The waitress is flirting with Jason Hill. Hunkered down in the back of a beachside eatery in Del Mar, the Louis XIV frontman keeps his sunglasses on, sips a bloody mary and tries to hold a nonchalant conversation on his first day off in months. What he may not realize is that paint-by-shape pants, a 1970s Brit-rock haircut and an attitude are dead giveaways in a tourist trap.
"I just wanted to say that I totally love your glasses," the waitress gushes. "Did you get them at a thrift store or something? They are so hot."
Hill shrugs off the advance and cradles his drink a little closer. A few minutes later the waitress is back to ask if he needs a refill. When he acquiesces for the interview's sake, she gasps. "Is he on an interview right now?!" almost dropping her tray. "You should definitely give him the job!"
"If this were a job interview, I'd already be fired," Hill softly replies.
Judging by his attractive grin and ability to mollify the situation, this isn't the raciest groupie encounter he's had, and it certainly won't be his last. His band took the name of a sexually debauched French monarch, and the over-the-top corporeality of Louis XIV's debut for Atlantic Records, The Best Little Secrets Are Kept, just about ensures that Hill will be privy to many more fun little secrets.
"It's very interesting in America that white musicians are expected to be vulnerable and introspective and black musicians are allowed to be confident and sexual," Hill says after his biggest fan of the moment fetches him another drink. "I wrote a whole record that was really about recording a certain sound... and girls just happened to be a vehicle to talk about this and get that sort of sound out there. I didn't just want to talk about sex."
Even now, with Rolling Stone, Spin, Esquire, The New York Times, NME and dozens more reporting on Louis' sexual revolution, Hill doesn't want to chat about "carrot juice" or "cute little Asian" friends. Despite a charting album, a recent meet-and-greet with John Paul Jones and opening slots with high rollers like the Killers, Interpol and Arcade Fire, Hill has backlash on the brain.
The San Diego Reader recently reprinted a Chicago Sun-Times review that called Louis XIV "more eyeliner than talent," and a rebuke is in order.
"I'll be honest with you-[someone from our band] slept with the Chicago [Sun-Times'] guy's ex-girlfriend. So what's he gonna do? Write a bad review, of course," Hill says, shaking his head.
"As George Harrison once said, "All things must pass.'"
Louis XIV was never even meant to be a band. After six years in alt-country outfit Convoy, Hill and grade-school chum Brian Karscig grew tired of record-label problems and nosy producers that "ruined" the band's Black Licorice album. Then Hill's father had a stroke. Looking for a much-needed escape route, Hill, Karscig and former Convoy drummer Mark Maigaard fled to a friend's Paris digs to screw around.
"We set up in the magazine warehouse downstairs from the apartment and just pressed the record button," Karscig recalls. "We set out to write a concept album about a delusional boy who thinks he's Louis XIV, and while we were recording it I think we just stopped and said, "Man, this is really good.' It was the beginning of something we are incredibly proud of."
It was a diversion. But it also happened to be very in-tune with the garage-rock revival lead by The White Stripes, with whom Convoy had toured not too long before Louis XIV's inception.
And that's where part of the backlash has stemmed from. In the early '90s, Hill and Karscig were longhaired hippie-rockers with the band Dishwater. Then came Convoy's alt-country around the time that Wilco found mainstream success. Now this. Although each band was considered among the best in San Diego, more than a few fans and media types have had trouble coming to terms with Hill and Karscig's well-timed genre-hopping. Some were less kind and called it "fad chasing."
"You've gotta be kidding me if you expect me to wear the same shirt my whole life. I may have played alt-country in Convoy, but I was also a break-dancer in the fifth grade," Karscig laughs. "We were in a band called Convoy, and we were growing apart musically from the rest of the band, so we started something new. There was no fad chasing."
"It was a natural progression from one band to the other," reiterates Hill. "We still listen to the same music. We still play the same licks. We're still influenced by the same musicians."
Convoy was in considerable debt-though would have been paid $75,000 if they put out the album they had already recorded-when they walked away. The free-flying experience of recording in France sealed the deal: Hill and Karscig knew they wanted to focus on Louis XIV. When an initial mix of Louis' material began to fly across the Internet, they pressed an EP.
"We burned the discs and artwork ourselves and had some interns stuff the envelopes and send them out," Karscig recalls. "We sold 16,000 or 17,000 records just out of my bedroom. We didn't put a barcode on it, so there were no taxes. It was a little mafia-style and we started to get a little worried once it sold that many. But we were broke dudes... living in the studio and staying with our girlfriends all the time. When you come into that kind of money... record labels start coming at you."
In a matter of months, Louis XIV started to get regular rotation on AAA radio, won the San Diego Music Award for "Album of the Year" and was one of the most buzzed-about bands at the annual South-by-Southwest Music Festival. They went on tour with The Killers and Brody Dalle called the band "brilliant" in NME. Atlantic Records won the bidding war to sign the band, and the good luck continued when Rolling Stone named them one of their "Top 10 Bands to Watch" and MTV featured the band on their "You Hear it First" program. Dave Grohl, Butch Vig and Jay-Z began showing up to their gigs. The buzz peaked when The O.C. featured a Louis XIV song during a girl-on-girl make out scene.
After all this, Lexus-driving Karscig isn't so broke anymore.
"When we first released Illegal Tender, I didn't read a single bad review and I said to Brian, "Hey, man, the honeymoon is about to be over,'" Hill recalls. "A week later we got this scathing review on Pitchfork [www.pitchforkmedia.com]. I don't like most of everything anyway, so I have no problem when someone attacks us musically.
"In fact, I kind dig it, right? I really do. But the guy wrote a whole review about me. And called me "spineless.'"
There's a tinge of hurt in Hill's voice, and Karscig can relate.
"In the end, bad commentary just hurts your feelings," Karscig says. "It's very weird that in three months there can be a backlash on something that we've been involved in for 12 years.
"If you read all the press, almost none of it has to do with the music," he continues. "It's all about, "Those guys wear eyeliner, they have a faux British accent, they wanna be Iggy and the Stooges,' you know? But nobody talks about how we did this all ourselves and how this record was done before we were on a major record label."
As for the British accent, Karscig says it was only on Illegal Tender. They had just returned from England, he remembers, "and we were drunk as hell and it's faux. We were just having fun, and we're at a stage in our career where it's important to not take yourself seriously."
"I don't use a British accent-I articulate," Hill continues, touching on another criticism of the band-the distinctly un-American accents (or un-Poway, the city they hail from) on their debut EP, and on-stage between songs at Street Scene in 2004. "As I've said before, you might be mistaking articulation for Cockney, or possibly just art for cock."
The public skepticism of Louis XIV hasn't been limited to national media. Disc jockey Mike Halloran recently got the band in a tizzy when he played 15 seconds of Louis XIV and 15 seconds of The Fall side-by-side on 94.9FM. The band felt he was calling them a fake.
"[It's what] I do with all music that has similar styles. I point it out," Halloran clarifies. "I have been doing that for 27 years on the radio. I pointed out the Green Day/Buzz-cocks thing before Dookie was a hit. My point is The Fall have been releasing records since 1979 and Mark E. Smith has always sounded like he does. Louis XIV has been around... maybe two and a half years and Jason has never sounded like that before.
"Fake? No. Influenced by the early art-punk scene of England plus some T-Rex thrown in for good measure? Sure."
And finally, there have been more than a few reports that Hill can occasionally be very expressive when he's not pleased with a situation. A former Convoy fan, who asked to remain anonymous, recalls how Hill's behavior at Big Night San Diego last New Year's Eve put her off Louis XIV for good.
"He was yelling at everyone and just acting like a diva," she says. "It was like a temper tantrum over a wristband or something. He was screaming "bullshit' all over the place. I'm sure he writes great songs, but he's also not such a nice person."
Hill explains, "My girlfriend and the other guys' girlfriends weren't let into the club so that pissed me off. If they're gonna make my girlfriend sit out the rain, then yeah, I'm gonna be pissed. The problem with those things is that they are run so fucking poorly and I get irritated.
"The only reason there's this kind of backlash is because the local press isn't supportive and are out to get us. We have hundreds of stories in major magazines that are positive... and you have to report on some stupid thing that happened one night?"
Whether the backlash is on or off mark, about the music or about the image, it's part of the Louis XIV story. A recent review in Esquire, for example, praised the band and their music before concluding, "Love it now, before the backlash begins."
In spite of (or, using the Oasis model, possibly because of) the criticism, Louis XIV rolls on. With NME, Rolling Stone and MTV still lauding the band, a six-page spread in Penthouse and a romping nude video for "God Killed the Queen" just released, there is much for the four San Diego blokes to look forward to.
"I don't think that we'd be in this position that we're in right now if we didn't constantly work and fail," says Karscig. "There's a lot of lessons to learn from failing. It's made us better songwriters and I know I couldn't have done this with someone that I met in a newspaper ad. [Jason] and I are so much alike in that we're so much different.
"I always compare songwriting to this: you don't just meet a girl and immediately start having sex. You have to get to know each other and finesse. In the same way, when you write songs that are meaningful to you, you gotta know the person and feel comfortable and have trust. Jay and I have it down and we can deal with backlash, we just want to be happy with our music."
Louis XIV plays at Street Scene on July 29. $55. 888-487-4347. www.louisxiv.net.