Recently, the Houston Press met up with the members of The Contagious moments before their show at Rockefeller’s. Each one is 15 years old and a straight-A student; all of them will be sophomores at their respective high schools come fall. As might be expected, they were incredibly polite and respectful. We wished them a good show and they took their places onstage.
Roughly 40 minutes later, the band’s drummer, Jake Douglas, was a shirtless blur of flailing arms and sweat-soaked hair, doing his work with the brutality and precision of a military attack. Bassist Cayden Diebold bounced frenetically to and fro, never missing a beat, in the fashion that rock-star bassists have trademarked. Lead vocalist and guitarist Mac Johnson shouted from a face hidden beneath a thick mane of wavy hair. On behalf of every angst-riddled teen anywhere, he barked out the line from Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing In The Name” about not doing “what you tell me,” complete with well-enunciated F-words.
And why not? After all, this is rock and roll, and The Contagious does it very well, age thoroughly notwithstanding. The Montgomery-based trio has been taking full advantage of its summer break playing Rockefeller’s, Concert Pub and anywhere else that can handle its audible assault. Next up, a return visit to Leon’s Lounge for tomorrow night’s Saturday Sounds. A week from tomorrow, they’ll be at House of Blues’ Bronze Peacock Room.
If you think they’re too young to be a working band, consider that The Contagious has existed in some form since 2011, when its members were still in grade school.
“Jake and I met in third grade,” Johnson says. “I had been playing guitar for like a year. I didn’t know at the time that he played drums but then I was like, ‘Oh, he plays drums, maybe we should start a little band.’ We had no idea what we were doing at first, we were just kind of messing around. Then, as the years went on, we kinda started getting it together and actually playing some real music.”
Douglas and Johnson now attend Montgomery High School. They met Diebold, who attends Oak Ridge High, through a School of Rock program and found they shared a love for acts like Blink-182, Foo Fighters and Green Day. They debuted as a trio at a Montgomery High talent show. Since then, they’ve developed the sort of comfortable bond that exists between band mates.
For instance: Diebold was discussing the talent show gig, his first performance as an official band member. They played one song that night, Republica’s “Ready to Go.”
“I think that, from my standpoint, it was pretty nerve-wracking, ‘cause I wanted to make sure that I was giving my best and all,” he admits. “It was just kind of cool because it was the first time I was on stage with them, just the three of us, and I wanted to make sure I gave a good first impression.”
At this point Johnson interjects, “Yeah, he also forgot his bass amp for that gig,” which sends the trio into some good-natured laughter.
Because they’re young, it’s easy to make presumptions about The Contagious. The band plays its own original music. The songs are available as singles on all major music platforms, and a full album is in the works. They do feature a cover or two in their sets, though. When they tore into Nirvana’s “Breed” at the Rockefeller’s show, my 23-year-old daughter nudged me and said, “I knew we were going to hear some Nirvana in this set.” In the same breath, she gave them props for being so technically correct and for choosing a less-obvious selection from the band’s oeuvre.
Within a few songs, The Contagious beats back two of the biggest misconceptions attached to young bands. First, yes, they can play their instruments, the product of years of practice. Douglas in particular is a sight to behold. In fact, his kit isn’t dropped into the recesses of the stage plot, but sits front and center alongside his bandmates. However, their placement is inconsequential because his intensity and proficiency make him a focal point of the group.
As a whole, The Contagious is so good that their manager, Billy Hale, decided to handle their industry business on a phone call from his son, who had seen the group attracting a crowd on 6th Street in Austin. A 30-year music veteran who honed his eye for talent by working with acts like ZZ Top, Kid Rock and Jack White, Hale believes The Contagious has the goods to make its mark outside of Houston.
They’re all for it. We ask about college – just two short years away – and whether they’d postpone it to chase a dream. They adopt a wait-and-see approach, but Johnson likely speaks for the group when he says, “End goal, I’d like to do this for a living. I want to play music and maybe make some money.”
Johnson says “an all-right amount of people” at his campus know about local music. For their part, the band members share info on acts they’ve met, like Pulse Rate Zero and Winter’s End, with their peers. Hale said sometime within the next year The Contagious will teach an online music course through the Texas Music Project for young, upstart musicians.
“It’s actually gonna be pretty cool,” Hale said. “It’ll give these guys a chance to impart their wisdom on a bunch of kids that may have just started playing or have been playing for a while but just don’t know what to do next.”
The band has the sorts of smarts that young entrepreneurs possess. They’re adept at the technology available to them, so they control their sound and look. Douglas does a lot of the group’s video work, including the spot for their single, “This Time.”
“I had been working around with the camera stuff and editing kind of on my free time,” he says. “So when it came down to seeing about music videos and promotional videos, it just kind of came natural.”
“Jake does all of our editing for videos. He’s really talented at that,” Johnson offers. “If we ever demo up a song, he’s the one that does all the mixing for it, so that if we were to ever take it into a studio then we kind of have an idea of what we want to do. He’s really good at that stuff.”
“I think doing a bunch of this stuff kind of allows us to go in our own direction and show what we are,” Diebold adds. “We can be more free with who we are.”
Asked how the band has become so savvy, Douglas says, “I think it probably has to do with all the guidance we’ve gotten from many different people, including Billy and my dad. They kind of work together and guide us to being a real mature band.”
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They know that solely because of their youthful look, they sometimes have to prove themselves. They’re okay with that. Winning listeners over, one gig to the next – that’s how The Contagious spending its summer vacation.
“One time, I think this was actually before Cayden was with us, we played one place in Austin on 6th Street called The Nook and we weren’t allowed to go inside until we were gonna play because we were too young,” Johnson recalled. “It is kind of weird. But then, you know, once we go up and do our thing, people will have a little bit more respect for what we do.”
The Contagious perform 10 p.m. Saturday, July 22 at Leon's Lounge, 1006 McGowen. See more on the band at thecontagiousrocks.com.