Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what you want to become. Fortunately for The Willowz, rock 'n' roll is a profession that allows for on-the-job training. It's taken four albums for singer/guitarist Richie James Follin and his compadres to discover their path, but with their forthcoming disc, "Everyone," the quartet seems to have hit its stride.
The Willowz story begins almost eight years ago, when Follin met bassist Jessica Anne Reynoza at a college bookstore while attending California State University in Fullerton. Still in their teens, the pair formed a garage-punk band, because, as Follin said, "We weren't very good with our instruments, and it was about all that we could play."
The Willowz with Vultures of Culture and Kaleidoscopic Carl play at 8 p.m. Monday at The Conservatory, 8911 N. Western.
While undoubtedly raw, there was something special about the group, evident even from its first releases. The act quickly won the approbation of punk stalwarts like Jello Biafra and seminal Black Flag and Circle Jerks frontman Keith Morris, and the band was courted by numerous labels. The Willowz eventually placed a couple songs from their eponymous 2003 debut in the Jim Carrey film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
For clues to Follin's gift with a hook, one needs look no further than his pedigree. His mother dated Henry Rollins in high school, and played in the early-1980s girl-punk band Pep G!rlz. His stepfather, Paul Kostabi, played in several SoCal rock acts " including Youth Gone Mad, White Zombie and Psychotica " and opened for such acts as Iggy Pop and Metallica. Needless to say, the house record collection was pretty good, and Follin took it all in.
"They were both huge inspirations," he said. "In fact, the 'Z' in Willowz comes from my mom's band."
The band's follow-up, "Talk in Circles," demonstrated increasing skill and even more eclecticism, branching out into the spooky psych-inflected "Heartstrings" and the dreamy, drifting, acoustic-driven "Blind Story." By 2007's "Chautauqua," The Willowz left the garage behind for a rootsy, Americana sound inspired by The Band, if still tinged with a bit of greasy grime.
"We were tired of the garage tag and wanted, perhaps foolishly, to go in an entirely different direction. But it's hard to build a following when you keep changing the sound," Follin said.
The downbeat twang of "Chautauqua" evokes a feeling of wayward dislocation and heartbreak, impelled both by the band's move to New York City and the end of Follin and Reynoza's romance. Yet, The Willowz forged on.
"The band and our friendship were bigger than the relationship," he said. "But that doesn't mean there weren't some uncomfortable van rides."
Although he had songs ready for the next album, it would take 18 months and another lineup change before the group assembled to record "Everyone" with Grammy-winning producer Stuart Sikes. Follin used the downtime to return to California to record his country-psych solo debut, "Battle," and also recorded a yet-to-be-released garage-psych album with drummer Loren Humphrey under the name Barracks.
"Doing those other projects got those different sounds out of my system and allowed me focus more on what 'Everyone' should sound like," Follin said.
The result is an album that is The Willowz best effort to date, bringing its rugged, ambling charm and hooky sensibility into sharp relief. Besides consolidating the act's sonic advances, "Everyone" has Follin's best batch of songs and offers the most focused and polished recording so far. The members are so excited about the new material, they're playing the half-hour album in its entirety on the current tour, which stages 8 p.m. Monday at The Conservatory.
Follin is especially psyched to share the new songs with the denizens of Norman. Not only does he have relatives in there, but the band has performed at a nearby Catholic summer camp for several years until recently " shows he remembers fondly.
"It's been a few years, but those shows were really great," he said. "As a recovering Catholic myself, I expect the show to be even rowdier now that they're all college-aged." "Chris Parker