Growing up in Yakima, Washington’s 98902 zip code meant that underground culture was 142 miles away in Seattle. We did benefit from some local weirdos, including a record store guy named Derek Smith, who brought amazing bands — Cupid Car Club, Karp and Zeke — to town. Importantly, he always got local bands to play those shows. I didn’t know it by name at the time, but those shows were my first introduction to do-it-yourself/underground music. They were always all-ages and in halls rented from such-and-such fraternal order. Typically, Derek collected the cash, ran sound, made food and shared his living room. The idea was, you didn’t have to look a certain way or have a record deal or amazing gear in order to play great music in front of a real audience.
Missoula’s Zootown Arts Community Center has taken that same idea and turned it into a core part of its mission. In 2014, the ZACC started a Girls Rock Camp, where girls could work out the mechanics of being in a band. The program reflected the national Girls Rock Camp movement, which started in response to the low representation of women performing live music. A few years later, the ZACC expanded the rock camps to give all kids a chance to play. According to ZACC executive director Kia Liszak, approximately 250 Missoula youth have come through a ZACC rock camp. The fruits of some of that labor can be heard on the new Rock Camp Comp 2017, released digitally on Bandcamp last month. These middle-school aged bands write great simple songs and play with refreshing brevity, relying on strong vocals, melodies and drumming to drive the music. If, like me, you prefer your art unrefined, the comp offers an amazing art brut sound.
I was pretty lucky that Derek Smith was there at a formative time. (Maybe I’d be a Dave Matthews Band fan otherwise.) That young Missoulians are learning how to play tunes together gives me some hope that original, independent music will continue to be a part of what defines Missoula.
In advance of this Friday’s rock camp performance, I talked to middle-schooler Axel Smetanka about the song his band, the Scraps, will play and what he’s learned from the experience.
Tell me about your band.
Axel Smetanka: Alden is playing slide guitar, I play guitar, Evan plays drums and Larkin plays bass.
What kind of music would you describe it as?
AS: Punk rock, maybe. Punk rock or rock and roll. Pop maybe.
Are you going to put together some of your own shows in the future? Are you going to stay in a band and maybe play in somebody’s garage?
AS: Probably not. Usually with Rock Camp you just make a band and then you perform a show, and then you don’t re-group.
Andy Smetanka (Axel’s dad): Are you inspired to be in other bands though? Your other guitar player lives right down the alley.
AS: Um, probably. Yeah. I am.
What is your music about?
AS: It’s about — do you want me to describe who the guy is? We sing about this [fictional] guy named Jim, who has a hard life. And we describe that he got burnt to the fourth degree in some kind of mental way. That’s what our song’s about: “Burnt to the Fourth Degree.”
Andy: What did you learn about life by being in a band?
AS: If you disagree with something, you can’t start pouting and run off. You have to actually solve it.
The Scraps and Exotic Mess perform at the Top Hat Fri., Feb. 16, from 5:30 to 6:30 PM. Free.