Peppy power-poppers the Rocket Summer and moody indie-rockers Manchester Orchestra come from different ends of the spectrum. Yet their success is testimony to the impact of the growing democratization of music-making over the past quarter-century.
The young auteurs fronting each band — Bryce Avary and Andy Hull, respectively — began creating lo-fi recordings at home when they were in their early teens. By the end of high school, both had released albums that netted tons of industry buzz. With "studios" as cheap and as close as their computers, a new wave of incipient young rockers is embracing the DIY ethos.
"There's this new generation of younger bands that are just graduating high school and are out there touring," says the 24-year-old Avary. "It's like boy bands went away and came back in the form of young emo bands who play guitar."
While there have always been high school rockers, they were the exception, not the rule. These days, kids are getting their hands dirty earlier and faster.
For Avary, it all started in the sixth grade, when he convinced his dad to buy him a guitar from a pawn shop. A neighbor owned a drum set and a guitar, and by switching between them, Avary quickly picked up both instruments.
The following year he began recording songs on a four-track. By the time he turned 15, he'd released an EP made in his friend's garage. Avary also assembled a pickup band of pals to play high school parties, which earned them heaps of cred in their Colleyville, Texas burg. They also received plenty of hate from the other rockers at their school. "We were kind of straight-edge kids, and they were punkers who were more like the drugs kids," recalls Avary. "One time, all these punks showed up and tried to pick a fight with us."
Before he graduated, a local radio station started playing one of Avary's songs, and he soon began fielding label queries — which made things a whole lot easier with his parents. "I kind of had some stuff happening — probably not enough to not go to college, but I convinced my parents anyway," he laughs. "My dad took a leap of faith in me."
Five years ago, Avary's father handed him $14,000 — essentially, Bryce's college fund — to record the Rocket Summer's debut CD, Calendar Days. He played all the instruments himself. Eight months later, the indie record company Militia Group rereleased the album and reimbursed Avary's production costs.
Four months ago, the group's latest record, Do You Feel, came out on a major label. Avary played most of the instruments himself again (he admits that he's a bit of a control freak), though he received some help from the horn section that backed Stevie Wonder on Songs in the Key of Life.
Like Avary, Manchester Orchestra frontman Andy Hull taught himself how to play the guitar after his parents bought him one when he was 13. A year later, he was writing songs and performing with a bass-playing pal. Their band quickly fizzled, so Hull started another one with Manchester Orchestra's keyboardist, Chris Freeman, on drums.
At first, Hull wanted Manchester Orchestra to be a solo project, with guest appearances by his friends. "I was listening to a lot of Morrissey and the Smiths," he says. "So the city of Manchester really fascinated me, as did the idea of being the leader of an orchestra and having all my friends come in to play."
Feeling increasingly alienated at his "small-town-Georgia, Christian high school" in suburban Atlanta, Hull became so frustrated that he spent his senior year studying at home. He also wrote and recorded his first album when he wasn't hitting the books. "I think every kid, at some point, goes through the phase of listening to Elliott Smith and being really sad," says the 20-year-old Hull. "It [became apparent] this wasn't a high school thing. This was more like 'I'm not in a good place, and I don't like where I am.' My parents were extremely supportive, just saying, 'Go ahead and go for it.'"
Around the same time, Hull ran into an editor of the Americana-leaning Paste magazine, who took a liking to the young singer-songwriter and got the mag to pony up some cash so Hull could record in a proper studio. The results ended up as 2005's five-song EP You Brainstorm, I Brainstorm, but Brilliance Needs a Good Editor, a record that moves with a passionate emotional pitch — full of churning, swirling, and swooning indie rock.
Last year, Manchester Orchestra played the high-profile South by Southwest and Bonnaroo music festivals. It also recorded its full-length debut, I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child. This past summer, Columbia Records rereleased the album, and the band recently performed on both David Letterman's and Conan O'Brien's late-night shows.
Hull says there's no way he could ever sing with the upbeat spirit that fuels tourmate Avary's songs. But that's kinda the point, he says. "Everyone has to go with their convictions. I don't set out to write sad songs and about things that are really harsh and down. That's how it's always been. Whatever's on my heart and brain, that's what comes out. That's what drives me."
Avary agrees: "I always tell people to have fun with it and to enjoy it," he says. "You can't control what happens. So you should do something that you really believe in."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.