By Justin Morris
“Now, you played hard in here, people, and I am proud of every last stinking one of you. So, let’s just give this everything we got. We may fall on our faces, but if we do, we will fall with dignity! With a guitar in our hands and rock in our hearts, and in the words of AC/DC: ‘We roll tonight to the guitar bite, and for those about to rock, I salute you!’”
— Jack Black as Dewey Finn in School of Rock
The 2003 comedy School of Rock is the tale of a desperate musician who poses as a substitute teacher for a posh prep school and ends up turning his class into a rock band that would go on to compete in the local battle of the bands. With the zaniness one would imagine in a Jack Black film, the children and their misguided “teacher” eventually find their way to the stage and shine a little light on the value of “non-traditional” education — and musical education, specifically, in the process.
Fortunately for the Lake City, it didn’t take the activities of Dewey Finn to bring something similar to bear in Southwest Louisiana.
We instead have a musician by the name of Marcus Johnson, and we have an institution by the name of Young Band Nation (YBN), now eight years strong.
Instead of breaking the rules and defying the education system, this long-time professional educator has instead branched out to lead not only the YBN venture, but also its new parent music school, Southwest Louisiana Music School, a recent Broad Street addition to the downtown scene. While SWLA Music Studios may have a new façade, the roots of this venture date back to a chance encounter with Doug Gay, an old friend and former drummer for the local band Lingus. Gay had already established his Baton Rouge Music Studios.
“I’d run into him about 1 am when I was leaving a wedding and he was leaving a gig,” said Johnson. “I told him that after teaching guitar lessons for years, I had been trying to figure out how to do what he was doing. He called me soon after and told me we should work together. ‘Let’s just do a summer camp and see what happens.’
“So during the Young Band Nation Camp, we put kids together in a rock and roll band. They rehearsed five or six songs for a week and performed a show at the end of the week. What could it hurt, right?”
The two set to work bringing the concept to SWLA. Johnson said that, aside from being the band teacher at Oak Park Middle at this time, it was his private guitar instruction over the years that had introduced him to many talented young kids who were playing music, but not for or with anyone one else. And playing in a group is what Johnson calls “half of, or at least the cornerstone, of (playing music).”
So Johnson had the start of Young Band Nation, which was headquartered for quite a while in the Tipitina’s Co-Op on Hodges Street in Lake Charles. The group was successful and continued to grow.
“(Tipitina’s) was a great location for a long time. I said, ‘Hey, I want to run a business out of here. I want to run a music school.’ And they said, ‘Cool. We’d love to have you.’ I started with one room. That turned into two rooms, and that turned into, eventually, renting an entire hallway with this great big rehearsal room at the end.”
However, things eventually ran their course at Tip’s. Johnson said that the clientele of the rest of the building was not necessarily conducive to running a music school, and, after several issues (including the burglary of other tenants and recording and rehearsal spaces), it was time to move on.
“I’m dealing with kids and I’m dealing with mamas, so it needs to be a safe environment and needs to be somewhere where they feel comfortable dropping their babies off and sitting in the car or in my waiting room, you know? It just got to be a little less comfortable. There were things that happened, and it prompted me to move quickly. So I just called Downtown Properties and it was just the luck of the draw. I called on the right day and they had just had this building open up right next to the coffee shop.”
That building would not only be the new home for YBN, but would also usher in the era of Southwest Louisiana Music Studios, whose name is emblazoned above the door of the 313 Broad Street location today.
For Johnson, it’s always been about finding a way to reach young minds curious about music. Expanding his operation and finding the new base of operations have been big steps in helping him achieve his goals. Even during his time as a band instructor, or, these days, teaching music enrichment and lessons at S.J. Welsh, he’s recognized that it takes something more to reach certain young talents out there.
“I’m trying to reach kids who maybe aren’t your typical school band kid. Maybe they don’t want to do the trumpet and they don’t want to play the clarinet or the saxophone or whatever, which is cool. They like music, but they want to learn some Metallica or some Black Sabbath, you know what I mean? There’s something to be said for formal music education, and I try and implement some of that even though we’re just learning chords. But trying to reach these kids, man, you’ve gotta throw ‘em a bone.”
And while Ozzie, Page, Plant and the like might be a bit “non-traditional” on the music education front, in many ways the music itself is getting less and less “traditional” by the day. The era of digital sounds and, more important, digital musical production have led Johnson to get creative on that front. This is how the new Swiss Army Knife Production Camp came to be.
“We’d done recording camp before, and my friend Doug had partnered up with Presonus. They do recording gear and live sound stuff, but they’re based out of Baton Rouge. We were getting these recording bundles from them and the kids would show up with their laptop and they’d get all this gear: a microphone, the preamp, headphones, and all this software, and it was included in the price of the workshop. But then, the kids would show up with a hand-me-down Dell computer that was 10 years old or something, and so you spent two days trying to arm-wrestle this software into a machine that doesn’t want to deal with it.
“And so I thought, we’re dealing with kids, and kids probably have an iPad while they might not have a Macbook. And all iPads and iPhones come with Garage Band. Honestly, if I had to drag out all my Presonus gear to set it up to go do something, for all intents and purposes, I could do the same thing on my iPad in about 10 minutes, if I was wanting to do a simple backing track or something. So, I wanted to do it just like bare bones. Let’s just do it on an iPad. No microphones, no preamps, no nothing. Just whatever headphones you show up with and your tablet. We’re gonna use the microphone that’s built into the machine and do something cool.
“So, I have a friend who runs a recording studio in town, Justin Martindale, and I’m going to be ‘second engineer’ behind him. He’s super awesome with the kids.
“(The Swiss Army Camp) is also a way for us to talk about songwriting and arrangement. A lot of these kids are already playing a little bit, or they sing. But it’s a way for us to show them how you write a song or how you arrange things and put stuff together. A lot of the kids don’t know that. They just think, you know, these guys sit down and this beautiful song just comes flowing out of them. And yeah, it happens like that on occasion. But songwriting is a craft. And just like anything else, you have to hone that craft.”
And there appears to be plenty of opportunities to hone those skills at Southwest Louisiana Music School. Starting on July 8, the original weeklong band camp designed to give students with some musical experience a week to work on music in a collaborative setting and perform live will take place. The Swiss Army Knife Production Camp is scheduled for July 22 to 26.
Also right around the corner are the school’s “boot camps” that Johnson says are one-day crash courses designed for the younger student with no musical experience at all. Students will perform live with the instructors and volunteers by the day’s end.
“We take kids with zero experience and we put a guitar in their hands. And we’ll tell them to put their finger on the first string, third fret, and strum these three strings and you’re playing a G chord. Then we pair them up.
“I have recruited a lot of teenagers that are in different bands, and they take on sort of a mentor role. They work all day and work up a song. At the end of the day, we invite the parents to come in and we let the kids play.
“It’s aimed at late elementary and early middle school kids who maybe don’t have any experience. They’re playing with my teenagers, and, by the end of the day, they’re playing what sounds like a song because the teenagers are there to kind of fill it out and it doesn’t sound like just a bunch of eight-year-olds banging on stuff. You know, it actually sounds like the song they’re supposed to be playing, and they get fired up about it, and, man, that’s the whole thing. Whether they continue with me or go do something else, such as piano or whatever, it is just getting them excited about music. That’s the whole thing.”
For more information on Southwest Louisiana Music School, their camps or Young Band Nation, visit swlamusicschool.com, look up their Facebook page at youngbandnation or call 513-7905.