Watching the seven-piece psych rock band Acid Carousel perform is like watching a pen full of well-dressed wolf pups wrestle with their favorite sticks. Frontmen and songwriters Gus Baldwin and John Kuzmick are young, at 18 and 21, respectively; there’s a lot of long hair; they have boundless energy; and the band is perfectly coordinated, partly due to their carefully styled ’60s thrift clothes.
They’re in sync even as they thrash around, playing their instruments while flipping their heads to the beat of the music. The chaos is almost balletic. And their music, a throwback to the 1960s, is full of ebullient, catchy, get-stuck-in-your-head pop tunes like “American High” and “Everything I Am.” They’re the kind of songs that you can sing along to the first time you hear them.
The band popped on the scene about a year and a half ago. Baldwin, who is a student at Jesuit College Preparatory, and Kuzmick, who studies photography at University of North Texas, had already been working together in a project called Moon Waves, which just recently called it quits. Kuzmick recorded a six-song EP in the summer of 2015 and he showed it to Baldwin.
“I was like, ‘This is our project now,’” Baldwin says. Kuzmick jumps in to correct him, “No, you were like, ‘I’m going to play bass for you,’ and then you lasted one show on bass, and we decided we wanted to play with more people so we’ve been evolving the lineup since then.”
Like the Texas Gentlemen concept of a collective of players, yet not nearly as large, Acid Carousel plays with a full stage of seven band members who are frequently changing roles and instruments. For instance, Baldwin plays guitar, bass, drums, mandolin and ukulele, and Kuzmick plays guitar, bass and keys. And like the Gents, most of them are involved in side projects too.
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At Club Dada last Thursday night, the guys stood five across on the stage: Kuzmick on bass, keys and guitar, and Baldwin on guitar, alongside Steve Gnash of the Steve Gnash Experience on guitar, Ian “Skinny” Salazar of Majik Taylor on bass, and Drew Wozniack, who just started playing keys for the band less than a month ago. They were backed by Fielder Whittington on drums. The lone woman is Ariel Hartley of Pearl Earl, who fills out vocals on some of the tracks. It’s a nice little outfit.
That night the band played to a surprisingly full venue of mostly people under 25. Toward the end of the set, they brought excited participants on stage to dance, sing backup and play tambourine. It was an all-out party. The band knows more than a thing or two about showmanship and audience engagement.
Having promised Kool-Aid jammers to anyone in the audience willing to dance, the guys regularly rewarded the crowd with flying packs of juice. They themselves like to get down, thrashing and hopping around while playing. In his signature move, Salazar pulled off his poncho and played the rest of the set bare-chested.
They’re not above using sex appeal or any of the other tricks of the trade to get noticed. And while their music is good enough to stand on its own, letting loose, touting their charming personalities and engaging with fans is no doubt part of the recipe for how they became successful at a young age.
“Come to our shows, dance with us, be our friend,” Baldwin says. “We don’t want to be distant from the fans,” Kuzmick adds. “The more people we meet, the more friends we have, and the more connections we have [the better]. They can come find us on Instagram if they want to see us post a bunch of sexy pics of ourselves,” Baldwin says with a laugh.
In a move that any adoring fans would love to hear, Kuzmick offers, “If they’re ever up in Denton, they can hit me up and stay at my apartment.” Then he changes gears. “Ask us if we’re single. I’m single,” he responds before being asked. “I’m eligible,” Baldwin pipes in.
Kuzmick and Baldwin excitedly step on each other’s words and banter like a pair of brothers, which makes sense considering they’ve been playing together since they were kids at Zound Sounds music school near White Rock Lake. Baldwin was 13 years old and Kuzmick 16 when they started their first band, the Psycho Sonics.
“What [the school] did that really changed us, is that they put kids together in bands and had showcases here at Dada. That’s how we learned to play like that, and that’s where we met Skinny [Salazar] the bassist,” Baldwin says.
The Psycho Sonics soon morphed into Moon Waves. Concert promoter Jeff Brown, owner-operator of King Camel, saw Moon Waves perform in 2014, which led to their real start in the Dallas scene. Both Moon Waves and Acid Carousel have recently played his resident Saturday night series, Locked and Loaded at Armoury D.E.
"Their enthusiasm, talent and stage presence was not only beyond their years, but really top tier without considering age," Brown says. "I just saw a lot of talent that needed a few nudges in the right direction."
“We were gigging at the Door, Curtain Club, the Boiler Room,” Kuzmick says. “Eventually Jeff saw us at Boiler Room. ... He put us at Three Links. … He was the first promoter who gave us a chance. That’s how we met everyone. From there I just started going to shows all the time and meeting people ... all of the other musicians in the scene who we’re friends with now.”
Baldwin met the band Sealion that way, and he recently started playing drums for them. “Sealion was my favorite band when I was 16. I used to worship them and their early albums,” he says.
Despite full schedules for all of the bandmates, Acid Carousel are hoping to tour this summer with Sealion, Pearl Earl and the Steve Gnash Experience. And in the meantime they’re sticking to a rigorous release schedule, putting out a record or an EP every three months.
It’s ambitious, but so far, they’ve been on schedule. In 2016, they released a record in June, EPs in September and November, and they’re waiting on Dreamy Life Records to finish pressing the vinyl and cassettes for their next release, a double album.
Surprisingly, quality doesn’t suffer at the hands of quantity; each release is cohesive and strong. The guys looked to their music inspirations like Brian Jonestown Massacre and Ty Segall on the release schedule. “We want to put out as many records as possible,” Baldwin says.
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They started a record label called Get With It! Collective to make sure the releases happened on time. Besides taking guitar lessons at Zound Sounds, the guys are all self-taught — on their instruments, and in the recording studio — which speaks to how driven they were to make music, even as children.
Baldwin says he’d originally wanted to play drums, but his parents pushed him into guitar to avoid having a drum set in the house, so he snuck into the drum room at the music school and taught himself. Kuzmick wanted to make music so he started writing songs on the fly with his brother, a drummer, and making videos. They say their work ethic is about more than achieving success.
“I can’t not play music. If I don’t play music I get depressed in like five minutes,” Kuzmick says. Baldwin agrees. “If I don’t touch an instrument for like two days, I will get angry at everyone.”
“Grumpy Gus isn’t fun Gus,” Kuzmick warns, and Baldwin confirms it. “When I don’t get to play music, I get grumpy. That’s why we joined a bunch of different bands. I just want to keep playing music and be able to support myself doing that.”