EVERY SCHOOL HAD ONE: THE kid who threw the chairs. Six years ago, at W.C. Stripling Middle School in Fort Worth, Texas, that kid was Travis Meeks, the brooding singer for Days of the New. By fifth grade, Meeks had already done time in a treatment center for troubled kids and a year in special ed. "I was 'emotionally handicapped,' " he says, shaking his head. "Nobody wanted to listen. Everybody kept pushing me around." By sixth grade, Meeks was fighting back. "I'm like, ' You ain't gonna fuck with me, I don't care how small I am,' " he says. "I was throwing chairs and going nuts. It was fear. I was afraid. "
As you can tell, Travis Meeks is not your ordinary bored suburban kid writing songs about how he can't get laid. Just 18, Meeks writes what he knows, and the songs on his band's debut album are bleak, black, devoid of hope. This darkness is also reflected in the music, which hearkens back to the rumbling era when Soundgarden and Alice in Chains roamed the earth. Call them grunge throwbacks, but Days of the New's sounds is connecting: "Touch, Peel and Stand," the album's first single, is in the Billboard Modern Rock chart's Top 10 and is in heavy rotation on MTV.
ONE OF THE CITIES WHERE THE BOYS first caught on was Boston, where they are awaiting show time in a downtown Howard Johnson. It ain't the Ritz, but it has all the basics: a tolerant staff, cable TV and a nearby McDonald's. This afternoon, the band - drummer Matt Taul, 19; guitarist Todd Whitener, 18; the excellently named bassist, Jesse Vest, 20; and Meeks - are holed up smoking cigarettes, channel-surfing and fidgeting. Introductions are made. "Hi," chorus the guys - except for Meeks, who is playing guitar. His head is down. Minutes crawl by. An eternity passes. Finally he sits his leather-pants-covered ass down, fires up a smoke and begins to tell his story.
Meeks grew up in the working-class town of Charlestown, Ind., alongside Vest and Taul, who shared his love of Guns n' Roses. Meeks lived with his grandmother, Norma Jean, who worked at a cigarette company. "The first day of school," he recalls, "I didn't want to go. I threw a fit. I didn't want to be judged." Meeks was frequently picked on. He was small for his age, and had severe emotional problems and a chemical imbalance. He bounced back and forth between his grandmother in Indiana and his dad in Texas, between schools and rehab. "I started sleeping around young," he says. "Did a lot of drugs. I fucked up a lot. Twelve years old, walking the streets at night, drunk. Passed out. Graveyards. Behind stores."
Music was Meeks' only solace. "No matter where he went, no matter who was around, Travis was always playing his guitar," recalls his old friend Mike Lewellen. "He would walk and play."
And drink. "In ninth grade," Meeks reports, "I drank a fifth of Wild Turkey, blacked out and attacked a police officer. They sent me to a place called Interventions. In an ambulance." While he was there, Meeks received a letter from his girlfriend, Amy, saying that she was pregnant. He was 14. Meeks' daughter will be 4 in April. (Meeks is not the only teen father in the group - Taul, who is in the process of getting a divorce, has a 2 year-old daughter.)
Meeks failed ninth grade, then dropped out of school. He moved into an apartment with his new family. "We're 15," he says. "Amy's on welfare, I'm a stoner. She slept around with my friends, I slept around with hers. I got into a lot of fights over her." During one brawl at a "trailer-park fuckin' bash," he was beaten by a mob of older kids, one of whom ripped his ponytail out of his head. "They beat the fuck out of me," he says, staring. "At first it hurt. Then I started liking it. I can't explain it."
At 16, Meeks bottomed out: "I was running from the police; I was on acid, coke, crank." His lowest point was "one week where I drank more than I ever had in my life," he says. "It was like my life was getting ready to end. I was just …waiting." During that time, he got in an argument with Amy and cracked her car windshield with his fist. She called the cops. "It was the last straw," he says. "They were going to put me in jail."
Meeks hotfooted it to Louisville, Ky., and he never went back. He moved in with his sister, a kindergarten teacher. "I basically started writing the album," he says. "Then I started singing in coffee shops, and everybody was liking it. I thought, ' I'm going to go somewhere, man.' " He had already been playing for years with Taul and Vest, and then he met Whitener at a music store.
"I was buying an amp at the time for a new band I was in, Death by Diarrhea, " says Whitener, who grew up in Louisville. After Days of the New's fourth gig, they were discovered by a management team, which hooked them up with producer Scott Litt (Nirvana, R.E.M).
"Travis never gave up," says Lewellen. "He just took all his experiences and learned from them." These days, the band is opening for Aerosmith; ESPN has contacted Meeks to compose a jingle; and he has made enough dough to get himself a nice place in Louisville. "I'm going to set up a room and my daughter can come and stay with me," he says. (His daughter lives with her mother, who's now married.)
Meeks leans in: "All my life I've wanted to be heard, and now I'm heard. I've got my head on straight - Days of the New." He pauses. "My family's proud of me; I'm at peace. People say, 'You're 18. How can you have peace?' And I'm like, 'Dude, if you was me, you'd know.' "
"Damn, who crapped?" asks the band's manager. The fellas are all on the tour bus, waiting to play a Christmas show alongside Veruca Salt and Tonic. It seems that Taul has a gas problem this evening. The bus door opens and some guys file in. They are Tonic, come to look at the bus. "This is awesome," says one. Then they file out, presumably in search of a decent tune.
Meeks is readying himself for the show. " I don't talk in between songs," he says. "We play one and go right into the next." No hello? "Nope." How about "Thank you?" "Nope." Nothing? Meeks shakes his head, smiles a little. A few beers later, the band heads for the stage. Meeks' vocal style has been compared to Layne Staley's of Alice in Chains. Meeks is aware of this. "The comparisons will stop with the next record," he declares. "And onstage, I sound completely different. You'll see." Indeed. Meeks' voice is deeper, richer. He is shirtless and sings with his eyes closed. A few girls in the crowd smile at each other knowingly. "Hotness," whispers one of them.
True to form, the band rolls from one dark, dense song right into the next. The audience is transfixed. Surprisingly, Meeks and Whitener's acoustic guitars sound just as noisy as electric ones.
Days of the New's set is winding down. Meeks finishes up the final song. Then he stands in front of the mike. "Thank you," he says. "We are Days of the New." He pauses. "Have …have a merry Christmas."