Once or twice a week, The Black Sparks get in rehearsal time at the furthest thing imaginable from a dingy basement: Bach to Rock, an extracurricular rock school on a Bethesda commercial strip.
The boldfaced all-caps slogan on Bach to Rock’s website sounds like something a helicopter parent might scream on a speedy drive between viola lessons and soccer practice: “LEARNING TO PLAY MUSIC SHOULD BE FUN. IT’S CALLED ‘PLAY’ FOR A REASON!” In the section describing a camp for 3 to 5-year-olds, it asks that its rockers “be potty-trained.”
As I roam the halls of Bach to Rock looking for The Black Sparks’ practice room—it costs $35 an hour—I pass gigantic, professionally mounted photos of Bob Dylan and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s an Ikea catalog’s idea of a rehearsal space. Each room has a window, so peering in is a bit like observing a punk-rock science experiment in progress.
Right now, The Sparks are rehearsing with Nayan Bhula, the site director of Bach to Rock’s Bethesda location and a full-fledged punk rocker himself. (At night, Bhula plays in the local hardcore band GIST.) “Would you like to hear ‘Victorious Robots?’” Salfi asks me.
“Yes,” I say. “I like robots.”
“Victorious Robots,” to my surprise, doesn’t rely on power chords or a simple structure. Lead guitarist Jonah Antonelli rips through the song’s speedy, machine-gun riff with ease, while the chaotic crash of Nathaniel Salfi’s cymbals lead the band into an audience-priming breakdown. “Victory!/Victory!/Victory!”
Andrew Salfi, who goes to the McLean School in Potomac, Md., has a toothy, confident smile; his face, fittingly, is on a bus-stop ad for a local dentist’s office. He mashes up a piece of pizza but doesn’t eat it.
The Black Sparks began playing together in 2009, when Andrew was 8. They all live in Bethesda and took individual lessons at Bach to Rock, where the band convened.
They’re at the age where their heights vary wildly, and so do their musical interests. The question on the table is what song to cover at their next show.
“Maybe a Neutral Milk Hotel or a Mountain Goats song,” suggests Antonelli, a student at the Field School, who’s clearly recently discovered an entire world of eccentric, nasal-voiced singer-songwriters.
“‘Everywhere With Helicopter’ by Guided By Voices,” says Nathaniel, Andrew’s older brother, who’s pounding his sticks on the table. (Nathaniel is the klutz in the group. The band wrote “Falling Up the Stairs” after he broke his arm just before The Black Sparks’ Fort Reno gig.)
“What about Earl Sweatshirt? Or Spongebob Squarepants?” says Ray Brown, who is at least a foot taller than Andrew and sports the early signs of a moustache. He’s the prankster, although at the moment he’s only half-joking.
Andrew remains the moral center of the band—the Ian MacKaye to Ray’s Jeff Nelson. “No, we decided from day one, we don’t do covers,” Andrew reminds the group. “We want to be more creative than that. Once you start playing one cover in your set, you just keep adding them in.”
The young MacKaye parallels don’t end there: “All mainstream music these days isn’t original, and it’s all about partying,” Andrew says. “I think that’s overused. I try to write my lyrics about totally different things.”
Like robots, for example.
A Svengali-assembled camp creation? Maybe. But it’d be hard to say the boys don’t value creativity and individual expression. The same goes for the other groups that played with them at St. Stephen’s.
All the same, it may be that the band is an outlier in a kids’-rock culture that has its share of cringe-worthy moments. It’s harder, for instance, to see creative self-actualization in Kidzapalooza, the annual underage sister festival of Lollapalooza, in Chicago. The stage pairs kids bands—like The Blisters, whose drummer, Spencer, is the son of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy—with adults who play music for kids. In other words, the event places adolescent rockers on a massive stage, but keeps them ghettoized, away from the music for grownups.
I think back to St. Stephen’s: It’s The Black Sparks’ preteen fans who were losing it. What about the folks in the back, doing the standing still?