Fueled by high-grade chocolate milk on a bus that smells of popcorn and Twizzlers, Paramore traverse the country on a mission to bring sunny angst to the masses. SPIN tags along for the ride, and wonders where they go from here. [Cover story excerpt]
THURSDAY, APRIL 29, 11:30 P.M.
Somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike
Hayley Williams is on the bus, yanking off her fake eyelashes. It’s been a long day for the Paramore singer: up at eight to drive into Manhattan to soundcheck for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, followed by an interview, lunch at a Times Square diner, where she spent much of her meal posing for pictures with fans, the actual Fallon taping, back to Jersey in rush-hour traffic, a quick bite near the Secaucus Hyatt, and finally onto the bus for the band’s next tour stop, the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City — a two-hour trip that, thanks to a new driver and a wonky GPS, is now well into hour three. If ever there were a time to kick back with a nice cold bottle of…
“Do you like chocolate milk?”
That’s guitarist Josh Farro, standing by the fridge. “This is the best chocolate milk ever,” he says, holding a pint. “They make it at a farm near Knoxville. Our friend sent us, like, 20 of them. You gotta try it.”
For the self-proclaimed “five best friends from Nashville” in Paramore — Farro, his drummer brother Zac, bassist Jeremy Davis, guitarist Taylor York, and Williams — this is what the road is all about. They stay up late. They watch Spaceballs and play Yahtzee. They sing Hanson songs, and not even “MMMBop” — we’re talking deep cuts. Their bus smells like popcorn and Twizzlers, and their chief entertainment is a book of hypothetical questions they take turns shouting out answers to. (If you had to be the underwear of someone famous, who would it be? “Jake Gyllenhaal!” blurts Williams.)
But inside this mobile slumber party lies a thriving rock’n’roll empire. The band’s third album, 2009’s Brand New Eyes, has sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide. The one before that, Riot!, sold two million. In between came their song for the Twilight soundtrack, “Decode,” which clocked over a million downloads and solidified Williams, a 21-year-old dynamo with a voice like a fire truck and hair to match, as America’s leading purveyor of teen-punk angst.
(Speaking of: Team Edward or Team Jacob? “Oh God,” she blushes. “I don’t really like either. I wish she’d date the guy at the school lunch table. The other two seem a little high-maintenance.” Note: Hayley Williams doesn’t do drama.)
Finally, after a lengthy detour through the back roads of Ocean County, the bus arrives at the hotel. Williams — in hoodie and tight jeans, all black everything — makes a beeline for the elevator. She’s beat, and all she wants to do is get upstairs, take her first real shower in a week, and crash. But then there’s these guys. “Yo, you better take them skinny jeans off.”
At 5’2″ and maybe a buck, Williams jokes that she has the body of a 12-year-old boy, and apparently these two mooks in the lobby are under the same impression. “For real, son,” says the second. “We don’t play that shit around here.”
She stops, not so much mad as annoyed. “Dudes,” she says, pulling off her hood. “I’m a fucking girl.”
FRIDAY, APRIL 30, 12:53 P.M.
Atlantic City, NJ
“Look at those seagulls with their fat little bellies!”
The next morning, Williams is strolling along the Atlantic City boardwalk, munching on a $3 corn dog. She’s got a hint of twang and a pretty, crooked smile that reveals the gap in her front teeth. (One of her nicknames is SpongeBob.) In articles, Williams is invariably described as “flame-haired,” but up close it’s much more intense: an eruption of red so volcanic it could shut down European air traffic. (It’s part of the uniform: When she’s off duty, she usually goes blonde.)
She’s wearing leggings and a black New Found Glory hoodie — her boyfriend, Chad Gilbert, is that band’s guitarist — and around her neck hang two pendants: a diamond from Gilbert, and an Elvis/TCB-style lightning bolt over the letters TLC. On her feet are a pair of custom-made Vans, decorated with characters from Pet Sematary — zombie cat on the left, demon kid on the right. The shoes are size six, although as a sixth-grade basketball player, Williams insisted on buying size eight. “I don’t know why,” she says. “I guess I thought I’d grow into them.” The girl dreams big.
Williams was born in 1988, in Meridian, MissisÂsippi, the daughter of a teacher and a car-audio specialist who divorced when she was seven. Her strict Christian upbringing meant secular music was frowned upon, but she managed to absorb enough ‘N Sync and blink-182 to keep her in the loop.
But after she and her mom moved to Nashville, a feud with some Lohan-caliber mean girls led her to quit public school altogether. She started going to a weekly tutorial in a church, where her study buddies happened to include two musical brothers named Farro.
Since then, Williams has led the kind of life they don’t teach in home school: She gets clothes from Marc Jacobs and advice from Gwen Stefani. Hollywood is sending her scripts. She’s on B.o.B’s summer smash, “Airplanes.” She’s friends with Miley Cyrus and McLovin, and when they’re both at home, she has girly time with Taylor Swift. In September they saw Jennifer’s Body and talked about how hot Megan Fox was.
Last year Williams bought a house in the Nashville suburb of Franklin. It’s a cute, ’30s-era cottage with a backyard and a barbecue and sweet old neighbors. Williams hates it there. “I love my friends,” she says. “But I don’t like to be home for more than a week. I go to the yogurt bar, I ride my bike, I eat sushi. What am I supposed to do?”
As we’re talking, a guy approaches. He’s in his mid-40s, glasses, balding. “Holy smokes,” he says. “I can’t believe I’m meeting you!” He asks for a photo, tells her about some videos he posted of the band on YouTube, and after about a minute of friendly awkwardness, goes on his way.
“I guess the demo has changed!” She laughs it off, but it’s clear she’s a little uncomfortable. “I don’t want to be like, ‘This guy doesn’t like our music, he’s just a creep.’ I try not to be judgmental.”
After the divorce, Cristi Williams married a guy Hayley has described as a “super-Southern Baptist Nazi.” The move to Nashville was to get away from him — for a while, they were in hiding. Now her mom lives in Los Angeles, where she’s a life coach for young Disney stars-in-the-making. “Watching her reinvent herself and become an independent woman all over again,” says Hayley, “that helped me a lot.”
One of Williams’ favorite quotes is from a song by the band mewithoutYou: “A fish swims in the sea, while the sea is, in a certain sense, contained within the fish.”
“To me, it just means my surroundings don’t control me,” she says. “Being on the road, playing every night, you can lose yourself. It’s a reminder that I’m what makes things either positive or negative. It’s not everything we’re swimming in. My identity is created by me.”