deFrance: A Sound You are Sure to Remember

by Judea Robinett

photography by Judea Robinett

When was the last time you heard a real rock and roll song on top 40?” I’m leaning against a brick wall and Drew de France is pacing Main Street, outside The Joint in the Argenta Arts District of North Little Rock. He’s sweaty and hyped from the show he and his band, deFrance just put on at the small venue. deFrance, which hails from Little Rock, is made of up frontman, rhythm guitarist, band leader, songwriter, producer & manager -Drew de France, Daniel Curry on drums, Andrew Poe on lead guitar, Zach Williams on bass and Joseph Fuller on Keys.

We are talking about Rock n’ Roll, which isn’t really a surprise since it’s what the musician has dedicated his life to. What caught me off guard is the question he just posed.

“Nickleback?” he throws out. I grimace, searching for a better option. Something not totally soul-crushing. I don’t have much success. “Kings of Leon?” I respond. Both of us agree that whenever and whoever it was, doesn’t really matter. The point is, that somehow we have come to a point in the American musical and cultural landscape, where rock n’ roll, once the most ubiquitous sound of American culture, has become in some ways a meme, a stand-in for “what came before.” With a few exceptions (Alabama Shakes, The Black Keys, Elle King) there is very little good, and more importantly, new rock n’ roll being made these days.

It’s a genre relegated to the seniors-line, the same great but passe hits being churned out at bars catering to the 60+ crowds and quietly pumped out the vents at the grocery store. Rock n’ roll is not dead, but it’s been commodified, sterilized, and stamped with the “vintage” sticker– safe for consumption by even the most innocent of ears.

The band which has been together just a little over a year, has just returned from shows out west in Arizona, Texas, and California and are happy to be home in Little Rock for a few days before heading out again. When asked how they managed to form, record almost two albums and put a tour together so quickly-the band unanimously gives Drew the credit. It’s clear from the get go that this is his project and that he is in every way the leader of the band.

“I started the band because I just got out of a really bad break up,” he tells me. “Not only did I break up with a girlfriend but with a band too and I was just sitting on so many songs.”

Before forming deFrance, Drew and drummer Daniel Curry  were  working in   landscaping   while   playing   part

Back at The Joint on Thursday night, the band is on stage about to play to a mostly empty  room.  The  citizens  of  Central time for other bands (Drew previously played guitar for Stephen Neeper & the Wildhearts). Drew and Daniel, who have been friends since early childhood days in Camden, Ark, were both getting burned out quickly with the yard work jobs. “I just said, we are turning into old men doing this…” says Drew remembering how he felt during that time. Providence stepped in though, and the business he and Daniel worked for, closed. “I almost shook his hand when he fired us.” Drew recalls of his former boss, laughing. The rest fell together pretty quickly after that. Drew and Daniel recorded some tracks and started putting together a tour. “I realized I had all these shows coming up, and thought – I need a band,” says Drew. Soon came Andrew Poe (Lucious Spiller) on guitar and then Joseph Fuller (5 Point Cove, Big Dam Horns) on keyboard. Drew saw Joseph standing in on keys for another local band and immediately co-opted him for deFrance. The very next day, Joseph went from playing in nine different bands to being a member of deFrance. Things move quickly when Drew is driving.

About 6 months later, when the band needed a bassist (Drew and Andrew had been trading off) it didn’t take long to find Zach Williams. “I responded to a facebook ad,” says Zach. “I was looking for a date and found a band,” he says joking, adding that he has been happily with the same girlfriend for almost 10 years. The bassist was the final piece of the puzzle and deFrance has been working at a frenetic speed since. Not only are they unusually driven and focused for a band so young but the music itself is the heart of what makes this band so interesting.

The high-energy roots rock deFrance plays is at once familiar and fresh. The band is mostly unanimous in their influences. Jimi Hendrix, Tom Petty, Ryan Adams, The Grateful Dead and even elements of punk like The Ramones all show up in the tunes. There is also a real soul and R&B thread especially in the newer songs coming on the next album–it’s not the influences that are fresh (though the band does say they love to listen to top 40), but the way they incorporate them into a sound that is mostly rock n roll, but with a little something else…That“otherness” that makes music stick to you and move you–that is what makes them remarkable.

Arkansas seem to be staying home this night. The restless, zombie-like wandering of patrons in search of beer and music to offset the still and sticky heat of summer nights is right around the corner. But as though it were a packed house, Andrew Poe kicks off the set with a high octane riff that blares and wobbles–like a bird taking flight then dipping precariously close to the ground to catch air at just the right moment, the riff breathes and you feel your pulse in your ears. The song has taken flight, so naturally and seamlessly into a raucous jam of an opener, that it makes you feel as though you might have just imagined the whole harrowing past seven seconds if not for your heart rate telling you it happened.

deFrance is cohesive, innovative, powerful and driven. You can hear Hendrix in “Poe’s” wandering solos, Petty & Stevie Ray in the way Drew lets the lyrics drip from his mouth like water over rocks, the R&B and 60’s pop influences in the way Zach chooses his counterpoint, Joseph builds harmonic tones into the fabric of a song just to get a little low down and funky, with a “Hammond” sound. Curry drives the heartbeat of hardrock and metal beats into your chest. Somehow, all of these elements mix just right, making songs accessible and yet interesting. Pulse- quickening yet singable.

It’s in this way that deFrance is doing something completely counter culture. They are making Rock N’ Roll music for their own generation and on their own terms and most importantly with their own style. “I don’t think of us as a Southern Rock band,” says Drew, “but a lot of people do and that’s cool. If you’ve got to label us then that’s fine.”

Zach disagrees saying he doesn’t think that fits, he thinks the band sounds so unique because of where it grew out of–a state that takes a little bit of its flavor and personality from its neighbors and then makes something new with them. “I’m cool with being labeled as an Arkansas rock band,” he says.

One thing the band can all agree on? They are psyched to be doing what they are doing. Joseph sums up the band’s current attitude– “There is no big get, this is it, this is life.