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The Kids Are All Right

There is a small chrome skull embedded in one of Shawn McPherson’s long, brownish dreadlocks. He‘s 21 years old and loves heavy metal music. Not the prancing corporate rock of Motley Crue and Kiss, but underground, faster than shit, stop-on-a-dime, hardcore speed metal. His band is called Hostile Groove, and they’re setting up to rehearse in an empty classroom.

Shawn stands over 6 feet tall and talks with a thick Massachusetts accent, like JFK after a few thousand bong loads. At the door, he politely offers a set of earplugs, which are accepted with slight indignation. The rest of the band consists of his hometown friend and drummer, Dan Welby, and their new bass player, a lanky young Texan named Aric Wright. Shawn nods okay, and Dan clicks his sticks together, counting off a quick meter. The three lean forward and rip into their first song, “On a Mission.” The volume is incredible. The school desks begin vibrating and moving about the floor like amusement-park bumper cars. The earplugs are suddenly appreciated.

The music is complex and loaded with passion: Hank Williams filtered through punk rock and a thundering Black Sabbath. Shawn‘s singing alternates between a low-end growl and fast, staccato rapping. He stomps the floor in a steady cadence, whipping his dreadlocks through the air and battering his guitar. Dan is behind his set, feet driving the double kick drum, arms in constant motion. He resembles a shirtless Gene Krupa -- with nipple rings. Aric, who minutes ago was the very embodiment of a laconic suburban kid, is now hunched over his bass, jaw clenched and fingers flying about the neck at a phenomenal speed. This is modern soul music, complete emotional catharsis.

Back in the early ’80s, you‘d see these kids hiking up and down Hollywood Boulevard, long hair framing their still-pimply Midwestern faces, T-shirts adorned with some unpronounceable European guitar hero, shoulders hunched slightly from the weight of their gig-bagged neon guitars. Driving past, one could envision their fates with a condescending certainty -- grand dreams of rock stardom eroded by countless hours manning the counter of the local copy-mat, sporadic and unattended “pay to play” shows for their blindly supportive girlfriends. It all ended somewhere in the Valley with a day job in insurance, or porn.

At the center of this scenario, at the very epicenter of this hard-rock abomination, was the Guitar Institute of Technology, a school for aspiring rock stars. For many too-hip locals, this was both hilarious and pathetic. What might one learn at such a place? How to hurl a television set out a hotel window? The appropriately glorious pose to strike while rocking the local enormo-dome? The very idea seemed a contradiction. Even today, a mention of the Guitar Institute can provoke snickers and snide comments about outdated hair bands.

The school’s slick brochure does little to dispel its lingering reputation as a hotbed of metal noodling and soulless fusion. It tells how the school was started in the late ‘70s by a studio guitarist giving seminars -- upstairs from the Hollywood Wax Museum -- and the first names featured on a list of visiting “artists” are jazz-rock technician Al Di Meola and ex--David Lee Roth sidekick Steve Vai. But what was once merely the Guitar Institute has blossomed into the Musicians Institute, encompassing bass, drums, keyboards, vocals, engineering and a student body of 600. And if one is inclined to read further, there are other names on that list, true legends like John Entwistle, Mick Taylor, Albert Collins and B.B. King. Perhaps the printer, overcome by some sort of toxic vapor, mistakenly reversed the order. And perhaps the cynics were wrong, and all those kids on the boulevard were never a joke after all.

The musicians institute is now housed in a large, anonymous building on McCadden Place, just of Hollywood Boulevard. Inside, there’s the familiar clamor of school lockers being flung open and slammed shut. Students rush between classes, clutching instruments and handfuls of sheet music. A young Japanese kid with a 6-inch Mohawk and a backpack disappears up an echoing stairwell. Inside an empty auditorium, a wall-size video screen plays a constant feed of VH1‘s Behind the Music. A 15-foot Freddie Mercury is prancing about in hot pants and leather cap, singing, “Radio goo goo, radio ga ga.” a

The second floor is a maze of narrow hallways lined on each side with soundproof doors, their small windows covered with pictures, fliers and comics. Voices sing behind each door: a woman traversing a complex vocal scale, another trying, loudly, for Aretha Franklin. Past some fliers, a young man stands alone in a cramped rehearsal lab. He wears a dusty cowboy hat and strums a worn acoustic guitar, a harmonica around his neck like an early Bob Dylan.

 

Inside a “Fretboard Basics” class, the predominantly male students sit in rows, each holding a bass, staring ahead attentively. An instructor stands on the side of a small stage, flanked by a rather bored-looking longhaired guitar player and a drummer. The center of attention is a slightly overweight and very nervous student, gripping his bass tightly. The band begins playing a medium-tempo “funk” song. The student glances down at some sheet music, then joins in hesitantly.

In a class called “Guitar Heroes,” a teacher plucks out a quick series of notes while the students desperately attempt to transcribe them. Some have long hair, but there are no spandex pants or enormous Billy Squire ’dos. In fact, the students look much like those you‘d expect to see in any college music class. It feels more like the esteemed Berklee College of Music than a heavy metal high school.

The sound of a lightning-fast, Eddie Van Halen--like guitar solo drifts down a hallway. Inside a small lab is that most endangered of species, the hair-band virtuoso. He appears exactly as one might expect: magnificent plumage, tight pants, strained grimace. But upon closer inspection, the large coif now frames a slightly older face, and the waist has started to bulge slightly over the still-tight pants. Regardless, the fingers fly and he solos away. Another, short-haired, guitarist sits next to him, completely frozen.

Shawn and Dan and some other Musicians Institute students live together in a small apartment near the school -- fading white stucco, small, dirty swimming pool, very Miami Vice. Inside, there is hardly a stick of furniture, the lone decorative touch being a reverently displayed Slayer poster. Dan sits in the kitchen, listening to a tape of a Swedish punk band called Mob 47, studying the drumming with scientific rigor. “This is where it all comes from,” he says.

Shawn and Dan share a tiny room, basically two child-size beds side by side, surrounded by a mountain of amplifiers and gear. All four walls are completely plastered with fliers and pictures, of both their own band and those they love. Nothing in the room hints at any interest besides music (except for a bong). Dan politely offers a beverage. When asked about choices, he replies, “Kool-Aid.”

Shawn grew up in Massachusetts, splitting time between his divorced parents. “I love them both, they hate each other.” His dad is a cabinetmaker in Gloucester (the setting for the film The Perfect Storm), his mom a bus driver in a rural town called Uxbridge. He started getting into trouble at an early age, arrested for breaking into a neighbor’s house when he was 8. A few years later he fell in love with heavy metal music, and by the age of 12 was playing guitar in a Metallica cover band called Saboteur. Their debut performance was in a talent show at a nearby high school.

“Before us, there was a ballerina and some poetry, typical talent-show stuff, people doing skits off of TV shows,” he says. “Me and my brother‘s girlfriends were there, so there were like two chicks out of 500 people, just screaming at the top of their lungs. That’s all you could hear was these two chicks screaming.”

Shawn and his band go out and blast through their version of Metallica‘s “Enter Sandman.” The entire show is being broadcast on a local cable channel. It is their moment of stardom. That is, until they find out the only sound making it onto the broadcast is from the singer’s microphone -- no music, just vocals.

“We had this 12-year-old kid, just screaming, veins coming out, the most horrible-sounding thing you ever heard. We get the video the next day, we‘re like, ’Holy shit!‘ Our singer quit immediately.”

Shawn still has the video. It shows a close-up of a kid shrieking, face red, voice cracking. In the background, a prepubescent Shawn with long, curly hair wails away on a silent guitar, rocking out with the rest of the band to the unheard music. It is a work of art. Shawn pulls the tape out of the VCR. “The second show was a hundred times better. It was another talent show in a different town, and we took first place with Metallica’s ‘Creeping Death.’”

By the time Shawn was in high school, everything other than his music seemed to be falling apart. His mom‘s boyfriend ran up her credit cards and then split, and they fell on financial hard times. “We’re trying to take this guy to court, and they‘re like, ’Why‘d you give him the fucking credit cards?’ We were going down real fucking quick.” Meanwhile, Shawn was starting to have serious problems at school. “I was the kid that raised my hand and said, ‘I’m leaving,‘ and just walked out. You know what I’m saying? I had my detentions and late times booked up so high that they were like, ‘Why bother coming to school anymore? It’s just not gonna happen.‘”

 

Then the detention-hall teacher, who by now was quite familiar with Shawn, made an offer. Told him he could help out in the special-education class every day to work off his monumental detention hours. Shawn agreed, and it had a profound effect on him.

“Working with these kids that had no fucking chance, you know what I’m saying, that turned me right around. It taught me that I‘m not fucked at all, and I should be happy for what’s going on. That‘s what that taught me. It was a beautiful thing we did in there.”

Shawn graduated from high school after all, and at the age of 17 he entered the work force. “I got out and worked a year straight and hated it. Laundry at a nursing home. There were a couple of jobs, but that’s the one that took the cake. Holy shit, a nursing home‘s like death row. I hate to talk about it like that, but, uh, I was there. I was writing lyrics about how I want to die young. The last job I got before I moved in with my father was at a glass company, which was horrible. Bloody every day.”

One day his father pulled him aside. “He talks to me and says, ’What are you doing?‘ I’m like, ‘I’m working.‘ He tells me, ’You should get the fuck out of this state before you get a kid. Go find a music school.‘ And so I looked around and I found M.I., and I was like, ’I‘m moving to Hollywood, what do you think of that?’ And he was like, ‘Go -- go have the time of your life. Because you’re gonna be old before you know it.‘”

Dan grew up less than a mile from Shawn in Uxbridge. His dad is a state police officer. The two didn’t know each other until Dan started practicing his drums every day after school. “Shawn showed up at the house one day and told me, ‘I heard there was a drummer around, so I went and found you.’”

Dan had actually been in the audience to witness Shawn‘s infamous talent-show debut years before. “I just thought it was cool seeing kids my age playing Metallica,” a

he says. When Hostile Groove’s original drummer left, Shawn quickly recruited Dan. Out of high school, they both found themselves working full time and playing around the area. Then Shawn called with a proposition.

“He called me up and was like, ‘Man, come over here. I want you to read something.’ I went over and he had this brochure from M.I., and he handed it to me. I sat there and I started reading, and I read the whole damn thing. And I was like, ‘When are we going?’”

Shawn nods. “I told him, ‘We can stay here and work, or we can go out there and maybe play music for the rest of our lives.’”

Inside a darkened classroom, a dimly lit stage is crowded with students jamming on a song called “Just Friends,” by nouveau-soul singer Musiq Soulchild. Sitting in a chair facing them is a man in an electric-blue suit, bowler hat and two-tone shoes. He looks a bit like the late blues legend Willie Dixon back in his prime. His name is Masta, and he is their teacher. The class is called “Stagecraft.”

Masta sings in a clear, strong voice, then beckons various students to improvise their own lyrics. He motions to a small, waiflike blond girl, and she tentatively steps forward. Masta sings to her, then waits for her response. She shakes her head and shyly declines in a thick Swedish accent. Masta smiles and sings to her again, coaxing her to join in.

The girl, Lina, takes a deep breath and starts to sing in a surprisingly strong and expressive soprano. Masta rocks back and laughs warmly. “That‘s it, Lina, sing to me!” She smiles and starts swaying to the music, closing her eyes as she sings.

Aytunc Akdo is from the island of Cyprus, just off the coast of Turkey. He came to Hollywood a few months back to learn how to sing American R&B music. His first night here, the delicate-looking teenager found himself all alone in a local youth hostel. This was not the Hollywood he had expected. “I couldn’t sleep,” he says. “I told myself that in the morning, with sunlight, it‘s going to all be better.” It wasn’t.

 

On campus, Aytunc started telling people he wanted to go home. They suggested he talk to Masta, who invited him to his class. Aytunc loved it. “We were singing, and Masta heard me and stopped the class and told them about my situation. I feel like, first I came here and it was bad dream. Now it‘s just really good, I have friends, I have school. And I feel they are like me, and I was like them. Yesterday I was talking to a girl, and she was telling me that she was going to go back to her country, Japan. I told her, ’I was just like you. You should try.‘”

The school’s coffeehouse is called the Green Room. Sitting at a table outside, drum student Jon Udell looks like your average “alternative” type -- pointy goatee, blondish dreads, mirrored wraparound shades. He is discussing musical influences when he throws out a solid curve.

“I was 12 years old, and I went to the Philadelphia Spectrum to see Motley Crue. I‘m there with my buddy, and we look and Tommy Lee is [suspended above the audience] at a 90-degree angle. And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s what I want to do.‘ I wanted to be a rock star. I saw Tommy Lee, and it just changed my life.”

He is completely sincere.

“People are embarrassed by glam-metal. You would never hear anybody admitting that Tommy Lee is their idol. I say that and people look at me like, ’What the fuck‘s wrong with you?’ And I‘m thinking to myself, ’What happened to the other 18,000 people that were sitting with me at the Spectrum that night? Where did they all go?‘ I liked Ratt, I liked Poison, I liked Bon Jovi, those were the bands that I listened to.” He pauses. “I think Winger killed it.”

Jon is from the middle-class suburbs of Philadelphia. He and his band, the HuDells, were doing quite well back home, putting out two CDs and getting local airplay, until their beer-addled guitar player ran off with a girl. When asked about his current musical interests, Jon professes a deep love for eccentric Philly art-rock duo Ween. He shrugs. “Hey, we all grow up. But we all came from where we came from.”

It turns out he also admires the catchy pop songs of art-school faves Weezer. When informed that Weezer’s singer and songwriter, Rivers Cuomo, is in fact an alumnus of the Musicians Institute, Jon shakes his head with disappointment.

“Weezer was so boring live, they just stood there. I mean, I‘m ready to light my drum set on fire every night if I have to. Our lead singer ate live worms onstage for 45 shows straight. Live, living earthworms. We had a song called ’You Got Worms Babe,‘ and in the middle we had this breakdown, and every night he just dropped his head back and he dropped like eight earthworms in his mouth.”

What was the song about?

“It was a love song.”

Um, it’s a little tenuous, this love-worm connection . . .

“Hey, that‘s what we’re about,” he says. “Whatever it takes.”

The singer in the HuDells is his childhood friend Hugh, who has moved to Los Angeles while Jon attends the Musicians Institute. “He doesn‘t work, but he lives here. He writes children’s books and children‘s musicals. He’s working on this musical called Sock Muffin the Elf. Eventually he‘s gonna shop it around. He’s been working on it for a lot of years, just constantly going through stages of making it right.”

There is a long, awkward pause. Jon lights a cigarette. The moment has the surreal feeling of an impending hallucinatory attack. Jon mentions that he is married and that his wife is from Iceland. The two met back in Philadelphia, where she was working as a nanny. Jon was her waiter, and they fell madly in love over a cheese-steak sandwich. She is here with him now, attending the Fashion Institute downtown. When asked how his wife likes Hollywood, he smiles. “When she complains,” he says, “I remind her, ‘Hey, you could be in Iceland.’”

Shawn and Dan have been at the Musicians Institute for over a year. Shawn is now in the advanced guitar program, but also takes classes in “Getting Gigs” and “A&R: Getting Signed.” Dan studied “Playing Techniques” and “Rock Drums,” then enrolled in the recording artist program. “As for the payment of this whole escapade,” he says, “my parents helped, along with financial aid.” To make the $3,000 per quarter, they both exist on a lean stipend of family assistance and financial aid, and work long hours at the school‘s library.

 

The two managed a trip back to Massachusetts on their first holiday break, and played a show for the hometown fans. “We did a comeback show and drew 500 people outdoors,” Shawn says, “in Uxbridge, the fucking cornfield town.”

He plays a videotape of the show. The band is up onstage, and in front of them, a swirling mob of shirtless a

and tattooed boys are pumping their fists and singing along. Suddenly a kid comes flying through the frame backward, executing a complex, Olympic-style combo of back flips and cartwheels. He sails through the raging mosh pit untouched and disappears from frame. When asked if this particular dance move is common at their shows, Shawn and Dan just shrug.

Suddenly there’s a burst of raucous singing and furniture-pounding from a neighboring apartment. “The Swedes,” Dan says simply. It sounds like a mob of soccer hooligans warming up for their weekly riot. A few minutes later, Dan points out the window and announces, “Swedes.” Sure enough, there is a small horde of very drunken Swedish punk rockers advancing down the walkway. They mill about outside for a few seconds, then stagger off -- all except one.

With some good-natured pleading, the remaining Swede, whose name is Memphis, persuades Shawn to open the door and let him in. It turns out the Swedes are M.I. students as well, and, with the exception of their drinking and unintentional destruction, they are all “good guys.” Dan, in fact, has occasionally played drums in their anarchist punk band, Time Out.

Memphis plops himself on the floor, his eyes barely open. He has purple dreadlocks and a freshly pierced nose. He insists that Shawn put on a CD of “classic” punk songs, then lets out an appreciative “Aaahhhh!” as the cacophony of Discharge fills the small room. Eventually, Memphis leaves to retrieve a beer, and Shawn locks him out, explaining, “Memphis is cool, but I don‘t want him spilling beer on the equipment or lighting something on fire.” Memphis returns and pounds on the door, then laughs and staggers off to rejoin his fellow Swedes. The drunken singing and pounding resumes next door.

Inside the Green Room, two Axl Rose types with long hair and tattoos are talking in Swedish. One of them heads for the door, and the other calls out as a cheerful goodbye: “Rock and roll!”

A sober and pale Memphis sips coffee, explaining how he and his band ended up at the Musicians Institute. “It’s pretty easy to get student loans in Sweden. Economically it‘s not that hard, until you gotta go home and pay it back. But that’s another question. I just wanted to get out of Sweden for a while -- come here and learn how to play.”

He and his fellow Swedish punks like to hang out at a bar up the street called the Powerhouse. “I love that bar, it‘s small, not too many people. I don’t like going out to the Strip, it‘s just a bunch of guys with makeup and poofy hair and spandex. That’s the thing I did not expect. And they still get the chicks!”

A while back, the Swedes met a guy at the Powerhouse who was on the lam from Arizona authorities. He had nowhere to stay, so they put him up in their apartment for a few days until he disappeared back into the desert. A few months ago, their Arizona pal got out of jail and invited them out to Tucson to play an appropriately labeled Dumb Drunk and Fucked Up party with some local grindcore bands. Memphis was awed by the vast Arizona landscape. “The desert was fucking cool, it was great. I mean, it‘s hard to imagine -- the road that never ends.”

A weary Memphis confesses that he’s broke and tired and starting to miss home. “I‘ve learned a lot. Musically, I’ve learned a lot. And meeting all these people from all around the world. That‘s been very good.” He smiles, sadly. “It’s been a great time, but it‘s got to end.” He produces a cassette of his band and cautions, “Don’t play it around small animals.” Listening to it on the way home, it sounds like the car‘s engine is exploding.

A sports bar in suburban Huntington Beach, surrounded by the same few bland houses, repeated endlessly for miles and miles. Inside, there are multiple television screens showing different sporting events, and several green pool tables. Some construction types hover around the bar nursing drinks and stroking their mustaches. On a small stage, a three-piece goth band in black vinyl outfits play to a single booth packed with their loyal friends. The show was set up by a Musicians Institute student who lives in the neighborhood. His band, Melancholia, is headlining. Also on the bill is a band called Steiger, and Hostile Groove.

 

A tiny man with long, feathered hair and a huge, bushy mustache shuffles by as Dan and Aric set up some CDs and T-shirts on a back table. Dan’s girlfriend, Daniela, a vocal student from Switzerland in a shiny red leather jacket, orders some French fries. Shawn‘s girlfriend, Leah, dressed entirely in black leather, goes outside with him for a smoke. A man walks in sporting a neatly trimmed mustache and blow-dried hair, a dead ringer for Eric Roberts’ character in the film Star 80. He disappears into the bathroom, leaving an intense trail of cologne.

A half-hour later, Hostile Groove take the stage and tear into “Our Hatred Feeds.” As they finish, Shawn announces, “We have earplugs for sale back there for only a dollar.” He is completely serious. Dan clicks his sticks and they start into “Fly Routine.” Leah stands out on the dance floor with her tattooed arms folded, nodding her head to the furious beat. The song ends, and a young white convict type with “Orange” and “County” tattooed on the back of his huge biceps yells out, “Slayer!” Shawn shrugs and executes a quick Slayer lick on his guitar.

During the next song, a tall albino in a bright-yellow track suit walks in and glances around the bar. After a minute, he turns and walks out. Shawn finishes the song and shakes his head, lamenting, “My guitar‘s out of tune, so I can’t play all that romantic shit.” A stocky kid with a goatee and wallet chain looks up from his game of Space Invaders and yells, “Who cares?” Shawn looks over. “Not me, dude.”

The band launches into a blistering cover of a song by the Brazilian metal band Sepultura, and as they finish, the wallet-chain heckler utters an appreciative “Tore it up!” The rotund soundman in a Hawaiian shirt informs the band that they have time for one more. Shawn announces Metallica‘s “Creeping Death,” saying, “This is one I think we can all get together on.” As they start into the song, people begin assembling on the dance floor and banging their heads to the music. Even the young convict is out there, flexing his muscles in appreciation. A few kids start to mosh, but the middle-aged, motherly type working the door taps them on the shoulder and shakes her head sternly. Hostile Groove finish to enthusiastic applause from the small crowd. As they walk off, the wallet-chain heckler approaches Shawn and apologizes.

The next band, Steiger, is in fact fronted by the hair-band virtuoso spotted earlier in a guitar lab. His name is Ken Steiger, and he teaches metal guitar at the Musicians Institute. With his band behind him onstage, he stands alone on the dance floor with his guitar. Lined up in front of him is a multitude of effects pedals, one of which triggers two strobe lights he has placed on either side of the stage. There is no singer. Ken simply stands there and solos away. He calls his music “instra-metal.”

As Steiger rocks on, the bar fills with local kids coming to see their friends in Melancholia. It’s a typical Huntington Beach mix of surfer, jock and punk. When Ken Steiger enthusiastically announces, “Next up is Melancholia, and they have four great songs,” someone shoots back, “Yeah, and they have a singer!” Ken shrugs it off and continues. His music resembles the lost soundtrack to an early-‘80s Warren Miller ski film. When asked his opinion, Shawn replies simply, “He shreds.”

Melancholia set up and start the first of their four songs. They are young, tattooed suburbanites who play extremely fast grindcore. The area in front of the stage is now packed with their buddies, banging their heads and pumping their fists. Dan is out there getting jostled, with a beatific smile on his face. The Star 80 guy finally emerges from the bathroom. His pupils are large, and he is chewing his lip. He smoothes his hair back, cracks his neck and strolls confidently toward the bar. A middle-aged drunk watches the scene, rambling on about how today’s kids don‘t know shit, and how “radical” the Dead Kennedys were.

The diminutive stoner with the giant mustache is gingerly navigating through the raucous crowd, trying desperately not to spill his pitcher of beer, when all hell breaks loose. The dance floor erupts into a mass of frenzied slam dancing, and seconds later a violent brawl begins as the convict type and some husky punk kid collide and start throwing punches. From that point on it’s a complete melee -- yelling, breaking bottles and flying fists.

 

The fight moves outside long enough for Hostile Groove and the other M.I. students to gather up their gear and hit the road back to the safety of Hollywood. Driving home, everyone is noticeably quiet. Dan seems a bit shell-shocked, muttering to no one in particular, “All I wanted to do was dance.” Heading north on the 405, past the glowing oil refineries, Radiohead‘s OK Computer plays gently on the stereo.

David Mu--oz is a guitar player from Barcelona. He has long, straight hair, fuzzy muttonchop sideburns a

and black Buddy Holly glasses. His nickname is “Gnaposs,” which translates into either “Big Nose” or “The Gnome,” both of which he likes.

David loves being in Hollywood. He grew up listening to L.A. bands like Motley Crue and Van Halen. Smiling sheepishly, he confides, “I used to play in a hard-rock band. I used to wear lipstick.” He claims the music scene in Spain has completely died out. “Young people there don’t care about live music anymore.” During the Barcelona Olympics, David worked outside the various sports arenas dressed as a giant M&M.

Tonight he‘s at a small recording studio perched directly above the Hollywood Bowl with his friend, drum prodigy Paul Allen. The two met last year while attending the Musicians Institute.

Paul grew up in the Florida swamplands around Gainesville, where his parents played in an Ike and Tina Turner--style soul revue. “My mother would sing and play piano. My father played guitar and bass and did background vocals. A couple of my uncles were also in the band. They played clubs and halls, a couple of juke joints in the area.”

Paul learned to play drums as a young boy in local gospel bands. As he got older, he began searching for musical inspiration. “I started listening to the radio a lot, the jazz station. Hearing different cats on there, Joe Sample, Billy Cobham, John Scofield, John Coltrane, Miles . . . I would just go to sleep listening to that station.”

Paul and David sit at the mixing board, eating pizza and listening to the playback. It sounds like ’70s-era Stevie Wonder, with artful drumming. When David‘s melodic guitar solo comes on, he leans over and cranks up the volume. Paul smiles, and starts laughing. “This is gonna be a good year, man.”

The teacher is up front, pacing back and forth, talking in a rapid-fire Texas accent. The students listen intensely, each sitting before a small electric keyboard. An Asian girl dressed in surprisingly formal attire, a floor-length dress and long sleeves, listens to the lecture, then reaches for a Korean-English dictionary and starts flipping quickly through the pages. She appears completely at ease -- glowing, in fact. When she puts on her headphones and begins to play, her shoulder dips unconsciously to the music.

Her name is Soyeon Kang, she is from Seoul, and she is a Christian missionary. She and the other three members of her ensemble were sent over by their church to study music. Back in Korea, they would travel around, playing at the church’s revival meetings to crowds ranging from 100 to 5,000. Now they are in Hollywood, learning music theory and, perhaps, something more.

“It is a shock. The culture is very different, and then I am dedicated missionary . . . You know people wear different clothes, pierced and, how do you say, tattoos.” She laughs. “So surprising for me. Very interesting.”

Does she ever talk to the people with the piercings and the tattoos? “Yeah, they are my favorite friends,” she says sincerely. “You know, uh, first time I saw them, I was very scared. I didn‘t see them in Korea. But when I make a band, I have to meet them. But their heart and they think, it is so purified. Yeah, I can feel it.”

For her, the problem is not one of language. “To study is very hard for me, because I didn’t know about Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Do you know Miles Davis? Everyone in America knows that. But I didn‘t know . . . Miles Davis, he was great player and he is a pioneer in music. I respect him very much.” She pauses. “Sometimes I feel here, I’m a stranger.”

It‘s 2 a.m. and rain is pouring down on Hollywood. Shawn is standing outside the Musicians Institute smoking a cigarette. The band has secured several precious hours in the school’s state-of-the-art recording studio, and they intend to make the most of it. The plan is to knock out two songs in the time it would take some bands to arrange their incense burners. Dan and Aric are already inside setting up. They end up waiting another hour for some equipment being used in the school‘s other recording studio. By the time the engineer gives them the go-ahead, it’s 3:30.

 

Shawn is in complete control. He has spent the entire Christmas break locked down in their small apartment, meticulously preparing for this moment. Within minutes his frantic guide track is blasting from the speakers, and a well-rehearsed Dan is pounding out a hyperkinetic beat. Shawn holds up his hands like a preacher, exclaiming, “Double kick drum -- the heart and soul of metal!”

Three takes later, and Dan has nailed the first song, “Till the Day,” perfectly. They move on to “Two Colors of Green,” and he pounds through it with equal precision. After the final beat, he looks up, breathing hard, and asks, “Does that make you happy?” Shawn gives him a thumbs-up.

Aric plugs in his bass and settles back in a chair. The song starts, and his long fingers begin moving up and down the frets like a caffeine-fueled spider. He momentarily forgets a part, and Shawn produces a page of sheet music filled with ridiculously complicated notations. Dan laughs and shakes his head. “The chart, the deadly chart.” Aric doesn‘t need it. He finishes the track, and they listen to the playback at peak volume. Shawn smiles. “It sounds pissed . . . and we’re such peaceful people.”

As morning approaches, Shawn walks in to record his vocals. He slips the headphones over his long dreadlocks, steps to the microphone and shakes his body loose. After a pause, the music hits him like a blast of cheap trucker speed, and you can see his muscles tighten. He immediately starts rocking back and forth and pumping his arms. His voice comes out harsh and guttural, like he‘s purposefully destroying his vocal cords. “Un-teach -- relearn -- decide -- what the fuck you want from yourself in this life.”

In the mixing booth, Shawn’s words merge perfectly with the music. The engineer looks up from the mixing board and laughs. “That shit is intense!”

Dan and Aric have gathered behind the board to watch Shawn through the glass as he sings. They seem energized, nodding along and occasionally pumping their fists. It‘s as if his words suddenly give meaning to what they do. Dan begins quietly singing the lyrics back to Shawn. As the song continues, Dan moves closer, finally reaching out and pressing his hand against the glass that separates him and his friend. They stay that way as the song goes on, both singing -- both completely lost in the music.


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