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A week before their end-of-summer concert at Blueberry Hill, the Junior Mints are dragging.
The sextet is rehearsing in a high-ceilinged warehouse amid exposed brick, abandoned file cabinets, dollies and scattered furniture. What the room lacks is air-conditioning and naturally this muggy St. Louis afternoon is unforgiving.
Sleepy-eyed guitarist Turner Trapp, age fourteen, and guitarist Henry Zimmerman (thirteen), who sports dirty-blond, hangs-in-his-face hair eerily reminiscent of Kurt Cobain, slouch on stools as they pound out riffs, too far from the room's lone oscillating fan to benefit from its output. Turner's twelve-year-old younger brother, guitarist Morgan Trapp, has the good sense to shred in front of the fan. Ponytailed Claire Holohan's face is beet red; the fourteen-year-old's rumbling basslines sound slightly off-tempo from the drum beats laid down by Ely Thayer, fifteen, who's a bit out of sorts himself, having missed the Mints' last practice.
Judging by the way he's hamming it up, twelve-year-old vocalist Blake Stumpf is the only band member who has any energy. The kid from Columbia, Illinois, grabs the mic stand with gusto, whether he's belting out the chorus count-up of Wilco's "I'm a Wheel" or striking goofy rock-star poses during Audioslave's "Doesn't Remind Me" (which features an exaggerated chicken-strut the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger might bust out).
Despite the uneven practice, the Junior Mints are one of the most promising bands at Dave Simon's Rock School (www.dsrockschool.com). As its name implies, Rock School is a place where students learn about musical theory and history by studying, playing and composing rock & roll. The school's founder and namesake, 39-year-old Clayton native Dave Simon, has been involved in the St. Louis music scene on and off since the mid-1980s.
The 2003 Jack Black film School of Rock triggered a spate of publicity for real-life rock schools, the most famous of which is the Paul Green School of Rock Music chain (founded in Philadelphia and closing in on 40 branches nationwide). But Dave Simon's endeavor is no novelty. In a little over three years, it has grown from an eight-student, after-school experiment in the basement of McMurray Music in Overland into a bustling business. The school, which these days is located next to a dental lab in an Olivette industrial park, enrolled 180 kids for this year's fall session 30 more than Simon anticipated.
Though private lessons are an integral element of Rock School, the focus on collaborative relationships is what has helped it flourish. But while the Junior Mints are one of the school's more tight-knit groups, on this particular afternoon they're in need of some serious outside motivation.
"We've gotta get some fire in it," Simon says, attempting to inject some life into "I'm a Wheel" with the kind of exaggerated handclaps a high school marching band director might use to kick up the tempo. But the song just isn't clicking; short attention spans, fatigue and general ennui dominate. So Simon calls a five-minute break.
Thayer departs for the vending machines while a couple of his fellow Mints scurry around mischievously, moving furniture and stealing drumsticks (and Holohan's bass). The rest of the band continues to noodle idly. (The echoing riffs of Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" are a fave of the Mints and nearly every other band in the school.)
Then a funny thing happens: Thayer returns, Holohan gets her bass back, Stumpf takes the mic and without warning the formless jam suddenly morphs into a pretty impressive rendition of the Who's "Baba O'Riley."
It's at times like this, when camaraderie suddenly causes shapeless half-songs to coalesce into full-fledged tunes, that it's easy to forget that the oldest member of this group is all of fifteen, and that the Junior Mints have been playing together in various incarnations for two years as long as, if not longer than, many so-called professional bands. They're not kids pretending to be a band. They are a band.
"Being in the room with the Junior Mints when they're rehearsing, it's like rock & roll at its greatest," says Simon. "I mean, it is musically really satisfying. But they're young kids and you know they're totally consumed with the fantasy of [rock & roll]. And they're rock stars in their mind.
"They're so in love with the idea of the band, they're like, 'Well, what's best for the band?' Their egos are pretty well tamed in there because they know the band is bigger than them. They work really well as a band.
"They're like little adults: They get in there and get the job done."
In John Hughes' 1985 flick The Breakfast Club, a motley crew of five high school students stereotyped as the Athlete, the Princess, the Brain, the Basket Case and the Criminal suffers together through a daylong weekend detention.
At first glance Dave Simon's Rock School on a Saturday has little in common with the Club's sterile library scenes. Some days Simon's two friendly dogs four-year-old Eleanor (as in Rigby) and twelve-year-old Owen (as in Meany) lounge underfoot. Framed concert posters and photo collages decorate walls painted in Day-Glo Skittles colors. The dorm-room chic is enhanced by a vintage pinball machine, a constant clanking presence in the background.