All you need is three chords and the truth — about, say, pelicans in the rainforest.
That’s the spin a new band called Exotic Mess has put on the old description of rock music.
“Pelicans in the Rainforest” is the first song written by a group of Missoula kids. At the Zootown Arts Community Center’s Alternative Music Project camps, children from ages 7 to 13 learn the basics about being in a band, from picking a name to writing songs, making T-shirts and fliers and performing live.
The ZACC has selected 23 of the songs for “Rock Camp Songs, Vol. 2,” a charming compilation of tunes written and performed by the kids’ bands over the past year.
Pop music can be simple, just three chords plus vocals, bass and guitar, and so the fun is hearing kids, early in the learning curve, put their spin on tropes and styles that we’re all familiar with. If you’re in the mood for rock, try “Frankenstein’s Boy” by Lucid World. “No one cares, no one listens, I’m not there in their eyes,” the young singer bellows. The source of his angst? Among other grievances, they’re “trying to make me go to bed at 9 p.m.”
“They look at me like I’m Frankenstein, every time,” he howls.
More in the mood for punk? Turn to “Toddler Robbers” by Capital Violation, a hard-charging guitar number about the titular child thieves “going to rob a bubble gum bank with bubble guns.”
The kids in Exotic Mess have two tracks. “My Luck,” with an earworm melody over a loping groove, wouldn’t be out of place on a ’90s compilation alongside bands from lo-fi label K Records.
The groups don’t exclusively play rock. The Divine Devils’ “The Voices in My Head” starts out with some impressive soul singing, then turns into a retro-psych soul vibe. The Royal Cheese Keys’ catchy indie-pop tune, “Ages & Excuses,” shows an older set of kids transitioning into mature work.
The summer camps are a week long, meeting every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The ones during the school year are six weeks, meeting twice a week for two hours after school.
The first day is spent getting to know each other. “The most important part of being in a band is friendship,” said education director Lukas Phelan, who plays in a local band, Fantasy Suite. “So we spend a lot of time getting to know each other.”
They also try out different instruments and get a short lesson. The kids each pick their top three instruments, and the instructors later divide them up into groups.
On day two, the new bands need to come up with a name. As with adult groups, this can be the hardest part, Phelan said. Compromise is key, and the names are winners. Samples include Ice Beat, The Forest Fires, Iron Wolves and the Park Loving Grandmas.
The rest of the camp is dedicated to writing a song together and working on their instruments. Some kids have already taken lessons and can come up with riffs and chord progressions. Others need more guidance from the instructors, many of whom are local musicians like Caroline Keys or Izaak Opatz. Celebrity guests include Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam and John Wicks of Fitz and the Tantrums or touring artists like Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers.
The instructors can assist with the writing if necessary, but “the big decisions, we let those rest on the kids as much as possible,” Phelan said.
“They make it seem really simple because pop music is really easy, and they don’t have much of a filter yet, so it just kind of flows out of them,” Phelan said. Sometimes they want to write something silly, other times it might express some “real emotion or real problem,” he said.
Instructors can leave feeling inspired, and part of the charm of the album is that the kids haven’t internalized cliches yet, so their playing has all sorts of unusual and creative ideas.
The culmination of the camp is always the same. After a dress rehearsal at the ZACC, they’ll perform at the Top Hat, often to enviable crowds.
“It’s really inspiring to see how excited they get to share something they’ve created,” Phelan said.
Liszak said they teach the kids that they should support their fellow musicians by going up front toward the stage and cheering them on. Stylists donate their time to do the kids hair and make-up. The results, which as always are guided by the kids, can be surprising.
Some kids enjoy the camps enough to come back. Some alums are old enough now that they return to help teach. One graduate, Phoenix Marshall, is now 13 and writes and performs her own music and plays with bands.
Phelan said it’s fun to imagine 10 years in the future all the good bands around town as the alums keep it up.
The ZACC held its first camp in 2014, a week-long session for girls. Executive Director Kia Liszak, who’d played in rock bands herself, wanted to give them an empowering, confidence-building experience and impart that they can learn music and write songs at an early age. (Earlier this year, guitar-maker Fender said that a study indicated that half of all new and beginning guitar players in the United States and United Kingdom are female.)
“The goal has always been personal expression,” she said. They write the lyrics and music themselves and learn how to build relationships, with support and compromise.
The camp’s structure reverses traditional music instruction, where children learn and practice in private. The ZACC’s idea isn’t to de-emphasize practicing, but to “instill the love and will to keeping playing” in a group setting, she said. It’s less about woodshedding on an instrument by yourself than the do-it-yourself spirit of amateurism that drove the first wave of punk rock.
By the second year, the ZACC added camps for boys, and five years into the program have held co-ed camps with more genre-specific sessions for hip-hop and country music. They’ve also had camps for women, and host the Hero Sound Project, where veterans can come learn and play music together.
The ZACC didn’t have much in the way of instruments at first, using borrowed guitars, amps and other equipment. With donations, they stocked up on gear and built a dedicated space with soundproof rehearsal rooms.
Some 300 kids have signed up since 2014, and the camps always have a waiting list. More space will soon help shorten any delays. The ZACC is partway through a capital campaign to raise $4.25 million for its new headquarters in the Studebaker Building on Main Street. The move will double the center’s square footage compared to its longtime home on the Northside.
The new building will expand its soundproof rooms from two to five, in addition to a music classroom and an all-ages performance space.