"And I know what you're thinking / You still think I am crap / But you'd better listen, man / Because the kids know where it's at"
The Jam, "In the City"
It's almost midnight, and guitarist Cley Miller looks over at guitarist and bassist Carlos and Jose Sanchez as they start their set. They're at Emo's, a 6th Street bar in Austin packed tonight with fans of indie heavyweights Sound Team. For Miller and his three pals, who make up The Dimes, opening for Sound Team is vindication of their three-year battle to be taken seriously.
Their crime, the sticking point to The Dimes' dream of success? Their age. The poppy Houston-based rockers started out as teen-agers and some still are Miller, Jose Sanchez and drummer Iram Guerrero are all 19; Carlos Sanchez just turned 20.
As often as teen bands make it big in the movies, it only rarely happens in real life. Teen musicians who want to get out of the basement or garage even if they have talent aren't favored by club owners who already have more than enough trouble with their regular "adult" bands.
And yet. Tonight at Emo's, the crowd is actually listening and even dancing. No one knows who The Dimes are, but they like their sound. For a young rock band, it doesn't get much better than this, at least not in Texas.
Determination and dumb luck in equal measure got them onstage tonight.
"How we got that show was basically following Sound Team around Texas," says Miller. He and the other members of The Dimes started talking to Sound Team and mentioned they played in a band. A few days later, Sound Team called and asked if they were interested in opening for Sound Team's CD release show at Emo's.
"Me and Carlos [his brother] freaked out, like, 'Oh my God, we're playing at Emo's? With Sound Team?'" says bassist Jose Sanchez.
The band had tried to play Emo's about a year and a half before and were met with little more than "Don't call us, we'll call you." They gave the booking guy a press kit, "but we think he just threw it in the trash," Guerrero says.
It was just as much the band's fault as it was the club's, Miller acknowledges. "It was a really naive thing to do; we were kind of, like, the dumb ones."
Even after the band played other shows and did well, the age factor still held them back. Guerrero says the booker at the Proletariat on Richmond loved their performance. "But she was like, 'No, you guys are way too young; I don't want to get in trouble,'" says Guerrero. "At that time we were all 16. We were all still really young."
Booking shows in Houston and Austin stayed tough. "People were like, 'Oh, young kids? No way,'" Guerrero says. Jose Sanchez agrees. "They would be like, you're in high school, you're too young."
Three years later, the band is still pretty young in relation to the Houston music scene, but nobody seems to mind. The band is nominated for four 2007 Houston Press Music Awards Best New Act, Best Indie Rock, Local Musician of the Year and Song of the Year ("Delilah") and they aren't the only youngsters that have recently pushed into the spotlight. And we're not talking about only those classified under punk/emo categories. Today's teen bands aren't just playing three-chord-backed, teen-angst-ridden diatribes; thanks to the Internet, young musicians are journeying outside the radio hits that confined earlier generations.
"Now you can know about so many more bands, especially through MySpace, things are becoming a lot more personal just because of the Internet," says Edwin Terrell, lead singer/guitarist of In Denmark, a post-punk-inspired rock band made up of students from Lamar High and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. "No one is like a slave to the record companies anymore. It's like anybody can make music."
Computers have played a big role in the teen band influx. Every band interviewed for this article had at least one member who could easily record their entire album.
So, the problem isn't how to get their music out there, it's finding an audience other than their classmates who will listen.
"Come have some fun, we'll be jammin' / Bring some food, but don't bring beer"
The Kids of Whidney High,
"Let's Get Busy"
Super Happy Fun Land in the Heights has a good crowd tonight. Kids are packed into theater seats and couches and sitting on the floor listening to Rise Over Ruin an instrumental band of Bellaire and Lamar students.
At the end of the song everyone cheers, and bassist Kevin Kendrick thanks them all for coming and announces there are two more songs left. "All these songs are going to be on our album that should be out at the beginning of the new school year."
This type of phrase is commonplace at Super Happy the place is like a day care for teenagers. They come to play music and listen to music, and the bands don't have to pay a club owner to get the chance to get onstage. Super Happy (as it is known for short) is getting by off ticket sales. Its owner, Brian Arthur, pays the rest of his bills through an Internet business that sells jewelry and incense.
The Dimes played the bulk of their first shows at Super Happy because it was the only venue that would book them.
"We tried playing Fitzgerald's," says Carlos Sanchez. "They said in order for us to just be eligible to play there, we had to play their battle of the bands and bring out at least 50 people, and we just said forget that," he says. "We couldn't bring 50 people then."
"We still probably couldn't bring out 50 people [to Fitzgerald's]," says guitarist Cley Miller and laughs.
Battle-of-the-bands contests are almost a rite of passage for young bands, but many are growing weary of the "competitions."
"We've definitely played our fair share of number-of-tickets-sold contests," says Rise Over Ruin's drummer Chris Rehm. More often than not, battles of the bands are just popularity contests where talent is left at the door, many musicians say. It's about how many of your friends and relations you brought in and who you know at the venue.
Arthur says his first intention wasn't to have Super Happy be known solely for music, but that's the main draw these days. He gutted the house to make room for theater seating, standing room and a stage. He lives on the premises, in an apartment in the back. He runs the show with help from friends who volunteer their time.
He gets tons of requests from young bands wanting to play, so in order to fit more in, he recently started a Saturday matinee.
"Some weeks we'll only have like 20 people, but most of the time we get like 50 to 60 people," he says.
Since Arthur doesn't look at Super Happy as a money maker, he doesn't base his booking on who will draw the most numbers or the drinkers. The venue operates on a donation-only policy. The money is used to pay bands and the cost of running the venue, whereas a bar hopes to attract people who will buy drinks.
The fact that Super Happy isn't a bar also means that minors aren't regarded as potential lawsuits. Almost every band interviewed for this story mentioned the fact that "you can go outside." Most bars don't allow minors to come and go as they please, for safety reasons and to avoid underage drinking. Not so great for teens, who don't want to be trapped in one place for an entire night.
"It's hard to get people to come to other places, like some crazy random bar in the middle of downtown," says Lamar High School student Ben Donehower who plays guitar in Doo Doo Butter. "Yeah, no one would go," says bandmate and singer Joe "Dutch" Peak.
Pulling out their classmates to Super Happy isn't a problem; it's actually one of the good things about high school.
"When you're just a band in the world, you don't have a set group of people you can just give a whole bunch of flyers to," says Rehm. "When you're in school and [have a] certain amount of space with, you know, 300 kids that are all potential captive audiences it's a social thing. If you get people to go, someone goes and brings their friends."
Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. When high school is over, the automatic fan base is gone, too. Bands break up when members go off to different colleges, the military and jobs, and their diehard fans scatter as well.
"Wouldn't it be nice if we were older"
The Beach Boys, "Wouldn't it be Nice"
Pam Robinson is breaking the news to a young concertgoer. During an M.O.D. show, the kid threw a bottle at the lead singer and was escorted out of her venue in the Heights, Walter's on Washington.
"You guys are kidding, right? You're not going to let me back in? My friends are in there," says the kid.
"Your friends can stay," Robinson says and tells him he can either wait in the car or take a cab home, because he's not going back inside.
This is an example of the reason Robinson says she rarely has to deal with problems like these. She holds to a zero tolerance policy.
"We're patient with them. They love music, so we like to be able to let them come to the shows," she says. But if they cross the line, that's it and that goes for both fans and band members.
Arthur says he rarely has a problem with kids at Super Happy.
"The kids that come to our shows are pretty good kids. They are a lot better than I was or my friends were when I was in high school," the thirtysomething says and laughs. The environment at Super Happy also helps keep kids out of trouble.
"The thing that is different about our place is that we're adults and there are a lot of adults that hang out there," Arthur says. "When we have the teenage shows, almost all the time there will be parents and older people there that will be there watching the show, and I think that certainly takes pressure off of us."
Arthur says he also rarely books hard-core and metal bands to avoid the types of crowds that would cause a problem.
"The first reason is that there are lots of better venues in town for hard-core and death metal bands to play. We're just not really suited for those kinds of shows," he says. "The kids are usually a lot rowdier and more disrespectful."
Arthur says, however, this is a case-by-case basis and bands are not rejected just because they fall into one of those genres.
Mike Simms from Rudyard's on Waugh doesn't have to deal with troublesome youngsters. The bar has a strict 21-and-up-only policy, but occasionally he does book bands whose members are minors.
"Well, half the time they don't tell us; they don't say anything till they get here," Simms says. "That's what usually makes people mad."
Simms has never had any problems with younger bands that play the venue, but he says it's because he takes necessary precautions.
"I'll introduce them to the bartender, so they know who is a minor," he says. "I just tell them they can hang out, but if they do anything stupid they won't be welcome back."
This is a good policy, but not offered at venues everywhere. When Alvin experimental rockers By the End of Tonight left for their first tour, some of the members were just turning 19. Bassist James Templeton says when the group showed up at a venue in Denver, they were carded by the owner. They told her they weren't 21 and she told them they couldn't come in.
"She flat out refused to let us come in to play; we had to cancel that show," he says. Templeton says the band encountered problems similar to this one, but never this extreme.
"A lot of the shows we were playing on the West Coast, Stefan and I were having to stay outside while everyone else has to set up our gear and then we'd go in there, play and then go back outside while they take down our gear," he says.
"We could jam in Joe's Garage / His mama was screamin', 'Turn it down' / We was playin' the same old song / In the afternoon 'n' sometimes we would / Play it all night long / It was all we knew, and easy too / So we wouldn't get it wrong"
Frank Zappa, "Joe's Garage"
At the height of their popularity, By the End of Tonight graduated from high school. Faced with the decision to either go to school or stay together, the band chose both. The members agreed they would play shows and tour during Christmas and summer vacations.
That didn't last.
School became a priority. This was after getting signed to Temporary Residence, a successful independent label who wanted them to tour. After a year of college, however, the band knew they would have to choose between the two.
"That's why he quit the band," says guitarist Stefan Mach about former band member Josh Smith. "We were touring a lot and wanted to tour more, and he wanted to keep going to school."
The decision to become a full-time band may have cost the group a guitarist, but after finding a replacement they started touring the United States. Since then, By the End of Tonight has captured a few Houston Press Music Awards, played South by Southwest and gotten national recognition in music publications such as Alternative Press.
By the End of Tonight did this, however, by reaching beyond their classmates. The band bugged every venue owner and local promoter they could in order to get booked on shows that would attract a crowd of older, non-classmates. It wasn't easy for them either. When Dillinger Escape Plan and The Locust came to town, the boys begged the Engine Room to put them on the show.
In the past, it wasn't as hard for locals to be booked on national shows in Houston. This is a practice that has decreased in the past couple of years. Local concert promoter Ryan Chavez, who runs Super Unison and used to be part of Hands Up Houston, says this has as much to do with the bands as it does the venues.
"There isn't a single band in this town that plays Walter's or the Proletariat that can draw more than 100 or 150 people on a weekend," Chavez says. He explains this by saying Houston bands play too much.
"I say that to people and they're like, 'Oh, well we're only playing like once a month' and I'm like, 'That's way too much.'" At most, he says, a band should play once every three months if they want to draw a good crowd that would impress booking agents. Chavez says that's what gets bands on bills. Regardless of talent, personality or anything else, a band must be able to bring out fans or nobody makes any money.
The Engine Room told By the End of Tonight they could play the Dillinger Escape Plan show if they sold 70 tickets to the performance.
"We did it in like two days," says Mach, but suddenly that wasn't enough. "[Then they said] 'now you have to do this show where you have to bring, like, 100 people.'"
"We did everything that they asked us to do and I don't even think they really wanted us to play, but they couldn't say 'no,'" says Mach and laughs. By the End of Tonight continued to book themselves before audiences that didn't know their music. They credit that decision for their ability to continue on after high school.
This was a decision The Dimes made from the beginning as well.
"I didn't want to be a high school band," says Miller. "I kind of thought high school bands already had a sound. They would play the hits of the day."
He wouldn't even let them play their high school battle of the bands, probably a band's easiest way to get onstage for the first time.
"I'm like, 'No, we're not going to play the battle of the bands; that's stupid, you know; who cares?'" says Miller.
When it was time for battle of the bands, The Dimes learned another reason they were unique.
"There was about seven bands in the battle of the bands, yet there was only ten guys in the battle of the bands," says Guerrero. Unlike many young and old bands, The Dimes concentrated all their efforts into their one band. All too often, musicians spread themselves thin with a number of side projects, but The Dimes decided that all their efforts had to be focused on the band if they were ever going to go beyond Miller's garage.
The band members practiced with each other every day and this probably cost them some friendships.
"People would always invite us, like, 'Hey let's go hang out,' and [we'd] be like, 'Uh, we're going to practice,'" says Guerrero. "We actually kind of blew off a lot of our friends."
Doo Doo Butter also practiced a lot, but they weren't trying to make it past high school. The funk outfit from Lamar High School played their last show in June because half the band was graduating and the rest couldn't imagine continuing without them. If you couldn't tell by the name, Doo Doo Butter wasn't taking things as seriously as The Dimes. The band didn't have aspirations to be anything more than a high school band.
"For a while, when we first started, I was like, well we could [try to do more.] Then I was like, wait a minute, that would require effort," says singer Dutch Peak.
"We just wanted to play music and have fun," says drummer Jacob Breier.
Even though the members of Doo Doo Butter weren't looking to be around forever, like The Dimes, they also wanted to step outside the limits of popular music.
"We wanted to create our own scene," says Peak, explaining how most of the bands at their school were just playing punk or emo.
"If we told them we were punk, they would be like, 'Okay, well, we've heard punk before, thanks,'" says guitarist Ben Donehower.
B., a band out of Pearland, were also looking for something different. The experimental rockers said they chose to play a genre less known to their classmates in hopes of attracting fans who would appreciate a new sound.
The group employs two drummers for their meticulous math rock (think of jazz played by metal musicians). The band's guitar player, James Essary, says their sound is influenced by the music they listen to and want to hear. Although B. has aspirations to take their music on the road, some music makers don't. Like the members of Doo Doo Butter, some of these young musicians are just making music because it's fun.
Paula May says she makes music because it's what she wants to hear.
"I'm getting really bored of everyday music now; even the indie stuff, the things that most people don't really know about, it's all getting really common now," she says. May taught herself how to use computer recording programs and now uses them to record her ambient pop tunes.
"I've been working with [the software program Garage Band] for like three years now," says In Denmark's Terrell. "So, I know all the ins and outs."
When Rise Over Ruin won a Bellaire Battle of the Bands, they were awarded with free studio time. Drummer Rehm says the group plans to record only the drum tracks which are more difficult and will record the rest of the album at Rehm's home studio. A smart move, one that many bands are making.
"The engineer brought that up; he says that actual studios are not near as popular as they used to be because so many people are actually recording at home," says Rehm.
The Dimes have recorded at home, but their recent E.P. was recorded at Houston's most prestigious sound factory Sugar Hill Studios. This is a sign that The Dimes wish to be more than just another teen band, but they're not ready to give it all up for the band just yet. Miller says school still comes before the band and it would take a lot to make him change his mind.
"For that to be an option, it's got to be [a] pretty promising [deal]," says Miller. "We have expectations, or at least I do."
"Got a foghorn and a drum and a hammer that's rockin' / And a cord and a pedal and a lock, that'll do me for now / I hope it works out my way / Cause it's getting kind of quiet in my city's head / Takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed"
Sonic Youth, "Teenage Riot"
"Even to get to a level to live off of it, it's going to be really, really hard," says Guerrero when asked if the band hopes to become more than just hometown heroes.
"I just hope to live a decent life and live in a small apartment and not have to work. I'm fine with that; as long as I can buy cigarettes and coffee, I'll be fine." Guerrero says just being able to be in a band is enough for him, but other members need more stability.
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By the End of Tonight's Templeton says he hopes it works out for them, because balancing both school and music isn't easy. The other members of The Dimes seem fine with Miller's decision and really just hope they can keep playing regardless if it's a full time or part time gig.
"Hi, we're The Dimes," says Carlos Sanchez onstage at Next in downtown, and the group bursts into their raucous live set. Miller hops all over the stage as Guerrero is behind him hitting his drums and whatever else he can find. After hitting his own face, he turns around and takes his sticks to the wall behind the stage.
"I do that at the Proletariat, too," he says after the set. The dance floor in front of the stage starts to slowly collect more and more impressed bystanders, and phrases like "They're good. How old are they?" can be heard in between songs. The crowd can't get enough, and even asks for an encore. Pretty impressive for a local band.
It's too bad no one can buy them a drink to celebrate.