On Sept. 11 of last year, Nic Lawless — one of many aliases he's adopted over the years — found himself wandering around the campus at Pitt, where he had recently started his junior year as a poetry major. He wasn't feeling patriotic per se but, he says, "I had a strange feeling in my gut." On the way home, he wrote a poem called "911," which quickly grew into a ramshackle and deceptively sunny solo EP, Nic Lawless.
By the end of 2012, the New Jersey native had formed Nic Lawless and Young Criminales — along with guitarist Josh Barnes, bassist Matt Holden, guitarist/keyboardist Tim Crammond and drummer Mark Rodgers — who just this month completed their first East Coast tour, and finished Sunless, a skillfully infectious full-length. This is not a band of time-wasters.
Freshly 21, Lawless is an old hand at the rock n roll game – by 13, his band Strike had already opened for Enter Shikari at a sold-out Bowery Ballroom show. After moving to Pittsburgh, Lawless fell in with bands like Ursa Major and Skinless Boneless, and started playing with experimental artist Dean Cercone. "It was a good learning experience," he says. "Probably the most influential thing was that [Cercone] told me, ‘Yeah, I'm just an artist.' Obviously he wasn't rich or anything like that; it was just really cool that he had dedicated his life to art."
With that philosophy in mind, Young Criminales spend as much time as possible writing, practicing and recording, and their commitment is evident on Sunless, which confidently filters garage, '60s surf, and doo-wop through a lens of loud, snotty punk rock.
In person, Lawless is reserved, and speaks in noncommittal, elusive sentences; on stage, he and the rest of the band hemorrhage charisma. Shows are "just, like, 35 minutes of madness," he says. On tour, "it was actually a little too crazy for me to control and it was a little stressful. When we play in Pittsburgh, it's the most rowdy experience that I need for a long time."
Lawless counts Iggy Pop, The Velvet Underground — Nico is his self-appointed namesake — and Julian Casablancas as influences. But, with a presence that is alternately lazy-cool and pained, he also brings to mind Richard Hell, Stephen Malkmus and even Patti Smith.
Some casual observers might accuse Lawless of unearned posturing — it is, after all, hard to pull off an assumed name and a punk persona without a few people asking, "Who do you think you are?" But, as Barnes points out, "He's been doing it since he was 13." At a certain point, the lines between an invented attitude and real personality get a little blurry.
"The band was telling me, ‘Act like you are this person,'" Lawless says. "I came up with it, it must be part of me." But even still, Young Criminales as a band pushes Lawless to new places as a frontman. Early on, Barnes recalls, "I was like, ‘This kid, he writes good songs, but what is he doing?' I said, ‘You gotta stop singing like a choir boy.'"
"I think it ruined me," Lawless responds with a laugh and a shrug. "I had better range then."