I’m not certain of much, but I would bet you’ve never worn a Halloween costume like Jordan Hudkins, the frontman of West Virginia power-punks Rozwell Kid. One year in college, his back was to the wall without an outfit lined up, so he turned to the best props he had around the house: a 3D-molded rhinoceros backpack, a pair of scissors, and lots of fake blood. “At the time I had really bad facial hair that kind of looked like Johnny Depp’s goatee, and my hair kind of looked like his hair in that movie Secret Window. So I went to a party as Johnny Depp from Secret Window with a rhinoceros coming out of his chest,” he says. “It was a stretch to make it work, but I did it.”
We’re sitting outside at a quiet cafe in Shepherdstown, West Virginia—the college town Hudkins has called home for the better part of 13 years. Although our conversation is winding down at this point, you’d be hard-pressed to find a story that better captures the essence of Rozwell Kid. Hudkins’ supercharged band also stirs up these ingredients that shouldn’t necessarily work well together—monstrous riffs, dueling guitar solos, and rampant pop culture references—while disguising real vulnerability underneath song names that could belong on a stand-up comedy album. Rozwell Kid is one of the few bands that can claim Blue Album-era Weezer, Thin Lizzy, and Weird Al Yankovic all as legitimate influences, but Hudkins doesn’t want to get that confused with being a parody act.
On the band’s latest record, Precious Art, you’ll find a song about wanting to retreat home, eat tacos, and watch Weird Al’s 1989 cult classic UHF on DVD instead of succumbing to anxiety in a restaurant. That particular track is sandwiched between a 57-second ode to finding a parking spot at South by Southwest and a song called “Booger,” which is as literal as it sounds—but it’s also a genuinely tender power ballad about coping with heartbreak and memory.
An hour ago, we were engulfed in a highly competitive bowling game at Pikeside Bowl (we finished with one strike each and about ten more gutter balls). The place has some character in its clashing elements. At one point, the “Cold Beer on a Friday Night” song blares while a muted TV is airing Jeff Sessions’ Senate testimony. A kid-friendly purple dinosaur ride sits right next to the snack bar, which is the only place where you can get water because too many people threw up in the old drinking fountain. And there’s this graphic of bowling balls and pins at the end of each lane that swirls around like the Mr. Krabs meme. “I’d forgotten how much of a Big Lebowskivibe this place has. It’s pretty retro, but not in like the cool, on-purpose way,” Hudkins cracks.
Between frames, we touch on everything from what keeps him in the area (“I’m comfortable in my situation here”) to our favorite superheroes (his: Superman, Batman, Wolverine, Spawn). Hudkins sports a red plaid button-up with a t-shirt underneath and jeans; his long brown hair threatens to overtake his glasses and cover his ears. He reminds you of the affably nerdy kid in high school who managed to be friends with everyone, while still making wisecracks from the back of the classroom.
Occasionally, he’ll grab my recorder like a microphone to document important score changes and breaks in the action. After one turn, he needs to switch bowling balls, because the finger holes on the one he just used are way too big and spread out. This leads to us talking about André the Giant. “Now I’m looking up a picture of André the Giant holding up a regular size beer can to show Shawn, because it’s a crazy picture,” he narrates into the recorder. “This is a regular 12-ounce beer can in his hand. It looks like a battery. I wonder if there’s a picture of André the Giant’s bowling ball.”
Hudkins grew up roughly an hour south of the bowling alley in a tiny midstate town “sandwiched between two coal mines.” He spent most of his time in the marching band, drawing comic book characters, and acting in school plays, with dreams of becoming an actor. By playing with Rozwell Kid, he gets to juggle all three interests. “I fulfill both desires: my extreme desire to be the center of attention and getting to play music, write music, travel. I like being in a band, it’s dope,” he says.
Since Shepherd University didn’t have an acting program, he was forced to reroute and pick a new career path. Hudkins chose graphic design, which still very much factors into his work—he designs all of the band’s album artwork and t-shirts, along with both for friends’ bands. But he still hangs onto a few tricks from art class when the time comes to write these funny-but-sincere songs. “Contrast is one of the basic elements of art, and you want high contrast in your artwork to help give it shape and give it form to make it a more interesting piece. I take these lessons that I learned about visual art and kind of apply them to music that I write,” he says. “Does that make sense? Does that sound really pretentious and stupid?”
I offer that there’s probably nothing pretentious or stupid about a band that has the guts to call a song “Booger.”
“I want to put that on a t-shirt,” he says, letting out a heavy, earnest belly laugh.
For a second, I almost believe him. Rozwell Kid is governed by the sort of fearless spontaneity that can turn a throwaway gag into a very serious band-related venture. It’s how their music video for “Wendy’s Trash Can” became a 10-hour long loop and they got the idea for a “Jeff’s Up Next” banner to hang while they opened for punk hero Jeff Rosenstock on their joint tour with The Menzingers. But unlike insufferable recent album cycles from some tentpole indie rock artists this year, there’s no grand commentary about media consumption or the depravity of man behind Rozwell Kid, say, pitching their album to news outlets with an actual potato. Hudkins and his band operate less under the mantra of “Why God Why” than “Why not?”
This mindset translates to their live show, which is the most fun I’ve had at a concert this year. Hudkins can often end up on the floor, shredding through a solo. Expect purposeful leg kicks and hand-to-the-sky strums from guitarist Adam Meisterhans. And during their tour with PUP last year, the band had a well-documented ritual of holding the set’s penultimate note for as long as humanly possible. (It once exceeded three minutes.) On this current tour for Precious Art, it seems like they’re attempting a similar trick with the minute-long track “Wish Man,” in which the band turns into barking dogs. Someone asked them for a longer version on Twitter, which of course willed an eight-minute rendition into existence.
Rozwell Kid plays with the conviction of a rock band that wants to be the best in the world, while simultaneously understanding that it’s kind of ridiculous to aspire for such heights. Back at the bowling alley, Hudkins tells me about how he and Meisterhans originally were turned on to the absurdity of the genre he loves so much. “We’re always reading or hearing anecdotes about these things that Joe Walsh did—and we’re not looking at it as the sex, drugs, rock and roll template. This is like the ridiculous stories about Joe Walsh spray painting his jeans black so he and John Belushi could get into a formal restaurant,” he says. “Rock and roll is just completely ridiculous in and of itself and that’s a part of it that I’ve always really enjoyed.”
As our game at Pikeside comes to a close, Hudkins explains why Rozwell Kid decided to give their latest album such an endearingly confident title. “I’ve been telling people, if no one else is going to call it Precious Art, at least we did right? Sometimes you have to be your own champion.”
And there it is, the reason why Rozwell Kid is so special: It’s not their antics, but the fact that Hudkins and the band often seem to be doing this just for themselves. He mostly sings from such a personal perspective, recalling cultural touchstones that mattered to him, like Michael Keaton flicks, Mad TV, Sheetz receipts, and the people who were around to experience it all. There’s a hyper-specificity to his songs at times—but even if you didn’t grow up with those references, the feeling’s universal. It’s a nostalgic fondness for whatever helped you through the messy ride of growing up that remains a constant. Consider the leg kicks and boogers a bonus.