It’s May 27th, 2008. My brother and I had been sitting on the sidewalk of the Sunset Strip patiently waiting for the doors of the Roxy to open to see Green Day side project Foxboro Hot Tubs. By the end of the night I had experienced the most intense, sweaty, beer soaked rock show of my entire life. This included a moment of being on the stage with the band singing their song “Broadway” with them by force. I looked over to my right and there’s an unfamiliar face. A new edition to what I assumed the lineup of the band would be; Kevin Preston. Unbeknownst to me and my friends, he was just about to release the debut record with his own band Prima Donna. They’re a glam rock band that have tested the boundaries of rock and roll when it wasn’t the safe thing to do. Spanning over three definitive full length albums, Prima Donna has toured all over the world and have collaborated with some of music’s biggest heroes in the process. About nine years of Prima Donna shows later in all corners of Southern California, I had the pleasure of talking to Kevin Preston. Our conversation detailed the story of Prima Donna without demystifying their history.
From hearing his father singing Elvis’ “Return to Sender” or his mother buying him a tiny version of Michael Jackson’s jacket from the “Beat It” video, music was always a factor around the Preston house growing up. “They thought I was going to be a drummer but guitar was my first instrument. I had a nylon string classical guitar, learning classical picking styles slowly moving towards rock and roll,” Preston said endearingly. “At the time, it was Kurt Cobain and Billie Joe Armstrong… those were the two. They played guitar so I wanted to play guitar, and that was it.” By the age of ten he had started his first band Hypertension, with lifelong friend and drummer of Prima Donna, David S. Field. Originally they wanted to submit a tape to KROQ’s Kevin and Bean for a contest to open the annual Weenie Roast. Though a valiant effort of using just a tape recorder, there was no response back. “We thought it was just silly enough that these little kids wanted to play Weenie Roast that we might actually win. I think this band Butt Trumpet won that year.”
A few years after the fact, Preston had started a trajectory of being in the right place in the right time by meeting Billy Bones, who famously started one of the first Los Angeles punk bands in the 70s. He was a mentor with music, not just with punk but what preceded it- Bowie, Roxy Music, New York Dolls, Be Bop Deluxe etc.” Preston’s band at the time had booked a show at the record store Headline Records and decided to cover a Skulls song knowing Bones would be in attendance. In classic Bones fashion the joy of hearing a young band cover his work compelled him to jump on stage and join the gang of fifteen year olds to sing melodies of what was considered a past life at the time. Hanging above the door was the first Skulls kick drum head from the 70’s. “The wheels started turning and I got the call to play guitar.” To be able to join the band that started one of the most important music scenes in history wasn’t necessarily jarring as it was the right thing to do. As of 2000, they had resurrected with the help of a young Kevin Preston. “That was my education. High school for me was playing in the Skulls,” Preston says definitively. Brendan Mullen, famous for starting the first punk club in Los Angeles, threw a commemorative punk anniversary event at the El Rey Theatre where the Skulls performed. This was the beginning of the punk movement’s resurgence as well as the evolution of Kevin Preston as a performer. For the next five years memorable and formative shows cultivated Preston’s stage presence and recognition within the Los Angeles scene as well other cities all over the world. When asked what he had learned from that experience with Billy Bones, Preston had this to say: “Definitely perseverance,” Preston says. “He’d always say ‘perseverance is key kid.’ I’d hear it ten times a day and now every year it means more than ever. The people you want to find you will find you.” He takes a deep breath formulating his next thought. “One thing I will say about Billy that I don’t say enough; playing guitar was always a kid thing for me and then it was a tool for me to be a lead singer until Billy Bones. He sat me down and showed me all the things I could do with the guitar. He really helped me cultivate that. He made me really fall in love with it. He was my inspiration to become better. I’m still in awe of him but we became buddies pretty quick… we’re brothers. He’s always treated me like family.”
“Perseverance is key, kid. I’d hear it ten times a day and now every year it means more than ever.”
Eventually all great things eventually come to an end. As Preston grew he began writing songs that didn’t seem to be Skulls material, but something completely independent. He brought that material to Field, who has always been a staple in his story. They began working out ideas in the garage as they did in their formative years. As this concept built, he felt it was time to take what was either a courageous or foolish leap into devoting all of his energy towards a new project. “I didn’t want to split focus or be unfair to Billy and the guys.” I can see that it still wasn’t an easy decision to reflect on, even over a decade later. His description of it reminded me of Dave Grohl telling Tom Petty he wouldn’t be joining the Heartbreakers after Nirvana had ended in order to start the Foo Fighters. “It was heartbreaking, I could barely get the words out. I had to tell them in person. “I couldn’t see through my tears, but it was the right thing to do.” Though it wasn’t an easy parting, it was done with nothing but love. Out of respect they still asked Kevin for his input as for who he thought should replace him and what moves they should make next. “I was still a part of the gang.” There’s always a debate about when Prima Donna officially started. We decided to set the record straight. “We were in the garage for a year and started in 2004 with David and Aaron. The first couple of years were pretty sketchy to say the least,” he says with a grin. “I think we were really a band in 2007. When the “Eat Your Heart Out” single came out, we were Prima Donna and everything started to click.” Another punk rock legend, Texas Terri, had offered them an opportunity to tour with her in Europe. If they were her backing band, Prima Donna could open each show. There was a month to prepare for the tour, learn her set, have their set down, and break in the new guitarist Erik Arcane. “We got to meet a ton of our idols. And realizing that the world was huge. In Europe they live and breath rock and roll.” Another thread through Preston’s story are these definitive teachers or saints of the church of music, whether it’s song writing, recording, business or touring. “Texas Terri is one of my patron saints. I still worship at the altar. I learned everything about touring from Texas Terri.” Fresh off of the road, the kids now have the tools to create a proper full length album to represent them officially. But there’s a small detour; the Foxboro Hot Tubs.
In 2008 Green Day had a brief electrifying moment of spontaneity that resulted in a side project under the moniker Foxboro Hot Tubs. “The short story is Billie just wanted to sing and I got the call.” Then Dirnt suggested it to Armstrong for Preston to play guitar. Initially just one or two shows were planned. They went on a small tour including the Roxy show I attended in West Hollywood. “Foxboro only plays when you least expect it. I only hear about it the night before or something.” Going back to Billie Joe Armstrong and Kurt Cobain being the genesis of Preston’s musical journey, this was a moment of gratitude and surprise. “Green Day was my Beatles. If I told my twelve year old self what I would be doing not ten years after the fact, I would have died.” Not too long after that tour, Prima Donna’s first LP After Hours had been released on Acetate Records.
“After Hours” is considered Prima Donna’s classic album with every song being presented as a hit single. Whether this was from the old school 45 releases making each song have more weight than the last or that the years playing live preceding the album had cemented them into the L.A scene, this album is a dense collection of songs that can only be played turned up to eleven. There’s hints of the New York Dolls, The Stooges, Little Richard, and X Ray Spex. The album was produced by Bruce Duff (45 Grave, ADZ etc.) and Frank Meyer.
“Texas Terri is one of my patron saints. I still worship at the altar. I learned everything about touring from Texas Terri.”
Photo credit: Else Duff
Bruce has worn a lot of hats for Prima Donna.” He would later become their manager after their second album. “We wanted to be an attack on all the senses,” says Preston. Rodney Bingenheimer had began playing the song Demoted on KROQ. But to fans the peak moment was the song Soul Stripper. To this day that song is in every set they do, otherwise there might be a riot. Preston described a similar sentiment of what The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft said about playing songs every night. I asked if it was a nuisance. “Absolutely not, we love making someone’s night.” The L.A scene responded immediately, though they still stayed true to their San Fernando Valley roots. “We hold the valley close to our hearts, we defended it.” To many bands from the Valley, or other surrounding areas of Los Angeles, there’s typically a social stigma attached to where they came from. Prima Donna had no problem showing pride for their roots. But they were and still are undeniably L.A. “What we were doing was very much suited for the Sunset Strip.” After the 80s and hair metal, the strip went through a period of not having an identity. Most of the time now, millennials refer to it as a place for rock and roll dinosaurs and Hollywood weirdos while everyone hip stays on the East Side. Prima Donna had given a new found identity to the Sunset Strip and made it cool again. They played the Roxy, Whiskey, Viper Room, Knitting Factory, Troubadour, Key Club etc. It was an experience to be had each time. There wasn’t a scene at home in the valley, so they took it to the city at a time that rock music was underground. Their version of it specially, was something of a rarity.
Eventually another important call came from Green Day. It was an invitation to join them on an arena tour in Europe in 2009 and Asia in 2010. Preston describes getting the phone call from Billie Joe Armstrong saying how much he liked their album. They still remain a part of the Green Day family. They didn’t look phased on that big of a stage. Without feeling entitled, the attitude from the music and their look called for them to be playing venues of that size.“We know how to do this. We’ve just been doing it in clubs.” It made the fan base back home grow exponentially. “All shows were sold out. The Green Day tour was huge for us. We wanted to see what we could do on our own.” Seeing new parts of the world and playing shows larger than they could have imagined added fuel to the fire.
To imagine collaborating, traveling and performing with one of your favorite bands is already a mind blowing and life altering experience. To top it off, they offered their studio to them for a new album. Though many years of touring prolonged it’s release, Bless This Mess was released in 2012 on Acetate Records with the addition of “Lights Out” Levine on bass. They recorded and lived at Jingle Town Records in Oakland (formerly studio 808). The album produced by Chris Dugan. A fraction of the material was written during soundcheck on those Green Day tours. “After Hours was our party record. We were being young and just totally out of our heads. Bless this Mess gets more introspective. By the time we get to Bless This Mess we started thinking, is this too much? Too much excess.”After hours is a scene in a movie and Bless this Mess is a film in its entirety. The song writing began to expand and became larger. You can hear Mott The Hoople, T Rex, David Bowie, and Slade on this album but it became more personal. “Be careful what you wish for. It’s the hangover record. People got it. It didn’t break the charts like maybe we thought it would. We thought that would maybe be the huge record.” The reaction to this album from the general populous was electrifying. There was a new precedent set for their songwriting and composition. That being said, it was an awkward moment for the music industry. “Rock n roll wasn’t ruling the airwaves.” Steve Jones, Kat Corbett and Rodney Bingenheimer were playing the singles from the album on KROQ but was still being considered underground.
“After Hours was our party record. We were being young and just totally out of our heads. Bless this Mess gets more introspective."
Photo credit: Dawn Laureen
They toured the album for three years with packed rooms.Momentum still built, dues were paid and they were recognized for their hard work and musicianship. In 2013 they joined Adam Ant for a pivotal moment in both of their careers. “Another early musical memory was Strip by Adam Ant. That was a big moment. I was obsessed when I was a teenager. I still am.” Preston went to all of the Southern California shows and sent word to the booking agent that they were the band that should be an opening act if Ant were to to do an extensive tour. “It was the longest tour we had ever been on.” Every night both acts made the other step up their performances like an unknown Van Halen supporting Black Sabbath on tour. Though they weren’t as close as some of the saints of rock and roll mentioned prior, Preston refers to Adam Ant’s presence and class as something to pay respect to indefinitely.
Like every major touring experience, there was a shift in esthetic and songwriting. “We were never putting up a front. We were always trying to draw people in with the image and get them in the seats to show them what we can do. When we make a change we just know we’ve taken something as far as we can take it. Fashion caught up with us. It was pretty shocking to some of the crowds we played to at the time. Our take on fashion was never in vogue. That was the point. So by the time Nine Lives and Forty Fives came out, we said we’re gonna be the opposite of that. We’re still going to keep that energy but strip it to the bone.”
Influenced by English punk and new wave bands that would put out singles in between albums, Prima Donna decided to follow suit. A somewhat makeshift compilation record but treated as a new release rather than a rarity with three new songs, covers, and a few old single cuts. 2015 birthed the latest Prima Donna release, Nine Lives and Forty Fives released on Alive Records. For those outside of their circle, it came out of left field. It was almost a resurgence for the band to majority of their fan base. “After Bless This Mess, we just wanted to tour, but there was a void of new music.” This album expands their artillery flirting with the sounds of Nina Hagen, Blondie, Generation X and various artists from the Motown Records era in Detroit. The single Living in Sin embodies what it means to grow up in the San Fernando Valley with all of the dirt, beauty and swagger that it comes with. To commemorate the new album, Amoeba records hosted a record release party and Prima Donna did what they do best; hit the road. This included European dates and supporting Blondie in the United States.
Once again there’s an itch from fans around the world for new music. I can tell that sentiment is shared by Preston and his bandmates as well. “Every record was a perfect portrait of where we were at,” Preston says. We reflect on each album sentimentally while looking towards the future. So where are Prima Donna at now?
“Every record was a perfect portrait of where we were at.”
Photo credit: Kearny Thompson
Recently, like all of those years ago when we were first introduced to Kevin, my brother and I were sitting at the bar waiting for Prima Donna to come on at The Redwood bar and grill in Downtown Los Angeles. This venue is a staple for the band and has been utilized over the years as a place of comfort, solace, exhibition, rage, celebration, or somewhere to try out new songs. The lights go down and Dion’s 1963 classic Donna The Prima Donna blares over the speaker system. All of the members of the band approach the stage with bags of balloons that filled the room calling for the packed crowd to come closer to the stage igniting a celebration. And a celebration it was. There was an unequivocal sense of confidence but with a brand new energy before the first chord hit. I looked behind me and saw a room of familiar faces such as a dancing Billy Bones unable to contain his pride and happiness. We’re all singing along to old songs we’d sang along to together many times before and heard new material that had a promising sign of what was to come.
Prima Donna’s new album will be put out in the Fall of 2017 on Wicked Cool Records, ran by Little Steven of the E Street Band. A world tour will then follow further cementing the significance of Prima Donna and their evolution.