Before his band the Black Kids could exist, singer-guitarist Reggie Youngblood had to lighten up. He always had seen himself as a deadly serious pop artiste, a brooding lovesick Romeo on the mike.
Paradoxically, there was plenty of subversive humor in the '80s alt-rock and pop he grew to listening to in Jacksonville, Fla. -- the Smiths, B-52s, Blondie, the Cure -- and he realized what his own music lacked only after recording comical birthday songs for friends. "It just became obvious through the years that people preferred the funny birthday songs," Youngblood says now. "I took a hint."
Humor is just one part of the raw, joyful alt-pop sounds of the Black Kids' debut album, "Partie Traumatic," which includes such teasing, provocative songs as "I've Underestimated My Charm (Again)" and the single "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You." Recorded in London with producer Bernard Butler of Suede, the album is danceable and emotional, heavy on synthesizers and bouncy riffs, and Youngblood's high, urgent cries are not unlike those of the Cure's Robert Smith at his most frantic and romantic. It's helped earn the band, which performs tonight at the El Rey Theatre, some early critical raves both in the U.S. and in England, where "Partie Traumatic" debuted at No.5 on the U.K. pop album chart.
On Sunday afternoon, Youngblood sits over a cup of green tea at a small Silver Lake restaurant, his black curls scattered high and wild around his face. Next to him is drummer Kevin Snow, finishing a burger and fries.
And across the room is the rest of the band -- bassist Owen Holmes and singer-keyboardists Dawn Watley and Ali Youngblood, Reggie's younger sister, all still in their 20s -- on a lunch break during a full day of photo shoots and interviews to promote the new album, released in the U.S. last week on Columbia Records.
Last week, they were on network TV with David Letterman and fielding interviews from across the country. Rolling Stone and Spin wrote about the band before the album was even released. Not bad for a young group that formed only two years ago.
"We've been in about three or four different groups together," says Youngblood of himself, Snow and Holmes. "Each one we've always assumed that, 'Oh, yeah, they're going to love this [stuff], they're going to eat it up.' " He laughs. "You've never heard of those groups. This time around we were hoping people would enjoy it, but I think we just wanted to have some fun after trying too hard for so long."
For the Black Kids, the answer was tapping into the energy and melodic euphoria of early Motown, the B-52s, Magnetic Fields -- "and how they blend genre and yet it doesn't seem forced," says Youngblood. "We just wanted to be blatantly pop."
The band's moniker was intended to be provocative, particularly since only Youngblood and his sister are African-American. "It's such a wicked name," Youngblood says. "Why wouldn't we (use it)?"
He turns to Snow. "Well, you didn't like it. And some of our friends thought it was kind of goofy."
Snow laughs. "Owen and I both were uncertain about it in the beginning."
"Understandably, being that they're two white males," Youngblood says. "It kind of serves as a litmus test to filter and weed out people we probably don't want hanging around in the first place."
He laughs and turns again to Snow. "I'm not saying I don't want you around. You're essential to my happiness."
Things came together for the Black Kids quickly. At the band's first rehearsal, they created the songs "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You" and "Hit the Heartbrakes," the latter sung in the voice of a ruthless lover warning: "Ain't no way I'm going to meet your mother, your father, your dog . . . I can't be bothered."
"I started writing from different perspectives," says Youngblood, "because I was really attached to the victim persona: 'You've wronged me, you've left me,' I thought it would be funner to write from the angle of a person who is in control of the relationship."
In 2007, the band released a self-produced EP, "Wizard of Ahhhs," which included early versions of songs on "Partie Traumatic." Just as important, a friend talked them into traveling to Athens, Ga., last August to perform at Popfest. Fewer than 50 people saw the gig in a tiny room, but among the crowd were a number of excited bloggers who raved about the show. That was followed by another crucial performance at that year's CMJ Music Festival in New York, adding to the buzz leading to the album release.
"I always felt like that if people had access to the songs, then of course they would love it," says Youngblood, laughing. "I wasn't so much taken aback that they liked the music, but just that people were actually hearing it. I don't believe the music is getting out there."