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Step Up to the Mic | Going undercover in the local music scene

Surge reporter Derrick Bracey went undercover to find out what it takes to be a lead singer in a band in Myrtle Beach.
Surge reporter Derrick Bracey went undercover to find out what it takes to be a lead singer in a band in Myrtle Beach.

Everyone’s wanted to do it – strap on a guitar or pound some drums or wrap their hand around a microphone and rock.

It’s a romantic notion – being bathed by spotlights, the center of attention. But what happens when the music is over? What happens when the bills are due? What happens when the gigs aren’t coming like they used to?

You keep going, of course.

For this edition of the Undercover Artist Series, we wanted to know what drives area musicians to spend their lives struggling to chase the dream. There are far too many bands in town to survey. Instead, we had reporter Derrick Bracey submerse himself in the local scene and pose as a singer. He played an acoustic set. He auditioned for a band. In other words, he ran around singing poorly until he lost his voice.

Follow Derrick in his own words as he steps up to the mic and sees if he has what it takes to make it in the local music scene.

Not Rockin’ So Hard

I meet acoustic act Ricky Lee at Rockin’ Hard Saloon. Lee has agreed to show me the ropes as a lead singer, to prime my pump and get me ready before I go undercover and audition for some bands on Craigslist.

It’s a Saturday afternoon. The bar is empty, but any minute, a poker run crowd is expected. Lee is already on stage. I’ve never practiced before. Lee says, “Pull up a chair.” This is like learning how to skydive while falling out of the plane.

I don’t even know what songs I’ll perform, but Lee strums the opening chords for Pearl Jam’s “Better Man.” He nods for me to start singing. My voice rushes low and off-key. He smiles a reassuring smile. I tumble terribly through the rest of the verses.

My next song doesn’t have as many vocal dynamics – “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. Lee instructs me as I go. He tells me not to fight against trying to sing high. It’s better.

I get a little over-confident and try a spoken-word version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” I mush mouth the lyrics and give up mid-song.

Maybe it’s Johnny Cash’s non-threatening vocal range, or maybe I loosen up a bit, because I find a groove with “Folsom Prison Blues.” By the middle of this song, I’m slapping the beat on my knees. Again, I get over-confident, and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Pride and Joy” rambles into a flat mess.

I pick up by the end of the set with a haunting or maybe just scary version of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” By the last chorus, I close my eyes and pretend the bar is full. I pretend the audience is mesmerized by my voice.

When I open my eyes, it’s still an empty bar. Lee brings his pick across an open chord and says, “Not bad.” What he probably means is “Not cringe-worthy.”

Lee remembers going to see Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bad Company live as a kid and knowing rock ‘n’ roll is what he wanted to do. He’s spent the last 20 years trying to do it. He’s from a musical family in Ohio. When I ask him what has kept him doing it for 20 years, he says, “I love to see people enjoying what I’m playing. That makes it all worth it.”

After our set, we gather at the bar. “It takes time to build a crowd and get gigs,” Lee says. “You have to play a lot of different genres, but most importantly, you have to post YouTube videos. It’s like your resume.”

Lee introduces me to the bartender and booking agent at Rockin’ Hard Saloon, Brandon Collins, who by chance has also played guitar for a couple of local metal bands – Classic Struggle and Daywrecker. With Classic Struggle, he toured the country and recorded two albums.

When I ask Collins if he retired from playing music, he’s quick to tell us Classic Struggle has a reunion show in November. “Maybe we’ll rekindle a spark and record more music,” he says.

So what keeps Collins coming back?

“I always wanted to be in a band, since I was a kid,” Collins says. “I’d rather be broke and doing what I love than rich doing something I hate.”

I ask Lee and Collins how I did. Do they think I have a shot in the music business?

“You did OK. Remember to start with stuff that works with your voice.” Lee returns to the “American Idol” advice. “And correct your pitch. You’re all over the place, but it wasn’t terrible.”

“You did better than a lot of people I hear trying to screech out karaoke,” says Collins. “It takes balls to get up there with just you and a guitar and sing.”

I beg to differ, but now I know I had the balls to fake it. I press on to get some more advice and the lowdown on the local scene from the Big Kahuna, the Mad Scientist and the Jack of All Trades.

The Big Kahuna, the Mad Scientist and the Jack of All Trades

I don’t know if Joey Skipper has ever been referred to as “Big Kahuna” before, but he stands around six-foot-five. He surfs every day. He holds a chair on the Surfrider Foundation. He’s spent the last 30 years playing bass and trumpet in local bands. Since kahuna means “expert in a profession,” I figured the title fits.

Currently, Skipper plays in four bands – Strike-O-Matics, Sideways Derby, Pure Cult and Mizfits.

The Mad Scientist of this story is Brian McKenzie. Perhaps he’s not mad. Maybe he knows nothing about science, but he’s been combining chemistry and turning gears in the Grand Strand’s rock machine since the late ‘80s. The bands he’s contributing to would probably take up the rest of these pages, but a few of the staples are Dead Cut Tree, Sqwearl, Something About Vampires and Sluts, and Electric Bird Noise.

The Jack of All Trades, Jaeson Moore, believes in keeping as many plates spinning as possible. He’s been the lead singer of The IZM since 2007. He fights to get his own brand of jerky (J-Mike’s) on the market. He bought a Winnebago to convert into a taco truck. He’s been a radio co-host on the Mad Max Morning Show. He’s sung the national anthem for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans at least once a year for the last 17 years, not to mention the Myrtle Beach 400 and the Myrtle Beach Marathon. Recently, he started building fences during the day.

I met Skipper down on the beach for his afternoon surf session.

“I surf every day, whether there are waves or not. In the surf, I’m an optimist. In traffic, I’m a pessimist,” Skipper says and looks past me at the choppy waves, breaking close to the shore. He seems as content to talk about surfing as music, and if the waves pick up anymore, I could lose him to the water. So I ask him why he still feels the need to go out and play.

“There’s a high you get playing live,” Skipper says. “You can’t get knocked down or get your glasses knocked off or have any cool stories from sitting around your living room, watching shows on YouTube. That’s why it’s called live music.”

Skipper has fervor, even when he talks about playing. He’s had days when he’s worked his job as a produce manager in the morning, then played a show with Strike-O-Matics in the afternoon, then drove out of town for a gig with Sideways Derby, only to make it back at 6 a.m. for an inventory at the grocery store. He’s played shows two weeks after hernia surgery, propped up in a lawn chair. He’s blown out his heel and played right after with The Mizfits.

“And every young musician should get used to being a manual laborer,” Skipper adds. “The word roadie never comes into this world unless you play big venues or stadiums.

“But when you’re in a band, you have to commit. There are no maybes. No one says, ‘Maybe I’ll go out there and rock tonight,’” says Skipper. “You could nail it or you could fail. We all do both sometimes, but not everyone will admit it.”

That’s when I admit to Skipper how I failed at my acoustic set and how lucky I felt that only five people were there, and he jumps right in.

“Sometimes, you have to play harder when there are only a handful of people in the room. Thousands of people are a social gathering. It’s those five people that there to see you. They’re depending on you to entertain them.”

Maybe I made them laugh.

I speak to McKenzie the Mad Scientist on the phone and ask him what drives him. He takes his time to reply.

“I’ve done this for such a long time. It’s hard to explain why I enjoy it so much,” McKenzie says. “I guess I’m addicted to it. It’s a manic life. You feel like you have to do it. It’s like a rat. That sounds horrible, but it’s true. We’re like rats that keep gnawing and gnawing to survive, creating and creating.”

McKenzie still plays out occasionally, but most of his creative energy pours into his studio, Brian Lea McKenzie and the Music Factory.

“Only a handful of artists make any money from their art. You do it because you love it and nothing more,” says McKenzie.

“In the end, there are definitely more highs than lows, and even the lows don’t last very long,” says McKenzie. “Either way, you don’t think about stopping because it just feels so good to do it.”

Moore is playing Hard Rock Café with The IZM, and I try to keep up as he takes a break between sets, eats chicken fingers, signs CDs and talks to everyone at the bar. I ask him what keeps him going.

“The Grand Strand is my incubator. I met my wife here. My kids were born here,” says Moore. “We’re not the band that goes out on the road and burns out. We’re the band who wants to conquer our own town and spiral out.”

Moore moved from Washington, D.C., with a band called Porkchop in 1997. He describes their sound as “hip-rock-hop-funk-roll.” He says, “We played and bumped heads with bands like Sqwearl and Flick It. We were thunder and lightning. It brought the best out in us. We all became family.”

Since 2007, The IZM has built a solid following, releasing two albums and winning Hard Rock Café’s Battle of the Bands.

“During our last set, there was an autistic girl out in the middle of the floor dancing, feeling the music. It made me cry. I’m blessed to do this,” Moore says. “This isn’t how we make our money. This is how we live.”

I ask Moore for some advice on my undercover mission and he jokes, “You should’ve learned how to play guitar. We lost one of our guitar players about a week ago.”

Dropping In with the Strike-O-Matics

Initially, I was going to contact bands from Craigslist and audition as a singer. After months of trying to contact area musicians with postings, I found a lot of dead-ends.

Joey Skipper presented a new opportunity – he and I could tell his band Strike-O-Matics that I was a singer looking for a band to possibly hook up with for a few shows – genius.

I would be able to walk in and audition/jam like any other real singer would. I would be forced to face the same anxiety and have to rise to the same challenges of every other local musician looking to hook up with a band. Only this band has been around for more than 20 years, and I’m not a singer. I may be in over my head.

I arrive at the Strike-O-Matics’ practice space. Skipper isn’t there. I flounder. The band tunes up. People ask me questions, but I don’t want to say too much and blow my cover.

Back in the ‘90s Strike-O-Matics were a 12-piece ska band with a horn section. Now, the band is a foursome with a propulsive surf sound. They may play reggae, but it’s not your typical pass-the-cup reggae, it’s more of a push-the-punk reggae. A jam or two may break out.

During our wait, another singer, Reid Cox, shows up to jam with the band. Cox used to sing for Rollo, but he’s been out of the game for about six years, working a 60-hour work week as a laborer. What prompted him to come out in the middle of the night and sing some songs with Strike-O-Matics?

“Johnny texted and asked me if I wanted to come out and jam and I said, ‘hell yeah,’” says Cox.

The Johnny he’s referring to is Johnny Jackson, the Strike-O-Matics drummer since 1997. Jackson co-owns Jimmyz Hibachi in Surfside Beach, and he’s been playing in local bands since ’93.

Skipper finally arrives, and thankfully, our stories match up. He plugs his bass into the amp. The bottom end rattles me. My nerves thump as big as bass drums. Skipper ushers me to the microphone and the band stares at me. My feet feel like concrete.

“So what do you want to sing?” guitarist Rich Sullivan says. Sullivan and Skipper are the only two original Strike-O-Matics left since the band’s inception in ’93. At the time, the band was a local supergroup. All the members came from other popular bands – Skipper from October Chorus and Sullivan from Phineas Gage. Now, Sullivan juggles a remodeling company and teaching at the golf academy.

“How about this?” Sullivan says and launches into Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Cox takes a mic. I take another. We both remember about half the lyrics. Sullivan fills in the gaps. I want my voice to be pitch-perfect. I want to growl and hold the high notes, but in reality, what comes out is a screechy whisper.

When I think the nightmare is over, Sullivan twists into “Rio,” but I’m rusty and remember almost none of the verses. After the Duran Duran medley, Skipper says, “Can we turn up these mics? I can’t hear the vocals at all.”

I say, “That’s okay.”

He laughs. “Let’s do some Sublime…‘40 Oz. to Freedom.’” Skipper turns on some colorful disco lights for effect and says, “To get you in the mood,” and off we go, but for the life of me, I can’t remember the lyrics. I struggle. Sullivan sings most of it, and I’m there to bellow out a background chorus.

Afterward, I tell them. “As you might’ve already guessed, I’m not a singer,” I say into the microphone. “I’m a journalist doing a story on what it’s like to be a local musician.”

“You almost had me,” says Jarrett Mallett, guitarist with the band since ’97.

“Cool,” Sullivan says. His fingers always tickle the frets of his Les Paul. I give them a few minutes of explanation about the article, before Sullivan gets antsy and we’re jamming again.

Cox sings Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” and I add backup vocal effects. I do a surf-rock version of Madonna’s “Borderline.” I take the lead and scream my way through a couple of Billy Idol songs. I sing back-up on Billy Joel’s “Moving Out.” We all yell Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny.” Cox funks it up, riffing some lyrics as the band jams some new material. A Bob Marley sing-along is thrown in. I live a childhood dream as I stand in front of a band and shout out Kiss and Van Halen songs.

No one tells us I suck even though I know I do. No one throws me out. When I forget the lyrics, someone else just picks it up and runs with it. When I crank out an ear-wrenching note, no one flinches. They laugh.

Looking around this room at these guys, I see a hundred-combined years of local musical experience. You could trace intersecting timelines back to bars and bands and living in vans and record deals that almost were and genres blurred and feuds and reunions and gigs in gutted-out grocery stores and days and days surfed and skated together.

Along the way, they worked. Like miners digging for fool’s gold, they worked their jobs to do what they love – whether it’s play music or surf or raise children or make whatever art they’ve dedicated their life to – this fool’s gold shines just as bright and makes you feel just as warm. This fool’s gold is worth just as much as the real thing at this moment.

I look around this room, and I see Mallett, who works as a meat cutter and a delivery driver just to make the bills. He’ll soon be a first-time time dad. When I ask him why he still does it, he’ll say, “I’m not sure anymore. I’ve always done it.”

When I ask Sullivan, he’ll simply say, “It’s the passion to make music.”

Cox keeps it just as simple: “It’s such a release.”

Jackson gets more detailed. “Let’s be honest, we’re not going to make it, but it’s fun, and we get to give back.” Every year Strike-O-Matics play benefits for causes like the Surfrider Foundation and autism fundraisers.

This is where experience shines – surrounded by old friends making music. This is when mining pays off – co-existing and defining a community you grew up in. I would venture to say this is “making it.”

Skipper says, “We can’t leave without doing some Don Henley.”

It’s an odd request from a man who cut his teeth on punk and ska, but the band kicks into “Boys of Summer.” The song’s tempo is faster than the original. Skipper asks if I know the lyrics, and I think I do. When my time comes, I sing. My voice is hoarse. My pitch is off, but I come in on time, and I know the words. As I look around at the rest of the band, it feels like we’re all in sync, locking into a mechanism, creating something larger than ourselves.

For the first time, it feels like we’re doing it right. Then, it’s over.

One-by-one the band heads home. Jackson throws a hand on my shoulder and says, “I thought you were great, but what do I know, I’m a drummer.”

It’s almost 3 a.m. I’m in an empty parking lot with Skipper. He talks about the old days, but now, Skipper has a blended family with a combined seven kids and a job that requires him to be up in a few hours.

Coda

To bring this around full circle, I’ll return to an unlikely source. While out at a bar one night, I happen across Alex Piscitelli, aka Al Sakk, the ex-drummer for Daywrecker. He’s in a new band now. Sakk has worked a long list of Joe jobs, from delivering pizzas to security guard, all in the name of beating the skins.

As I’ve been doing for weeks, I ask him why. Why keep on working jobs he hates and sitting in traffic and lugging his drums into some club or practice and beating his joints into tendinitis, and tearing it all down and loading it all up and driving back home in the middle of the night, only to get a couple of hours of sleep before getting up for work the next morning and doing it all over again?

He smiles and says, “Because when I’m on stage, when I’m playing, it’s the most free I’ll ever be. I’ll never stop.”

Prelude to the Future

So what’s in store for the future of the local scene? There are dozens of bands out there making great music, too many to feature here, but while undercover, we ran across a few bands in interesting stages of their careers.

The Kregs are a three-year-old alt-rock trio. They’ve morphed over the years from a few high school kids playing classic rock covers into a regional touring act, and their original music and shows have really picked up steam over the last year.

“Over the next year, we’ll be playing as much as possible, in and out of town, picking up exposure, sending out our record and hoping for the best,” says Nathan Nininger, the 19 year-old singer and bassist of The Kregs.

As the band grows up, the lineup transforms, members go off to college. Nininger recently finished a year at Horry Georgetown Technical College, but says, “I’m more focused on the band than school right now.”

Then we throw the question at him – what do you want from all this?

“I want to be a rock star,” Nininger says with confidence. “Being on the stage is pure power. I love the idea of performing for as many people as possible. It’s not the money I want. It’s the fame.”

Maggie Shah has been playing music professional since she was 14 years-old. She moved to the Grand Strand 16 years ago and has fronted bands like Wicked Thorn and Sick & Twisted.

“I’m known as the crazy bitch that jumps around and screams,” says Shah.

After a three-year hiatus, Shah returns to music with Hellfire – a high-energy rock band. The band is only a couple of months old, and they’re only rocking covers now, but Shah says they plan on transitioning into originals as soon as they “get a groove together.”

“The time off didn’t work for me,” says Shah. “But I didn’t come back to make any money. It’s tough to make money in this town playing live music.”

So why did she come back?

“I do this for my sanity. Music is my drug of choice.” But for Shah it’s more than that. “I love it when people come out to a show and lose themselves, because it’s not all about paying bills and work. Sometimes, it’s just about having fun.”

Head High also officially hatched as a band a couple of months ago, but these guys have known each other for years. Last week, they recorded and released their demo EP, “Acting on Impulse.” They describe their sound as “bummer rock.”

They may play bummer rock, but they seem to be really upbeat and energetic.

“The younger generation of musicians here are all extremely talented and involved in the scene,” says Caustin Sutton, 19-year-old bassist of Head High. Sutton also works full time at a marketing firm and part-time in the service industry.

“I've always wanted to be in bands, since I was really young. The thought of playing music that people can relate to just excited me from the start,” says Chris McDonald, the 19-year-old singer/guitarist of Head High and self-employed pressure washer. “I guess you could say I'm more in this for the emotional aspect.”

The four members of the band really became solidified last February when their close friend and drummer, Gavin Brunetti died in an auto accident.

“Gavin is the reason we play music together,” says Sutton. “Our first band was with Gavin. We had three bands that played shows together since 2013, and Gavin taught Nick [Bautz – Head High’s drummer] to play drums, and we recruited him for our new band. That's where we are today, all because of Gavin.”

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