Becoming viral for playing live music in a Pontiac in a Wendy’s drive-thru amid a pandemic isn’t usually anyone’s first idea for a big break, but that’s exactly what Spokane rock duo Vella La Vella did.
The band, composed of guitarist/vocalist Johnny Symmes, 20, and drummer Noah Russell, 19, exploded on social media this summer when their series of pop-up performances in drive-thrus and college campuses took them and their heavy metal-ified Pontiac, the newly named Helldorado, into the feeds of millions of online users.
“We always want to make things a little bit crazier so everyone knows who we are,” Russell said of their performances, which have included heavy metal outbursts in the drive-thru lines of local McDonald’s and Wendy’s and the parking lots of Maverik gas stations and Target.
Their Wendy’s drive-thru takeover has been viewed more than 971,000 times on TikTok and has received more than 330,000 likes since being reposted on the official Barstool Sports Instagram.
“At first, it’s a little overwhelming, and then you realize you have to make tons and tons of videos to get noticed,” Russell said.
“Ever since we started Vella La Vella, I’ve always had the viral mindset. If you want your music to pop off, you have to put an image to it; you have to be smart about it. It can’t just be ‘I’m going to make an Instagram post about my new song.’ It’s got to be like, ‘We’re doing all this crazy stuff all of the time.’ ”
Other stats: Vella La Vella has nearly 4 million views on TikTok since starting their page in April 2020; their song “In the Name of Heavy Metal” has nearly 100,000 streams on Spotify; and they have more than 123,000 streams on Spotify total.
The genesis for the two Gonzaga Prep graduates’ now-signature, drum-packing Pontiac began with Russell’s realization about what the coronavirus was going to mean for live music and their band specifically.
“It was the day that everyone announced that live music wasn’t going to be a thing anymore. … I was looking on Instagram and saw a few articles about how all these big venues are going to be shut down for a couple of months. I was like, ‘Well, that really puts the brakes on what we’re trying to do.’
“And maybe 5 minutes after that thought, I just thought of a mobile stage, but it can’t just be something on a trailer, it’s got to be something turbo.”
One Craigslist search and $700 later, Vella La Vella had the car that would become integral to their live sound and look (after a necessary paint job and tune-up).
Most recently, Vella La Vella took their show to Seattle to add some metal flare to the first University of Washington football game of the season three weeks ago.
“We played their opening game, and we had about 10 kids on top of the car and about 60 kids around the car,” Russell said.
“The windshield was completely bashed in, the hood I had to pop back out; there was a lot of body damage to it. They jumped so hard on the front of the car that the front suspension was totally worn out, and then they popped the front tires.”
Simply put, “UW brought it,” according to Symmes, who’s seen more than his fair share of college performances with Vella La Vella.
Last October, Vella La Vella launched a socially distanced micro-tour of college campuses that included stops in Michigan, Texas, Arizona and an impromptu show on a street just across from the Santa Monica Pier in Southern California.
“We’ve suffered through no one showing up to our shows before. We played in Wisconsin in the snow, and no one showed up because it’s Wisconsin in the snow,” Symmes said.
“But then (at the) University of Arizona, we played on Halloween night, and we had like 300 people in a parking lot all dressed up all dancing to AC/DC, so it was a great time.”
Today, they’re celebrating a new single, “Girl Like That,” that plays up their Judas Priest, Mötley Crüe and AC/DC inspirations with modern pop sensibilities.
“We needed one of those songs to show, ‘Hey, we’re trying to appeal to this audience, too,’ ” Symmes said.
“We have the heavy stuff and the heavy rock music, but every once in a while, we’ll throw out a pop-punk tune just to get that audience going. That song just kind of came about because I was listening to the Killers one day, and I was like, ‘You know, it would be really fun to have a song out like this.”
For Russell, the song’s existence alongside other Vella La Vella singles like “My Guns A’Blazing” is as sweet as it is surprising.
“I didn’t ever think we’d actually do anything like that,” Russell said. “And then when I realized that we can make whatever we want, I was like, ‘This is totally dope, and I’m falling in love with music again.’ “
The two are now setting their sights on the West Coast, as they’ll be attending the Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles to continue the next part of their musical aspirations after a summer Russell describes as “a dream in the making.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s a dream come true yet because we have so much more to do. There have been so many things that have lined up and that we’ve seen and have happened to us that we’re like, ‘We’re built for this. This is what we’re going to do.’ “
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.