Guitarist Derek Badillo named the band after some chick in a movie he doesn’t even remember. It might’ve been Joan of Arc.
“They said ‘the heroine,’ and then there was this girl, and she was powerful and beautiful — and she slashed throats,” recalls Badillo, dripping post-show sweat in the alley behind Jiggers, “and I was like, ‘Fuck yeah.’”
To the band, that’s the power of music personified.
San Antonio’s the Heroine, scheduled to play the AT&T Center Thursday as part of the Vans Warped Tour, began in 2002 as a Christian act with the “unmarketable name” Naos Project. The Greek word for “temple” proved hard to spell and even harder to pronounce, causing many to wonder what kind of music they might expect from the “No Ass Project.” The band members practice their own personal faiths (bassist Wes Vargulish plays in his church’s praise band on Sunday mornings), but they’re no longer a Christian band. Badillo says their music is still meant to be uplifting.
“We believe in positivity,” he says, “and the spirit of fucking rock ’n’ roll.”
The Heroine, music as savior: maybe rock’s oldest cliché, but Badillo sounds excited enough to make you double-check the calendar. Screw the pompous thunderbolts-from-Valhalla bullshit — Badillo’s more practical. The true power of music, he says, is its ability to help you forget about your shitty life — matching shots with a rock band in a bar, drowning the work week in alcohol and guitar solos.
“Rock ’n’ roll is a good time, dude,” he says with the conviction of the pamphlet pushers you rush to slam the door on. “Having fun, getting crunk with your fucking friends, straight up.”
When lead singer Ernest Isaac Benavidez, married with three children all younger than 10, describes music as his heroine, however, he sounds like he’s referencing the drug.
“There’s a toast we drink to music sometimes,” says Benavidez. “She steals from us, she takes food away from our families — why do we do it?”
Vargulish, who has a 12-year-old daughter of his own, offers one answer: “Because we don’t know any better.”
The Ballad of Lenny King
“Daddy was a gambler, spent his life taking risks” is the first line of “Hard Working Man” (both the acoustic and electric versions). Benavidez says he wrote the lyrics from what he hopes will be his grown-up son’s point of view. He hopes his son will be able to say the risks paid off.
“We’re all gamblers,” agrees Vargulish. “We have to put everything on the line, and we’re prepared to lose money.”
“The Ballad of Lenny King” covers similar ground, another song Benavidez calls “a legacy for my son” (King is Benavidez’s stage name). It also rehashes the “sold our soul for rock ’n’ roll” bit, but Benavidez says his hell-fired delivery (check out the unbelievable snottiness he crams into “down” in the line “I went down to the crossroads”) is a response to his religious upbringing.
“I was raised Assembly of God,” Benavidez said. “They’re very strict about music … but what’s wrong with rock ’n’ roll? It’s a good time. I’m not hurting anyone.”
The impassioned, acoustic, and surprisingly straightforward version of traditional hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” on the album suggests Benavidez has no problem reconciling rock with religion, but on “Ballad,” guitarists Jorge Luevano and Derek Badillo come away from the crossroads understanding what Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton, and too few other guitarists have: If you’re claiming your shit’s fueled by Satan, you better play like a fucking demon.
Mötley Crüe finds the Heroine
A few camp out on barstools, but no one’s sitting down at the tables. People, some screaming and clapping, crowd close at the foot of the stage. The window behind the band collects condensation like the bathroom mirror after a hot shower, and the guys in the band are all shiny and panting. The Heroine launches into AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” followed by two other bar band standards: the Doors “Roadhouse Blues” and the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party).” Cover songs (the latter of which the Beasties no longer play live) for encores at their own CD-release show, but Benavidez is screaming his lungs out like he’s writing them on the spot, pinballing off instruments and fighting to keep his balance. Maybe he’s slipping in his own sweat. Using these three songs you could probably reconstruct the band’s core philosophy, but why in the hell would you do that? Guitarist Jorge Luevano dives backward into the crowd and continues soloing while they pass him around.
After the show, the band admits they’d been hoping for a bigger turnout. Jiggers could definitely have packed a bigger crowd, but Vargulish says the band’s played to much emptier rooms. They quickly decided, however, to wig out onstage even if nobody’s there to hear it, because, he says, “you never know who could be in the audience.”
One such you-know-who was former Dangerous Toys vocalist Jason McMaster, who told the band he was impressed after seeing them perform in front of a nearly empty Austin club.
And we’re not done namedropping, so while you’re down there pick up Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. On November 10, the Heroine was one of 30 bands — out of 9,000 that applied — invited to play at LA’s Whisky a Go Go in front of the Crüe themselves and a room full of media and industry types. The Guitar Center-sponsored battle of the bands had as its grand prize a slot opening for the cock-rock monsters at the Hollywood Palladium. The kind of moment, Benavidez says, for which all those gigs in empty barrooms had been practice.
“We spent seven years preparing for this,” he said. “We were going to be hard to follow.”
The band got to perform only one song — “Playing for Keeps,” the title track from their latest album.
“When we finished, we got a standing ovation,” Badillo says. “We were the best band of the night. Tommy Lee started freaking out.”
They were sure they’d won, Benavidez said (see “Dr. Stealgood” for one of his early Mötley Crüe memories), but Lee wasn’t onstage later when they announced the winners — Chicago’s Last Vegas. Maybe Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx, who infamously celebrated surviving a heroin overdose — which left him medically dead for two minutes — with a giant shot of smack, didn’t like the band name.
“We were pretty bummed out after Los Angeles,” Benavidez said. “It seemed like one of those make-or-break situations. Either you were going to win and make it, or you were going to go back home and break up.”
The appearance would later lead to a sponsorship offer from Gibson, but going home meant work the next morning. Bodilla, who works with Benavidez as an independent construction contractor, woke up early to begin a remodeling job.
“They fly us out, put us up in a five-star hotel, picked us up in a limo, and it was dope as shit,” he says. “We played at Whisky a Go Go, and I had the party up in my hotel room at 8 p.m. … At 8 a.m., I’m on my hands and knees, scrubbing these fuckers’ floor.”
Benavidez, a professed (and, now that he mentions it, rather obvious) James Brown fan, wants to claim the title “hardest-working band in San Antonio” for the Heroine. His gambler claims are tempered with a “run a band like a business” attitude, and he said he sees the long hours as the only way to hedge his bets so that he’s taking an acceptable amount of risk.
“The economy sucks,” he says. “I’m not going to leave my family hanging.”
Vargulish, an aircraft electrician who travels an hour and a half to get to band practice, says the disparity between the band’s blue-collar lifestyles and rock-star ambitions is an obstacle they fight to overcome in their music.
“The work we do drives us to play our shows as hard as we can,” he says, hoping that their live show can manipulate the odds in the Heroine’s favor.
And onstage, they certainly work like they’ve got a driving force that most bands don’t.
“Something needs to happen,” Badillo explains. “I hate working construction.”