A Look at Santa Barbara’s Unsung Musicians
Thursday, July 19, 2007
It’s a classic scene. The kid, acne-ridden and unapologetically angsty, sits in his room cradling a guitar, seeking six-string solace from the throes of puberty. Perhaps it’s a picturesque cliche, but have no illusions-the wild-eyed appetence of the teenage musician is not something to be marginalized.
Try, for a moment, to forget the unfortunate image of the teenage musician as seen by multinational record execs and fat cats. Try to forget about Hillary Duff and do your best to leave behind Fallout Boy. Instead, focus on a less shiny picture: a piano, a mess of sheet music, and a lamp casting muted light over unfinished homework. Here we find the losers of this corporate game, the kids who sing, jam, and write simply by nature. Teens may not be getting marginalized anymore, but their capabilities sure are.
Perhaps my opinion is biased, since I am constantly in awe of many of my very own classmates, with whom I collaborate closely. I know musicians at my high school of every shape and form, from the classical violinist sitting next to me in English to the death-metal guitarist who cheats off me in math. Their genres and instruments are different, but the common denominator is the same. They do what they do because they love it, no strings attached. Record label tycoons could learn a thing or two from these kids.
This truth seemed all too evident as I sat with my buddy Kyran Million in my living room, shouting questions at him over the riffs blasting out of my amp. But he was far more interested in the amp than me. Shouldn’t have let him hold my guitar, I thought to myself.
Million is a musical beast. He has spent five of his 18 years studying guitar, and since junior high, he has been playing with any and every band possible, genre be damned. When he’s not plugged in, he’s going a capella with the San Marcos High School performing arts program, and when sharing the stage got old, he recorded, produced, and marketed his own CD of singer/songwriter rock.
But Million struggles to articulate what exactly this music thing means. “I dunno man, it’s just : life,” he explained. “I’m always writing and playing. Even a simple hum can develop into an entire afternoon of writing.” As if to prove it, he began hammering out more riffs, and I could tell he couldn’t hear me anymore.
If Million’s airy jazz rock is the light side of the guitar cosmos, then lead guitarist Ben Lee and singer James Curatalo of Immaculate Fatality (lead image) dwell on the dark side with their brand of serrated speed metal. Though the majority of the band members attend the private Catholic high school Bishop Diego, they swear allegiance to a genre that is influenced mainly by Satanist culture.
The five friends have been recording metal together in lead Lee’s garage since junior high school. They will play for free anywhere that opens its doors to them, and their list of visited venues attests to that: the Biko House, Alpine, Creekside, even a barn that belonged to an unknown and unaware host.
Much like Million, Curatalo and rhythm guitarist Mike Mostachetti had a curiously difficult time explaining their motivation to play music. If anything, the idea of doing something besides playing metal together seemed to surprise them. “Don’t know man,” conceded Mostachetti after some serious thought. “It just always made sense to do what we do.”
Steven Dart, a senior at San Marcos, certainly agreed with that sentiment as I exchanged some hurried words with him during his practice with the San Marcos marching band. With an admirable candor, he put it simply: “Practicing is the most therapeutic and relaxing thing I have in my life.”
Dart is already as accomplished as any musician could hope to be, but at 18 years old, he’s just getting started. At school, Dart’s music resume-which includes a reputation as “the saxophone guy” in the jazz and concert bands and a role as horn sergeant in the marching band-sticks out more than his curly red afro. He’s been everywhere from the garages of his buddies’ rock bands to the stage of Carnegie Hall, where he performed as Concert Master. “It’s what I live for,” Dart said.
And though he may need only a saxophone and the breath in his body to play, not all musicians have that convenience. High schooler Jessie Rhodes, for example, can cover a stage in cables and still not have enough 1s and 0s to support her elaborate digital vision. Rhodes combines digital audio workstations like Ableton Live with MIDI interfaces and keyboards to create knob-tweaking live performances that use both digital and analog instruments. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Her garage looks like a laboratory from a bad science fiction movie.
For a 17-year-old girl, Rhodes’s vast knowledge of electronic music is eerily precocious. Up-and-coming S.B. DJs are often heard spinning her tracks, which are influenced by every electronic genre from house to trance to breakbeat. To Rhodes, conventional instruments are an antiquated-and, dare she say, primitive-medium that was simply never an option for her.
It seems characteristic, if not required, of nearly every world-class musician to trace his or her musical sentience to adolescence or early childhood. With evidence like this, the existence of a genetically motivated passion for music is at least a possibility. Perhaps it can be chalked up to an extra chromosome or two, or, just as likely, the absence of chromosomes. Even modern science fails to explain this phenomenon.
But where science fails, the music itself succeeds. Back in my living room, Million’s ragged Sonic Youth shirt gives me pause. After all, the band explained this teenage music phenomenon better than I ever could: “It’s getting kinda quiet in my city head / It takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed.”