While waiting for his order at Caffe Vita before our interview, Troy Nelson sings along to Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" as it harnesses its staccato, malevolent dirges over the PA. His band, the Young Evils, though, couldn't be farther in tone from those doom-metal pioneers. Despite their name, the Young Evils, who feature Nelson's girlfriend Mackenzie Mercer on vocals and tambourine, traffic in some of the city's sweetest pop-rock confections. And, man, are they a cute couple. You're going to love to hate them—or, more likely, love them like you do kittens. They are awww-some.
On the face of things, the Young Evils seem like they can't fail. They have connections: Guitarist/drummer Nelson, 33, hosts a prime Friday-night slot on KEXP and is John Richards's handpicked permanent sub when the morning-rush-hour DJ needs a break. Nelson also works at the beloved indie record shop Easy Street (where he met Mercer) and is one half of cult comedy twosome Black Daisy, along with Young Evils guitarist Cody Hurd.
For her part, Mercer, 21, is the daughter of renowned rock photographer and Briefs bassist Lance Mercer, and her future stepfather is Barrett Jones, a producer with a storied hard-rock pedigree (Nirvana, Melvins, Pussy Galore, etc.) who played bass and worked the knobs in his Laundry Room Studio for the Young Evils' forthcoming debut album, Enchanted Chapel.
Lest you think Nelson's KEXP association will give his band an unfair advantage with regard to airplay, he assures us that "I didn't even tell anybody at KEXP about [the Young Evils]—not because I was hiding it, but because I just didn't want to be a douchebag. I haven't given anyone there a CD or anything of the sort. I'm not going to play it on the radio. If another DJ there wants to, that's great. But I'm not going to have anything to do with that.
"I've been asked by a couple of people at the station for a copy of the album, but I'm too lazy to give them one," Nelson adds. "Once we get them pressed, I might give one to whoever asks for it. But I'm comfortable knowing that the station wouldn't play it if they didn't like it or think it's good. They wouldn't play it just because it's me."
Beyond that enviable network, the Young Evils also have skills. The self-released Enchanted Chapel—which should be out in August—boasts 10 songs that clock in at 26 minutes. Using the immediately captivating first Violent Femmes album as inspiration, Nelson composed with concision and minimalism in mind. He also schemed to have you singing along to his ditties before you even know the lyrics, which abound with wordplay. Classic, nice-folks pop and country-rock song structures predominate, with Nelson and Mercer's voices twining in the upper registers like the lovers' bodies whence they emanate. Imagine a Northwest version of the Vaselines—the most common Young Evils comparison and one to which they readily cop. If you feel bad while listening to Enchanted Chapel, you probably need psychiatric help. You may not like everything on this release, but it's almost impossible to frown or furrow a brow to it.
The Young Evils credit Jones for fleshing out their songs with his vast production expertise and understated backing vocals. "Barrett's an awesome producer and really easy to work with," Mercer says. "His ideas have helped shape some of the songs."
"We sing in octaves, and he'll put in subtle harmonies," Nelson says. "He also had ideas for the rhythms. He's also kind of a drummer—more so than me, even though I played drums on half the record; he played drums on the other half. He would say, 'This needs to be a little more of a swing beat.'"
"He'd say, 'Let's put some weird piano or Wurlitzer in the background,'" Mercer adds. "I remember a song where Barrett had buried some harmonies in there, and it took on a life of its own. Barrett really helped the album come to life."
Nelson and Mercer forwent shopping the record to labels because they wanted it to come out as soon as possible, during the summer, when its breezy, buoyant elements can best work their magic. Nelson worries that, "in the [current] musical climate—all this smart, noisy, dark music—[our] little record of happy, poppy, two-minute songs" might have trouble finding an audience, but that concern seems unfounded.
One thing's for sure: The Young Evils sound nothing at all like Voltage Periscope, Nelson's lethally grim nü-metal parody band that appeared in some Black Daisy episodes. "I had a personality crisis going from writing comedy songs to 'real' songs," he admits. "I've spent the last four years making fun of popular music. It was about a year and half ago that I decided to try to write some... I'd been writing all these crazy, complicated comedy songs, making fun of bro metal, new country, bad hiphop, and all this stuff. I knew I had it in me somewhere to write these little, catchy songs that are also influenced by the Vaselines and Magnetic Fields."
Perhaps the Young Evils' golden chemistry derives from the two principals' vastly different backgrounds, a case of opposites converging into an ideal unity. Local girl Mercer grew up backstage at Pearl Jam concerts, which her dad shot; Nelson came from Mitchell, South Dakota, where Def Leppard and Bon Jovi represented high culture. Mercer was weaned on '70s punk rock, while Nelson went through intense Metallica and Nirvana phases. The youthful Mercer is an "old soul" (per Nelson) with a neck tattoo that honors Joe Strummer; elder Nelson claims to be "so of the times."
Nelson eventually fled South Dakota, attending Florida's Full Sail audio-engineering school and then moving to New York to work for the prestigious Hit Factory, where he carried Puff Daddy's reel-to-reels, bought Ice Cube a Korn CD, avoided eye contact with Michael Jackson, and breathed much secondhand pot smoke. He moved to Seattle just in time to experience the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.
When Nelson met Mercer at Easy Street in the mid '00s, they instantly clicked. One day he overheard Mercer beautifully singing Heart's "(Love Me Like Music) I'll Be Your Song" and promptly enlisted her to sing in his band, a project that started as an acoustic Mötley Crüe tribute band (old comedy habits die hard), before morphing into the dimple-cheeked pop unit that you hear on Enchanted Chapel.
As Fleetwood Mac and others taught us, bands containing couples tread a precarious line. It's tough to keep both enterprises conflict-free. Mercer recalls, "The first thing I said after Troy and I kissed was, [tearfully] 'We're gonna ruin our band.' He said, 'Oh, thanks.' But Troy's the peanut butter to my jelly."
"And it's fun for me to watch Mackenzie fight off all my groupies," Nelson counters, as Mercer laughs. "I have a hard time fighting them off myself; I needed help. That's actually why Mackenzie and I started this relationship. Seriously. Sometimes there's two at a time. Tough life..."