By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
With its rolling hills, lush green grass and meandering drives—all far removed from the Spring Creek Parkway drag where it's located—the Plano Centre complex hardly appears a natural home for a rock show.
The sterility of it is jarring. From the outside looking in, it appears to be simply a park. Only there's a massive building plopped down right in the middle of the property, a 33,000-square-foot structure originally built to house conventions of the type a city like Plano stands a chance at scoring, which is to say,conventions on knitting and the like (really).
There is no marquee, no flashing lights, no huge signs pointing out the space. No skyscrapers in sight, either—just a city of Plano water tower nearby. Inside, the high-ceilinged rooms and hallways feature carpeted floors, a rookie mistake if ever there was one for a rock venue. But, strangely, the room has no discernible smell, and its floor has no sticky spots or beer stains, which makes sense when you realize that, hey, the vendors here don't sell beer.
Yep, pretty much everything about the place screams "suburban"—from the school-like architecture to the hunched-over Knights of Columbus members ambling about for no apparent reason. There is absolutely, unequivocally, without a doubt, nothing rock 'n' roll about the Plano Centre.
Yet, somehow, right here, on a recent Sunday afternoon, teens giddy with excitement are descending upon the complex just as they have almost monthly for the past five years, adorning this peaceful landscape with flecks of DayGlo neon and jeans so tight no one over the age of 18 would dare wear them. And even though it's early—a little after noon, and the venue doors won't open until 3—the underage crowd already numbers in the hundreds. Their reason for showing: An eight-hour, 21-band rock concert to be held in this decidedly un-rocking place and featuring bands with off-the-wall names such as Red Car Wire, A Bullet for Pretty Boy and A Bird a Sparrow. The bands all sound somewhat similar to one another with minor tweaks: One's a little more hard-edged; one's a little poppier; one's a little more alternative. But they all boast the same sugary-sweet guitar riffs and hooks.
In the uncomfortably full lobby, the teenage attendees pass the time chirping at one another, complaining about the fact that the people running the show won't yet allow them full-on entry into the makeshift, three-stage concert hall. Behind them? Another line, this one almost 100 yards long and three Hot Topic outfits wide, extends toward one of the complex's many parking lots.
Out here—almost mercifully—a brief semblance of mischief: Pockets of teens too cool to stand in line (and yet uncool enough to purchase tickets and show up hours in advance) sneak cigarettes when no one's looking and chide their younger counterparts for looking at them cross: "What are you, 12?" a boy no older than 16 shouts at a group of tweens giving him the stink-eye. "What do you know?" It is by far the closest this crowd will come to a confrontation over the course of the afternoon and evening.
High drama, really.
The parents, dragged by their offspring to help pay for their entrance, stand out clearly—they're older than 18, for one; they have the sheer gall to wear colors not found in highlighters, for another. They dutifully stand in line too, looking about as bored as can be, eagerly anticipating the point at which they can leave and get on with their own Sunday afternoons. Kids, their body language screams, holding back shrugs and eye rolls. What're you gonna do?
One set from Flower Mound especially appears to have checked out, only here because their daughter needs their credit card to pick up her pre-ordered, $15 ticket. But of any detail beyond that, they remain blissfully unaware.
"She's here to see some band," they say to another set of parents.
Well, there are, like, 20 on the bill. This show's gonna go until 11 o'clock, at least.
"Oh, great. So we actually got a good deal!"
Yeah. Less than a buck a band. Good point.
It's important to point out that these aren't just any bands.
For lack of a better descriptor, these acts are the latest proprietors of the mall punk scene, performing power pop, for the most part, and music that's been influenced heavily by the pop-punk sounds of the late '90s (like Blink-182 and Sum 41) and the emo sounds of the early '00s (like Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World). And their choice of genre is indicative of a greater trend happening here in Dallas and beyond. But here's the key: Of the 21 bands that played that Sunday afternoon show, dubbed May Madness by its booking and promotions agency Third String Productions, 10 were local products; most of the others, meanwhile, employ Dallas area management or production teams. And that's not just some coincidence.
The start of it all can be traced back a few years to the early part of the decade, when local booking and promotions agency Buzz-Oven began taking aim at the all-ages audiences, hosting shows with artists such as Bowling for Soup and The Rocket Summer—two other bands with a heavy influence over the current crop of the scene's rising stars—just before their jaunts in the national limelight. Those shows effectively laid the groundwork for the exploding scene that exists today, where crowds of teenagers well into the thousands regularly show for performances from artists that most out-of-high-school music fans have never heard of.
It's an impressive draw made all the more interesting because of its quirks. Namely, the fact that it's largely a suburban phenomenon.
"We started off by doing this in Deep Ellum," says the 23-year-old Mike Ziemer, the man behind Third String Productions. "But kids kept telling us that their parents wouldn't let them drive out there. And, at that point, I was only 15 or 17 myself, and I couldn't really go down there either."
So Ziemer, simply looking for a place to house the kind of music that he and his friends liked, played by local bands that he and his friends knew, decided to bring shows to kids like them, instead of sitting around Deep Ellum, hoping it was the other way around. In 2005, his company threw its first Plano Centre show.
"And then it just started to grow," Ziemer says. "Booking agents started contacting me, saying 'You're doing 500 kids in the suburbs with just local bands. What could you do with national ones?'"
Plenty, it turns out. In fact, the scene's been so good for Ziemer's company that after one last show at the Plano Centre on July 12 his company will essentially move its operation out of that 5,000-person capacity venue and into a new, 8,000-capacity home, The Garland Special Events Center.
"It's just the perfect venue," Ziemer says. "It's bigger. It's more professional. They have people that do ticket windows there. They have people that actually do security."
And, more important, they have more flexibility to offer with their space. Ziemer excitedly talks of the possibilities: "We can sell private suites. We can have corporate sponsorships. We can bring in skate ramps." The list goes on and on and on. And the possibilities, at least for now, seem endless.
Mostly, because, if there's one thing Ziemer's come to learn about his audience, it's that they have a high demand for his product.
"It's just a different scene out here with all the suburban kids," he says.
These kids, and these kids alone, are the audience here—an audience with a lot of purchasing power. And they're spending their money on more than just admission fees.
Hidden amongst the thousands of attendees at May Madness, Seth Bohlman, guitarist for area indie rock favorite The Crash That Took Me (a band whose audiences out-age the Plano Centre crowds by a good 10 years at least), shakes his head in awe at the sheer exuberance of the show that his younger sister begged him to take her to.
It's quite the scene, a mini-Beatlemania of sorts. Girls too young to drive huddle up and point out their favorite band members as they wait in the lines at their merch tables. Boys gather up and argue over which bands on the bill rock the hardest. And the fashion choices, as regrettable as they may appear a few years down the line, are uniform—so much so that, aside from maybe a few years in age difference between the performers and the audience, there's not much of a discernible visual difference between the bands and their fans, except that one group is clearly the trendsetters, the other its legion of loyal followers. One is rocking out, the other in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that form in front of each stage.
"It's cool that all these kids are here getting into music," Bohlman says. "It's a little cheesy, but, y'know, whatever. I'd tap into this market if I could; these kids actually have Mom and Dad's money. They buy CDs."
His eyes glance back and forth between the set-ups on two of the venue's stages.
"And they all have better equipment than I do."
Oh, the affluent suburbs...
"The community up here is financially well off," says the manager for the scene-leading Forever the Sickest Kids, Tommy Quon. "When Mike Ziemer came up here, it wasn't being done, and it gave the kids something to look forward to, a regular thing."
Yes, that's the same Tommy Quon, who, in the late '80s and early '90s, managed Dallas-born white rapping sensation Vanilla Ice to the top of the charts.
Quon's re-emergence as the manager of Forever the Sickest Kids? Well, that's something of a redemption story in itself.
"Does it feel like the monkey's off my back?" the self-deprecating, self-aware Quon asks, jokingly. "Is that what you mean?"
"Well, I've definitely learned some stuff," Quon says before detailing his work with Vanilla Ice, his work with Latin pop artist Marcos Hernandez and his failed efforts at creating a buzz with local New Age and ballroom-dancing acts in the years since Ice's status dropped from superstar to punch line. "You learn the pitfalls. You know all that's a part of it."
Mainly, Quon says, you learn that it's all a big crapshoot. You make what you believe are smart business decisions, and you hope for the best. More important, you accept when you're headed down the wrong path to success. Admits Quon: "I remember when I was told about MySpace seven years ago or so, and I said I just didn't see the need for it. Boy, was I wrong."
Because if there's one thing that truly drives the mall punk scene—both the one that exists here in Dallas and those in other cities—it's the artists' penchant for social networking. In fact, that's how Forever the Sickest Kids, itself a collection of Dallas-area suburbanites, got its first big break. Within days of finishing its first song ("Hey Brittany"), the band purchased an option on band networking site PureVolume to have the track featured on the site's main log-in page. A few days later and the rest of the band's details fell into place: It signed with a manager, earned its major-label deal and enlisted a Hollywood producer to craft its sound.
"Nowadays, it's about the whole experience for the fans," says FTSK frontman Jonathan Cook. "The music is just a small part of it."
That explains why, for a full six hours before the band's headlining April 7 performance at the House of Blues, all six members of Forever the Sickest Kids, having already sound-checked and readied their set, having already coiffed and ironed their hair into their perfect angular forms and already dressed in their onstage digs, stood out on the street next to their parked tour bus, mingling with the fans who'd come to see them.
Not just their show. But them.
Actual, legitimate conversations take place. Band members and fans alike (parents included) reminisce with one another about prior run-ins, previous shows and future plans. Hugs are exchanged. Pictures are taken (incessantly, actually). Marriage proposals are jokingly offered and accepted. When one group of barely tween-age girls walks past the bus and starts squealing at the simple revelation that the televisions on the bus are turned to Family Guy, the members not only pop out of the bus to say hello to their adoring minions, but they spend minutes actually discussing the specific episode.
What the fans don't see is guitarist Caleb Turman sneaking a cigarette around the corner of the venue, fearful that his fans might spot him setting a bad example.
They're all simple gestures, sure. But, considering that, for this modern set of fans, Forever the Sickest Kids might as well be N*SYNC, if not the Beatles, well, it's the stuff that prepubescent dreams are made of.
"I remember going to my first show, and I remember buying an At the Drive-In T-shirt and thinking that they were the greatest band ever," explains Luis Dubuc, the brainchild behind another sugary-sweet, Dallas-based power-pop act, The Secret Handshake. "But I couldn't meet At the Drive-In. These kids can meet me, and they can hang out, and it's cool. And they want that. They need that. They have to feel like they actually know you, in a weird way."
But for the 24-year-old Dubuc, the scene, as fun as it is, as successful as it has allowed his career to become, leaves something of a bad taste in his mouth. When asked about his thoughts on his interaction with the other bands that make up the suburban scene, he balks at offering up his full opinion.
"I feel like if I say what I want to say, it won't come off well," he says cautiously, in a recent interview in Uptown, not too far from his home. He worries about the way in which the scene manifests itself, the ways in which bands distinctly copy one another's styles, the lack of knowledge that other bands have about the acts that came before them, both in and out of the mall punk genre.
Dubuc, who moved to Dallas from Canada at the age of 16, blames American radio, for one, but also the other musicians in the scene, who are wholly unaware of the acts he considers his biggest influences, like indie dance icons Daft Punk and Ratatat.
"It's just a different game," he says. "I'm not trying to slam the other bands—I'm friends with them and they're all great guys—but there's another side to it all, where it's all about making money and pandering to the young kids. It's not about the music."
And though Dubuc goes through the same motions of interacting with his fans, he's quick to explain that he does so simply to help put a face to his music—and to a large degree, because, with so many shared fans between his act and acts like Forever the Sickest Kids, whose members are all around Dubuc's age, he's forced to play the game of pandering to his younger fans, if only in his one-on-one interactions with them.
"Our fans can definitely get as old as 21, 22," Dubuc says. "But for the most part, it's a lot of really young kids—like 14 to 20, somewhere in there. It's mostly pretty fun, though. It would be weird if I was Boyz II Men or The Backstreet Boys and I was trying to be, like, this suave guy or something."
(For the record, he isn't: Dubuc got married last weekend.)
But whatever bitter taste is in his mouth, the payoffs are sweet.
"If people think they know me, they're more likely to come to my shows. And they're more likely to have fun at the shows. I mean, even someone like me who came from being into indie rock—people go to those [indie] shows to see those bands and they cross their arms and they nod their heads and they leave and they're like, 'That was the best show ever!' Really? Are you showing it? Even me, when I go to an indie rock show, I just stand there. But these kids, they come to a show and they have fun and they don't care about being ashamed of anything. Me? No. I'm too cool. I don't stage dive. Are you kidding?"
In fact, he's even a little gun-shy of how his mall punk is perceived outside the scene.
"I went to this house show up in Denton, and one of the guys in [Denton-based punk outfit] Teenage Cool Kids just looked at me and said, 'You're The Secret Handshake, aren't you?' And I'm like, 'Yes... please don't beat me up.'"
He's kidding, of course. Mostly.
Thing is, the members of Dallas' mall punk scene are getting recognized. It's near impossible for a week to go by without one of the area's mall punk bands—Forever the Sickest Kids, The Secret Handshake or any of the other somewhat successful acts that call the DFW region home (among them PlayRadioPlay!, Red Car Wire, The Hit, Artist Vs. Poet and many others)—finding itself the subject of an item on AbsolutePunk.net, a site almost entirely devoted to bands of the ilk. Likewise, an issue of Alternative Press, the glossy magazine dedicated to the same fan base, practically features a Dallas band per issue.
Others have taken notice, too, namely the celebrity blogs, which couldn't help but be curious as to who this Forever the Sickest Kids band thought it was when it started hanging out with celebrities like Paris Hilton at chic nightclubs in Dallas and Los Angeles, or when the band started posting YouTube videos of its members goofing off with Disney starlet (and Grand Prairie native) Selena Gomez.
National outlets subsequently began asking the same questions that the agents who book the biggest venues in Dallas, Denton and Fort Worth have been wondering for some time: What the hell, exactly, is going on in Dallas' suburbs? The short blurbs in Alternative Press quickly became cover stories, and for FTSK, they led to invitations to participate in the magazine's sponsored tours (last summer, the band toured under the AP banner with longtime idol Bryce Avery of The Rocket Summer). Common threads among the area acts soon blossomed into full-on trends.
The Dallas suburbs suddenly had become an area of intrigue. Fans and reporters started talking about "the Dallas sound," about the legions of fans in the area, about the main players in all aspects of the scene—management (Quon), promotions and booking (Ziemer) and production (Arlington-based producer Geoff Rockwell)—helping turn the entire machine, and not just its products, into a model for success for other cities. Or, in some cases, a mecca.
In a short bio AP recently ran on local mall punk act Artist Vs. Poet (who, like FTSK, saw its debut EP produced by Rockwell and developed its fan base at Ziemer's showcases), the band talked about an act from Oregon that had gleefully told the band that it would soon be moving to the metroplex to join in on the scene. Ziemer, meanwhile, says he gets calls almost weekly by out-of-town musicians asking him if he knows of any up-and-coming acts looking to add on another member. Quon describes being approached by five to 10 bands a week looking for management representation—a number of them coming from outside the region. Rockwell, too, who is admittedly as stumped by the question of what "the Dallas sound"—a sound he is credited for helping create—actually refers to, is busier now than he's ever been, thanks to the constant pleas for production that his studio receives.
"Dallas is the new Nashville," FTSK's Cook says with some bombast, but little hyperbole. "Once you've got one band blowing up out of an area—kind of a success story, if you will—A&R reps from the major labels take notice of that, and they all flock to that area.
Dubuc, for one, doesn't think that's a good thing. He toured the country—beyond too—before even releasing a debut EP in order to build up a fan base. It's a concept he says is lost on the newer bands of the region.
"That's the problem with Dallas right now," he says. "These kids think they can start a band, write some songs, not work hard, put out a demo, throw a few songs on MySpace and get signed to a major label. It shouldn't work like that."
For the time being, that process seems to be working, though. Sure, the music is fairly simple—even FTSK's members acknowledge as much ("Simplicity is amazing," Turman says)—and, like many of the Top 40 hits of the day, the songs these bands create come with a highly produced sheen.
"It's weird," Dubuc says. "Remember a few years back when you'd hear a band and you would say that it sucked because it was overproduced? I went on AbsolutePunk the other day and was reading a review and all the kids were slamming it because it wasn't produced enough."
It all makes for some catchy tunes, though, Dubuc's music included (and maybe more so than some of the others'). And that's just what the kids want these days. Even at the stage shows.
Before its House of Blues show, FTSK's members joked about a new introduction it was incorporating into its performance, in which the members run out onstage and lip-sync hip-hop lyrics and pre-recorded slams at one another before it all devolves into a staged bow-and-arrow and Old West gunfight.
Adds Cook: "You're gonna leave wondering why Broadway has moved to Dallas-Fort Worth."
But pardon their bravado. Because, go figure, when the crowd sees the display, it goes predictably bonkers—just as it will for the rest of the band's 30-minute high-energy set, which was filled with more clichéd rock posturing than you can possibly imagine. But it's what the fans want. It's what they've come to expect.
It's the product they yearn for, unapologetically. Because, well, they don't know any better, and for the time being, this is all just too much fun to not enjoy.
But it rarely lasts very long. Each of the bands and players involved in the scene is keenly aware of the demographics for which it performs.
"Oh, a hundred percent," Ziemer says. "Just in the image of our company. We want to appeal as an alcohol-free, drug-free, smoke-free environment."
As such, Ziemer, for one, has seen friends of his stop showing up to his shows once they hit a certain age.
"We notice that a lot of people stop coming to shows when they're 18 or 19," he concedes. "It's life. You're cool in the scene here, but then you want to test out the club scenes."
Just like the band members themselves. After their House of Blues show, after innocently marveling at the crowd's reaction to their performance ("Golly, that was fun; I wish we could stay out there all night," Burns exhales once in the comfort of the backstage green room), and after, once again, dutifully interacting with the fans who are again gathered outside their parked tour bus, FTSK's members scatter about the city to various ultra-lounges: Burns was guest-DJing at one club; Cook was off to meet his friend Paris Hilton, who just happened to be in town that same night, at another.
And when the band returns to town to headline Ziemer's final Plano Centre show on July 12, they'll do it all over again.
The question, though, is how long the honeymoon will last. Quon, for one, having seen his last big pop artist, Vanilla Ice, re-establish himself as a public figure after a lengthy period in the gutter, isn't too concerned.
"The kids are gonna get older and be 20-plus 10 years from now," he says. "The scene will grow with them."
And if it doesn't? Does it matter? With its amount of success and with everyone involved in the scene having such a good time, no one's really worried about the long term. At least not yet.
"Yeah, music goes in cycles," FTSK's Cook acknowledges. "But right now? Things are not good, not great, not awesome, but incredible. I hear people from here all the time saying that the Dallas music scene died. No, the music scene hasn't died. It just found a new place to thrive."
And for better or worse, it isn't going anywhere. Not anytime soon, at least. This, Cook assures, will always be his band's home.
"Some of us might move way out west," he says, a coy smile forming on his face, the same smile that keeps his teenage fans up late at night, "all the way to Fort Worth."