Usually, when tourists venture below Times Square to 40th Street, they’re seeking solace from the overwhelming crush of people—stragglers, laden down with bags from the M&M store and crumpled Broadway playbills, crash exhaustedly in the air-conditioned fast-food joints on Seventh Avenue. But last Sunday and Monday, crowds gathered excitedly in that area and gravitated to the remarkable noise emanating from a makeshift tent pitched right outside of H&R Block.
That tent was the home base of the metal band Unlocking the Truth—a two-piece consisting of guitarist Malcolm Brickhouse, age 11, and drummer Jarad Dawkins, age 10. They’re cute kids, wearing matching orange earplugs, Brickhouse pouring out riffs on his guitar with one leg up on a milk crate and Dawkins staring down at his drum kit through wire-frame glasses. But their cute factor doesn’t keep the tourists gawking for upward of 20 minutes. Brickhouse and Dawkins can really play.
That’s partly due to an early start in life. “I’ve been playing the drums for eight years now,” Dawkins confides to me a couple of days later, after grabbing some burgers at a Five Guys in Park Slope. I point out that this would have made him two years old when he started playing. He shrugs matter-of-factly. “Yup,” he says.
Brickhouse started slightly later, first picking up a kid’s guitar at a Toys ‘R’ Us when he was six. But he has made up for it since, writing the music and lyrics for two albums’ worth of metal, called, respectively, Madness and Paranoid. “Madness is about an exorcism!” he beams proudly. Dawkins, who contributes the drum parts and helps write the lyrics, is more noncommittal about the meaning. “I can’t tell [what it means],” he says of songs like “Rated R,” “Start the Game” (which is about “vengeance”), “Having Fun,” and “Take Control.” “I just play to it.”
Brickhouse and Dawkins’s expertise is helped by their marathon practice sessions, which are encouraged by Brickhouse’s parents, Tracey and Annette. “When we have a show, my mom makes us practice as late as 12, making us do hour sets and 15-minute breaks,” Brickhouse complains. Yet, though they joke about Tracey being the “Joe Jackson,” there is little sign that the boys are being pushed into this by overreaching parents.
For one, there is their singular enthusiasm for metal, which they gained watching WWE wrestling. They combined those sounds with the hyper-kinetic fight music from the manga Naruto, fusing the styles to create music that’s both brawn-heavy and cartoon bright.
Brickhouse and Dawkins are aware of how atypical it seems for two black kids—from Flatbush and Bedford-Stuyvesant, respectively—to be into this kind of music, and they’ve learned to use the genre as a talking point. “We’re different because we’re black,” Brickhouse says when he speaks about his ambitions for the band. “Some of my friends like [hard rock], and some of them don’t,” Dawkins says. “You can hate all you want, but at least you’re talking about me.”
Despite the naysayers, the boys, both of whom are going into sixth grade, are generous in their desire to expand Unlocking the Truth. Brickhouse rattles off members they’re in search of: “bassist, rhythm guitarist, a singer . . . and maybe a synth guy.” He and Dawkins want to be a “worldwide band” but seem to have no interest in personal glory. Brickhouse has some criticisms of Slash (formerly of Guns N’ Roses), who he’s going to see in a couple of weeks. “He’s mean. He has a rhythm guitarist, but he wants the fame, so when the rhythm guitarist has a solo, he comes next to him and steals the fame.”