Mama Was a Riot Grrrl? Then Pick Up a Guitar and Play
By JESSICA PRESSLER
THE children whispering and fidgeting in front of the stage at Union Hall in Park Slope, Brooklyn, looked like any kids awaiting, say, a storyteller. Then Zora Sicher and Hugo Orozco, the two 11-year-olds who make up the band Magnolia, climbed onstage and broke into a hard-driving original song called “Volume.” It was clear this was not quiet time.
“Wooooo!” a dreadlocked woman shouted from the back of the room, where a crowd of adults, many in vintage concert T-shirts and cardigans, looking like kids themselves, cheered and sipped bloody marys.
A clump of teenagers looked on appreciatively during the set, part of a showcase of all-kid bands on a Saturday afternoon this month at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York. When the Magnolia duo paused to adjust their instruments — Zora on guitar, Hugo on drums — a babe in arms wailed. “Are you crying because they stopped, honey?” Mom cooed.
For this set of performers and audience members, indie rock is as familiar as a lullaby. “We like punk, classic rock, metal, riot grrrl,” said Hugo, an elfin-face sixth grader from Brooklyn, who was given her first drum set at 7.
Magnolia, like other bands on the Union Hall bill — Care Bears on Fire, Tiny Masters of Today, Fiasco, Hysterics — is more than a novelty act. It is developing a following on New York’s burgeoning under-age music circuit, where bands too young for driving licenses have CDs, Web sites and managers.
“Oh my god, there’s like a huge, huge kid-rock scene here,” said Jack McFadden, known as Skippy, who booked the show at Union Hall. “It’s really very indicative of Park Slope, since so many of the parents who live around here are hip and have these hip little kids that they dress in, like, CBGBs T-shirts.”
It makes sense: in this family-friendly part of Brooklyn every other brownstone seems to house creative professionals who urge their children to march to — or become — a different drummer.
Nearly every weekend 10- to 17-year-olds play shows in the afternoon at bars like Union Hall, the Liberty Heights Tap Room in Red Hook and Southpaw in Park Slope, which has begun a teenage rock series, the Young and the Restless. In Manhattan there are all-ages shows at the Knitting Factory in TriBeCa, Arlene’s Grocery and afternoon Death Disco parties at Cake Shop on the Lower East Side.
“They could call it kid-core,” said Rich Egan, the owner of Vagrant records in Los Angeles, who signed the New Jersey-based band Senses Fail as teenagers and is wooing a younger band he first heard on MySpace.
Preteens and teenagers have found success in bands almost since the birth of rock. The Jackson 5, Hanson and New Kids on the Block were all big-selling acts, formed by parents or impresarios. But those acts recorded mainstream pop. The latest kid bands are emerging in the traditions of garage, hardcore and indie rock, a reflection of their hipster parents’ tastes and their 1980s and ’90s CD collections.
Hugo’s mother, Molly Gove, who said she was in a few riot grrrl bands herself in the ’90s, enrolled her daughter in the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in New York, where children 8 to 18 learn the playlist of bands like Bikini Kill and the Pixies.
Across the country kid-core acts have emerged, including a pair of brothers 8 and 11 in Detroit, who play with their father in the Jack White-produced band the Muldoons; sisters 12 and 14 who make up the Seattle-based duo Smoosh; and the Nashville-based band Be Your Own Pet, which toured with Sonic Youth in the summer.
Many teenage rockers connect through MySpace, where they post sample tracks, videos and announcements of gigs, as well as leave one another messages of support. In a message to Magnolia, Forrest Fire Gray, 14, whose father was the monologuist Spalding Gray and who is the frontman of Too Busy Being Bored, wrote, “Can’t wait to play with u guys.”
More than a few of New York’s baby-face rockers have famous parents in the entertainment business, who have encouraged their children’s artistic streaks and served as role models for professional success. Lucian Buscemi, 16, the son of the actor Steve Buscemi, along with Julian Bennett-Holmes and Jonathan Shea, both also 16, have become something like the kingpins of the Park Slope kid-rock scene, ever since their band, Fiasco — previously known as StunGun — became the first youth band to play the Liberty Heights Tap Room.
Pale and thin, with fluffy manes of rocker hair, Lucian and Julian are also partners in a record label, Beautiful Records, which has recorded Care Bears on Fire and Magnolia, using equipment that Lucian was given for his eighth-grade graduation, soon after a baby sitter introduced the two boys to ’80s punk.
“We were into, like, Rancid and Blink 182 at the time,” said Julian, cringing at his junior-high lack of cool. “That ended when we heard Minor Threat.”
Many kid-core bands cite that hardcore act from the ’80s as a big influence. The adults who attend kid-rock shows couldn’t be happier. This is the music they loved as teenagers. “This is the first generation of parents who have grown up listening to rock ’n’ roll, so they’re thrilled about it,” said Stephen Depulla, the owner of Liberty Heights Tap Room. Not least because it provides an opportunity for bonding.
Kathie Russo, Forrest Fire Gray’s mother, said she and her son swap music like friends. “I suggested he cover ‘Angie’ by the Rolling Stones, and he introduced me to Modest Mouse and the Vines,” she said. “Last night we were in the car singing along to Audioslave. I can’t imagine that with my parents.”
She also probably can’t imagine her parents acting as roadies, which many of the young rockers’ moms and dads do.
The most prominent band on New York’s junior-varsity rock scene is Hysterics, a “psychedelic” quartet founded at the artsy St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn. The week after performing at Union Hall at the CMJ Marathon, the band members gathered at the studio of Jeff Peretz, their manager. Mr. Peretz also guides the Tangents, whose bass guitarist, Miles Robbins, 12, is the son of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.
Members of Hysterics discussed their coming gig, a party for a new Valentino perfume, which was organized through a friend of the fashion photographer Pamela Hanson, whose son, Charlie Klarsfeld, 17, is the group’s guitarist. The evening, at 7 World Trade Center last Thursday, turned out to be a pileup of celebrity children with music careers, including the DJs Lola Schnabel and Mark Ronson.
“Are we going to get swag?” asked Josh Barocas, 17, the quiet bassist, whose enormous Afro speaks of a somewhat louder interior personality.
“What’s swag?” Charlie asked.
“It’s free stuff they give to famous people,” Mr. Peretz said.
“Every teen band in New York wants to be Hysterics,” he added. The group was discovered two years ago, when a science teacher at St. Ann’s posted one of its songs on his blog, and its cool factor rocketed after signing a record deal with independent v2. The company took the musicians for cookies and milk at the City Bakery. As high school juniors and seniors, they are old enough for the gesture to be ironic.
NOT so the Tiny Masters of Today. On a Friday evening in November, Ada, the bassist, 10, a slight girl with a heart-shape face, was reading “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” at Piano’s, a Lower East Side bar, while waiting to go on with her brother, Ivan, 12, the lead guitarist. (Their father requested that the family name not appear in print to protect the children’s privacy.)
After the set, during which they performed, among other songs, Ada’s mournful “Pictures” — “It’s about my friends in second grade and how awful they were to me,” she said — an adult in the audience called the band “the new Raincoats,” a reference to an experimental British act of the late ’70s.
Ivan is familiar with their music, although he said he prefers louder stuff like the Stooges. “And I’m really into Apollo Sunshine right now,” he said, perched on a bar stool and chewing thoughtfully on a cocktail straw. “I go through phases.”
Their father has worked for the indie label Caroline and once pulled the kids out of school early to see the White Stripes. His children’s affection for indie rock, he said, is a reaction to mainstream tastes. “They’re rebelling against, like, Walt Disney.”
Or maybe Britney Spears. “Our parents had the Clash, the Who, Bowie,” said Alana Higgins, 17, the bassist for the band Modrocket. She was at a Dunkin’ Donuts in the East Village near the space where her band rehearses.
“The scenes back then were so much better. Rock music now — it’s upsetting. Our kids are going to look back at our music and it’s going to be like —— ”
“Kelly Clarkson,” interjected Alice Blythe, 17, Modrocket’s singer.
The kid-core sound is far less slick than the pop and R & B that animates “American Idol,” either because the musicians are just learning to play or because their musical influences trace to the DIY roots of garage rock.
Tiny Masters of Today was on the Oct. 11 cover of the British magazine Artrocker. “They’re making this kind of primitive, unprocessed, unfiltered music,” their father said.
It was that sound that attracted Russell Simins, the grown-up drummer in Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who found the Tiny Masters on MySpace last year. He now accompanies them on drums during live sets.
“They have this unadulterated way of saying things, ” Mr. Simins said, sipping a beer at Piano’s. “It’s perfectly not thought out. They don’t have angst. Or their angst is simpler: it’s about being precocious and being kids who want to have fun and eat ice cream or about being bored. They’re not asking why they’re bored,” he said with a laugh. “They don’t have, like, existential malaise.” When Mr. Simins plays with the group, his hulking 36-year-old frame is a perfect foil to the children’s Lemony Snicket-character bodies.
He insists that he is not actually in the band, even though he’ll be on their coming album, which will also feature guest appearances by Fred Schneider of the B-52s and the singer and songwriter Kimya Dawson.
And Mr. Simins occasionally practices with them at home in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. “Sometimes I’ll stay over for dinner — you know, pizza or spaghetti or quesadillas or whatever,” he said. “Like I’m a kid.”
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company