Music

Unlocking the Truth: Sony's Barely Teenage Metal Band


Photograph by Molly Matalon

Malcolm Brickhouse doesn’t want to do this interview. He was up until 1 a.m. last night playing Grand Theft Auto V with his bandmates, Alec Atkins and Jarad Dawkins. Then he spent all morning in a Manhattan courthouse, where a judge approved the five-album, $1.8 million record deal that Sony (SNE) recently offered his band, Unlocking the Truth. Atkins and Dawkins sit on a sofa in Sony’s offices, drinking Vitaminwater and waiting for Brickhouse to join them. But he refuses to. He slumps on a beanbag chair in the corner of the room, tapping away on his smartphone until his manager comes over and takes it away. Do the interview, he tells Brickhouse, and then he can have his phone back.

This is not the behavior of a childish rock star; Brickhouse is an actual child. He and Atkins are both 13 years old, and Dawkins is 12. As of this morning, they’re the youngest heavy metal act ever signed to a major label. This is particularly impressive considering they don’t have a single out yet—until recently none of them could even sing. These are just minor kinks for Sony to work out. Right now the label is focused on marketing three adorable black kids from Brooklyn who are deeply, and unexpectedly, into heavy metal.

It’s an easy sell. Brickhouse and Atkins have been friends since preschool, and Dawkins entered the picture a couple of years later when he met Brickhouse at a birthday party. When they were 6, the boys discovered heavy metal through the Japanese anime cartoons Bleach and Naruto and through the WWE wrestling matches that Brickhouse’s father sometimes took them to. “They loved the theme music. We’d come out of the show, and they’d be all duh-nuh-nuh-nuh,” says Tracey Brickhouse, wailing on an air guitar in imitation of the boys. He bought them instruments from Toys “R” Us and helped them figure out how to cover songs by Linkin Park. They got into Metallica. Then they started writing their own stuff. Brickhouse worked on the guitar riffs; Dawkins and Atkins fleshed out the sound with drums and bass, respectively. They called themselves Tears of Blood, after a band on the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place.

“The first time I heard [his music] I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what the hell is he playing? No!’ ” Dawkins’s mother, Tabatha, says. “ ‘He’s going to be demonic. He’s not going to love Jesus anymore.’ ” Other kids at school thought they were weird. “They’d make fun, say a black kid wouldn’t listen to this music,” says the younger Dawkins. Brickhouse was teased for painting his nails.

The band performs <em>Heavy Metal Jingle Bells</em> in a Cole Haan ad last DecemberCourtesy YouTubeThe band performs Heavy Metal Jingle Bells in a Cole Haan ad last December

The boys kept at it. “We went to Malcolm’s mom and told her we wanted to make music and be famous,” Dawkins says. She urged them to perform on Times Square street corners, where they regularly earned $1,000 or more in tips. And she booked them their first gig in 2012, at Amateur Night at the Apollo. They lost to a girl who sang Adele covers.

Last September, Alan Sacks, the co-creator of the 1970s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, read an article about the band in Spin magazine. “Three African American kids in a metal band? What a great idea for a TV show. I can sell this to Disney (DIS) in a second,” Sacks recalls thinking. He’s worked as a producer for several Disney Channel projects, including a TV show and a concert movie about the Jonas Brothers. A week later he flew from his home in Los Angeles to New York and asked to become their manager.

By then, the band had changed its name to Unlocking the Truth. (Tears of Blood was taken.) “We made a list of cool band names. The words ‘lock’ and ‘truth’ got the most votes,” Atkins explains. Next to him on the sofa, Dawkins and Brickhouse argue about who originally thought it up.

The Disney idea didn’t pan out; it turns out heavy metal is a little too edgy for a children’s show. So Sacks moved on to the next thing—positioning the boys as a legitimate band. With their manager’s help, they played several Brooklyn Nets halftime shows at the Barclays Center, opened for Guns N’ Roses, and performed at venues such as the Paramount and Webster Hall.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my god, what the hell is he playing? No! He’s going to be demonic. He’s not going to love Jesus anymore’”

In February, Sacks flew the boys out to Los Angeles to audition for Sony’s new Cherry Party label. They were signed after playing just two songs. Sony offered $60,000 plus a royalty of 16 percent for their first album, $325,000 for the second, and so on up to $550,000 for the fifth. It’s a 360 deal, which gives the label a slice of touring and merchandising revenue. But there’s a catch: The boys have to sell more than 250,000 albums to get beyond their initial first-album advance. “That seems completely implausible,” says Brandon Geist, editor-in-chief of the metal music magazine Revolver. “Very few hard rock bands can pull a number like that off these days.” Metal just isn’t that cool anymore. The fans, who skew older, tend to buy physical CDs and vinyl instead of digital downloads. And only 4 percent of all albums sold last year fell into the hard-rock genre, according to Nielsen SoundScan (NLSN). A legendary metal band would do well to sell a fifth of Unlocking the Truth’s target number. The British group Judas Priest has been around for 40 years and recorded 17 studio albums; in July their newest release hit No. 6 on the Billboard 200 with only 33,000 copies sold.

From left: Atkins, Brickhouse, and DawkinsPhotograph by Molly MatalonFrom left: Atkins, Brickhouse, and Dawkins

There is hope for Unlocking the Truth. They’re young, they’re from Brooklyn—the current shorthand for everything hip—and they play a type of head-banger music that you wouldn’t expect. “Ideally we would’ve liked them to get another 20 or 30 shows under their belts before the press found out about them,” says Tom Carrabba, general manager of Sony’s Red Associated Labels, which oversees marketing for the band. Carrabba wants the boys to hit the festival circuit in order to build up a fan base and have a shot at becoming more than a novelty act. Unlocking the Truth are playing the Heavy Montréal Festival with Metallica in August and going on tour with Living Colour, one of the few black hard rock bands, in the fall. “African American fans of metal shows are almost nonexistent,” says Geist. “Maybe these guys can win over some of the black community as well. ”

For the past few months, Unlocking the Truth has been followed around by a documentary crew that hopes to submit a feature-length film about them to Sundance. And they’ve signed a deal with Penguin Group (PSON:LN) for a young-adult book that offers the “essential truths, guidelines, and principles that have led to the group’s success,” as Stacey Barney, a senior editor at Penguin, puts it. The marketing and merchandising are happening—the only thing left is the music. Brickhouse has been taking $300-an-hour voice lessons from Melissa Cross, a vocal coach who’s worked with groups such as Megadeth and Machine Head and specializes in heavy metal screaming. He says it’s working.

Can these kids really make it? There’s a popular YouTube video of Unlocking the Truth playing the Barclays Center. In it, Brickhouse stands in the center of the basketball court, knees bent, head banging, wailing out the Jimi Hendrix version of The Star-Spangled Banner. He plays the guitar so nimbly you forget he’s a child. “We want to be the biggest band in the world,” Atkins says, back on the couch. Then Brickhouse pretends to nap while Atkins and Dawkins drop fuzz from a nearby pillow onto his hair.

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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