Classic Story Come True

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

It’s a classic story.  High school friends from a small town somewhere in America form a band to escape the boredom, and then suddenly find themselves hitting the big time.  In the case of the All-American Rejects, who play at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz this Saturday, the story happens to be true.

Core songwriting duo for the All-American Rejects Tyson Ritter and Nick Wheeler grew up in the sleepy town of Stillwater, OK.  Describing life in Stillwater, Tyson recalled, “It pretty much screams unexcitement.  The only thing you can do here is drink beer, have sex or write music.”  As it turns out, the pair were both big fans of the latter.  Tyson’s father was a serious rock aficionado, and allowed him to stay up late, watching rock videos on MTV.  “I’d be up all night watching AC/DC, then jumping up on the table in my pyjamas and pretending to be Bon Scott,” he said.  Similarly, Wheeler borrowed albums by ’80s glam rockers Bon Jovi, Poison and Def Leppard from his older sister’s collection.

Both teenagers learned to play guitar, and by junior high school had started playing in bands.  Although they saw each other every day at school, they still didn’t know each other as such.  Their musical paths finally crossed one night at a party where Wheeler’s band was playing.  Tyson noticed that the band didn’t have a bassist and so approached the band and asked to join, saying “Hey, I play bass!” regardless of the fact that he had never played one in his life.  “I went right out, got a bass and learned how to play it,” he said.  “I stayed inside the whole time during Christmas break until I could come out and join the band.”

As the junior high school years moved into the high school years, the band slowly began to disintegrate as various members began to concentrate more on their studies.  Eventually only Ritter and Wheeler were left.  Curiously, the breakup of the band coincided with a quantum leap in their songwriting partnership.  Recalls Ritter, “It was kind of ironic that initially, Nick and I had less input than anyone else in the band, but when he and I were the only ones left, that’s when the best stuff started happening.  We said ‘Let’s just keep doing it this way, just the two of us.’”

Ritter and Wheeler began performing around Stillwater as a duo.  Ritter played bass and sang, Wheeler played guitar and they used programmed drum beats from Wheeler’s synthesizer as backing.  They recorded several demos as a duo before expanding into a full band with the addition of Mike Kennerty (guitar) and Chris Gaylor (drums).  The band independently released their self-titled debut in 2000, which caught the attention of Oklahoma’s radio stations and also Doghouse Records, who signed the band and re-released the album the following year.  The single “Swing Swing” from the re-released album received national airplay and the band landed tour dates supporting well known acts.

The All-American Rejects are currently on their own nationwide tour and a new album is imminent. However, they remain true to their roots in spite of rock’s glamor. Why?  According to Wheeler, “Rent in Stillwater is still only $395 a month.”

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, April 7, 2005

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