JOPLIN — Christofer Drew melts into the shiny leather couch in the messy living room of his modest three-bedroom home.
It’s a little after 1 p.m. on a sweltering August afternoon. The blinds are closed, the air conditioner is broken and the stagnant smell of pot and cigarette smoke hangs in the air.
Drew, 20, is feeling good because his band, Never Shout Never, has just returned from playing a sold-out show in New York City for “MTV Unplugged,” and he and his bandmates have close to two full weeks at home before embarking on a South American tour.
Drew’s enjoying his rare day at home with a cold can of Budweiser and what he says is a box of pot cookies. He says he might just eat them all and, after this interview, spend the rest of the day watching “Ancient Aliens” in bed.
In some ways, Christofer Drew is an average 20-year-old stoner. He’s got hurricane hair, ripped jeans and an aversion to footwear. His speech is studded with words like “stoked,” “sick,” and “whatever.” His easygoing nature makes The Dude from “The Big Lebowski” look uptight.
Except there’s this one really big difference between Drew and most 20-year-olds: He’s an internationally famous pop music prodigy with a comfy Warner Bros. record deal, a massive Internet following and enough financial security to afford two homes in his hometown of Joplin, a Land Rover and lots and lots of tattoos by the Tallahassee, Fla.-based artist who inks T-Pain. His full-time job requires making music and traveling the world with his best friends, who also happen to be his bandmates.
It’s a good life, not an easy one: At this moment in his career, Drew is transitioning from being a kid with 157 million song plays on MySpace to a man with the potential to get rich and (even more) famous doing what he loves for the rest of his life.
Whether he can successfully make that transition depends in large part upon the success of Never Shout Never’s new album, “Time Travel,” which comes out Tuesday. The band’s third full-length album melds Drew’s signature heartfelt songwriting and layered harmonies with a fuller rock sound.
Drew considers it his best work yet.
“This record’s definitely going to put us into a place where we’re doing this for a long time,” he says. “It’s going to be something that reverberates through the sound waves of heaven.”
If you’ve never heard of Drew or his band, you probably think that’s the pot cookies talking. Never Shout Never doesn’t get much radio airplay, and the vast majority of the band’s fans are teenage girls.
But even if you don’t listen to Never Shout Never’s music, you have to admire a kid from Joplin who became an international pop star all by himself. It all started in 2005, when Christofer Drew Ingle, 14, joined MySpace and began posting acoustic pop songs he wrote and performed under the name Never Shout Never.
His mom, Nancy Keefner, remembers hearing her son’s music for the first time. He handed her a CD one morning and asked her if she’d listen to it. She expected screamo music (that’s screaming emo) similar to the stuff he’d been playing with his friends in her attic.
“I said, ‘Well sure, I’ll listen to it on my way to work,’ ” Keefner said. She popped in the CD and heard what she described as “lovesick puppy music.” It was beautiful, like the soft rock she listened to in the early ’70s. She sobbed the whole way.
Keefner was Never Shout Never’s first fan, but she certainly wasn’t the last. Over the next three years, Drew and his music gained a huge following on MySpace, YouTube and Tunecore, an online music distribution service. Suddenly, teenage girls all over the world were falling hard for Drew’s lovesick songs and his scrawny-puppy good looks.
Keefner tried to help her son manage his newfound popularity, but there was only so much she could do.
“I was accepting friends on MySpace every day and every night,” Keefner says. “Thousands and thousands.”
Drew says he didn’t stop to think about his growing fame. He just kept making music, writing blogs and posting videos, and in doing so cultivated thousands of passionate fans who named their obsession Drew Flu. That’s when the record companies moved in.
In 2009, several major labels fought to sign the then 18-year-old musician. As his classmates agonized over which college to attend, Drew agonized over which record label’s offer to choose.
“It was a very difficult time for him,” Keefner says. “He didn’t know what the right choice was. He had to go with his gut.”
His gut chose Warner Bros.
Xavier Ramos, a marketing director for that label, explains Drew’s appeal.
“He’s got a great knack for writing songs that really speak to you,” Ramos says. “And harmonies.”
Ramos adds that Drew is an extremely hard worker. In addition to writing music, he tours constantly and interacts with fans online through social media.
Plus, there’s just something special about him, Ramos says.
“He’s a good soul. He’s so positive,” Ramos says. “What we’re really looking for is authentic, real artists. He’s one of those.”
As part of the contract, Drew got his own imprint label, Loveway Records, so he could independently release music by himself and his friends.
“I put out anything I want,” he says. “It’s freedom to do anything we want musically.”
That freedom has allowed Drew and his Never Shout Never bandmates Caleb Denison, Taylor MacFee and Hayden Kaiser to release metal music under the band name Eat Me While I’m Hot. Drew also has released a dubstep track under the name Gonzo and full albums by friend Carter Hulsey.
Drew has the final say on everything, Ramos says. He offers Never Shout Never’s 2010 album “Harmony” as an example. The album was produced by Butch Vig, whose credits include Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream.” “Harmony” is full of colorful, harmonic, uplifting songs. But for the album’s cover, Drew chose a black-and-white photo of himself in overalls and a straw hat, playing a banjo and harmonica.
“Would I put a black-and-white photo on the cover? Probably not,” Ramos says. “But at the end of the day, that’s his choice.”
Apparently it wasn’t a bad one: “Harmony” peaked at No. 4 on Billboard’s digital album chart, just behind albums by Katy Perry, Eminem and Sufjan Stevens.
Not bad for a 19-year-old from Joplin.
Until now, Never Shout Never has appeared to be a one-man band.
Drew has always performed with a backing band, mostly longtime musician friends from Joplin, but this spring, during the making of “Time Travel,” the band lineup became official.
Drew says he collaborated with Denison, MacFee and Kaiser more than ever on the new album, which the band self-produced in Springfield, Mo.
“We got to make the record we wanted to make,” MacFee says.
“Time Travel” was partly influenced by experimental bands like Pink Floyd. Drew and his bandmates used more synthesizers, experimented with time signatures and beefed up the rock sound.
“We tried to make it super-heavy, but with a nice, flow-y sound to it,” Drew says. “It’s still pretty, but it’s trippy.”
Lyrically, “Time Travel” is more complex and introspective than any of Never Shout Never’s previous releases.
On the title track, a lush chorus of Drew’s voices chants “I don’t know where to go. I have lost control” over wailing guitars.
“Awful” is an amazingly catchy and energetic ode to feeling numb, depressed and otherwise off.
“Complex Heart” is about being confused and angry after botching a perfectly good relationship. “I lost my soul, I’m made of stone,” Drew laments before violently pounding piano keys.
Strangely, the sweetest love song on the album is “Silver Ecstasy,” a modern power ballad written by Denison. It’s the first Never Shout Never song not composed by Drew.
Some of Never Shout Never’s fans already are lamenting the band’s evolution online.
They say that Drew’s changed. That if he’s not going to make happy music, he shouldn’t make music at all. That he should ditch the full band and rock sound and go back to performing acoustic songs solo. They say he’s a pothead, a fake, a phony, that he ruined his looks with all those tattoos.
“Yeah, that’s all good, though,” Drew says. “At the end of the day that doesn’t matter. I just want to keep experimenting and have fun. If I keep playing the same thing over and over again, it’s not fun.”
“That’s the whole point of artistry,” Denison adds. “Giving people new things they haven’t heard before. There are sounds on this record that have only been heard in outer space up to this point in time.”
Transitioning from youth to adulthood is the hardest thing an artist has to go through, explains Ramos, the marketing director at Warner Bros. That’s because the longer your career is, the harder it is to keep your original fans. People called Bob Dylan a Judas when he went electric. John Lennon caught hell when he left the Beatles and started making music with Yoko. It’s like Jay-Z says on “On to the next one”: “Want my old shit, buy my old album.”
There’s also this other obstacle in Never Shout Never’s way: Hate.
“I consider Chris an underdog,” Ramos says. “People judge him off of 14-year-old girls being his fans.”
Ramos says the fact that Never Shout Never has so many haters strikes him as funny because he considers the guys in the band to be among the sweetest people he’s ever met.
“They’re nice in an authentic way,” Ramos says. “They don’t hate, but they get a lot of hate. Bands don’t want to play with them, people diss them all the time. I think as (Drew’s) fan base grows, those walls will slowly come down. If it’s not your cup of tea, that’s fine. But the guy’s a real musician. He can really play, he can really sing, he can really write. That guy’s legit.”
And he’s been through some legitimately tough times over the past two years. In 2009, Drew decided to skip his senior year of high school and abandon his star position on the tennis team to focus on music.
“I think his father and him had some words,” Keefner says. “I don’t think he felt a lot of acceptance with that big of a decision.”
As Drew’s career took off, his parents’ marriage dissolved. Their divorce inspired the title track of Never Shout Never’s first full-length album, “What is Love?”
“I don’t know anymore,” Drew sings on the track. “I used to look up to that love.”
Shortly thereafter, Drew abandoned his squeaky-clean image. He started covering his arms, torso and even his neck with tattoos. One of Drew’s newest tattoos is a red-tailed hawk on his Adam’s apple with a wing span that encircles his neck. He let his hair grow until it resembled Keith Richards’ late-’60s shag.
He smokes cigarettes, pot and openly drinks alcohol even though he’s underage. He’s referenced taking ecstasy in song and admits to taking acid before writing “Seewhatweseas,” a song on the “Alice in Wonderland” soundtrack.
He says the drugs neither interfere with nor inspire his music.
“I think that’s silly,” Drew says. “Drugs are something to do if the timing’s right, to have a good time. Not to induce creativity.”
The hair, the tattoos, the drugs — all those things provide a shield between Drew and a world that’s become increasingly hungry for him. Never Shout Never’s intensely devoted fans provide Drew with his comfortable lifestyle. They also mean some uncomfortable moments.
Drew and his bandmates excitedly recall one particularly scary incident.
Denison: “We had some guy laying under a van waiting to jump out and grab Chris at Station 4 in Minneapolis one time!”
MacFee: “The security people found him and took him in an alley and beat him with a Maglite!”
Drew: “Oh, he was a creep, dude. If I would’ve got abducted …”
At this point in the conversation, Drew decides to heat up some pot in his vaporizer. The machine, which retails for around $550 online, converts the THC in marijuana to vapor, which collects in a plastic bag resembling a balloon. Once the balloon fills with vapor, Drew disconnects it from the machine and inhales its cloudy contents. “It’s a light, fluffy, cozy feeling,” he says.
By far the scariest thing to happen to Drew and his band in the past two years was the E-5 tornado that destroyed a huge chunk of their hometown this spring.
On May 22, Drew was working on finishing “Time Travel” in Springfield when he got a call from his mom, who told him there was a bad storm coming.
He left the studio with his then-girlfriend and drove toward Joplin. His mom called again.
“She was, like, crying and saying goodbye and shit,” he says. “My sisters were screaming in the background.”
The phone cut out. Drew continued driving toward his family until he said he got to Mount Vernon and spotted the tornado in the distance. He and his girlfriend parked next to a church and huddled in the building’s basement with strangers.
Meanwhile, his mom and sisters crouched in a bathtub in their second-floor apartment, crying as windows shattered and the building shook.
“All I could think was ‘I wonder how much this is going to hurt?’ ” Keefner says.
The storm passed. Keefner walked from the bathroom to the apartment’s front door. When she opened it, she saw a vast wasteland across the street where there once stood a Walmart and Home Depot.
Keefner’s apartment complex was ruined. So was MacFee’s house and the homes of Denison’s parents and grandparents. Thankfully, none of the band’s immediate friends or family members died as a result of the storm.
In the days following the tornado, Drew drove around Joplin taking video of destroyed houses and cars and mountains of rubble. He edited the footage together to the band’s then-unreleased single, “Time Travel,” and posted it on YouTube with donation instructions. The United Way’s Joplin relief effort received $7,610.
Keefner says that her son helped her get back on her feet after the storm. He bought her a house in town so she wouldn’t have to live in a FEMA trailer. He’s paying to put his sister through college at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Drew doesn’t spend that much money on himself, Keefner says. She shares his checking account, and can see when he spends money on little things like herbal tea, crystals and moccasins.
Keefner says she isn’t concerned about her son’s finances, but that sometimes she worries about other things. Parties. Accidents. All those tragedies on “Behind the Music.”
But there’s no sense in obsessing over all that, Keefner says, because her son doesn’t want to do anything else. This is the life he’s built for himself. This is the life that’s meant for him.
Drew reflects on that in “Lost at Sea,” the final track on “Time Travel.”
In the song, Drew writes about heading into uncertainty, and knowing deep down he’s going the right way.
“If I’m lost at sea/Tell my mother, my father, my brother, my sisters, my friends and my foes and all my past lovers that I will miss them so. But Lord, I had to go.”
Drew built a sturdy ship with his own hands, assembled a crew he trusts and shoved off into rough seas. No compass can tell what comes next.
“We’re just now coming into adulthood,” he says, “so it’s primetime for us to go for it.”
“It’s going to be sick.”