"Welcome to the crossroads of time and space-ace!" 11-year-old Falcon Heene screams at an unnervingly high pitch over and over into the sprawling living room of a ranch house in western Florida. Barefoot and in all black on a balmy early-April day, his rope of black hair reaching his waist and his head dwarfed by earphones, Falcon clenches his body and shuts his eyes to hit the notes. He looks increasingly spent after each take, but his father, Richard, keeps wanting "more attack."
"'WEL-come to the CROSS-roads,'" Richard says, demonstrating the proper emphasis. "More energy! You need more Coke?" He proffers the can Falcon's been sipping from.
A morning spent recording "Time and Space," a track off the Heene Boyz' third self-produced heavy-metal album, has stretched into early afternoon in this makeshift studio. Bradford, the 14-year-old guitarist, and Ryo, the 13-year-old drummer, wait on the couch, which has been pushed back to the kitchen island to make space. Industrial cables crisscross the floor, and guitars, mics, amps, drums, and a 16-track mixing deck line the walls. A roll of linoleum covered in duct tape blacks out the picture window. "That was our green screen for videos," Richard explains, "until all that stuff broke."
These days, money is tight for the family, who live largely off Heene Boyz earnings, and a lot of things here are out of commission or gimcrack: their Yamaha keyboard. The dampers for the drum kit. The 16-track (so the boys have to record their parts separately). And, as the afternoon wears on, Falcon's voice: The lead vocalist and bassist, he's intense and passionate, barely recognizable as Balloon Boy, whose brief disappearance at age 6 made the Heenes America's most famous family. He keeps giving it his all, hoping each take will be the last, so he can get outside to his new pet, a rabbit foundling.
"You're growling, Falc," Bradford says. "Use your inhaler." The sweet, uncannily adult Bradford knows his baby brother's asthma makes his voice raspy, but Falcon conserves the medicine. "Our health insurance only covers his inhaler for 15 days a month," Richard later explains.
"He sounds like ass," says Ryo, who wants Falcon to "finally friggin' nail it" so he can go light fireworks outside before they have to spend the afternoon rehearsing. "Enough!" Richard says. He has to say it only once.
"Falcon's hitting the 'COME' hard—it's 'wel-COME,'" their mother, Mayumi, says from her ad hoc recording-engineer station. A former video editor, the 50-year-old, raised two hours north of Tokyo, is now the band's roadie, assistant manager, and sound mixer. She points to the readout on her computer's Soundtrack Pro software. "Perfect pitch, though!"
Two hours and a dozen takes later, I've begun to acclimate to the very odd crossroads here in Spring Hill, 40 miles north of Tampa. It's not of time and space, though it's hard to say what it is. The WORLD'S YOUNGEST METAL BAND, as the logo on Ryo's bass drum proclaims, seem like surreal anime art as the boys rehearse: clad head-to-toe in black, whipping their long dark-brown hair in unison—all the kids to varying degrees get their looks from their Japanese mother.
Especially Falcon. At four feet three and 64 pounds, he's an otherworldly and harrowed-looking child. His harrowed affect is most pronounced when he sings "Chasing Tornadoes," the second number of tomorrow's gig across the state in DeLand. These kids can rock and are especially tight after three years of doing this song at bars and street fairs from Florida to New York. It starts as a slow power-chord drone, accompanied by Falcon's raised fists, blank-eyed stare, and dramatic rendition of the opening lines that's more Kabuki than metal:
In the field of pain and sorrow . . .
If it doesn't bleed, it will not read . . .
Milk the event, sleep in a tent
"I love that line," Richard says, beaming. A 52-year-old with boundless energy, opinions, and theories, he is prone to alarmingly sudden mood swings, which can make him hard to keep up with. He wears pastel cargo shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops and has his hair in a ponytail—a look the lifelong mad scientist, self-confessed rage-aholic, and storm chaser will stick with all weekend. For a time, Richard was known as the Worst Dad in America, but he still doesn't know why. "I've always included my sons in everything I do. Heck, they even grew up sleeping in their clothes," he says, ready to chase a storm at a moment's notice. "This one storm on the Montana-Wyoming border—we were chasing it for 27 miles when this power pole, maybe 100, 150 feet behind us, just, like, vaporized."
Richard repeatedly makes it clear that the Heene Boyz write and arrange their own songs and are their own entity. Yet the Heene Boyz often seem like Richard's latest science project.
Photos and studies of tornadoes and blueprints and prototypes of his many inventions occupy much of the space in the house not devoted to the band. The sunroom is piled four feet deep with samples of his many million-dollar schemes: a device to shake the last drops of ketchup out of bottles; Bear Scratch, a three-foot-long post finished in tree bark, sold online for $19.99, that enables one to scratch one's own back; a tool kit for laying floor tile that cuts the work in half; the HEENEDUTY Truck TransFormer, a portable robot that extends, retracts, or converts into a toolbox, loading dock, scaffolding, dolly, etc.; and lots and lots of rockets. They were designed to be fitted with sensors and shot up into the eyes of storm systems to document what Richard calls their "H" factor, the "H" for Heene. "Swirling storms," he explains, "create the 'H' factor, an electromagnetic field stronger than the earth's local gravitational pull." Divining that field's strength, enabling mankind to predict a storm's force and movement, has been Richard's great quest.
"He's a self-taught, autodidact genius," says Steven C. Barber, a documentarian who has filmed the Heenes on and off for a decade. "He didn't study past high school, and still he invents something new every other month. Someday one of his schemes is going to make millions, though that check will probably arrive the day he dies of exhaustion. The guy's a human tornado."
Particularly when the media is involved. The real crossroads here, I begin to suspect, is the point where the 16th minute of fame becomes monetizable—that strange junction of notoriety and public humiliation in which families who have far less intelligence, talent, and charisma than the Heenes become reality-TV millionaires. "I've tried to sell this family to reality TV," Barber says. "And I'm talking A-list, Ryan Seacrest people. Richard's a lovely man who really loves his family. The problem is that everybody fucking hates him."
While housewives and people with duck calls and bad manners become rich, the Heenes have remained the struggling subjects of "Where Are They Now?" segments for the four and a half years since they became America's most famous family.
For four and a half hours.
KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL: Mayumi, Bradford, and Ryo wait for Richard to finish serving their spaghetti while baby brother Falcon starts on dinner. It's a simple affair at the Heene household, where money is tight—the family largely subsists on the band's earnings, which consist mostly of tips collected at "pay-to-play" festivals.