U.S. Royalty, bridging indie rock and men's fashion
Draped from the ceiling of U.S. Royalty's spacious Chinatown practice space is a massive, moth-eaten American flag - the kind that probably spent better years flapping over some Oldsmobile dealership in the rural Midwest.
Looking up, John Thornley is reminded of a recently purchased pair of trousers. "They're bell-bottom, American flag pants," says the band's frontman. "Like something Roger Daltrey would wear."
Or, like something John Thornley would wear. In the streets of Washington, amid the ranks of pleated khaki and Oxford twill, the handsome, hirsute 28-year-old stands out like a rock star. As for actually being a rock star, he's working on that.
Clad in weathered work boots, frayed jeans and necklaces made of gold and leather, the members of U.S. Royalty have mustered on a drizzly weekday afternoon to chip away at their Zeppelin-size dreams. It's the Washington band's first rehearsal since returning from CMJ, the annual music festival where hordes of musicians swarm Manhattan to win the hearts and minds of the indie rock blogeratti.
Thornley and his mates fared quite well this year, scoring their highest marks not from a rock critic but from a fashion magazine: Esquire named U.S. Royalty the best-dressed band at CMJ.
Paul Thornley, the band's guitarist and John's younger brother, shrugs it off. "If this is going to wake people up to what's coming out, then fine," he says. "I just want to get the record out."
He's referring to the scheduled January release of "Mirrors," a debut album that local fans have been clamoring for since U.S. Royalty first broke onto the scene in 2008. But as their rootsy, rowdy rock songs earned them followers at DC9 and the Rock & Roll Hotel, the foursome's affinity for straw hats, vintage denim, pendants and ponchos earned them accolades from fashion bloggers and clothing designers the world over.
Last year, U.S. Royalty premiered its debut music video for "Every Summer," not on an indie rock blog, but on the style Web site A Continuous Lean. Since then, the group has only strengthened its ties with the Americana-obsessed world of men's fashion. Next year, along with "Mirrors," they'll be releasing a limited-edition shirt they collaborated on with New York fashion designer Robert James.
And while they don't want their wardrobe to overshadow their songbook, the members of U.S. Royalty are still savvy enough to understand that you don't hear your favorite new band in 2010 - you see them onstage and on YouTube.
"I think [style] needs to be thought about," John says. "It's an extension of yourself in some ways."
The band's dress evokes a spectrum of American heroes: frontiersmen, cowboys, soldiers, factory workers. Michael Williams, editor of A Continuous Lean, describes U.S. Royalty's look as "rock star meets 'Royal Tenenbaums' meets country club on an Amish buggy."
For three of the band's members, an affinity for dress was fostered by moms who liked to sew. "We'd see these old movies," John explains. "Old epics like 'Alexander the Great' and be like, 'Mom, can you make me this?' " As a child, the singer once wore a pair of buckled shoes from a Pilgrim costume to the dentist. After the hygienist asked him if he was trying to be stylish, he proudly wore the shoes for the rest of the week.
"It was like Halloween every day in our house," Paul says.
Drummer Luke Adams had a similar childhood - his history-buff mother would dress him as a Civil War soldier on family trips to Gettysburg. "People would come up and ask me where the restrooms were," Adams says. "They thought I worked there."
The rehearsal space makes you wonder if their parents were interior designers, too. Beneath the sagging stars and stripes, a thread of vintage Christmas bulbs zigzag overhead. A wooden bow is mounted on the wall - its arrows have been used to shoot at rats unfortunate enough to wander into Gold Leaf Studios, a dozen-or-so-unit warehouse on I Street NW that U.S. Royalty shares with other musicians, artists and designers.
There's also a chalkboard where they've jotted down the chord changes to their woozy new single "Equestrian" and a shelf of half-empty whiskey bottles that may or may not have helped them write it.
The song doesn't have its own video yet, but it has been used to score a two-minute Web advertisement for Gant, a Swiss clothing brand. Of the four models who star in the clip, one stands out. He has the best hat. It's John Thornley.
| November 18, 2010; 11:15 AM ET
Categories: In today's Post, Local news | Tags: U.S. Royalty
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