Marty Royle is distracted. He's looking this way and that. He flips his hair. Jumps up and down. Sticks out his tongue and then pulls his shirt over his face. If he were in grade school, his teacher would be making him sit in the corner right about now.
But Royle isn't in grade school. He's 24, and frankly, he's not the least bit worried about being punished. After all, he's the leader of a rock-and-roll band, the Washington Social Club, and if there was ever a job perfectly suited to frenetic hyperactivity, this is it.
Standing on a sidewalk here on a warm sunny March afternoon, Royle and his band mates -- bassist Olivia Mancini, also 24, and drummer Randy Scope, 32 -- are preparing for what could be the most important show of their very young career: a showcase event at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference, an annual music industry schmoozefest that also serves as a coming-out party for hundreds of bands hoping against hope to attract the attention of a record label.
Together just over a year, the Washington Social Club is still relatively unknown in its hometown. But word of the band's brilliant live performances -- all swagger and energy, brimming with raw enthusiasm and great talent -- is beginning to spread. The band regularly packs the Velvet Lounge on U Street and the Black Cat's back stage. Road trips to clubs such as Mercury Lounge in New York and Shuba's in Chicago have drawn enthusiastic crowds.
It all started as a bit of a lark, really, says Mancini. The National Cathedral School grad and Royle met as students at Vassar College; they began playing in a band that Royle describes as "art rock" and she describes as "a disaster." When Mancini returned to Washington after graduating, Royle followed and kept pushing her to continue playing together. In wonderfully rock-and-roll fashion, they met Detroit native Scope through a newspaper ad he had placed about wanting to form a band.
If it was slightly tongue-in-cheek at the beginning, that changed quickly. "We were so well received," Mancini says. "From the moment we had our first show, people started saying, 'You guys are really good.' "
People were right. Royle, who plays guitar and writes all of the band's songs, seems somehow destined to be a rock star. Looking like the red-haired stepchild of Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler, he performs with remarkable confidence, snarling and smiling in equal measure as he leads the band through heady, hook-filled songs that reflect influences as varied as the Clash and the Kinks, the Stooges and '60s soul.
"It's definitely poppy, man, but with a lot of ideas," Royle says of his music. "I'm writing about the decay and the mess that is America." With a wicked smile, he adds, "And I'm writing a lot about my ex-girlfriend."
When the band finally takes the stage under a tent behind Austin's Yard Dog Art Gallery, the crowd of 200 or so isn't paying much attention. Royle, Mancini and Scope know that there are a few record label representatives who have come just to see them play. But if they are intimidated, it doesn't show. Royle leaps right in.
"We're from Washington, D.C., damn it! Everybody shake your hips for me one time!" he shouts, and with that, the band starts playing. In a very short time, it seems, everyone is paying attention to this wild, wonderful music coming from the stage.
It's a magnificent set and the band is happy -- but it isn't a dream, so it doesn't end with a bidding war between labels fighting to sign them to a deal. At least not yet. But the group is confident of its music and sure that success will follow. They've hired a manager and bought a van. A month ago Mancini quit her job as a writer-researcher to focus on the music full time.
"We've all been in enough bad bands before," says Scope. "This time we know we've got something good."
World domination is probably the band's unspoken, ultimate objective. After all, if you're in a rock group and you don't think you are going to be the next great thing, why bother? For now, though, the goals are more modest. But shaking up Washington's notoriously dour rock scene is at the top of Royle's list. He's even written a song, "Dead Kid Town," that he says is about "the useless hipster culture" in the city's music scene. "If we can pump some new blood in here and have fun, I'll feel like a success," he says.
Washington Social Club performs April 11 at the Velvet Lounge and April 19 at the Black Cat.