Feature Stories

Booker T. Washington Students Are Living the Dream in Dallas Band the Azalea Project

For as long as either of them can remember, Jonah Smith and Max Lewis have wanted to attend Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts. They've been friends since they were kids. Well, they're still kids, but we're talking tykes, toddlers, rugrats. As though by destiny, they're both living their childhood dream, and they've already parlayed it to create one of Dallas' most precocious young bands, the Azalea Project.

These are by no means your average high schoolers.

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Good Records' Record Store Day bash is in full swing, and they're shopping for records and taking in the atmosphere. The scene is a well-oiled shit show. It's one of the first warm spring days, and the hundreds of people piled into the confined space generate a musty odor. Outside, slices of pizza are being sold for $4 and $5, water for $2, and Tim DeLaughter, sporting a huge smile, mans a booth selling Tripping Daisy records and memorabilia.

The members of the Azalea Project, however, have other things on their minds. They make their way down Greenville Avenue to Mudsmith, joined by a friend with a Bukowski tattoo that looks like it was chiseled into his skin at the Dallas County Jail. When the band talks about music, they don't just fall into the same old empty discussion of influences or how they got together. They talk about the existential and metaphysical properties at work when they create music. It's heady stuff, no matter how old you are.

Booker T. is the perfect place for these kids, who would be labeled outcasts at a regular school. Unlike other high schools, at Booker T. you're judged by your actions, not your appearance. But there's still drama, and top notch drama too, because many of the students there study it.

Smith (vocals and guitar) and Lewis (vocals and guitar) went to a few different expensive private schools together, like The Winston School and St. John's Episcopal School. They say their relationship has always been in that murky water between rivalry and friendship. As silly as it sounds, they actually had rival bands in the fourth grade.

"We caught this weird little rift in people, where a lot of us just ended up being artists or looking to pursue art," Lewis says. "Not saying we're artists. I guess we're working on it." In school, they were equally angsty, rebellious and keen on trouble-making in the bourgeois quarters of private education. Both say they were kind of kicked out of those schools, but only kind of. Lewis recalls peeing on a wall at The Winston School toward the end of the school year.

He was probably not welcomed back.

But Booker T. is a different matter. Both Smith and Lewis agree they'd rather drop out of school or be homeschooled than go anywhere else. The audition process at Booker T. involves performing jazz or classical standards in front of three teachers and a trial of knowledge in music theory and pitch matching.

"It was this really nerve-racking thing, it's pretty much the only thing we had set in mind," Lewis says. "After elementary school this is what we want to do." Lewis auditioned with "Donna Lee," composed by either Charlie Parker or Miles Davis (its true origin is a subject of debate), and "There Will Never Be Another You" composed by Harry Warren.

Smith, an anarchistic by nature, played his own music -- twice. It just so happened that another auditionee, Julian Smith, had the same initials, which split the points for the two during the process. Julian Smith, Jonah Smith and Max Lewis were accepted to their dream school as freshmen in 2012, and as sophomores they formed the Azalea Project. Currently, the band has no official drummer, but Kyle Forster plays drums for them live.

After practicing for a few months, the Azalea Project began to play shows. During a set at The Libertine Bar, for a benefit concert in honor of Ethan Vasquez, a teenager killed in a hit and run, they caught the eye and ear of Gavin Mulloy, Red Bull Sound Select's marketing manager and the marketing director at Trees. "They were amazing, and I approached them right after their set to talk with them," Mulloy says. He was so impressed, he booked them to open during a Red Bull Sound Select in June of last year and put them on the bill of this year's Ragonk-a-Thon at Trees, which bore some of Dallas' most talented acts, like current It-boy Leon Bridges, Sealion and Son of Stan.

The Azalea Project sounds like an amalgam of some of the most lauded independent rock acts of the aughts. Mix in the spirit of the short-lived Bay Area band Girls, the harmonies and tenderness of Local Natives and the punch of Dr. Dog, and you get something along the lines of the Azalea Project, though there's also something inherently unique about them.

The band is undeniably impressive. Lewis says that when they first formed they fell back on well-worn rockist tropes, but have since scrapped all of those songs and come into their own, becoming more adventurous and exploratory in their songwriting. The way they collaboratively create their music is particularly interesting. They each bring a different method to the madness.

"Writing music is this huge artistic statement. Everything I'm feeling in [the] span of [this one] week could come out all of a sudden in something I make in the spur of the moment," Lewis says. "There's this initial moment when you're writing and you just start vomiting all these ideas. That's the most raw moment."

It's all very mysterious.

"It seems like there's really never a clear antecedent where anything comes from," Smith says. "I can't really trust myself to make conscious decisions. I trust myself to say something subconsciously and really mean that."

Lewis brings up The Secret, a book by Rhonda Byrne that discusses the law of attraction and asserts a person can foster tangible good will by merely thinking positively. "I think people interpret that the wrong way," he says, explaining that the universe won't merely bring you something because you dream about it.

He uses another analogy about the power of thinking that we've all pondered before. You're thinking about your friend, let's call him Adrien, and as you're driving down the highway, you suddenly notice Adrien in a car next to you. Did Adrien appear because you were thinking of him, or did you notice him because you were thinking of him? Does one write good music through the power of positive vibes?

"It's gonna be there anyway, and if you're thinking about it, you'll see it," he says. "That's why I think it's important to just do it. If you don't do it, it's not gonna happen."

THE AZALEA PROJECT perform with Reptar at Sons of Hermann Hall at 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $12 at paradeofflesh.com.


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H. Drew Blackburn