Smells Like Preteen Spirit
Three Hourz Sleep, a genuine boy band
A couple of months ago, during an early supper at El Sol y La Luna, I was serenaded by an endearingly earnest version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son." It rose from behind Jo's Coffeehouse up the next block of South Congress, as demanding and inciting as John Fogerty intended. No local act would dare play so fashionably loose, and the vocals sounded unexpectedly youthful, so it became imperative to investigate the source.
The drummer parked himself casually behind a Pearl drum kit, his drumsticks wound with blue tape and twirling in his hand. The bassist wielded a full-size electric bass with ease, nearly as tall as he was, but far from overwhelming him. The vocalist clutched the microphone close to his chest, bent over it in the classic rock singer pose. The guitarist held his red Epiphone Les Paul and nodded to the drummer, who counted off before sliding into a most familiar riff. The chorus had many in the audience singing along:
With the lights out, it's less painless
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
The crowd looked a little too old to cut loose to a Nirvana song played in a parking lot. They looked suspiciously like parents, in fact, when the band launched into some original songs and they continued dancing. Many of themwere parents, it turned out, bouncing joyfully as their offspring played with contagious enthusiasm. With them, Three Hourz Sleep was a hit.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana's decade-old anthem, didn't translate literally into teen angst here -- the four members of Three Hourz Sleep are between 11 and 13, still innocent of the interpretations of Kurt Cobain's jaded command. At an average age of 12, to them, the song sounds good and feels good to play.
It's hard to explain exactly what occurred in that parking lot except in vaguely sociological terms. Think of the performance as a tribute to the power of music, an expression of youth minus the element of rebellion. A tip of the knit cap to the past. One thing is certain. This is the future of Austin rock & roll, and it smells like preteen spirit.
Child entertainers have a long and sometimes ignoble history on stage and screen, but kid guitarists in Austin have a stellar one. Little Stevie Vaughan was still in his teens when he followed his brother Jimmie down from Dallas. Little David Murray was too young to play with Paul Ray & the Cobras at Soap Creek; the band would open the door at the side of the stage and sneak him onstage to play.
The Power of 12
"Little Charlie & Brother Will" were how the preteen Sexton boys billed themselves, opening for acts like W. C. Clark (ask Charlie how long it took to shake the "little" moniker). Little Jake Andrews wore the title quite legitimately, having played since before he started school, and is more than happy to pass on the mantle.
While blues has nurtured untold guitar stars, punk rock is famous for nurturing the underage. Music trivia buffs might recall the novelty of kid rockers Old Skull in the Eighties, while in Austin, bands like God on Drugs, Toxic Shock, and the Butthole Surfers had teen members. It makes perfect sense that punk rock's anti-everything attitude appeals to kids who discover every day that the world can be a hard, sharp-edged place.
Still, being a featured guest of an established band or having adults backing you is quite different from trying to book gigs when the oldest player in your group is 13. Sixteen years old can see 18 like a dim light of freedom in the distance; 13's still got a long way to go.
That's where music comes in. It's the universal key for American youth, now that at least one entire generation has been born and raised on MTV. Music opens the minds and hearts of the young, and is most potent when it expresses their discontent and anger. At the age of 12, those emotions are much more relevant than that even more popular of song subjects: love.
Even without any serious complaints in them, there's something about Three Hourz Sleep that sets them apart at this moment in time. Another two years and things will be very different for these boyz-II-men. Their voices haven't broken. They don't shave. Girls aren't in the picture -- yet. At a time when the term connotes a capriciously fabricated ensemble, Three Hourz Sleep is a genuine boy band.
Remember 12? Twelve may be the tenderest of ages. Twelve years is a solid length of time to be alive, and 12 stands for a lot of things: 12 months of the year, 12 hours on a clock, 12 disciples of Jesus. Twelve-inch vinyl. Twelve signs in the zodiac, 12 Knights of the Round Table, 12 labors of Hercules, the architectural 12-fold design ...
Twelve grades in school. A dirty dozen. Midnight. Years will be marked in varying increments of significance, but 12 is one of the milestones by which to multiply them: 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, 84, 96 .... You might not even have to say your age, just, "I've been 12 four times." Twelve. Dig and delve.
Twelve means goodbye to being a kid and hello to young adulthood. When "teen" nudges up to your age, it's over, you've gone into the chute. When the gate opens, you're 18, you run and don't quit until you die. But you don't know that at 12. You just know that age somehow unlocks secrets and mysteries of life.
If you're lucky, you'll get to unlock a few yourself. Music is good for that.
On an unseasonably muggy November Thursday, Three Hourz Sleep is practicing at the drummer's central Austin home, a for-sale sign planted prominently in the front yard.
Since First Grade
Up on the newly painted second floor, the between-song repartee sounds familiar.
"Let's play the new one and then 'Golden Boy.'"
"We're still working on it!"
"I need the lyric sheet!"
"Don't worry about it, let's just play."
"Okay. Calvin, you start it out."
Right now, Austin boasts a vibrant scene of "kid bands," as 13-year-old guitarist Evan Kaspar un-self-consciously calls Three Hourz Sleep. All four members are quick to cite schoolmates the Snobs, the Distressed, and the all-girl Cat Scratch as being influences and inspiration to them, but their overall sense of influences is very precise.
Sam Shahin, 12, swears by "Travis Barker, Blink-182's drummer. He's always doing something interesting and unpredictable."
Bassist Calvin Morin-Murray, 11, idolizes Matt Freeman of Rancid, recalling, "The first music I listened to was in first grade. I started listening to bands like Green Day and the Butthole Surfers. Punk rock music."
Suddenly it sounds so serious.
"Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix. And a lot of new artists. I like rock and pretty much everything except country and rap," Evan muses. He's the eldest of the four, one grade ahead of the others.
"My dad plays a lot of old ragtime," he continues, sounding like a veteran musician ruminating on his past. "Like Scott Joplin, that was the first music I started hearing. When I was three or four, I saw the Beatles Anthology. From there on, I was hooked on the Beatles and started listening to other bands. I also like zydeco and bluegrass. I'm into the banjo right now, thinking of taking it up."
Evan has a dreamy aspect to his personality when he plays, indefinable except perhaps as nascent star quality. He hunkers over his guitar and stares at it, as every good guitarist before him, and when he riffs on "Turning Japanese," he does it like a pro.
Jack Hathaway, Three Hourz Sleep's lead vocalist for almost a year, is not-so-secretly wanting to play guitar. As frontman, the 11-year-old admits, "I don't really listen to any particular vocalist. Mainly, I listen to guitarists. I take guitar lessons."
When the musicians scatter during break-time, Jack picks up the guitar and practices the Nirvana song again. There again lies the innocence of Three Hourz Sleep, a naiveté present by virtue of age. When Kurt Cobain was writing "Smells Like Teen Spirit," did he have in mind 11-year-olds singing about their libidos? Do 11-year-olds even know what a libido is? Do they care?
Three Hourz Sleep are sensitive and aware enough to have composed "Holy War" after Sept. 11, but the genuinely sweet thing about them is, at this age, it really is all about music.
"I loved the music I heard so much I wanted to produce it myself," Evan remembers. "But it wasn't until I bought a 50-cent electric guitar at a garage sale that I did. I played it until I bought this one."
"Sometimes the girls hang around. That's pretty cool," notes Calvin about the advantages of being in a band, but Evan is more circumspect about the opposite sex.
"I dunno," he defers.
Sam recalls "a lot of girls at our first gig," but Jack just shrugs.
Three different parents arrive at the fourth's house to pick up their aspiring musician. They hang around and converse in a language the kids are still learning but understand implicitly: gigs, bookings, sets, song lists.
Family is a big thing when no one in the band drives, let alone is old enough for a learner's permit. Calvin's father is talking about getting PR for a gig, while Jack's mom drops by early to check in with Sam's dad, who gives a check to Evan's father for equipment.
Sam's father is Jim Shahin, onetime Politics editor at the Chronicle. He's also done his share of rock criticism and even fooled around in a few bands. He's the first to admit that the level of parental support is due in no small part to a financial comfort enjoyed by most families with kids at O. Henry Middle School, where most of the bands attend. The kids in Three Hourz Sleep make the Honor Roll, hardly the anti-social creeps feared by an earlier generation of parents. Still, isn't rock & roll about rejecting such things? And what of the lines crossed in the rebellious act of playing rock & roll?
"Yes, of course I think about what's happening when I take my kids to see a band of other kids singing, 'Fuck, fuck, fuck,'" Shahin elaborates. "But like the dad of one of the other bands said to me, 'I have to keep the lines of communication open with my kid.'"
In a scene so small, any competitive, sometimes antagonistic spirit is surprisingly nonexistent. The presence of other kid bands like the Snobs, the Distressed, and Cat Scratch represents strength in audience numbers -- important to, say, a club that supports live music but requires patrons to buy drinks. Drinking patrons are a premium in most kid bands' audiences.
That often sends the pre-18 bands right back into playing alternative, non-club gigs, just like their punk ancestors. The slightly older and more sophisticated Snobs can attract an older crowd at the Black Cat and Flamingo Cantina, and Cat Scratch can do the same at the Hole in the Wall (old enough to drink, anyway). Three Hourz Sleep does well to get an outdoor show like the one at Jo's, where they attracted the attention of a veteran rock journalist dining across the street.
When life is good at 12, and your band is evolving on schedule, what's the worst thing that can happen when a kid's found something to live for, something that brings meaning to his young life? The "For Sale" sign in Sam Shahin's front yard says it all.
The Worst That Can Happen
Yes, at 12 the worst thing that can happen is your parents. Three Hourz Sleep face the biggest crisis of their young career as founding member Sam Shahin leaves the band, moving with his parents to Washington, D.C. His impending departure was not broached with the band, who are painfully aware of what they have to deal with. It seemed wiser to leave the dilemma to the four.
Listen, Sam, here's something to take to heart. Wherever you go, there's a band out there. It won't be the same as the friends you've known since kindergarten, but there will be plenty of common ground. And Evan, Calvin, and Jack, by the time you're making your next CD, this will be part of your history. Find another drummer and keep gigging.
Here's the prediction: The Snobs, Cat Scratch, the Distressed, Three Hourz Sleep ... at least one of their musicians will be in a major Austin band within five years.
What was it Sam said?
"We're just kids and out there to play."
Three Hourz Sleep released their first CD, Bad Mitten, last week. It is self-distributed at their gigs.