Richard Heene did not mean to utter the words. The 51-year-old manager of the Heene Boyz, an unsigned metal band comprising his three home-schooled sons, was recounting how one Christmas years ago, he was so broke that he'd had to design an ingenious sort of wooden building system, fabricated from $35 worth of materials, for his children's present.
"The kids loved it," he said. "They built a flying saucer out of it."
A flying saucer. There was a very long pause. "I did not say that," he said, eyeing the recorder before him. "Ughhhhh," he groaned. He put his face in his right hand, somewhat helplessly. "But they did literally build one!"
Prudence and possibly the law would say that it's a bad idea for Heene to broach the subject of homemade aircraft. He is in his fourth and final year of probation after pleading guilty to one felony count of attempting to influence a public servant, which was how the criminal justice system in Colorado decided to deal with the incident in which, for one afternoon in October of 2009, Richard became one of the two most famous figures in America—the other being his then-six-year-old son, Falcon, known to a live-television audience as Balloon Boy.
That day, Heene—a construction worker, self-employed handyman, experienced storm chaser, and amateur inventor who's also dabbled in acting, stand-up comedy, screenwriting, joke-book writing, and the harmonica—lost control of one of his many projects, a $700 helium balloon, silver and UFO-shaped. It floated away from the family's backyard in Fort Collins, and he and his wife, Mayumi, called 911.
With Mayumi in audible distress, they told operators that little Falcon had crawled inside the contraption and was aloft. The Denver Airport shut down, National Guard helicopters pursued the runaway craft, and CNN aired the saucer's flight on a dramatic live broadcast. Meanwhile, little Falcon Heene was crouched in the attic the whole time. The saga took a further turn for the absurd when the Heenes—who'd oddly enough already appeared on two episodes of the reality show Wife Swap—went on CNN. Wolf Blitzer asked if Falcon had heard his parents calling from the attic and the child, who would also vomit during an interview with The Today Show, ended up saying, "You guys said that, uhm, we did this for the show." (At the time, the family had their own reality show in development.)
Richard insists to this day that Falcon was referring to another media person for another "show" who'd asked why he didn't come out of hiding if he heard his parents calling, but local authorities ruled the whole thing a hoax. Richard spent 90 days in jail, and a lot of people went out for Halloween as Balloon Boy. Heene, who says he only pleaded guilty to keep from losing his family, morphed into a $34.95 action figure, identifiable by his I'M WITH STUPID T-shirt (the arrow pointed up).
Balloon Boy is now 10 years old and the quasi-operatic singer, rookie bassist, and charismatic front-kid of the Heene Boyz. Until probation expires this December, Richard Heene is forbidden by a judge's order to do anything that would profit from the family's earlier misadventure. He insists the Heene Boyz are not trying to cash in on the notoriety.
But Richard, who's been known to point out that his last name rhymes with "weenie," is a frenetic man of perpetual digression. "I can talk about anything I want as long as I don't get paid for it," he said. "But I don't want people thinking the only thing on my mind is that."
So you will not find any mention of Balloon Boy, UFOs, or flying saucers on the Heene Boyz' press materials, T-shirts, albums, or web site. This is because of the court order, but it's also because Richard says he would like to remove the Balloon Boy stink. "Look, if you step on dog crap and you don't clean it off, you smell like dog crap," he reasoned. "You clean it off, you can keep on walking.'"
A few minutes past noon on Monday of last week, outside an unfurnished three-bedroom house in Jersey City, the din of the Heene Boyz practicing carried out to the street. Muted by acoustics, their rehearsal sounded like a rolling garbage-can army. The rental property is the northern beachhead to launch the band on a slower road to fame, its American Chili Tour 2013, which is so far more of an aspiration than an itinerary. Richard, who'd let his hair grow since his days of tabloid infamy, greeted his visitors in flip-flops, shorts, and a grey tank top. The family dog, Zoomer, followed behind him. Mayumi, who was a guitarist back in Japan, wore a black Heene Boyz T-shirt.
Richard led us to the house's kitchen, which had quickly become a makeshift office, decorated with a calendar, a set list, and a marked-up map of America. During the day, as the kids rehearse in the basement, the adults are working through a list of club bookers duct-taped to the wall, emailing and making phone calls.
The family left Colorado as soon as Richard could get a judge's permission. "We had an escort going out to the border," he recalled exasperatedly. "What am I, Manson? I swear to God. I videoed them." They now reside in Florida, but for the summer, they've assumed an itinerant lifestyle in an attempt to catapult the Heene Boyz into a self-sustaining business. They came here with only two shows booked, a New York City debut at Sullivan Hall and an appearance this month at the Independence Metal Fest in Rochester.
Their strategy, inasmuch as Richard and Mayumi devised one, was to book tour dates as they went along, stopping only if they ran out of money. "I really hope we don't run out of money on your birthday," Bradford, the oldest, would tell his father later in the day. (Richard's birthday is September 11.) Ideally, though, they hoped they might get some promotional help through whatever magic ensued from their being in close proximity to New York City and ready to jump at a moment's notice.
The Heenes aren't the only ones who've postponed their lives for the Heene Boyz. They are sharing the house with their promoter, a Wisconsin mother named Kendee Lockerby, her two girls, and their cat. Kendee's oldest daughter Destiny—a shyly pretty girl who briefly materialized to get Cheetos—met Bradford, the oldest Heene boy, online about a year ago. The 13-year-olds started calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend, swapping more than 10,000 Facebook messages and Skyping so frequently her mother started to feel like Bradford lived in her kitchen. This past spring, the trio visited the Heenes in Florida.
"I have been around music my whole life," said Kendee, a woman with a barbed-wire armband tattoo and a panda-bear cell-phone cover, as she sat among the kitchen chaos. "During our visit, there was talk about me promoting the Heene Boyz. I was like, 'I don't know, I just can't uproot my whole life.' But I just kept thinking about it and was like, 'That's it. We're going to do this.'"
Downstairs, the young brothers smashed through "Duct Tape Man," a thunderous ode to a well-meaning anti-superhero whose problematic combination of vast strength and immutable torpidity makes him dangerously inept. Falcon was barefoot and facing the drumset. His naturally sleek ash-brown hair is waist-length, his facial features so delicately symmetric that strangers sometimes mistake him for a girl. He finished the anthem in a yowl, arching his back for the high notes and letting his hair cover his almond-shaped eyes. Even in a stuffy basement, he exuded an impish dazzle. He's learned to be discreet around outsiders, so when his dad joined us, he pulled Richard aside to whisper something about his throat.
Ryo, the 12-year-old drummer, is more reserved, a kind of intensely observant kid with understanding eyes. His favorite percussionist is "the one to Metallica." His black bass drum head proclaims, "World's Youngest Metal Band." He doesn't like the sirens in his new neighborhood. "There's so many police cars," he mumbled. "Too much."
At 13, Bradford is the most technically proficient musician—the one who picked up the guitar after he saw his mother play it on Wife Swap—and the most chatty sibling. He's considerate and lanky with a happy spirit. He admitted that they only know about metal because it's his dad's music, but thinks the genre is really cool. "I like the fact that it's really heavy," Bradford said. "It's chugging riffs, it's awesome, the solos are cool." He also thinks aliens are cool and boobies are cool. He's at that age where he really likes saying cool.
"Duct Tape Man" is the third track on American Chili, the Heene Boyz' recent EP, a four-song concept album loosely spun from a demented comedy-horror script of the same title that Richard drafted in 1999. One of the kids' home-school projects was to craft their own collaborative comic book based on their father's B-movie concept; such intimate familiarity with American Chili's premise helped them adapt the storyline into a soundtrack.
"It's called an EP for now, but it's going to be a full album," Richard announced in the basement, once the kids paused their practice. "If a record company picks them up, they can always go, ‘OK, you guys can finish it.' It's already written." That's an adult ambition, but the kids seem to have adopted it.
American Chili is a meandering drama about the Mexican-American war, land theft, psychosis, a desert truck stop, a serpent, and a tortured protagonist named Morgan. Bradford retold Morgan's backstory: "He tried to trade whiskey and guns and stuff to the Indians to get the land and it didn't work out, so, like, he was eating peyote and he started being crazy and shooting all the Indians." The chili is a secret weapon for one of Morgan's cursed descendants, as Bradford explained, who is also confusingly named Morgan. "He puts laxatives in the drinks, and in the chili bowls, and then people eat it and they go, ‘I gotta poop, and stuff like that.'"
Juvenile scatology is a Heene specialty. "At the very end, Morgan's mind is going crazy and so he takes duct tape and ties up his girlfriend onto a toilet," said Richard.
"Duct Tape Man tries to stop him," interjected Falcon. "But then, yeah, he gets stabbed."
"He's messed up on this peyote, and she called him a psycho, but she thinks he's psycho," clarified Richard. In the Heene universe, it all made sense.
Upstairs, Richard narrated a digital family album on a Toshiba laptop. The five kids breezed in and out of the kitchen, carrying yo-yos and handheld videogames and snacks. Here's a picture of the kids riding go-karts, helping with their dad's construction jobs (he says he pays them), and climbing a tree. There was Ryo smiling in a garden. Falcon holding a birdhouse. Bradford drilling a floor. An older photo of the boys petting a cow during one of their storm-chasing excursions, which Richard emphasized shows that his adventures weren't all about him.
"I don't push anything on my kids," he said, again and again, a message he is hammering after being maligned the Worst Father Ever.
"Here's something that every mom and dad across the whole globe can relate to," Richard said. "If you're not spending time with your kids, someone else is. Who do you want your kids spending time with? I love my kids, I enjoy spending time with them."
So many families were close when the children were young, Richard noted, but then as the kids grew older, everyone grew apart. He didn't want that. "That's why I dropped all of my projects for this. They want me to manage them? I will support them. They want this."
Two days later, the Heene Boyz made their New York City debut at Sullivan Hall, third on a six-act bill. When the brothers took the stage, there were about 50 people in the bar, principally the other bands' members and friends. Only one person had paid the $10 cover to see the Heene Boyz, according to the door guy's tally. (That paying customer was me.)
The Heene Boyz's live set is a well-rehearsed feat of metal-god pageantry: synchronized hair-flipping, choreographed stomping footwork, scripted stage dialogue. Bradford and Falcon were shirtless in leather vests, skinny jeans, and all-black sneakers. Ryo wore a black T-shirt, dark jeans, and black Chuck Taylors. Falcon's microphone is a wireless headset, which allowed him to run through the crowd so vigorously that he almost accidentally went out the club's front door. Richard closely shadowed him with a handheld videocamera and nearly knocked me over trying to document his son's moves.
Onstage, Falcon is a headbanging ringmaster. He demanded a mosh pit and one broke out. He pointed at an attractive woman in the crowd and made a phone gesture with his hand, as if to say call me. She laughed. His interstitial banter elicited grins. "This is a horror song about people turning into cactus. It's called 'Cactus People!'"
Later, he asked, "Who out there hates their jobs?," which was a very odd thing for a 10-year-old to ask. The response was confused. "That's what I'm talking about!"
After their set, Falcon walked around the club with a tip jar. Ryo carried his cymbals. Bradford stood with Destiny. Richard went outside to chase down audience members—he literally ran after people—for their post-show reactions.
"They're like dirty Disney," testified a raspy-voiced man wearing sunglasses at night. "They got balls."
Richard moved along to a bald man smoking. He said the Heene Boyz were good. "Would you see them again?" asked Richard.
"Hell, yeah," the smoking man said, wanly.
"Go ahead and say it like you thought of it," instructed Richard. The words came easily.
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