The Bots are as surprised as anyone about how things have gone with their little band. A few years ago, brothers Anaiah and Mikaiah Lei were a couple of Glendale kids who just wanted to rock 'n' roll, and called themselves the Bots. It turned out they were good.
The band began as a trio playing "indie acoustic folk," but evolved into a euphoric garage rock duo by the time the Lei brothers were signed up to play on the Vans Warped Tour in 2011, bouncing onstage to a sound of bristling guitar and drums in white shirts with black ties. There were some big names on that tour (Paramore, Against Me!, Gym Class Heroes, etc.), but a lot of new fans and fellow players left the dates talking about the melodic punk 'n' blues unfolding daily from two Glendale kids on a small side stage.
Last month, they played nine shows at the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. This week they're onstage at Coachella.
"We started the band in high school just to jam. We didn't think we'd be getting professional gigs and be flown out to gigs and play massive festivals," says singer-guitarist Mikaiah, 20. "We're so blessed to have what we have. If we work hard, it gets better and better. I'm excited to ride the roll coaster all the way to the end."
On the duo's most recent EP, last year's "Sincerely Sorry," the songs rock and thrash like the Black Keys at full throttle. On the opening song, "5.17," drummer Anaiah pounds a frantic beat to his brother's anxious guitar and bass, as electronic blips and beats weave in-between. "I Like Your Style" collides guitar modes, from Hendrix-like flailing to a piston-thrashing punk rhythm. The Bots are currently in a Hollywood studio with producer Justin Warfield (She Wants Revenge) finishing a new album.
The Coachella Music and Arts Festival is one of the most coveted stages in popular music, and the Bots are playing both weekends on the second stage at the desert venue. They've had to get used to that kind of attention.
At the South By Southwest Music Festival last month, the Bots spent time mingling with the likes of Usher, Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, the Good, the Bad and the Queen, etc.), Grammy-winning producer Pharrell Williams, and other rising and falling artists of rock and hip-hop. "I want to meet Rick Ross. That would be sick," says Mikaiah.
Albarn is producing tracks with the band. So is Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner.
"Being in a band means you lose a bit of your social life," Mikaiah says, "but you gain a social life within a community of musicians. We all have something in common. It's fun."
In Austin, says Mikaiah, "We stumbled across a couple of new bands that we heard and liked right away. That's why people love coming to these festivals. South By Southwest is like a big wine-tasting. You see bands live and experience what they are. It's a great experience. I wish we could come and do this every year."
For Coachella, says Anaiah, 17, "It's a special occasion. The crew we have are going to be dressed in all white" — just like the band.
"We're going to look like a cult. It's going to be weird. We're going to play a nice rock 'n' roll set for everybody," says Mikaiah with a laugh. "Everybody there is going to be ready and actually want to listen: Music fans."
The smaller club shows of SXSW, he adds, were a welcome warmup for the spotlight of the world-renowned desert festival. "We're having a great time and stoked to get to Coachella. "
The brothers grew up in a house filled with reggae and '80s hardcore. Their father, Alex Lei, was a part of the early Goldenvoice Productions team — the essential SoCal concert promoter that introduced key punk and other alternative rock sounds to local venues and now hosts Coachella. Sometimes a notable underground musician would pay a visit to the Lei home — regularly among them, the hugely influential Bad Brains singer H.R.
"H.R. would come over now and then," Mikaiah says nonchalantly. "Music was always around and I'm sure it had something to do with what we're doing now. It opened up the door to other genres – Oh, rock music, indie rock, folk and whatever. We listen to whatever sounds good."
The singer-guitarist finds many of his peers less open to discovering new sounds on their own, depending on certain tastemakers (Pitchfork, etc.) to give them marching orders as listeners.
"'Oh, this is what's cool, this is what I like now' — they don't listen for themselves. That bums me out a little bit. I didn't do that growing up. I just listened to what I like."
Mikaiah currently lives with his father in Temple City (while his brother attends Glendale High and lives with his mother, Akosua Lei), but still feels a strong connection with his oldest friends in Glendale. "My close friends that I've had since elementary school have been so supportive," Mikaiah says. "They told me it was so nice to watch our band come up a little bit. Those are my real friends. They come to our shows, help with our equipment, and do everything they can."
For more info on the Bots, see www.thebotsband.com.
Follow Steve Appleford on Twitter: @SteveAppleford.