This One Time, at Band Camp

Published on: March 15th, 2010

I’m what is known in technical terms as a “late bloomer.” I didn’t work up the nerve to pierce my earlobes until I was 18. I got fall-down drunk for the first time in a Hollywood tapas bar at 23. I decided to dye my hair blue at the age of 26, having never before even committed to highlights.

So it might not actually be all that weird that at the age of 28 I decided I wanted to sing in a rock band. I have at least a decade of classical voice training under my belt and I love to sing, which seemed like a step in the right direction. Of course, I have also been known to suffer debilitating stage fright (a poignant memory of being in seventh grade and too busy hiccoughing with tears to perform at a contest comes to mind) but why let that stop me?

In a beloved movie of my youth, a very young Rénee Zellweger has a knock-down-drag-out fight with her best friend, Liv Tyler, in the basement of Empire Records where they work, and admits that she wants to sing with a band but is too chicken to even audition. By the end of the film, she’s on the roof of the store, rocking her first time out with a band at an impromptu party to save the Empire. I figured my rock debut would be something like that. But without Liv Tyler.

On my first night of band camp, I pull up to the parking lot of an industrial-looking office complex in Lafayette in the dark of a winter Wednesday night. Only one shop still has any lights on: Dog House Music.

The owner of Dog House, Gary Lennox, is a throwback to another time, with long hair, John Lennon glasses and a motorcycle jacket. His bread and butter comes from Dog House’s summer band camps for kids, private lessons for just about any instrument you can think of and renting out rehearsal space for bands large and small, local and nationally renowned. Only recently have they added their Fantasy Rock Camp for adults. For four weeks, grown ups (in name, at least) get together one night a week with an instructor to write music in preparation for a real live gig at a local venue. The place feels totally legit with black walls, amps and boards and wires everywhere, and music posters for The Doors, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Pearl Jam hanging from every wall.

Sitting in a room with a tie-dyed tapestry and Christmas lights strung across the ceiling, I start immediately sizing up my fellow campers: as motley a crew as has ever been assembled. We start to sort ourselves out and assign roles.

We reek of suburbia, of self-consciousness and of promise. As I would soon discover, a band really needs a diva, and we are definitely lacking. Our instructor, Gunnar, bounces into the rehearsal space like a superball released in a stairwell, full of frantic energy and positive encouragement. “Let’s write a song!” he crows as we cower behind our instruments and mic stands.

But over the next four weeks, that’s exactly what we do. In fact, Gunnar coaxes two original songs out of us. And it is a lot more painful than I expected—but fun, too. We struggle through bad chords and discordant notes and strange lyrics and bad harmonies. Verse chorus, verse chorus, bridge verse chorus. But in the end, we have what sound like two real songs.

In between our group sessions, each instrument gets a semi-private lesson with a different instructor. The other singer and I get Skippy, a bluesman with a gravely, whiskey and cigarettes voice and a blond afro. He admits in our first lesson that he doesn’t know much about teaching singing—but that he does sing for his blues band. We spend the half hour ad libbing blues rifts with him and his guitar. Another week, we meet with Mikos, tall and thin and painfully hip, who can at least play the piano and help us pick out melodies and harmonies, though he too admits he’s no voice teacher.

We don’t let any of it stop us. We’re musicians, after all. We’re supposed to be cool and calm, supposed to go with the flow. As our regular lessons end, we elect to keep meeting, keep practicing in the weeks leading up to our gig—the impending, ominous gig.

We add a cover to our set and start debating band names. Blue on Pluto gets vetoed. My suggestion of The Infomercial Billionaires gets wide acclaim and much laughter but is ultimately voted down. It’s more than a little challenging to pick a name that defines us, as we don’t have any kind of unified vision of who we are. But finally we settle on something we can all live with.

We are The Folded Twenties.

It doesn’t really hit me exactly what I’ve gotten myself into until I pull up outside the Fox Theatre in Boulder that Sunday afternoon. There, on the marquee in big red letters, is the proof of my folly. Folded 20s, it says.

Close enough.

I feel excited and more than a little nauseated as I knock on the front doors and get an employee to let me into the nearly empty theater. “I’m with the bands,” I say, feeling at once ebullient and totally lame saying it.

I am almost instantly grateful that I didn’t promote this too loudly to any of my friends or coworkers. It’s going to be hard enough performing in front of all the teenagers whose bands are opening for us old fogies. It’s easy to see that they’re pretty universally unimpressed by us. A girl well under the driving age wearing glittery sneakers disses our bassist for her wardrobe choices. I am hit with an overwhelming flashback to high school. And then I promptly mock her shoes in my band-mate’s defense.

Not my proudest moment.

The show is more than three hours long, showcasing six teen bands, with members ranging in age from 12 to 17, and two adult bands from this round of camp. The crowd is loudly approving, but thins considerably as each band finishes its set. I needn’t have worried about playing for the teens; their parents shuttle them off to their next activity long before we go on.

I have a beer to calm my nerves, which I had expected to be frayed to their last thread by the time we go on, but I am miraculously calm.
We head down to the green room before our set. One of our guitarists is practicing her solo in the corner. Gunnar is bouncing around, telling us how awesome we’re going to be. And then the teen band on the stage starts playing “Baba O’Reiley”—really freaking well considering their youth—and we realize that we are doomed.

The actual set goes faster than seems possible. One second, I’m introducing the first song, and then it’s over. We play our second song, I realize how incredibly long the guitar solo is, and then boom! That one’s over too.

I walk up to the mic, smiling my best lead-singer smile and say, “Thank you very much! We’ve got Matt back here on the drums, Tony and Melinda on guitar, the lovely Laura on bass and Julie up here on the mic with me. We are The Folded Twenties and we want you…to want us.”

And then we launch into our cover of “I Want You to Want Me” by Cheap Trick.

Then it’s over. My 15 minutes of rock and roll fame lasted about eight and a half, but I’m not complaining. How many people can say they sang with a rock band in front of a real audience at a bigger venue than most garage bands can ever dream of playing? I didn’t cry. I didn’t make a fool of myself. And I actually had a pretty good time.

It’s true: I may not have emerged from the Dog House a bona-fide rock star, but I did realize a dream (and get an offer to sing with another band).
On top of that? Now I feel totally credible wearing black nail polish.

Learn more about Dog House Music and its camps at doghousemusic.com

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  1. That sounds like so much fun! It makes me wish I had musical talent…

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