Looking back on the early years of California punk duo The Bots

Looking back on the early years of California punk duo The Bots

Groundbreaking music reportage — In 2013 photographer Dan Wilton spent months hanging out with brothers and California punk duo The Bots. Back then they may have been fresher-faced than your little bro, but they’ve never been babies in the world of punk. As Dan's shots go on display at We Want More: Image-Making and Music in the 21st Century at the Photographer's Gallery, we pulled this photo story from the Huck archives.

They’re not old enough to buy a beer in their home country, but Californian brothers Anaiah and Mikaiah Lei are making a markedly mature racket as The Bots.

“Who here thinks I’m a girl?” jokes afro-wielding Anaiah into the microphone hovering above his drumkit. The crowd gathered at the Camden Barfly chuckle at the fifteen-year-old’s jibe before erupting into laughter when Mikaiah, nineteen, retorts: “Yeah, you look like Beyonce in Austin Powers!” Despite informing me of their nerves before they took to the stage, this dynamic duo show no signs of anxiety as they quip back and forth and feverishly exhibit their brand of youthful, punk-inspired rock ‘n’ roll.

The venue is packed wall-to-wall and despite their relatively small stature, The Bots are putting on a fully-grown show. Mikaiah and his guitar are tearing around the stage, still managing to come together on every riff, lick and chug, while Anaiah is a whirlwind behind the drumkit – dressed in a dinosaur costume for Halloween no less – wildly smashing his snare and toms with all the force he can muster, looking like a punk-rock Questlove in the process. The Bots, it would seem, have arrived.

The brothers, from Glendale, California, have been hailed as the ‘future of punk’, which – oxymoronic as it may sound – isn’t a bad appraisal for a couple of kids that started out playing music for visiting relatives. “It would be like: ‘Boys, bust out the instruments, it’s time for a show!’” laughs Mikaiah, perched next to his brother on a raggedy sofa in their Barfly dressing room before their gig. “Then it became less of that and more of us actually becoming truly fascinated and passionate about composition and whatnot, so we took it upon ourselves to make music we wanna play.”

The Bots produced their first record, Self-Titled Album, in 2009, when Mikaiah was fifteen and Anaiah was just twelve. Since then, they’ve released three EPs and are currently working on their sophomore album. They oscillate from sounding like furious, filthy garage-punk played by two youngsters who know what they’re doing (see: ‘Northern Lights’) to sweet, melancholy folk music played by two youngsters who know what they’re doing (see: ‘Naked’). Point is: whatever genre they draw from, The Bots seem to know what they’re doing.

“It’s experimental, it’s indie, it’s just rock music,” offers Mikaiah contemplatively. “We just take influence from great bands, and whatever we can do with our two-person capabilities, however big we can make that sound, or how small at times… we just want it to be dynamic, that’s what it’s about.”

Mikaiah speaks with an eloquence and self-assurance that hammers home just how firmly he’s got his head screwed on. He talks of waking up at 8am, practicing yoga, drinking lots of tea and generally looking after himself – not your typical nineteen-year-old’s routine. “It kind of sounds like I’m quite lazy, I don’t do much,” he says, offering a stark contrast to his hyperactive stage presence. “I’m quite homebound. I just try and find inspiration for music. I paint, I draw and I create… I kind of miss that a lot actually, talking about it now. It’s been really nice touring, I’m doing what I love out here, but I kind of can’t wait to get back home and just keep to myself.”

The Bots’ creative streak was captured recently in a ’zine, put together by close friend and photographer Dan Wilton as a visual diary of last summer’s tour of Europe. As good an insight into the character of the pair as you’re likely to find, STOB EHT documents the brothers skateboarding and mischief-making across the old continent, and they even tie-dyed slipcases for each limited-edition ’zine by hand.

Despite their parents having separated, family has played a big part in The Bots’ swelling success story. Their mother, Akosua Lei, travels with them and acts as management, and they credit their father, Alex Lei, for introducing them to music, buying their first instruments and supporting them since day one. “He’s very intense about our passion,” says Mikaiah sincerely. “He understands music, he gets it just like us.” Anaiah pipes up, adding: “He understands how hard it is and helps us with behind-the-scenes things. He’s our all-round go-to guy, and he was the jumpstart for everything.”

As the topic of conversation turns to their first gig, Anaiah, tired from a day of doing the press rounds, rests his head on his brother’s shoulder. “If this was on video it would be really awkward,” he says. Mikaiah laughs, then talks about the minor disaster that was their first show – in a church, to a crowd of ten people. They played three songs, screwed up a White Stripes cover, then played the first three songs again. “From then to this point on we’ve become somewhat better,” says the guitarist with a grin. “I do the best I can within my capabilities and Anaiah is a fantastic drummer.” “Ah, thank you,” replies Anaiah. “I give my brother credit for everything, we just try and do what we do. This band is just our feelings, our awkward feelings on a record.”

There may be a fair amount of brotherly love floating around today, but the Lei bros – thankfully! – are no clean-cut cliché. Like any normal siblings, they squabble and bicker; our first interview had to be rescheduled after a fall-out left the boys refusing to talk to each other for an entire afternoon. But in lots of ways that’s where regular teen life begins and ends.

Having already toured with the likes of Refused, Bad Brains, the Warped Tour, Damon Albarn’s Africa Express and Tenacious D, the boys have some pretty serious credentials on their fledgling CVs (they’ve met Paul McCartney, too). They’ve been away from home for the best part of a year now (living in London while their tour schedule snowballed) and they’ve picked up some pointers from other more experienced musicians along the way. Most notably from Bad Brains frontman HR, who also happens to be a family friend. “He was quite sagacious and just basically told us to keep calm, stay level-headed and peaceful,” says Mikaiah, with an air of wisdom about him. “It’s what most bands should do. A lot of people lose their heads in this situation, get carried away and become someone else. But it’s good to stay the way we are, and we’re having fun doing it.”

This or that with The Bots

Shirt and tie or tie-dye?
Anaiah: We’ve been doing shirt and tie forever in our videos and stuff. I think I wanna say tie-dye.
Mikaiah: Tie-dye… I’ve got a really sick tie-dye shirt my girlfriend made. It’s blue. It’s good for something different to wear.

Black Flag or White Stripes?
Mikaiah: White Stripes for me.
Anaiah: I love both bands. I’m just going to have to go with both. Grey Stripey Flag?

Arcade Fire or arcade games?

Crowd surfing or skateboarding?
Anaiah: I love both!
Mikaiah: Skateboard crowdsurf?
Anaiah: Yeah, skateboard crowdsurf, how about that?
Mikaiah: How about getting on a skateboard, ollie, ditch the board in mid air and aim for the crowd?
Anaiah: Hopefully you ditch it before the crowd, because if you don’t it’s just going to slam them.
Mikaiah: That was good, I like that one.
Anaiah: I love both!

Facebook or real books?
Both: Real books.
Mikaiah: I hate Facebook.

Jack Black or Jack White?
Mikaiah: Aaaah come on! I know Jack Black!
Anaiah: I wanna meet Jack White, because I don’t know him and because he’s a rock god.
Mikaiah: You can’t compare an actor to a… oh no Jack White does acting, nevermind.
Anaiah: Yeah, Jack White has been in a couple of films, to be fair.
Mikaiah: Just Jack Black. I’ll say Jack Black.
Anaiah: So you say Jack Black? Hi Jack… but I’ll say Jack White.
Mikaiah: Yo Jack!
Anaiah: I hope he never reads this…

This article originally appeared in Huck 36 – The Nas Issue.

Check out Dan Wilton’s shots from this story at We Want More: Image-Making and Music in the 21st Century at the Photographer’s Gallery, London, July 17 – September 20.