Most rock stars don’t squirm and look pleadingly to their mother for rescue when asked about their song lyrics. Nor are they “approaching” 90 pounds, just finishing up seventh grade–or making $1,000 a day busking on the street. But Malcolm Brickhouse, 13, is not your average rock star. The guitarist/singer of pre- and teen metallers Unlocking the Truth recently took time away from his classes at PS 22 in Brooklyn to, oh, nothing, open for Guns N’ Roses at The Joint at the Vegas Hard Rock, whose gaming floor/bar he won’t be able to legally populate for another eight years. Not to mention playing Coachella and the ultimate “how I spent my summer” essay-in-the-making thanks to this summer’s Warped tour.
See also: At Metal School with Unlocking the Truth
So what did Brickhouse, and his two cohorts, bassist Alec Atkins, 13, and drummer Jarad Dawkins, 12, think of GN’R?
Atkins: “I didn’t know what Axl looked like…”
Brickhouse: “…He wasn’t late to our show and he was very nice. He’s not that mean. He told me ‘good job’ and stuff.”
Atkins: “They have nice props… strippers and fog and um…”
Atkins: “Those things shouldn’t be mixed.”
Brickhouse: “Why do they have so many guitarists? They have unnecessary people.”
Atkins: “I thought Bumblefoot was going to get hit by fire.”
Typical teen chatter from atypical teens. In a generic, gray-carpeted rehearsal space in Midtown Manhattan, the trio is working up a new song, based on an old riff. Like, you know, maybe from when they were 9. But Before Unlocking the Truth can add fire or fog to concerts–which they’re not interested in–they have to master the basics. Oddly and fortunately, their chunky, memorable riffs and surprisingly mature lyrics prove they’ve moved way beyond the basics, but as Brickhouse notes, “I skipped all the easy stuff.”
How does that work?
“I practice harder things than easier things. Harder things are cooler,” says the agile-fingered teen, whose remarkable fret work has been inspired by his favorite talented (but relatively underground) metal shredder, Jeff Loomis of the band Nevermore. “I practice every day, and now with a guitar teacher, twice a week.”
The band, which has already been through a few names and incarnations, got their initial break (minus Atkins, plus a singer) at a 2012 Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater under the name Tears of Blood. (Dawkins and Brickhouse first discovered metal through their love of wrestling, notably the theme song of The Edge–“Metalingus” by Alter Bridge.)
Finding another metal kid their age wasn’t easy. “Alec came to Malcolm’s house as a normal play date, I guess,” says Dawkins, “but Malcolm and me would usually practice, and Alec would see us. I guess Alec was attracted to the band.”
Atkins adds, “I was already listening to Three Days Grace when I joined; besides that, I listened to pop.” He auditioned for the vocal slot with “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”
No luck. A few months later, practicing in the Brickhouse family basement, they tried him on rhythm guitar. No dice. “I wasn’t able to keep up with [Malcolm] because he was so much better,” Atkins recalls. “But he had a bass, and Noreen, his mom, thought it would be good to put me on bass. For metal, for some bands, it’s just a simplified version of guitar. That’s not always true… I tried it and they liked the way I played bass.” Of course, he didn’t know how to play, but Brickhouse and Dawkins, who had been playing drums since the age of 2, taught him.
Though he may not know the term “playing by ear,” that’s how Brickhouse began. “I just listen, then if I want to play it, I learn to play it, I try to find the notes. I taught Alec how to play tablature.”
“You lying,” Atkins jumps in. “They would teach me notes on the bass, and my guitar teacher taught me tablature and now I know how to read music.”
“I probably wouldn’t have enough patience for that,” concedes Brickhouse in his hoarse little voice.
“Exactly,” affirms Atkins. “Flea from the Chili Peppers is my favorite bass player. It used to be Ghost (Devin “Ghost” Sola from Motionless in White), but now it’s Flea.” More formal learning has and is taking place: Brickhouse went to Camp Jam/Power Chord Academy in the summers of 2012 and 2013 as well as YEAH NYC Rock Camp, while all three members take vocal lessons with Melissa Cross, whose clients include Slipknot, Machinehead, and others.
Brickhouse concedes he was not a natural vocalist when he began, but never looked for someone to fill the lead singer role. “Too much money being split,” chimes in Atkins.
Right now, helping them get that money is manager Alan Sacks, who began working with UTT in October, 2013 and whose own history adds another interesting twist to the tale: Producer and co-creator of the Welcome Back Kotter, Sacks went on to a very Disney career, working with the Jonas Brothers, Demi Lovato and 11 Disney movies. Now, handling three super-young African-American boys playing extreme metal to audiences of 30-something long hairs–well, isn’t that a novelty? That question inspires a quick and decisive “No. We should not even mention that they’re African American and they’re 12 years old,” says Sacks:
“We’re making sure these boys are staying real,” emphasizes Sacks, who hopes to have the band in the studio to record a debut EP this fall. “Disney called me–I’m not interested. They’re natural kids and that’s the way it’s gotta be. We don’t interfere with them. They know what they want. I wanna do what they wanna do.”
What they wanna do is ROCK. “To me, we have our own customized genre,” says Dawkins. “Our music is different than other types of metal bands. I would put it as “custom metal.”
It’s sometimes easy to forget that these kids. Yet they’re aware they’re an inspiration: “We motivate people to do positive, more constructive things with their life,” says Brickhouse. “You know, we’re so young, and other people think that because they’re a certain age they can’t do something.” And when Brickhouse himself feels like giving up? “I go to sleep, wake up the next day and I forget about it,” he grins. And with that, a long Friday of seventh grade, rehearsal and interviews comes to an end, and Unlocking the Truth go out to play on the sidewalk in front of a bar while the grown-ups talk.
Unlocking the Truth appear with the Vans Warped Tour on July 11 at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, NJ and July 12 at Nikon At Jones Beach Theater.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 11, 2014