A week before their end-of-summer concert at Blueberry Hill, the Junior Mints are dragging.
The sextet is rehearsing in a high-ceilinged warehouse amid exposed brick, abandoned file cabinets, dollies and scattered furniture. What the room lacks is air-conditioning and naturally this muggy St. Louis afternoon is unforgiving.
Sleepy-eyed guitarist Turner Trapp, age fourteen, and guitarist Henry Zimmerman (thirteen), who sports dirty-blond, hangs-in-his-face hair eerily reminiscent of Kurt Cobain, slouch on stools as they pound out riffs, too far from the room's lone oscillating fan to benefit from its output. Turner's twelve-year-old younger brother, guitarist Morgan Trapp, has the good sense to shred in front of the fan. Ponytailed Claire Holohan's face is beet red; the fourteen-year-old's rumbling basslines sound slightly off-tempo from the drum beats laid down by Ely Thayer, fifteen, who's a bit out of sorts himself, having missed the Mints' last practice.
Judging by the way he's hamming it up, twelve-year-old vocalist Blake Stumpf is the only band member who has any energy. The kid from Columbia, Illinois, grabs the mic stand with gusto, whether he's belting out the chorus count-up of Wilco's "I'm a Wheel" or striking goofy rock-star poses during Audioslave's "Doesn't Remind Me" (which features an exaggerated chicken-strut the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger might bust out).
Despite the uneven practice, the Junior Mints are one of the most promising bands at Dave Simon's Rock School (www.dsrockschool.com). As its name implies, Rock School is a place where students learn about musical theory and history by studying, playing and composing rock & roll. The school's founder and namesake, 39-year-old Clayton native Dave Simon, has been involved in the St. Louis music scene on and off since the mid-1980s.
The 2003 Jack Black film School of Rock triggered a spate of publicity for real-life rock schools, the most famous of which is the Paul Green School of Rock Music chain (founded in Philadelphia and closing in on 40 branches nationwide). But Dave Simon's endeavor is no novelty. In a little over three years, it has grown from an eight-student, after-school experiment in the basement of McMurray Music in Overland into a bustling business. The school, which these days is located next to a dental lab in an Olivette industrial park, enrolled 180 kids for this year's fall session 30 more than Simon anticipated.
Though private lessons are an integral element of Rock School, the focus on collaborative relationships is what has helped it flourish. But while the Junior Mints are one of the school's more tight-knit groups, on this particular afternoon they're in need of some serious outside motivation.
"We've gotta get some fire in it," Simon says, attempting to inject some life into "I'm a Wheel" with the kind of exaggerated handclaps a high school marching band director might use to kick up the tempo. But the song just isn't clicking; short attention spans, fatigue and general ennui dominate. So Simon calls a five-minute break.
Thayer departs for the vending machines while a couple of his fellow Mints scurry around mischievously, moving furniture and stealing drumsticks (and Holohan's bass). The rest of the band continues to noodle idly. (The echoing riffs of Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" are a fave of the Mints and nearly every other band in the school.)
Then a funny thing happens: Thayer returns, Holohan gets her bass back, Stumpf takes the mic and without warning the formless jam suddenly morphs into a pretty impressive rendition of the Who's "Baba O'Riley."
It's at times like this, when camaraderie suddenly causes shapeless half-songs to coalesce into full-fledged tunes, that it's easy to forget that the oldest member of this group is all of fifteen, and that the Junior Mints have been playing together in various incarnations for two years as long as, if not longer than, many so-called professional bands. They're not kids pretending to be a band. They are a band.
"Being in the room with the Junior Mints when they're rehearsing, it's like rock & roll at its greatest," says Simon. "I mean, it is musically really satisfying. But they're young kids and you know they're totally consumed with the fantasy of [rock & roll]. And they're rock stars in their mind.
"They're so in love with the idea of the band, they're like, 'Well, what's best for the band?' Their egos are pretty well tamed in there because they know the band is bigger than them. They work really well as a band.
"They're like little adults: They get in there and get the job done."
In John Hughes' 1985 flick The Breakfast Club, a motley crew of five high school students stereotyped as the Athlete, the Princess, the Brain, the Basket Case and the Criminal suffers together through a daylong weekend detention.
At first glance Dave Simon's Rock School on a Saturday has little in common with the Club's sterile library scenes. Some days Simon's two friendly dogs four-year-old Eleanor (as in Rigby) and twelve-year-old Owen (as in Meany) lounge underfoot. Framed concert posters and photo collages decorate walls painted in Day-Glo Skittles colors. The dorm-room chic is enhanced by a vintage pinball machine, a constant clanking presence in the background.
Still, even a cursory look at the teenagers sprawled on the cheerfully mismatched furniture reveals that twenty years later, growing up still has a lot to do with Hughes-like categorizations.
For one thing, it's usually easy to tell what Simon's charges like to listen to by noting their fashion sense. Members of the coed sextet Royal Flush wear sunglasses in practice and onstage (Simon too, when he's pitching in to help), lending an aura of cool to their AC/DC and Weezer covers. Peek into the practice rooms and you'll get an earful of the jagged strains of the Clash's "Clash City Rockers" bashed out by a gangly teen sporting a mohawk, a faithful version of Fall Out Boy's "Sugar, We're Going Down" sung by a punkish girl strumming a guitar plastered with band stickers, and kids in oversize Rush and Led Zeppelin shirts riffing on classic rock staples.
"When the kids come in and I meet them for the first time, I look at their clothes, their taste in music, their social skills," Simon affirms. "As an adult, I don't judge people I don't really care. But as a kid? Man, it's everything. It's like: What are you? Are you a jock, are you a punk rocker, are you emo? It's a big deal, it's a big part of being a teenager: Where do you fit in? What category are you?
"That's something I just forgot that kids are like that. It wasn't until I was around it again I was like, 'Oh right, they're really tuned into that!' They want to be so individual, but they need their categories. They can't take music at face value."
It's those elements, along with musical ability, that Simon considers when sorting his charges into bands (which typically comprise the traditional vox-guitar-bass-drums setup with the occasional keyboard thrown in). The outfits practice together weekly and eventually play shows around town, at Cicero's, Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, Mississippi Nights and (until it closed) the Hi-Pointe.
Beginners start off in what's known as Rock Band 101, graduate to a "concert band" and then if they're "badass," as Simon jokes, though a rigorous skill assessment is more an indicator earn the privilege of being placed in an all-star band. (The Junior Mints are about to collectively matriculate to all-star status as a group a rarity at Simon's school.) Simon's matchmaking skills frequently lead to friendship and connection beyond music especially after he made it a rule that anyone in eighth grade or lower couldn't be in a band that included teenagers. (Bullying was sometimes a problem for some of the younger kids, Simon explains, and in the mixed-ages bands "younger kids were always ignored by older kids, and younger kids damaged [older kids'] credibility.")
Rock School tuition varies from $75 a month for half-hour weekly private lessons and free access to practice rooms to a $150 package that covers private lessons and participation in the band program (which adds 90 minutes a week of practice). The Stumpf family drives in 45 minutes from Illinois so Blake can sing with the Junior Mints and play guitar in a concert band. Other kids commute to Rock School from Wentzville and Cuba. Many of the teachers are members of local bands, like senior staffer Jordan Heimburger, who plays in Walkie Talkie U.S.A. and Red Eyed Driver; the vast majority of the ten-member faculty have rock band experience.
Yet for Marcy Magruder it was Dave Simon's infectious personality that immediately convinced her Rock School was the place for her thirteen-year-old son, Danny, to learn to play electric guitar.
"It's the marriage of [Simon's] love of music and the love of the kids," says Magruder. "It came through. It was tangible you could feel it. He's such a positive person."
Simon's eyes do sparkle when he smiles and laughs both of which he does often, in the guileless manner of a kid at his own birthday party. He's constantly in motion, whether shifting restlessly during conversation or flitting around like a hummingbird in order to hear a song better.
"Dave isn't your normal older person," says Junior Mints guitarist Henry Zimmerman. "He seems like he's twenty years younger. He'll always interact with us."
Adds Danny Magruder, "He's right there with you, instead of being, like, 'I'm a grown-up, nag, nag, nag.'"
Simon's wife of four years says it's not a put-on. "When kids tell jokes that are bad, David will actually laugh heartily," says Keri Simon. "I don't know anyone else like that. He's so transformed by their vulnerability of telling a joke, he can't help himself by not giving them that feedback.
"[There's] something he gets with interactions with kids," she goes on. "He glows. I really respect that type of passion. It's just how he lives, though."
Which is why, when Simon accidentally reaches out and speaks into his Starbucks cup instead of a microphone, causing Junior Mints bassist Claire Holohan to giggle, Simon laughs too and says, "Did you catch that? I'm, like, such a dork!"
Without missing a beat, Zimmerman shoots back: "Don't worry, Dave, when you're senile, I'll make sure your socks match."
A 2006 graduate of St. Elizabeth Academy, eighteen-year-old Kim Anderson looks like your typical easygoing college student: hair cut in a punkish wedge that exposes multiple ear piercings, outfits that run to the ultracasual (e.g. plaid pajama pants and a Backstreet Boys tour T-shirt).
Yet the Saint Louis University freshman says she was "really shy" before coming to Rock School for guitar lessons in 2004. It was here that Dave Simon discovered Anderson's hidden vocal talent and encouraged her to get onstage. Worried that "everyone would think I suck and they wouldn't want me to sing for them," Anderson required some convincing. But belting out Pat Benatar's "Heartbreaker" caused her confidence to bloom. Now she's the Rock School's office manager-cum-administrative assistant, responsible for billing, filing and "basically everything [Simon] asks me to do." Simon calls her an "essential" part of the operation.
Anderson is also an essential part of one of Rock School's first concert bands to move into the "real world": Her all-girl band Mood Swings (see www.myspace.com/swingus) has played at the (since closed) all-ages St. Peters club Sally T's and the Creepy Crawl, and has a November 22 gig scheduled at the Red Sea.
Now Anderson is thinking bigger.
"At first when I started taking lessons I thought it would just be an after-school thing," she says. "Now it's a huge goal for me: to be professional, have my own equipment and go out on the road. I don't think it'll ever happen, but we'll see. You never know."
No, you never do. The pop charts have always been peppered with pubescent pop-tarts, from a pre-adolescent Michael Jackson to 1980s mall stars Debbie Gibson and Tiffany to 1990s icons Hanson and Britney Spears. But today's musical role models seem more like peers than mentors. Some members of the multiplatinum rock act Panic! At the Disco, emo-dreamboats Cute Is What We Aim For and snarling grrl-punks Be Your Own Pet are barely out of high school; Hayley Williams of Paramore was sixteen when her band released its 2005 debut. For the right kid with the right talent, a career in music may well be within reach.
"The rock stars of today are the kid that lives next door," Dave Simon agrees. "That's the image they're selling: It's this kid in your high school class, not this 25-year-old guy who lives in some far-off big city and stands on top of the mountain singing his hit song. It's much more down to earth and more accessible which I think is a good thing."
And it's not all about glory. Fifteen-year-old Jonathan Todd plays in Failure for Friends (www.myspace.com/failureforfriends), which has gigged at a friend's birthday party and a high school bash. Next they aspire to record with rock school instructor Ben May, drummer for local punk-poppers the Cause.
Todd's father has been taking him to clubs like the Way Out and the Creepy Crawl since he was twelve.
"I see a show every weekend, whether it's local or a big band," the younger Todd says. "Local bands are always fun shows. If you start going to see a band enough, you get to know the people at the shows, you get to know the bands. It's more of an experience. You're united with the people that are into them."
Todd says when he grows up he "pretty much would be satisfied" having a day job and playing every weekend in a local band.
Covent Garden (www.myspace.com/coventgardenstl) is another group with Rock School roots that's venturing into the St. Louis scene.
"Right now, in all honesty, we're just in it to have fun," says seventeen-year-old Covent Garden drummer Alex Frankel, who studied at Rock School until 2005. "We figure the music industry is such a tough industry to break into and be successful, we'd rather have guaranteed success in other aspects of our lives."
Simon says he has been asked about whether the Junior Mints, say, might generate some money, and about why he doesn't focus more on educating kids about the business aspect of the music industry. His response: He'd rather help the kids develop their musical chops and social skills and see where they go from there.
"The music industry is not something I would recommend to people," Simon says. "It's an entertainment industry, and not everyone comes out of it feeling so good about themselves. And at least people come out of this stage you're going to feel great about yourself. If you're young, you've had great experiences with music. All these kids get into it, not because they want to be rich and have careers it's 'cause they love rock & roll. The industry the minute that's added to the equation, the purity is gone."
That view isn't surprising, as it's coming from a guy who studied jazz at Webster University, and who still relishes his memories of being fifteen and playing music in the basement.
"If you can learn the rules and learn the theory, that's gonna be a good college prep experience," Simon reasons. "I would love it for the kids that come out of here to go into a jazz program and have teachers go, 'Oh wow, you really know your stuff. Where did you learn this? Oh, Dave Simon's Rock School.'"
Simon's high school new-wave/funk/ reggae band Blank Space, which specialized in "party music people could dance to," was far from a basement-only proposition. At various times during the 1980s Blank Space opened for Fishbone, the Violent Femmes and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (Fun fact: Jeff Tweedy's band the Primitives which later morphed into Uncle Tupelo opened for Simon's band.)
"He was completely obsessed with what he was doing. Very driven," recalls Blank Space bandmate Michael Apirion. "When he gets into a style of music, he really gets into it. He was new-wave Dave, he was ska-boy Dave, he was funky Dave. He was punk-rock Dave. He was a rapper for a while. [But] he's not a bandwagon jumper. He believes in those styles."
When Simon developed an interest in songwriting and hip-hop production, he bought a sampler and moved to New York City. ("Isn't that what you do once you buy a sampler?") He landed an internship at Spin, appeared in the pilot of MTV's The Real World and auditioned as an MTV VJ.
He also recorded a demo by high school friend Louise Post, who'd go on to greater fame as the vocalist for Veruca Salt.
"I've always been inspired by his passion for music and education, and devotion to music," Post says by phone from a recent Veruca Salt tour stop. "He really lives, breathes, sleeps and dreams it. He knows how to make things happen and follow through with his ideas and projects. There's nothing half-assed to what he does."
Simon's idea for a rock school took shape in 1996 when he was living in San Francisco, but he didn't have the money to follow through. Yet even after moving back to St. Louis for good in 2000 and marrying two years later, the idea stuck.
In 2002 he and wife Keri worked as counselors at a self-esteem-building summer camp for kids. At the time he was working in Savvis Inc.'s IT department; Keri was a caseworker at BJC. Mounting frustration with his job came to a head at the close of the weeklong camp session.
"We just loved being around kids again, being around teenagers," Simon says. "It was depressing for us to go back to our jobs more me than her and be in corporate America. Being around kids and feeling like I was impacting their lives had really helped me get back to my rock & roll roots. So we said, 'Hey, maybe we can do a rock & roll camp, a summer camp.' And the more I researched it, the more I thought, 'God, why not make it a school, a full-time thing?'"
John Covelli, Simon's childhood friend and college roommate, joined up. In September 2003, a year after Simon's camp-counseling epiphany, they rented space at McMurray Music.
"We had an open house," Simon says. "We had no idea what rock school was even going to be I just got up on stage and talked. I didn't even know what to say, I had nothing planned. That's how things were run for the first couple months."
Eight kids signed up for the first session. By December enrollment swelled to eighteen; the following March, sixty. By the fall of 2004, the school had outgrown its basement digs and moved to Olivette.
There were, however, growing pains. The original division of duties Covelli in charge of the business side, Simon handling curriculum and music wasn't working as the enterprise evolved.
Simon says he had a career crisis when he realized that what he really loved in a job was the creativity whether it came in the form of playing music or running a business.
Increasingly, he found the latter vocation most satisfying.
It dawned on Simon that while he had no formal business training, the responsibilities he'd assumed in his bands "getting on the phone wheeling and dealing with the club owners" provided an excellent foundation for running a company. The bigger adjustment would be learning to put those skills to practical use and leaving behind the democratic decision-making process he knew so well from rock & roll.
"I realized if I'm going to be the owner of the business, I have to run the business. I have to think like an entrepreneur," Simon says today. "I got this business off the ground because of what I can do, because of what I know and experience from music. But now I realize the success of it is determined [by] my skills as a businessman."
The casualty was Simon's professional and personal relationship with Covelli, who left the school last November.
"With John and I, it was like two captains on one ship," Simon says. "We both realized that one person has to be the boss. Partnership is tricky. Somebody has to be the guy who goes, 'This is how it's going to be done.' That was really a huge adjustment for me. My biggest fear was, I didn't want to be an asshole. I realized, 'Wait a minute, I guess I kind of have to learn how to be one. I have to learn how to come down on people.'"
Covelli declined to comment about the Rock School or his relationship with Simon.
But Simon says that after "about six months of some serious healing," he and Covelli reconciled. "People always say, 'Don't mix business with family and friends.' I totally get it now," he says. "I understand how important that is."
While he professes to prefer his front-office duties to teaching and directing bands, more often than not Simon can be found dashing off to observe or instruct, sometimes filling in when an instructor has to miss work. And it's a role he clearly relishes.
"Sometimes it's a little weird when I'm here on a Saturday all day with kids," Simon confesses. "Then my wife and I go out with a couple like us, with kids and a house" the Simons have a two-and-a-half-year-old son, Levi "and we have to talk 'adult talk.' And I'm like, 'So what bands are you guys into?'"
Marcie Kalina is pacing. "I'm so nervous!" says the mother of Rock School student Adam Kalina, one of many anxious parents who, along with siblings and friends, have filled Blueberry Hill's Duck Room for the Rock School's version of a piano recital. To the strains of U2's "Beautiful Day," Dave Simon walks onstage and greets the crowd: "We just let our hair down, shave it off and play some great rock & roll tunes!"
Danny Magruder's group, Hardly Davidson, starts off with Guns N' Roses' "Paradise City," which strains the falsetto skills of curly-haired vocalist Alex Guenther. Better is their take on U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday," buoyed by Kim Anderson's confident, almost swaggering, guest vocals and Simon's unobtrusive, offstage bass lines. The band's boyish ADD disappears; Magruder's studied concentration and Kalina's steady, forceful drumming betray no sign of nerves.
Mood Swings also perform well, their perma-smiles a perfect match for the upbeat tempo of their blink-182-meets-"99 Red Balloons" original, "The Bad Decision." A reggae-tinged original, "Pay the Fool," later segues fluidly into the Go-Go's "We Got the Beat," featuring synchronized guitar-and-bass moves from the front line. Like consummate professionals, they don't forget to announce that they have T-shirts for sale and a MySpace page.
But it's the Junior Mints who bring down the house, in no small part because expectations are high. Simon introduces the set as "bittersweet. This is their last show as a concert band. They're moving up to [be] an all-star band."
Only a week after their wobbly rehearsal, the Mints crank up the charm. The shuddering, dinosaur-amble riffs of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" are matched only by Blake Stumpf's howls. The newest member of the band psyches up his bandmates like a seasoned leader, tossing off guitarist intros during a bridge, shouting-out Ely Thayer's stick-spinning drum solo and singing the towering "Sunshine" chorus with conviction, eyes reverently closed. By the time Claire Holohan's taut, thrumming bass lines announce a cover of the Raconteurs' "Steady as She Goes," the Mints are all feeding off one another's energy. Morgan Trapp is immersed to the point of occasional headbangs. Stumpf stomps to the beat, then spurs a band-wide improv at the end. The performance isn't perfect, but the Duck Room audience knows it's seeing an all-star band being born.
With Rock School's survival no longer a daily anxiety-producer, Dave Simon has more time to ponder the future of his business but very few definite directions.
"There's two issues: How does the school acclimate to the literal growth, the numbers. And then, where is this whole thing going?" he posits, then responds to his own questions with more questions: "What is everyone working toward? Is it to franchise out? Is it just to do this one location, a couple locations here in town? Is the program what it is right now, is this pretty much it? Are there going to be whole new programs we haven't tapped into yet? I don't know."
But as the Duck Room empties and families depart for celebratory dinners or run off to other activities, Simon lets worry fade into the background.
"It's really hard for me to appreciate it entirely, what it's given these kids," he says. "It's usually after a show, I'm passed out on the couch watching Saturday Night Live, thinking, 'Wow, what a cool thing: these kids. What a cool thing they experience and what a cool day job I have.'"
Kids, says Simon, are the only ones who can truly live the rock & roll dream, the rock & roll fantasy. They have no responsibilities. They live at home; they don't have to think about money. They can obsess over rock stars 24-7.
"I value their opinion so much more than anyone else's, 'cause they are the rock & roll generation," Simon finishes. "I listen to rock music 'cause it makes me feel good, but it also makes me feel young. Rock & roll is always about the youth."