Published Sep 01, 2005It used to be that parents and rock music were natural enemies. Lately though, kids who wanna rock out are more likely to be aided and abetted by their elders, if not drafted by them to the cause, a change that's giving rise to new kinds of multi-generational collaboration, as well as new kinds of musical families. Jason and Nina Piña Trachtenburg needed a drummer, so they enrolled daughter Rachel in the renowned Seattle Drum School: the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players were born. Duplex came into the world when Vancouver's Veda Hille was asked to contribute a song for a children's book: she looked around her house and realised she had a band. Smoosh sisters Chloe and Asy discovered as preteens that writing songs together made practicing more interesting. And Eyeball Skeleton is a kind of Trachtenburg-in-reverse: two brothers in elementary school came up with a band name at breakfast one day, and then enlisted their musician dad to help them record a song.
Of course, family musical collaborations have existed for decades, most notably in collaboration-oriented scenes like folk and country. But the current embrace of a naive aesthetic in independent music, coupled with the accessibility of cheap recording, has led to an increase in kid-driven albums. "There's undoubtedly a movement, and it makes total sense all the indie rockers are at an age where they're having kids now," laughs Veda Hille. With her own career established, Hille had no ambitions to start another band least of all with her husband, stepdaughter and the upstairs neighbours. But then she was asked to write a song for a children's book and compilation, Sunny, and other Vancouver bands pretending to be kids including Destroyer and Secret Three had already contributed tracks. Hille upped the ante, assembling a band that included the Beekeepers' Annie Wilkinson, Matt Caruso, and toddler Abe Caruso (now four), as well as her partner's daughter Saoirse Soley and best friend Sierra Terhoch (both now 12). "All the adults are pro musicians and we just all happened to play the right instruments to be in a classic combo," Hille observes. "When we got the kids in and made the song, it was so freakin' fun it was ridiculous. A year later we had a record."
Around this time the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players were already enjoying high visibility. The first unsigned band to appear on Conan O'Brien, they also toured solidly, garnering extensive media coverage and eventually releasing a record on Bar/None. Having a cute kid on drums didn't hurt, especially since Rachel's poise onstage easily outshone that of her geeky parents. "Our band is a natural extension of our parenting philosophy, which is including Rachel in every aspect of our lives," says dad Jason Trachtenburg. The band relocated to New York, with Rachel trading alternative school in Seattle for home schooling and a solid touring schedule. Despite missing friends and teachers, Rachel is satisfied with her atypical life. "It's a lot of fun being in this band," she says. "I really get to know my parents because I work with them all day long."
In the case of Smoosh, a preternaturally gifted sister duo who formed their band without any parental urging, the movement is being propelled by the pre-teen set themselves. Smoosh boast a fan base of kids, high-profile rock stars, and twenty-something hipsters, and unlike other kid bands, appear to run the show entirely on their own. "Our parents didn't really have anything to do with it," explains Chloe, age 11. She was taking drum lessons, also at the Seattle Drum School, when teacher Jason McGerr suggested that she try playing with other musicians. "I had mentioned that I played piano," her sister Asy continues. "I brought my keyboard into the place and played songs, and Chloe made up beats and stuff." McGerr, who now plays with Death Cab For Cutie, recognised the nascent musical dynamic between Asy and Chloe. He recorded their demo CD, which ended up in regular rotation on Seattle radio station KEXP and was circulated amongst local musicians. Smoosh played their wobbly first shows at a local cafe, but were soon opening for Sleater-Kinney, Pearl Jam and Jimmy Eat World. "We never actually knew them before we played with them," explains Chloe. "I think they wanted to support us because we're a kid band." The sisters were as surprised as anyone by the response. "I don't think people think of us as a gimmick, but our age definitely catches people's attention," says Asy. "Things happened pretty fast with us it wasn't that long ago that we were playing open mics at Cloud City Coffee."
If the indie rockers are settling down to breed, so too are the hardcore kids. Eyeball Skeleton formed just outside Washington, DC when Bill Brown noticed his two young sons imitating his own amateur musical aspirations. "It kind of happened naturally, I always had guitars lying around. They just started playing around breaking a lot of my gear actually so I bought them their own little acoustic guitars." But Brown was wary of imposing his enthusiasm on J.J. and Charlie. "I made the decision when they were born that I can't push this stuff on them, even though I'm so into it."
He was reluctant even to give them lessons at first; letting his kids find their way to music meant he'd follow their lead. "I used to go to my dad's guitar and play it like an upright bass," explains nine year-old J.J., who never thought that playing music or forming a band was something out of the ordinary. "Back when I was in kindergarten we were just sort of bored, and wanted to start a band for fun. We recorded [the song] Eyeball Skeleton' when I was in first grade." The response from friends and classmates was overwhelmingly positive, and led to a home-recorded album, #1 (re-released on My Pal God), full of songs that reflect genuine grade school interests: bouncing apes, bad guys, break dancing in Egypt, and a vampire with a uni-brow. Production is minimal and the songs are ridiculously catchy, though it's clear they had some help with the riffs. "Oh yeah," laughs Brown, who gestures to his Pixies T-shirt. "J.J. plays guitar, and he's actually good now, but he didn't play much on the album. Charlie plays bass, they both sing, they both write the lyrics. It's just a group effort: I couldn't do it without them and they couldn't do it without me."
The Duplex album has more range stylistically; appropriate for preschoolers, but with a mildly demented sense of humour that has much broader appeal. "Most of what I liked when I was little was what my parents played for themselves," says Saoirse, "like the Ramones and Sex Pistols and stuff." (Saoirse sports dyed hair and a Misfits shirt on the album sleeve.) "All the Ramones records are kids records, essentially," adds Hille. "With Duplex we were aiming for songs that kids would like that we'd like too. Most kids music' tends to be overly simple for my taste. I felt like we could make stuff kids would like that didn't necessarily have to be dumbed down."
The best songs on Duplex's Ablum reflect the mundane aspects of family life, some of them written by the kids themselves. "We were at our cabin on Gabriola Island; we'd already come up with a few songs by then," says Saoirse, "and Veda was trying to get us to eat our salad. We were like, I don't want to eat my salad' and then Sierra said, Oh, that could be a good song' and she came up with a few verses." Now, at 12, Saoirse is interested in pursuing more of her own musical ideas. "Sometimes, because it's your parents, they're kind of in charge of you." While her skills are still rudimentary, she's enjoyed jamming with Sierra on new ideas, and the occasional AC/DC song. "Me and Sierra have talked about having our own band, just me and her, writing strange songs that make no sense. Because [Duplex] is a kids band, some of our ideas aren't things they'd want to do. Even if it's not inappropriate, it might be considered inappropriate."
One can't underestimate how much the success of Smoosh has inspired other young musicians. Chloe rhymes off a number of local Seattle bands whose members are in the same age range as Smoosh: the Neons, Black Peppercorns, Dek, Capital Basement. The girls are in control of major decisions, from playing shows to signing with their first label, Pattern 25. "The only person we had who actually knew about music was Jason," says Asy. "Mostly we just did whatever felt right, and we only ever did it for the fun of it. I wasn't really familiar with the music business." Neither apparently, were their parents. "They're not really into our kind of music," laughs Chloe. "On our website when we were first in a band, our mom wrote alternative rock.' Then, when she changed it, she wrote indy' the wrong way." Both girls are conscious that their choices are being supported. "My parents a lot of times have to change their schedule and it makes their life harder sometimes to take off work to run out and tour with us," says Asy. "They definitely let us do more things than other parents," adds Chloe. "I don't know any other parents who would let their kids do this. I mean, our parents care about us it's not like they don't care what we do but they think the band is cool so they let us play in all ages places."
Bill Brown is far more reluctant to take Eyeball Skeleton from family pastime to a working gig, perhaps because of DIY roots that make him wary of the industry in general. "I don't really look at it like that, because this stuff just kind of happened. I'm not here to control their lives, I look at it more as a family activity." While the band have played a few shows on radio and on avant-garde DC kids TV show Pancake Mountain, they played their first proper live gig a month ago at Port Reno, an outdoor concert series in DC. "It was amazing," says Bill. "Afterwards, I had this whole conversation with [Fugazi's] Ian MacKaye about the DC hardcore scene and the old school mentality I know that idea is dated, but we talked about just keeping the music fun. He was saying that you have to realise that people are gonna try and look at this as a gimmick, but he was like I see this as a real thing, and it's important to keep that in mind.'"
Of all the parents, Brown is the most hesitant to pursue anything beyond recording a CD for their own satisfaction, even though word of mouth has spread much further than anticipated. "Somebody wanted to do an interview with us and [Trachtenburg Family] some kind of chat thing and I wasn't really into that. That's possibly what separates us from some of these groups. We're gonna play some shows here and there, while we have time, but I'm not gonna work to put it out there. I'm really aware of the fact that it's not something that lasts forever."
The most frequent criticism of the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players is that the band rely too much on its gimmick and that perhaps Rachel has too little say about her inclusion in the band. "Rachel is getting funnier and sharper as she gets older," says Jason. "Pop and especially indie musicians take themselves way too seriously. Having kids involved can only loosen things up." Having had to adhere to adult schedules every day, Rachel easily imagines herself pursuing music as a career of her own. "I want to play in my own band when I get older. I would encourage music industry people to get their own kids involved, and not be so closed off."
In the debate over how much these kids should be protected from the grown-up world of rock'n'roll, some voices are conspicuously absent: those of the kids themselves. It's a quandary that they seem more aware of than the adults around them; after all, most of the time they play shows that their friends' parents won't let them attend. "Maybe they think it's bad for their kids to be rocking out at a show, or having a ton of fun onstage," muses Smoosh's Chloe, "because they wouldn't want them to get into bad things. But if they're hiding their kids from drugs and not telling them, and they're not experiencing it, whatever parents don't let them do they will want to do. They end up thinking it's cool to be bad." It's also surprising just how aware the kids are that they're participating in a circus. At age 11, Chloe is conscious that music is frequently made a scapegoat. "The thing about rock music is that the only bands [some parents] have heard of are those that do bad things. Maybe they think that all rock people do drugs or kill themselves or whatever, and wouldn't want their kid to get into it. But I think it's only that way for bands who kinda got so much fame that they didn't like it."
While Smoosh and Trachtenburg's larger success has been important inspiration to kids who want to rock, the more organic development of bands like Eyeball Skeleton and Duplex is a model for how it can happen in a kid-centred universe. Having parents who are supportive of young musical aspirations might help keep kids grounded in an industry that, let's face it, sells consumers the very idea of youth by packaging it with the music.
"Indie doesn't really mean anything anymore," observes Bill Brown. "It's totally an established environment now, and that's why I've always been into, you know, amateurism. It's important for kids for everyone to just do what they can with what they've got. Hopefully we won't have ten-year-old hipsters running around."
The kids ushering in this new era do have a more sophisticated understanding of the music scene than their parents may even be aware of, and they're also conscious that adult interest in kid bands is a combination of novelty and nostalgic envy. "I think that someday I probably will be in a different band with just my friends or something," says Saoirse. "I mean, it's cool to be in a band with your family, but obviously someday I want to be in a band without my parents!"
School of Rock
A Kid's Primer on How to Form a Band and Write Songs
Chloe, 11 (Smoosh): "If you want to play music you should get an instrument, and if your friend or sister wants to play music with you, you should start a band. You shouldn't really have a schedule for practicing. Practice whenever you want to. You should only do it if you like doing it."
Rachel, 11 (Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players): "When I was a little kid I hated to practice, but it will really help you, so you should."
Chloe: "I think any kid can play an instrument, if they want to, and their parents shouldn't change it and make them do piano lessons, like, every day of the week. You don't have to learn lessons, you don't have to learn notes."
Asy, 13 (Smoosh): "You don't need to read notes and actually write every song out, if you just kind of jam and get into the beat and have fun with it, that's good."
Charlie, 12 (Eyeball Skeleton): "The way we write songs is, we just all sit at the Thinking Table and like, think of something based on the [song] name. Usually we draw a picture and then name it, and then think of stuff that rhymes with the name."
Saoirse, 12 (Duplex): "We wrote Camels In the Desert' when we were like, eight. We were coming home from school and we just kind of started singing it. It kind of became our song around school."
Rachel: "I wanted to learn guitar, but our band needed a drummer. I love the drums and the bass [Rachel has filled in on bass with King Missile and Schwervon]. I want to start a band with my friends. We will be an all girl pop band."