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Between Punk and Porky’s

By: Andrew BeaujonOklahoma rockers the All-American Rejects have gone from playingall-ages punk shows to hitting it big on MTV and hanging out withmodels. Here’s what happens when emo goes on spring break

There will be a “sexy fashion show” tonight. All raging alcoholics are ordered to report to the bar, where the “love bucket-64 ounces of pure alcohol” is on sale. If you do not have a drink in your hand, you are not on spring break. Such is the kind of announcement blasting through the relative noontime quiet of Panama City Beach, Florida. The skinny Oklahomans in the All-American Rejects look very out of place in that they’re wearing clothes and are not well ontheir way to getting completely trashed. The band is sitting on a beach in front of a giant inflatable Nokia cell phone, gamely autographing photos and hats for students who’ve only just managed to stagger into their bikinis and out of their hotel rooms. “Who’s the lead singer?” asks a dude wearing a bucket hat, Mardi Gras beads, and a Trojan condoms medallion. “Are you the one standing in the background in the video?” he barks at guitarist Mike Kennerty.

Tonight, the emo-rocking Rejects will play their fifth spring break show of the week, and this is the closest they’ve come to seeing a boob. Sure, they were drenched in hydraulic fluid when the “Wild Thang,” a Daytona Beach carnival ride, went haywire. And a baby vomited on Kennerty as they flew through a tropical storm to Panama City. But the traditional Floridian two-nipple salute has eluded the lads, even though they’re surrounded by heavily made-up drunk women in tiny bathing suits, whose interest spikes when they hear that Kennerty, guitarist Nick Wheeler, singer/bassist Tyson Ritter, and drummer Chris Gaylor are the guys behind the catchy hit “Swing, Swing.”

“A lot of dudes with no shirts” is how Ritter describes their new audience. “Yeah, they’ll throw you against their chest and, like, clamp you,” he says. And don’t get him started on the young lady who gave him “carpet burn” a couple nights ago with an unsolicited bump’n’grind after the show.

Catie Pike’s love of the Rejects is less prurient. A 15-year-old from Dallas, Catie convinced her parents to take her to Panama City Beach for spring break, and today she was first in line at the autograph signing, where she presented the boys with homemade name bracelets. Except for a couple of friends from their hometown of Stillwater, Oklahoma, who just stumbled by, she’s the sole link to the Rejects’ past as rockers of all-ages stages.

The band’s ascendance from bedroom to beach party began in 2000, when junior-high pals Wheeler and Ritter left their first band (also called the All-American Rejects) to form a group in which they could do more songwriting. The duo soon sent demos to a few prominent indie labels, including Doghouse Records, whose number they cribbed from the back of a Get Up Kids album. Label head Dirk Hemsath initially dismissed Ritter’s voice as “whiny” but reconsidered when the band found a fan in his then-15-year-old sister-in-law Laura. “She took the demo to school and played it for a bunch of her friends,” Hemsath says. “In two days, my wife and I were singing all the songs. We flew to Tulsa a couple weeks later, and right on the spot, we were like, ‘Yeah, we definitely want to sign you guys.'” (The Rejects have since pledged to play at Laura’s high school graduation.)

The eponymous album that Ritter and Wheeler subsequently made features remarkably sophisticated songwriting. Besides the pure-pop mastery of “Swing, Swing,” tracks like “My Paper Heart” and “One More SadSong” have major/minor chord changes, sweeping choruses, and arcing middle eights that Weezer would slide bare-assed down a splintery board for. This is especially impressive considering that Wheeler will celebrate his 21st birthday at tonight’s show and Ritter is only 19. Though it sounds like a full-band album, The All-American Rejects was made by two guys (Oakie homeboys Kennerty and Gaylor joined last year; all four have since had the Rejects logo tattooed on their chests).

The finished album quickly became an object of corporate desire, and the Rejects signed to DreamWorks with the stipulation that Doghouse would sell the record first. “Those guys never wavered,” says Hemsath. “They would tell presidents of labels, ‘Doghouse is putting out this record. If you guys want to help out after that, that’s cool.'”

But in the warm Florida sun, they’re being offered a different type of assistance. As the band drives to the club for tonight’s show–a swimming pool with a stage that bills itself THE LARGEST CLUB IN THE USA–the public nudity drought finally comes to a close. “Suddenly, there’s this girl hanging out of a sunroof, showing her boobies!” Wheeler recounts minutes later. “They said, ‘We’re going to see the All-American Rejects!'” The ladies followed the band to a seafood buffet and passed out drunk in a booth.

Yet redemption awaits. Turns out the band is sharing a dressing room with the models in the advertised “sexy fashion show,” who are not shy about changing in front of them. In fact, these women seem like the type of models whose catwalks usually have a pole at the end. During the Rejects’ set, they will douse Wheeler with water as the crowd shouts birthday greetings, and they also stick around to dance during the set-closing “The Last Song.” But through it all, the stout-hearted Midwestern nice guys of the All-American Rejects don’t seem at all removed from little Catie Pike, clutching her camera in the front row. Miles from home, awash in cheesy decadence, they’re Oklahoma boys at heart, quite content to ride the irony.

“This is the best life I’ve ever had!” Ritter exclaims. Wheeler is soaking wet and too drunk to comment, but the look on his face says he couldn’t agree more.