Green and Jordan are like large, sleepy toddlers until they’ve had breakfast. Griffin is a chronic over-sleeper and needs to be pried out of her bunk with a crow bar every morning. She doesn’t appear to speak English or be capable of un-squinting her eyes before coffee, which Reyes always, always gets started before she even laces her running shoes. Green appears to be in charge of putting coffee mugs in everyone’s hands and knows exactly how everyone takes it (including me) without needing to ask (Jordan with enough sugar to kill a small dog, Reyes black, Blake with two creams and no sugar, Griffin by the gallon and immediately).
Clothes seem to be considered somewhat communal property — the indie rock uniform of ripped skinny jeans and thread-bare t-shirts is fairly unisex, and I only notice their habit of picking up whatever’s sort of clean and claiming it as their own when a black t-shirt with the neck and arms cut off that says BOYS WHO SKATE ARE BETTER AT GRINDIN’ keeps appearing on different people throughout the week. Then it’s a pair of jeans with a red check patch over one knee (Griffin wears them with the hems rolled up, Reyes wears them loose on her hips, Green wears them skintight and fashionable). Then it’s a blue zip-up hoodie missing the drawstring. Then it’s a pair of Scooby-Doo printed pajama pants. This all culminates when Griffin literally gives Blake the shirt off her back (relax, she’s wearing a tank-top underneath) when his gets yanked off by hormonal, teenage hands while crowd surfing in Phoenix. He pulls it on and launches into the next song like it ain’t no thing, although the crowd and certain corners of the internet proceed to lose their damn minds.
They are all visibly and intentionally protective of each other, but Blake and Griffin are the parents. When one of my questions makes Green uncomfortable (it relates to his and Jordan’s drug charges when they were both newly eighteen), Bellamy flashes me a look sharp enough to feel like it should be jutting out of my ribcage and Griffin effectively ends the conversation with a quiet “That’s enough.” I’m shunned for the rest of the day. Elbows accidentally bump into my ribs at every possible turn. Someone spills hot coffee on me. I don’t get off the bus at the designated rest stop because I’m honestly kind of afraid they’ll wait till I’m in the bathroom and drive off without me. Instead I stay inside and make easy-bake brownies I find in a cabinet in a desperate bid to buy back their love while everyone else is out getting McDonald’s.
Which is how Griffin gets me alone on the bus to explain how she’s not mad, just disappointed. I feel like I have let down not only my parents and Rolling Stone magazine, but also my nation and possibly God. She has that kind of face.
“These are real people, with real lives. Real feelings. They’re just kids,” Griffin says, those startlingly blue eyes boring into my like she has X-ray vision.
She’s just a kid, too, I point out. She blinks, and appears almost startled by the assertion.
“I’m not —“
But before I can find out what, exactly, Clarke Griffin is not, Green and Jordan stick their heads in the door, sniffing like bloodhounds. My offering of Shame Brownies is accepted as currency and I am re-invited to the night’s festivities. “The night’s festivities” actually turn out to be my true penance, because Blake insists that I play every round of what Jordan calls “The World Championships of Shot Glass Checkers.” It’s like checkers, except every piece is a shot glass filled with “Monty’s secret sauce,” which is essentially paint thinner. I throw up twice, to great applause, and pass out sometime around two in the morning on the floor with at least three people lying partially or directly on top of me. Rock n roll, man.
But when I blearily wake up in the middle of the night (someone’s foot is jammed in my face, I suspect Jordan), it’s Blake and Griffin that I see, sitting at the tiny table and talking in low voices over cups of (decaf?) coffee. Griffin is in her pajamas, Blake’s hair is wet from a shower. They’re both exhausted-looking, but smiling wryly, and sprawled out out all over the couch cushions. They look like nothing so much as two overworked parents comparing notes on how their days went after the kids have been put to bed.
Blake stretches out (I can hear his neck pop from the other side of the room), slinging a leg across Griffin’s lap. She pushes up the cuff of his sweatpants and glares at his ankle like she’s trying to force it into a confession. Blake has his head tipped back and one arm flung over his eyes.
“Aspirin’s by the cereal,” Griffin says without looking up at me. Blake gestures vaguely behind him with his free arm. Neither of them give any intention of standing up any time before we reach the state line. “Drink some water,” she adds as I stumble back to my patch of floor.
I DO not, as it happens, drink some water, and spend the next morning hungover almost to the point of poisoning. This is apparently enough penance for yesterday’s sins, because neither Reyes nor Blake hip-checks me into a wall when I show up for breakfast. Green, who is apparently physically incapable of holding a grudge, even gets my coffee right.
After attacking and killing their breakfast, everyone trundles off into the sunlight outside, which is searing even at nine in the morning (we’re somewhere in the Southwest, state lines have long since lost their meaning, I was born in this desert, I will die here). They’re not playing until later this afternoon, so they splinter off do their own thing for a few hours. Griffin goes off to find wifi so she can Skype with her mom, while Green and Jordan have volunteered to help another band with some sound equipment that’s on the fritz. Octavia Blake stops by to visit her brother, kissing the top of his head in greeting. He hugs her one-armed without looking up from his book (a battered paperback of The Secret History, if you’re curious). All is apparently forgiven, although Octavia still won’t be playing with The 100 for the rest of the tour. In the old days, they would have spent this time working their merch booth, grassroots networking, scraping for every last dollar. It’s an odd sensation, Bellamy agrees after his sister goes off with her boyfriend, not to be broke and desperate all the time.
“I’m better at the climb than this whole,” he sweeps an arm at the tour bus, “thing.” Blake is summer-tan, with Lucy Liu freckles and dark hair that’s curling in the humidity, strong arms crossed over a threadbare white t-shirt that says HOODRAT THINGS WITH MY FRIENDS in faded black letters. You want to make him like you.
“This is the first tour I’ve ever done where keeping a lower profile is actually a good thing.” They’ve just reached that phase of their careers where suddenly the attention they worked so hard to merit is starting to chafe. They’re still trying to figure out how to navigate social media after the Collins fiasco, an event that Blake only references obliquely. “At first Myspace, facebook, Twitter, it was essential because it made people feel like they knew you. It made them want to keep track of us, support us, root for us.”
“And now,” he smiles grimly, without showing teeth, “people feel like they know us.”
BY THE time their call time rolls around the crowds are tired and sweaty and sunburnt, so it’s going to take a special kind of show to get that energy back. The 100 are determined to give it to them. The dying sunset is shining directly onstage, probably blinding everyone, but also making them look vaguely like superheroes. They launch into fan favorite “Tell Her Right Now,” an elctropop-infused number that makes me want to jump around even though five minutes ago I wanted to crawl under a desert rock and die peacefully. The light fades fast and it’s dark by by the time they finish their second song.
After the crowd-pleasing, rafter-shaking “Kaboom,” they launch into “Atoms.” It’s a deliberate choice because it’s a restful recovery song — slow, dreamy, melodic — for everyone but Blake, who croons “I could look at you forever, I could look at you forever, I could look at you forever,” sounding more and more like he’s in physical and mental anguish. Reyes, dripping with sweat from the sheer athleticism of drumming, barely has to tap on the symbols for this one, and is guzzling water one-handed. The gently swirling lights onstage only illuminate Blake, until Griffin comes in on the harmony, like two faint stars in a wash of violet and indigo, a tiny constellation. I could look at you forever, I could look at you forever, I could look at you forever.
The complete set list is as follows:
“Tell Her Right Now”
“You Didn’t Know Me Then”
“Put Me Out Of My Misery”
“He Doesn’t Need To Know”
“Stay Right Here”
It’s a deceptively smart system honed by a collective eighteen years of touring experience: no one performer has to go all-out for three songs in a row, it’s an almost even split with lead vocals between Griffin and Blake, after more than one lesser-known song they always play a single.
Blake and Griffin even have a chance to show off their famously near-psychic performance connection when a string on Blake’s guitar snaps during the opening of “You Didn’t Know Me Then.” Griffin’s voice fills in for Blake’s seamlessly while he draws back to quickly fix it with the vicious effectiveness of a former roadie. The mishap even proves oddly serendipitous, with Griffin’s clear, crisp voice bringing an unexpected serenity to lines like “I grew up rough, I grew up kind / you’re the first thing that ever changed my mind.” Blake comes back in for the chorus, but takes the harmony instead. They play the entire song that way, on the fly. After the last notes they lock eyes and shrug at each other: not bad. Not bad at all.
After the closing number, their break-out hit “Crash Land” (“Half the people there are only coming for that goddamn song, so they’re gonna stay all the way to the end for it.”), they all collapse onto the nearest surface like they’ve been deflated. Reyes yanks her sweaty ponytail out and flops her head upside down, then goes into an elaborate series of stretches. Green is already face-down on a set of lined-up folding chairs. Jordan is trying to find a shoe he somehow lost onstage three songs in. Blake is stripping off a sweaty ankle brace and massaging his leg.
What’s with that?
“Bum ankle,” he says, knocking it lightly against the edge of a speaker. “Stage diving when I was nineteen. Cracked it clean in two.” He shows me a netting of scars my beer goggles and I couldn’t see last night. “Metal, right?”
A few minutes later he and Griffin are doing the leg-in-lap-glaring-at-ankle thing again, talking too low for me to hear while Griffin artfully applies three Icy Hot bandages around it and then swaddles the whole thing up in a compression wrap with the practiced ease of a military doctor.
A lithe female stagehand brings Blake (and no one else) a fat bottle of yellow Gatorade, which Griffin immediately grabs out of his hand and swans away with.
“That’s not punk,” he says darkly.
CLARKE GRIFFIN is a secret frat boy. Let me explain.
She is an absolute, hardcore, balls-to-the-wall lunatic for sports. Football is her true love, but anything with a ball and a ref for her to scream at will do. You think I’m exaggerating. It turns out heading to local dive bars to “catch the game” is a band tradition — or, as I discover, Clarke watches the game and everybody else watches Clarke. I have to admit, there is something scientifically fascinating about the normally reserved Griffin screaming at the ref to “get his stupid fucking head out of his stupid fucking ass” while tossing back beers.
Another thing: she can drink absolutely anyone under the table. It’s freakish. She should be dead. Shot Glass Checkers has taken at least seven years off my life, but she wins every one of her heats and can still balance an empty shot glass on the bridge of her nose.
Finally, she is the one most likely to draw on your face if you pass out.
I only discover this last bit when I notice one of Bellamy’s tattoo’s creeping over the neck of his t-shirt. It’s a stylized, sketchy picture of a scorpion.
“Oh, that guy? Clarke drew it.” Say what? “Yeah, she just doodled it on me one night and I liked it, so I got a friend to slap it on there.” (There are a plethora of decision-making questions to be drawn from this anecdote, but I’m suddenly very afraid of seeming old.) It turns out almost everyone has a Clarke original hidden somewhere on their person. Apparently her interest in them has actually given way to Griffin trying her own hand at the application itself, involving (I gather) (Griffin refuses to comment) a needle and a bottle of India ink.
“Wanna see my prison tat Clarke gave me?” says Octavia, hiking up her shirt before I can say potential lawsuit. She shows me a neat little pattern of swirling dots in blue ink snaking across her ribs and lower back. Now that I know what I’m looking for, I keep spotting them marking her bandmates like gang tags: a loop of dots banding Jones’s biceps, a tiny arrow behind Reyes’s ear, a stark quarter-moon on Bellamy’s wrist. (Octavia also claims to have a Clarke-designed butterfly somewhere, but will only say that it’s “not in an appropriate place for this article.”)
ON THE second-to-last day of the tour, Ol’ Bessie, the tour bus, breaks down. Not just breaks down as in “steam coming out of the engine,” breaks down as in “goes to tour bus heaven.” Even Reyes, who admits to once building a laser out of an old desktop computer “for funsies,” declares it a lost cause. We all are forced to abandon ship and leave Bessie in the parking lot outside Linear Park by Austin, Texas. It’s evident the band and all their equipment are going to have to hitch a ride with one of the other bands to make it to the last venue in Houston.
The thing is, the only other band still here is The Grounders.
The 100 circle up like they’re preparing a war council. Griffin is quickly elected to be our representative and she marches over to their bus like she has an appointment to get water boarded. Half an hour later, she waves for us to come over and thus begins a lot of hauling and swearing and shoving of various instruments and musical equipment while the horde of “death metal vegans,” as Green refers to them, do absolutely nothing to help. After dropping an amp on my own toe, I’m willing to join into the blood feud just on principle.
The Grounders are the most beautiful people I have ever seen in person and I am literally scared for my life just being around them. They look like a pack of models left to go feral in the woods, all architectural cheekbones and matted hair. The source of the rather public mutual dislike between the two bands isn’t clear — they’re the Hatfields and McCoys of the indie scene, hating each other since time immemorial. Jordan claims to have been stabbed by one of them once, although the scar he shows me looks suspiciously like an appendectomy.
Reyes insists that her equipment gets priority seating, so everyone winds up sleeping either on the floor or on top of their own instrument cases. Blake and Griffin take the least comfortable spot, wedging themselves in between the bathroom door and a set of shelves. They fall asleep back to back, using a balled up hoodie as a shared pillow. Griffin’s hair is half-covering Blake’s face. He’s too tired to even brush it away.
I told you they were sleeping together.
MY LAST few days with the band for several weeks is spent back at ARK. (No, The Grounders did not kill anyone while they slept, although I was party to the single most uncomfortable breakfast I have ever seen. Chia seeds and dead, hostile silence were prominent.) They’ve got just weeks before they’ll be performing at the Unity Day Festival in Chicago, and they’re squeezing in some studio time.
“Most of what we record doesn’t make the final cut,” Griffin explains and they all get set up in various sound booths, “But a lot of it can still be used in some way.” I’m pretty sure this is her way of telling me not to expect to see magic happen today. Before I can ask, though, there is a series of crashes in the next room and Reyes can be heard threatening Jordan with bloody red death. Griffin takes off to sort it out and provide medical care if necessary.
It soon becomes obvious that in the studio Griffin and Blake are tyrants who only pretend to be promoting democracy and anarchy, respectively, for the sake of their own sensibilities.
“We prefer to think of them as benevolent dictators,” says Green brightly, when pressed.
“Like the Romans!” adds Jordan.
“Bellamy makes us watch a lot of History Channel specials,” Green explains.
“So many documentaries.”
“When Clarke discovered Planet Earth, they were both like this.” Green pretends to prop his head on his hands and stares raptly ahead with big cartoon eyes.
Blake tends to start with lyrics; Griffin, always with the music. It’s a conveniently complementary technique because they have a weird little habit (or ritual) of swapping songs with each other to see what sticks. When they first develop the bones of a song on their own, they hand it over to the other person first. I suspect (though I know better than to voice the thought) that this is a sort of rock n roll version of a trust fall. Reyes, Green, and Jordan come in and provide the muscle, mostly writing their own parts and occasionally providing words for missing lines.
I get Blake alone while Griffin is laying down vocals for a new track tentatively titled “Don’t Wait To Let Me Know” (and if you’re gonna go, don’t wait to let me know / I’ve got things I’ve got to tell you). Reyes and Jordan are both playing Bubble Witch 2 on their phones with laser focus in the next room, while Green leans over Kane’s shoulder at the sound board. Blake is watching Griffin with rapt attention, jotting the occasional note on a piece of scrap paper. Is it weird, I wonder, to hear words he wrote — he’s admitted in previous interviews that his songs are often biographical and deeply personal — being sung by someone else?
“Clarke and I…” He starts, then trails off, distracted. “We’ve been doing this long enough that I can hear her voice in my head if I need it. A lot of things I write just for her. Her voice can do things mine can’t,” he adds, seemingly an afterthought, maybe a little defensive. “Sometimes a higher register just harmonizes better.” He does not look away from Griffin when he says this.
They lock eyes through the glass and Blake makes an indecipherable gesture with the hand not holding the pen. Griffin frowns. Blake holds up two fingers (peace? V for victory?) and Griffin’s eyes go wide with comprehension and she gives him a thumbs up, adjusting her headphones. The next take, her voice sounds completely different. Before it was clear, bright, golden. This time it’s low, breathy, silver. It comes out almost as a sigh. Blake nods to himself, underlining something in his notes.
And there it is: alchemy.
“Clarke and Bellamy have that weird ESP thing,” Green agrees. “By the time the rest of us come in, they’ve pretty much got the thing figured out, they just need us to figure out what they want.”
“It’s a lot harder for us to translate Clarke-and-Bellamy-speak into English than the other way around,” Jordan chimes in (he’s half-sprawled underneath a speaker, doing something un-safe looking with wires).
“We can’t read minds.”
As if to underline his point, Blake and Griffin are having an argument in the next room, seemingly using only their eyebrows.
The only one who seems immune to their whole Professor X and Magneto routine is Reyes. Once, while Blake is grilling Jordan on the chords for a bridge, she bangs two symbols together right behind his head.
“Cute,” Blake says through gritted teeth. Reyes laughs, looking like a particularly sadistic Clean & Clear model. Her ponytail gleams in the florescent overhead light.
If Jordan and Green are the muscles of each song, Reyes is the spine. Her rhythms support each song, drive it forward, creating that sense of urgency that defines Who We Are. Unsurprisingly, the only song on the album titled by Reyes is “Kaboom,” a rollicking drums-and-guitar number begging to be in the trailer for a movie starring Jason Statham.
I’m not allowed to hear the mixed version in its current incarnation at the end of their studio session, but I do spy on Griffin listening to it through enormous noise-canceling headphones in the sound booth. She’s resting her chin on her knees in a swivel chair, arms wrapped around her legs. I can see her reflection in the glass.
She’s smiling, just a little.
THE NEXT time I see them is a month later. Tonight, they will be the closing act at the Unity Day Music Festival in Chicago. This is one of those opportunities that can cement bands as something more than a flash in the pan with a few catchy summer hits. Or not. Tensions are running high and everyone is driving each other crazy.
Jordan is biting off every single one of his nails and seems to have developed site-specific Restless Leg Syndrome. Green appears to be absentmindedly pulling out chunks of his own hair. Reyes is rubbing her drum sticks against each other like she’s trying to file them into points. Blake is off in a corner by himself, arm crossed, staring at nothing. Griffin is watching everyone else, a look of increasing panic on her face until finally she jumps up from the ground and order everyone to circle up.
I am not privy to what happens in that circle, but I see Griffin squeeze Blake’s hand until he starts talking, his silky baritone distinctive even from this far away. All I hear is the tail end of his speech: “This is who we are. That’s all any of us needs to be right now.”
He’s barely finished the last word before the stage goes dark and the crowd starts howling and chanting. Shoulders set like soldiers going into battle, they file onstage in the dark, slinging straps over shoulders and adjusting mic stands. The lights come on, spotlighting Griffin and Blake alone. The others are spread out behind them, ready for anything.
Blake grins, looks at Griffin, who nods, before breathing “Uh-oh, uh-oh, I’m gonna —” into the mic. I cannot properly describe the screaming that follows.
IT’S NOT so much a performance as a coronation. When the finally walk off the stage, Octavia full-body tackles her brother, who swings her around in the air. Reyes launches herself at Griffin, who nearly falls over, but is caught by Jordan, who is group-hugging them all. Lincoln his piggy-backing Green, who is screaming “We Are The Champions.”
Bellamy grabs Clarke’s hand while they both hug other people one-armed. Clarke is about to tug loose to go after someone when Bellamy yanks her back towards him and — kisses her full on the mouth. Approximately everyone starts cheering. A second later she has her legs around his waist, and he is spinning them in giddy circles.
To quote my old friend rohandwarf23: OMG.
Blake catches sight of me a few minutes later, he and Griffin still anchored to each other — her finger hooked in his belt-loop, his arm draped loose and heavy around her shoulders. They are sweaty and resplendent.
“Got any last questions?”
I do actually. How long has this, exactly, been going on? Blake makes an indecipherable gesture with the hand slung around Griffin’s neck. The crescent-moon tattoo she made (which from this new angle actually looks a whole lot like a C) flashes then disappears behind a tangle of blond hair. Griffin just laughs at my face.
“It’s never not been going on, dude. Haven’t you been paying attention?”
N. Miller is a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, TIME, and the Star Tribune. You can visit his blog at www.the-dropship.com.