James Menefee should probably have gnawed his fingernails up to his knuckles by now. The bassist-singer of the Richmond, Virginia’s River City High, Menefee is waiting to see if he needs to cash in his current dream and get a new one—or keep on hoping the van won’t break down. The quartet is currently in the negotiating stage with MCA Records. The label and the band have agreed to hold hands. It’s all up to the lawyers now to nickel and dime things out. It’s enough to frazzle even the calmest of folks, let alone a hyperactive punker. But strangely, Menefee is as calm as a Shaolin monk.
“You just can’t worry about it too much,” he says. “You never know in rock & roll until things are on paper. Once that happens, then I’ll get excited.”
Part of the reason Menefee can be so placid is because he’s got other things to worry about: The AC in the van is broken and a drive through the Southwest is coming up. He’s barely had any sleep. He’s been living on stale cheeseburgers for weeks. He has to remember to beg journalists to mention the band’s website (RiverCityHigh.com. Happy now?). It all makes that contract sitting thousands of miles away seem like nothing more than a fairy tale—at least one that probably includes lots of booze and a few strippers.
It’s just been River City High’s M.O. to power ahead without really worrying about the big payoff. When Menefee and guitarist Mark Avery started the band back in 1999, all the two cared about was banging out nitro-fueled rock and getting dirty. “When Mark and I got together we said, ‘Let’s really do this,’” Menefee says. “We wanted to just stay out on the road, work our asses off and be real, working-class rock & rollers. We didn’t care about anything else.”
To do that, though, has meant River City High has been crammed in its van for the last three years. But it’s paid off. Monday nights at shitty clubs gave way to decent opening slots on indie tours, and each gig meant a few more converts would join the fold. Eventually came an indie deal, a couple of discs, and even a slot on the Warped Tour. Sure, Menefee and company aren’t flipping the bird from the top of the Billboard charts. And there’s no way in hell anyone would throw a TV out the window of a hotel room at this point—you know how many T-shirts you’d have to sell to cover that? But what the band has gotten has simply been because they put in the work. There was no marketing plans, payola or image consultants. It’s just been the band and the music. Menefee wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I see a lot of bands that move at leaps and bounds and our advancement has been pretty moderate. It’s like looking in the mirror every day and nothing changes. But over two years, you’ve got chest hair. Maybe one day we’ll have bigger nuts, who knows? But we earned those chest hairs. No one can ever take a grassroots following away from you.”
But it’s not like River City High is some hard sell. One listen through the band’s debut full-length Won’t Turn Down and you’re a junkie. Guitars snarl like a ’68 Charger. All lyrics focus on rock’s Big Three: Girls, gigs and Jim Beam. Nothing slips below frenetic. Basically, it’s Eddie Spaghetti and the Supersucker boys, just with a bit of a SoCal tan. Songs like “Runaround” and opener “Left Behind” are as fast and dirty as a biker babe. Others like “No Free Rides” sport the kind of whale-sized hooks that get record execs all gooey—“Oh, just think of the crossover potential!” There’s even a brief cowpunk moment, the group busting out the banjos for the minute-long “Hello November a.m.” There’s nothing here that requires an NYU degree or three hankies. It’s straight-up rock at its finest, just the way Menefee likes it.
“I love the energy and the excitement of rock,” he says. “I love the bad-ass attitude of ’80s bands like Mötley Crüe and the aggression of punk. It all appeals to the most basic, primitive part of us all. We all have this part of us that just wants to rock out, no matter who you are. That’s all we’ve ever wanted to do as a band, just get people to rock out and have a good time.”
And even if by some quirk River City High’s deal magically disappears, Menefee says it’s not going to stop the band from doing that. “We’re doing this until we get knocked down three times in one round, record deal or not. And we haven’t even been knocked down once yet.”