The words "summer camp" dredge up a ton of memories: campfires, rashes, leaky canoes, homesickness. But at Kake Studios, tucked away behind the Spruce Pool parking lot just off Pearl Street in Boulder, the kids sport AFI wristbands and Incubus T-shirts instead of hiking gear. Instead of bunks, they have amps. And instead of tying square knots or embossing their names on dumb cowboy belts, they are learning how to rock.
"I heard a thing on NPR a while ago about this rock-and-roll residence camp in Portland, for girls. But it was all girls," says Aaron Betcher, associate program director for the YMCA of Boulder Valley and the visionary behind Garage Rock 101, the Y's new weeklong rock-and-roll summer camp. "And the main focus is teaching them instruments, teaching them how to actually play. I basically used that as a model of what I didn't want to do. I started thinking it would be really cool if I could do a one-week crash course on how to manage your own band, meet people, talk to people and write songs."
Betcher and his assistant counselor, Dan McDermott, are better known as the guitarists of Oer the Ramparts, an indie-rock outfit that fuses the catchiest and most kick-ass parts of Guided by Voices, Cheap Trick and Superchunk. They've played together for years around town and on tours throughout the country, so the two are battle-scarred from dealing with promoters, record labels and the day-to-day rigors and sacrifices of being in an underground band.
"We really try to show them the whole DIY ethic," McDermott says. "Do everything for yourself."
"And do it with love and care," Betcher agrees. "I love my band, and I love the songs that we sing. I just have this general love of playing music. At the same time, I'm a person who likes to do lots of different things. I'm trying to show the kids that it's fine to do that and play in a band; just pursue your interests with all of your heart. You can be a well-rounded person. You don't have to be a scumbag rock and roller."
Still, not even hip music-camp counselors can keep teens from exercising a little adolescent rebellion. "This one's called 'School Sucks,'" says Brian Cook, the lead singer of Cucumber, one of two Garage Rock 101 bands Betcher formed out of the ten campers. They're in the final day of rehearsals at Kake, and their overdriven guitars and walloped drums are reverberating off the mirrored dance studio's lavender brick walls and hardwood floors. Theoretically, the kids, who range in age from thirteen to seventeen, have been playing their instruments for at least two years -- but the experience is more apparent in some than in others, as evidenced by the numerous bum notes and dropped beats. That doesn't stop the fantasies, however. In between takes of their own songs, the guitarists burst into three-second excerpts of Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd riffs. Occasionally, they cast sidelong glances in the mirror to see how cool they look.
Cook and his Cucumber bandmates -- bassist Josh Morton, drummers Eric Carlson and Leslie Watson, and guitarists Devon Alper, Casey Dockstader and Mark McIntosh -- form a rather lopsided septet that makes a surprisingly adept and melodic noise. Sounding kind of like Saves the Day minus the Stridex pads, the group is a little rough around the edges, but it lurches through a three-song set with an ebullience that makes the whole studio shine with smiles.
Brisant, the second band, is much subtler. Composed of guitarist Leah Pantea, drummer Sean Edwards and bassist Steven Van Buskirk, the group has an aura that's moody and dynamic, awash in distorted arpeggios that sound -- swear to God -- like an American Juniors version of Hüsker Dü. "That first part I took from a Michelle Branch song," admits Pantea, who had never cranked up an amplified electric guitar before Garage Rock 101. "My dad plays an acoustic guitar, and that's what I always played."
But the kids are learning more than how to rock out. Out of five days of camp, two have been devoted to field trips around the Front Range that delve into music's more technical and business aspects. Betcher took them to Eight Houses Down, one of the busiest and most popular recording studios in Denver, so Matt Van Leuven could show off his recording and sound booths and post-production facilities and give the kids an understanding of the entire process, from writing the songs to getting a CD manufactured. Then they visited Boulder's W.A.R. Records, a label founded by former EMI A&R executive Rob Gordon.
"Rob talked to those kids for an hour, just about how the music industry really is. He wasn't pulling punches or talking down to the kids. He said, 'Listen, if you're cool to people in the industry, they'll be cool to you. Keep your vision. Keep it straight. Don't stray.' It was a great pep talk for me, even," Betcher says.
Ultimately, Betcher wants the program, which will return for a fall session, to be a vessel for the YMCA's basic tenets and aims: community. In the meantime, it is obvious that Garage Rock 101 has at least unified the simple social microcosm of ten very different teens. Skaters grinning beneath mops of bangs stand next to clean-cut math champs and sullen loners -- but watch them play together, and you'll notice a gentleness and patience when they speak to each other. There's a mutual respect based on collective creativity that no art class or sports team could ever duplicate.
"It's obvious that a lot of these kids would not have hung out together before being in this program," Betcher says, "but everyone's become real supportive of each other. Everybody has room to express themselves; everybody has equal floor time. I just want kids to meet other kids who have common interests and then jam out and make something new."
"I also try to point out to them that music is a lifestyle you can have. It's a really good way to set goals," McDermott adds. "That's an important thing to show kids. If they just want to sit around aimlessly and play video games and do nothing, that's fine, I guess, but we're trying to show them there's something more. I don't know where I would be today if I hadn't gotten involved in music."
The campers are getting ready for their final performance after five days of riffing and writing and arranging and rehearsing. The folding chairs are set up, coolers of pop and bags of cookies busted open, and videocam lenses are blinking as parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and little brothers and sisters file in. Sneakers squeak on the hardwood as the kids nervously rearrange their gear.
Up first is Brisant. Its one song -- instrumental and untitled -- is quite a bit louder than the older folks were expecting, but everyone is rapt. Pantea bends her head down as she plays, trying hard not to mess up. Here and there she misses a string or fumbles a change, but as raw and untrained as it is, the sound is haunting. Finally, as drums crash and the last chord leaks away in a trail of distortion, she yells in frustration at her own playing -- and it almost sounds like a part of the song. The studio erupts in stunned applause. This is no school band recital or church choir -- this is rock.
Next up is Cucumber, and the seven-piece rips through its pop-punk tunes with sloppy excitement. Four guitars plus two drum kits equals a whole lot of racket, but even the grandmas are grooving in their chairs. And as they begin getting comfortable on stage, the kids start playing solos and striking poses and flipping their hair.
Cook stands in the middle with a blank look on his face that could be the result of well-studied rock-star indifference -- or maybe fear. After the group's second number ends, he shyly takes the mike, looks out over his sea of adoring fans and says, "This is our last song. It's called 'Never Steal From a Candy Store.'"
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.