Schoolhouse rock: Tech, support makes teen rocking easier
The kids are all right, thanks in many cases to the involvement of their parents, whose influence is felt by a new generation of bands
By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
On a recent Thursday night in the Old Irving Park neighborhood, a group of Chicago parents huddle in a kitchen, enjoying conversation and drinks, as their kids — three students from Lincoln Park High School, Whitney Young High School and Near North Montessori School, who collectively play as the Blisters — run through their original songs in the basement.
The band formed six years ago through school and since has played shows around town from the Hideout to Lollapalooza. But the members remained together because the parents, who previously did not know one another, struck up friendships.
“We always thought of the band as our soccer. It brings our families together,” says Leslie Schwartz, whose son Hayden Holbert plays guitar. “We had to be friends for it to continue. If we hadn’t gotten to know each other and enjoyed each other’s company, I think it would have gone away.”
When Neil Young famously declared in song that rock and roll will never die, he probably didn’t imagine it would live on thanks to early evening meet-ups like this between parents and their kids, the punk-rock class offered at the local park district or via the Wii controller needed to play “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.”
New support systems for bands
Teenagers are expressing themselves more efficiently due to technology that is streamlining the process of discovering, learning and creating music. The evolution is producing a new generation of teenage rock bands that directly reflect the music industry’s freefall from digital file sharing: They no longer ache to be discovered because it is happening by their own hand, through online releases and direct marketing to their peers.
With numerous online services that can help market, distribute and even manage band affairs, high school bands now have the potential to operate like “major organizations,” says Joe Carsello, the assistant talent buyer at Metro, who tracks local bands to play the club.
“There’s much more of a support system now,” he says. “It’s all there, it just takes the initiative of the band. There’s a much bigger toolbox than ever, whereas before it was just about hanging fliers and shaking hands with the right people.”
There is also an industry — books, workshops, videos, summer camps and classes — that has developed to teach teenagers how to rock properly. Learning how to wail at the microphone or bash out three chords on a guitar is now a learned process, involving parental support, which ranges from writing checks to hauling gear.
“I personally love my parents’ involvement in it,” says Liam Cunningham, a 16-year-old at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School who plays in Kids These Days, a seven-member band he describes as “hip-hop with blues and jazz.” Besides encouraging him to pursue all types of music, including jazz, his parents also shuttle him to classes and rehearsals, just as they would if he were in several soccer leagues.
His mother, Jackie Kazarian, encouraged him to pursue music more than sports because it “is much more powerful for the rest of your life.”
Andy Levenberg, who teaches guitar at the Paul Green School of Rock Music in Chicago, says that 95 percent of his kids, ages 8 to 15, arrive accompanied by their mom or dad.
“Parents are much more accepting of it and encouraging. In my high school, the kids who played rock music were the bad kids and their parents were not involved in their lives at all. Here, they are very encouraging,” he says.
Growing up on rock ‘n’ roll
Most bands interviewed for this story say rock ‘n’ roll was a part of their childhood — through parents whose record collections provided a soundtrack, or who played music at home, professionally, or both.
Richard Milne, who hosts “Local Anesthetic,” the long-running local music show on WXRT-FM (93.1), says we’ve arrived in an era of parents “who only know rock ‘n’ roll.”
“We’re two or three generations into a completely rock ‘n’ roll world, so you have parents who are not only encouraging their children to study music but specifically rock music … so they’re no longer my parents who grew up on Benny Goodman,” he says.
Which also means that more high school bands today are likely to be staffed by teenagers whose parents are musicians themselves. The Blisters, for example, feature drummer Spencer Tweedy, son of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and singer-bassist Henry Mosher, son of Rick Mosher of New Duncan Imperials.”
Spencer Tweedy says music “was ingrained” into him since he was 2.
“That was right when I started playing drums,” he says. “There were music videos of Wilco and I watched those videos nonstop. That was my purpose in life as a toddler. They drove my baby-sitters insane.”
Susan Miller Tweedy, the co-owner of the Chicago rock club Lounge Ax, which closed in 2000, says that despite her son’s rock pedigree, the Blisters came about organically and remains driven by the kids.
“We really were not that involved; it’s all them,” she says. “Spencer grew up in Lounge Ax until it closed, which was when he was 4. He started playing drums there. When he wanted to start a band, I thought it was cute. I didn’t think it was real.”
The same hands-off attitude also helped Paul Ansani, 15, a sophomore at Maine South High School in Park Ridge, find his way to the bass, which he taught himself to play. Back then, Material Issue, the acclaimed Chicago pop trio featuring his father, bassist Ted Ansani, was “the only music [he] really knew.”
His father’s experience only came into play once the Break, Paul Ansani’s band, entered a studio to record an album it currently is selling via iTunes. “He gives us a lot of advice on how to get to the next level. Little things like … ‘Put a second guitar in there to beef it up’ or ‘Put keyboards in there to fill up the sound,'” Ansani says.
More outlets than ever
Younger bands lean heavily on social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to spread the word about shows, which range from block parties and church basements to city clubs, booked with more all-ages shows than in the past due to growing competition for early shows. Ansani, for instance, says his band played nearly 50 shows just this past summer. Metro owner Joe Shanahan says his club has a “long history” of booking bands straight out of high school and committing to them if they show promise.
“It goes back to the Smoking Popes, the Plain White T’s, Fallout Boy — these were substantial suburban bands that definitely had a following,” he says.
Despite inevitable competition for all-ages shows among operators, which includes Reggie’s, Subterranean and the Bottom Lounge, Shanahan says any smart club owner is invested in helping shape “a nurturing scene” among young bands and working together to help them develop their craft.
With so much opportunity to play live and infinite channels in which to circulate their music, teenage bands face the inevitable problem of getting lost in the digital deluge. The problem actually makes Emily McGill, the 14-year-old singer of Where the Cinema Begins, wish she was “growing up in the ’70s.”
“Things were much more original back then,” she says. “You couldn’t create an album without having any talent.”
McGill, who attends Lincoln Park High School, says it’s “almost too easy” to record and upload music using software like GarageBand, which is creating a glut of mediocre bands that are hogging the spotlight from others that may be doing something original. “It’s probably easier to get your music out there on the Internet but it seems like you can only get your friends and your family to listen,” she says.
WXRT’s Milne agrees: “Just because kids have ability to record their work in the comfort of their own home and be trained as rock musicians still doesn’t mean they’re making interesting, creative music.”
He says that motivations among aspiring rockers are likely the same today as they were in 1965 — self-expression and to catch the eye of the opposite sex — but with fame so omnipresent in the culture thanks to “American Idol” and all its spin-offs, today’s generation may need to straighten their priorities to prevent burnout at age 25.
“I encourage them to make the art of making music a lifetime pursuit,” says Milne. “There should not necessarily be a goal other than your personal enjoyment, because if you set yourself up to be famous, even if you’re a songwriter of quality, those are very, very difficult things. You should enjoy strumming that guitar for the next 70 years.”
Bands like the Blisters are realistic about their goals — they would like to record some of their original songs one day and play more gigs. But they also have other priorities and life pursuits: Holbert likes bluegrass, Mosher wants to make a solo music and Tweedy wants to be a writer.
“It’s holy,” Tweedy says, explaining why they play music together in between homework and family life. “It’s an amazing way to express yourself, share feelings and to communicate with other beings.”
Mark Guarino is a Chicago-based journalist and critic. Visit mark-guarino.com.
Some school-age bands make the grade
College and careers spell death for most high school bands. Here are a few that famously carried on long past their diplomas.
Radish: Nils Lofgren discovered this Texas trio, which later launched the career of Ben Kweller.
The Cowsills: Bubblegum family group from the 1960s featuring four brothers and their sister, Susan.
Hanson: Okie brother trio made “MMMBop” a household phrase and are still rocking as adults.
The Undertones: Irish teenagers best known for the adolescent anthem “Teenage Kicks.”
Amanda Shaw: This Cajun fiddler released her first album at age 11 and headlines the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival each year.
Smoosh: Sister trio from Seattle play indie pop, played Lollapalooza and once opened for Pearl Jam.
The Runaways: All-girl teenage rock band fronted by a 16-year-old Joan Jett.
The Replacements: Bassist Tommy Stinson was just 12 years old when he joined his older brother Bob in this beloved underground band.
The Shangri-La’s: Iconic 1960s girl group (“Leader of the Pack”) that started while students at a high school in Queens.
The Box Tops: These Memphis teens scored hits with “Soul Deep” and “The Letter” featuring the gruff vocals of Alex Chilton.
— Mark Guarino