Artist interview: The love and reverence of We Don’t Ride Llamas, and the rage that dug the “(2-inch) Grave”


(Courtesy photo: We Don’t Ride Llamas)


Everyone who lived through Winter Storm Uri — more commonly known to Texans as “Snowpocalypse,” Ted Cruz’s infamous dereliction of duty, or simply the 2021 storm that broke Texas’ independent electrical grid — has their own story, with its own wrinkles, on what they endured.

Number of hours without power and/or water, what you did to stay warm enough not to die, the unique byproducts or effects of the disaster you saw when you looked out your window or ventured outside … it’s all part of what Austinites and Texans still recount with friends and strangers when the storm comes up in conversation. Which it still does constantly, and will for a long time.

We Don’t Ride Llamas — the close-knit quartet of Austin siblings with one foot in metal, one foot in punk and their minds attuned to injustices of every stripe — found themselves enraged and flabbergasted on several levels while immersed in a statewide disaster that would’ve seemed unthinkable to most Texans.

The conspicuous glow coming from in-progress Q2 Stadium, which was a few months away from hosting its first Austin FC match and was apparently one of those structures too important to kill the lights for; the jokes the internet had about the storm, which didn’t do anything for WDRL’s collective funny bones; all of it just dumped buckets into a quickly overflowing well of aggravation.

They channeled that anger into the song that became their grinding and jagged latest single, “(2-inch) Grave,” released in mid-March but also performed last fall at Austin City Limits Music Festival, where I was able to sit down with the four Mitchell siblings: vocalist Max, guitarist Chase, bassist Kit and drummer Blake.

Bitter cold, “deep rage”

“(2-inch) Grave” is dedicated to the 246 documented lives lost as a result of Uri, the kind of weighty subject that’s hardly foreign to a band that proudly represents black music, queerdom and the calling out of myriad messed-up societal realities. Youth is no barrier to profound awareness and pithy, caustic commentary for the Mitchells, who at the time of our October interview ranged from age 17 (Kit) to 25 (Chase). And when Uri brought yet more confounding realities to their doorstep, it was perhaps inevitable that a raging hard-rock composition would eventually follow.

“Seeing the stadium lights in the distance, when they were building the soccer stadium [by the Domain]. … We live in that neighborhood next to that area, and our neighborhood was deemed a low-priority area, so they routed our power and electricity to the stadium lights. And no one was even there. No one was building that day,” Chase recalled. “It was empty, and the lights stayed on the entire time.

“And we were just in our house, looking through our frozen windows at the stadium lights on the horizon, through the trees in our backyard, being like, ‘Wow. What the fuck?’ And then people passed away as a result of greed. It made us so upset and sad, because it didn’t seem like people cared.”

The memories are a potent trigger to get Chase’s siblings to quickly add other nuggets that didn’t sit well in their stomachs.

“And there were so many jokes on the internet,” Kit interjected. “Like, 66% of Texans lost power that day, and [people are] making jokes on there like, ‘Well, that’s what you get for being a red state.’ And it’s like, these are people’s lives!”

“Seeing jokes on Twitter as the first thing that happens when I get power back flew me into a deep rage,” added Max. “And I started actually talking about what it was like online, and I had a lot of people reach out with apologies. I’m not the patron saint for the state. I’m just a person telling you what’s up. If you feel bad, that’s on you. Because you should have more empathy for people going through situations like that.”

As rage is often a counterforce to subtlety, it’s little wonder that “(2-inch) Grave” is a jackhammering chronicle and condemnation of that time, one with no time for metaphor. A sample of the song’s manifesto courtesy of Max’s mouthful of acid: “Car battery my source for a short reprieve/No phone, no water, electricity/You told us to save our energy/You stole my powers right under me/Just to warm your fucking feet?/I can’t take this shit anymore! No!/246 lives — why?/You bitches don’t care at all … I’m telling you, I’m gonna make it your problem.”

Unintentionally, it ended up the closing song at their ACL Weekend 2 performance, because they ran out of time with one number left on their setlist. But with an audience undoubtedly full of Uri survivors, perhaps no song was a more appropriate bow on the afternoon’s package.

Providing “somewhere to fit in”

“Grave” was one of several songs WDRL prefaced at its ACL set with an explanation of its inspiration, with those preambles overwhelmingly steeped in topics that are virtually inescapable today, no matter how much some might want to tune out or tap out.

“Nuclear Family,” the band told its Zilker audience, is “about how white supremacy corrupts the family structure.” “Say No to Drugs” is neither a sarcastic sendup of something like the much-ridiculed D.A.R.E. program or an actual diatribe against recreational drug use; fueled by Chase’s own past struggle with prescription addiction, it’s about predatory practices by the pharmaceutical industry. Another tune, Chase explained onstage, examines “how minorities have to work 10 times as hard as their privileged counterparts, and how that affects the production of art.”

Growing up in the Austin area after their family moved in the late ’00s — spending time in Round Rock, North Austin and Leander — the Mitchell kids found their musical influence from some of the unfortunate but predictable sources you might expect.

“Because growing up, you’re not really surrounded by a lot of people that look like you, look like us,” said Kit. “People were so … discriminatory. Like, even before we knew we were queer, people would see us, be like, ‘You’re different.’ And we were like, ‘OK — I’m 5, though, so I don’t really know why you have beef with that.’

“Having that sort of racism — it’s technically subtle, but it’s not subtle. Microaggressions, but then also macroaggressions. Because I think when you walk into a room and everybody says hi to everybody else and then looks at you and deliberately turns away, it’s like, ‘OK.’ I would say there was a lot of racism. A lot of transphobia and homophobia.”

Along with those three things, the band has also experienced “physical violence a lot — just being outside, just existing the way that we do right now,” Chase added. “Obviously, we think that’s stupid. Everybody deserves to exist outside freely and be happy, and have access to people who are like-minded and who appreciate the fact that they’re alive. You know what I’m saying? So we want people to know that we appreciate the fact that they’re alive. We want everyone to be committed to building community. Because if you do that, then it is worth the actual real-time healing that happens, where people can actually be fed and housed.”

If the idealism doesn’t come as a surprise — though it might, given the Llamas’ usual dark and heavy-beating attack — then maybe the extent and reach of their deep, encyclopedic knowledge and reverence for the history and roots of rock music will. In a world where people can easily be duped into thinking young stars like Billie Eilish have no idea who Van Halen is, WDRL is schooled in, and informed by, past generations of black musicians who planted and grew the seeds of rock.

“We believe firmly that rock is black,” Max said. “Shoutout to bands like Death, and Bad Brains, and Living Colour, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Robert Johnson — our ancestors who came before us who made and created this space for all of us to be in, and to work in, and to advance it so — not just [for] us. It’s not just about us, this space. It’s about other people like us, and it’s about the community in and of itself. Not just the punk community, but the black queer community. And it means a lot to me personally to know that my music touches the souls of people who don’t just fit in to our community, but just throughout.

“That’s always been our goal, is for the people who feel like they haven’t always had somewhere to fit in, they feel like they can fit in with our band and the music that we make.”

“(2-inch) Grave” arrived on March 12 ahead of We Don’t Ride Llamas’ planned debut full-lenth, American I(con). The band previously released the seven-song EP The Oracle in 2022, featuring “Venus & Mars.”