Brooklyn seventh-graders Malcolm Brickhouse (guitar), Jarad Dawkins (drums), and Alec Atkins (bass) rock harder than you. As heavy metal monsters Unlocking the Truth, the trio has earned millions of YouTube hits for their performance videos, played on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, and put on what some considered was the set of the festival at Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest this past weekend. They’re also in the process of recording an eight-song EP with veteran drummer and producer Steve Jordan, known for his work with Keith Richards, John Mayer, Stevie Wonder, and many others.
But it takes more than hot riffs to melt faces–it takes discipline and organization, especially if you’re balancing a creative career with a range of other demands (family, algebra homework). Adults don’t always have this figured out, so Fast Company caught up with the trio after their blazing set in Austin for these simple tips that can help creatives of all ages stay on track.
Malcolm and Jarad have been playing together since they formed the band Tears of Blood in 2007–when they were six, if you’re doing the math–inspired by theme music at professional wrestling matches and bands like Disturbed, Metallica, and Slayer. MANager Tracey Brickhouse (not to be confused with MOMager Annette Jackson) says that the boys do write lyrics, but they eventually made the decision to perform only instrumental for now because their young voices don’t match the hard-hitting music.
“We’re waiting for their voices to mature,” says Brickhouse. “We don’t want it to sound like a kiddie band.” Malcolm, who writes most of the songs, says he has a lot to say about “relationships and their problems” and “standing up against bullying,” but he is going to vocal therapy and willing to wait it out until he can deliver the message in a way that does the music justice.
Part of being patient includes making sure everyone is on the same page. According to Jarad, “we had a singer from 2010 to 2012, but unfortunately we parted ways with him due to creative differences.”
During Unlocking the Truth’s Austin performance, Malcolm encountered problems with his amp and at one point had to stop playing for several minutes while technicians worked on the equipment. The band was playing a lunchtime set, and the break meant a risk that the crowd would start drifting toward the food trucks before the band was finished.
Behind the drum kit, Jarad swooped into action, asking the crowd “does anyone have any questions while we’re waiting?” goading Alec into a bass solo and expressing heartfelt thanks and the band’s desire to “support Texas” however they could while in town. The crowd rewarded his effort with questions, cheers, and chanted support—in fact, the way he handled it probably left the audience with a better impression of the band than if everything had gone smoothly.
“It just came to me, and I’m glad that it came to me because I didn’t want the crowd to be bored,” says Jarad. “So what I did was improvise and have the crowd reaction keep going. Because we’re a great band, and we’d like to keep it that way.”
Some of Unlocking the Truth’s chief musical assets are Malcolm’s original and gripping guitar riffs—something that musicians with three times his experience struggle to generate. He clearly has a talent beyond his years for experimenting with the guitar, but everyone gets writer’s block.
“If I get stuck and can’t think of anything, I just take a break and skateboard, because that’s the other thing I love to do,” says Malcolm. “Then I come back to it. I might come up with a riff, I might not. And if I’m having trouble, our drummer Jarad plays guitar too, so he can help me.”
If everyone on a collaborative team knows their roles and responsibilities, it’s easier to deal with unexpected problems–because while solving issues is about supporting each other, it’s also about focusing on what is expected of you alone. This served the band well during the technical problems in Austin because the others recognized that only Malcolm was directly hindered, and they still had jams to offer.
“Since we all play our different instruments, we all deal with our struggles,” says Alec, who joined the band only 14 months ago, before which he had never played bass. “It’s kind of like every man for himself on the stage. If someone has a problem, we don’t stop.”
To maintain their songwriting and musical skill, the boys practice individually five days a week, and together the other two. But no matter how much you love your work, you’re bound at some point to get frustrated, tired, or bored. So how do they push through when they don’t feel like working anymore? Make sure someone has the express job of external enforcer.
“That’s Malcolm’s parents’ job,” says Jarad. “Each time we think we’re finished, we’re really not really finished because they want us to practice more. But it’s worth it for a good cause.”