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All in the family
Pre-teens drummer Robert Garibay talks with his sister about making a commitment to making music.

By Lisa Y. Garibay

MY LITTLE BROTHER Robert (a.k.a. Bert) is a multi-instrumentalist and a producer who drums for Bay Area punk band the Pre-teens. The band was formed when he met guitarist-vocalist Laura Davis in January 1999 while working at Tower Records on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. Bassist-vocalist Cristina Espinosa completed the ensemble, and they relocated to Santa Cruz. Their eight-song demo was done in a day that winter, but despite steady progress, trouble was brewing. Robert cracked under pressure and quit the band, moving back home to El Paso, Texas, to get a college degree in "some respectable field to be the foundation for a straight life." Our mother convinced him to get back to music, and he packed up only what he needed to survive (drums, a guitar, and a few CDs) and moved into – well, onto the floor of – Laura and Christina's one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco.

The sacrifices paid off, and the band's first "real" CD, Why Don't You Marry It?, was completed in 2000; it demonstrated a raw rock style and attacked their feelings on everything from family to relationship fuckups. A tour of the Deep South was followed by a jaunt around the Northwest; in between Robert started his own studio. The Pre-teens signed with a new label, 11345, last fall and recorded Sunday Morning Service, which was released in November 2001. A huge leap of artistic maturity occurred between Why Don't You Marry It? and the new album, which delivers a more polished (yet no less confrontational) Pre-teens sound.

The roots of Robert's musical desires go back to long before either of us were born. On August 20, 1964, my then-16-year-old mother and her sister were in the Las Vegas Convention Center, screaming and crying and writhing in a hysteria only the Beatles could incite. The next morning their passion drove them to outwit security guards, hotel personnel, and throngs of fans to make their way to Suite 2454 of the Sahara Hotel. The Fab Four were long gone, but the room provided treasures cherished to this day in my mother's hope chest: parts of a telephone, used matchbooks and napkins – all discarded by John, Paul, George, and Ringo. My mother carried her love for the men and their music for decades.

Almost 40 years later, my brother, sister, and I are rock 'n' roll obsessed. I write about music, my brother plays it, and my younger sister photographs rock shows. We breathed it along with the dusty desert air of El Paso, where, with our parents and their parents, we grew to adulthood. It was mixed into our blood with that of our Mexican, Indian, and Spanish ancestors. In fact, rock and roll drove us away from all that, carrying us around the country and abroad, giving us song lyrics that provided the encouragement we needed to experience difference and adventure and fear and life.

Here's an attempt to explain the making of a rock 'n' roll musician, by a rock 'n' roll writer who grew up in the same house.

Bay Guardian: What are your earliest memories of music?

Robert Garibay: My earliest memories of it involve the Beatles. Mom played them and made them important. And you and Aleks always had music that I'd never heard – you probably had one of the most extensive music collections of any high schooler that I've ever known. There was a huge mix of music in the house all the time.

BG: Mom didn't just make the Beatles important – she validated music and made it OK to listen to and have in our lives all the time.

RG: And Mom took us to our first concerts – mine was Paul [McCartney], in sixth grade, 1990. We took off a few school days – that was rad! When I tell friends that, they think Mom is the coolest person. I guess other parents didn't do that. And I wouldn't have such an extensive frame of reference for music if it wasn't for Mom, because she played classic rock and oldies stations – that's what she listened to as opposed to whatever ... she could've not listened to the radio at all, or country or the Muzak station. She didn't like that – she liked classic rock and the oldies. Any of that stuff can come on any radio station right now, and I'll know all the songs, and it's because of Mom.

BG: What pushed you over the line into giving music a shot as a career rather than keeping it as a private thing?

RG: The idea that it could be a source of income, a job. At the time I thought, "If I want to do this and make a living at it, that means playing."

BG: Of course, a lot of people want to do the same, but so few actually take the chance.

RG: I don't think that's true, because I know so many people that do. Maybe it's just the circle of people I know, but to me it seems so normal. It's not that there wasn't any choice, but to me it was like, if you're going to do this, do it all or nothing, and it just seemed like the logical way. If you're gonna play something, play it for people. It's also a validation thing – you want people to like what you're doing, you want to make people happy, and that makes you happy. I think that that's a big reason why people want to be famous, but they don't say it.

BG: Do you feel your musical style as the Pre-teens has evolved a lot since you got together?

RG: Yeah, totally! It's weird, when I think about it ... I don't know where the songs really come from. We listen to the bands that we like, but we don't try to emulate them – it's not like somebody writes a riff because someone was listening to a record by so-and-so for a whole month and they can't stop thinking about it. It's just what comes out.

BG: You take your influences and you reinterpret them.

RG: Right. But we've also gotten better as musicians, and we've become more open to new ideas. And a lot of it comes from accepting your sound, accepting what you can do and what you can't do, and trying to challenge yourself. It's a whole bunch of things put together, and you're always surprised by the outcome.

BG: Tell me what you see as being the differences between being a young musician now and when rock first started. How is the way those people got started different from when you got started?

RG: Oh, it's totally different. I have that conversation all the time with Patrick, the guy who runs our label, and with Jason, the guy whose band I'm producing right now. I've been working on his five-song EP for six months – this guy's a perfectionist, and there have been times when I've told him to go fuck himself because I can't stand it, but it wouldn't be what it is now without that, and it sounds really good. Anyway, we mess around on Pro Tools correcting stuff, and when we're done, we laugh because we can't believe what we just did. And it just fucks with your head, seriously – I've turned to Jason and said, "It's kind of not fair, because back in the '50s and '60s the people who played on those records were complete and total masters of their craft. They were leaps beyond in their musicianship what kids nowadays can do. You had to do it only one way back in the day – you had to be good, and that's what either made you or didn't make you. People think it's up to fate or some cosmic bullshit, but the whole point is that if you wanted it bad enough, you got good enough.

Nowadays there's an opportunity for new ideas and rules to be broken; you get people who haven't been put through the ringer and are not all jaded from the system, who can try their visions from their home environment where they feel safe. It doesn't mean that really good music is coming out anymore though [Laughs].

BG: But maybe the standards have been lowered because there is that opportunity. Everybody considers electronic music to be the new cutting edge, where all the opportunity is for innovation, but the majority of electronic artists don't develop real instrumental skills – they're just manipulating electricity.

RG: But at the same time you have to find the value in that because that's the future, and that's just the way that music's evolving. You're right, it's not like the birth of rock 'n' roll, or jazz when bebop came out, but it doesn't mean it's any less important. It's easy to look down on things that are happening around you, in your time and in your generation, but I think you can actively participate and do more to shape the way things are going if you're positive and open to it.

When I listen to jazz or early punk, I get angry sometimes and think there's no new movement that's going to change the way things are. But there's a lot happening right now.

BG: Do you feel that many musicians your age know as much about and appreciate the history of music as you do?

RG: People know their shit, and it's pretty amazing. I haven't met anybody who really couldn't cite what their influences were. You can't be so involved in something and not really know about it.

BG: Let's sum it all up by you telling me which musicians you keep in mind in terms of the way they lived their lives and the work they did. Who do you use as inspiration or a model for what you do?

RG: The first one would be Brian Wilson because he was such a visionary who wasn't afraid to try things. He might have gone a little overboard, but at the same time it was just an attempt to perfect the sounds that he heard in his head. To get that sound was the only thing that mattered. That's what I care about most, and it's really very hard to do because it involves a lot of time and work. A lot of times you're not even sure how to get that sound, or you end up replacing what you had in mind in the first place, so it's a constantly changing thing. You have to be open, but at the same time you have to be direct and driven. It requires a seemingly endless amount of motivation, skill, and openness because sometimes you can't even get to the place you want to get to unless you let go completely and try things that you've never tried before.

BG: Another reason you can understand why he went crazy.

RG: Yeah, exactly [Laughs]. And then there's Miles Davis, who was called the Prince of Darkness and was kind of a mess, but he knew what he wanted from the beginning and went for it 100 percent all the time. And that takes a lot of guts. He was misunderstood and misinterpreted and disliked a lot for doing that. Also, he was extremely insecure about everything that he did, and that's why he was such an asshole – the people who knew him well knew that. But I think he shared that same thing with Brian Wilson: he wanted to be rich and famous and be the biggest thing, but he was also very talented because he wanted it so bad.

BG: Does it scare you to have idols that went so awry? Do you fear you might end up imploding like they did?

RG: I think it's hard to say what could happen – anything could happen to anybody, and nobody really knows. But I think it's good to be aware of these other people's lives as far as the history goes because you can learn from that. But at the same time, I don't know whether their body of work justifies the quality of the lives they had or vice versa. And it's easy to glamorize that whole thing, going crazy over what you love, but then you have to decide whether it's really worth it and what really matters to you. It would be sad, I think, for me to grow old and feel like I still had a lot to do, you know?

At the same time, I'm busier than ever before, and there are times when I think, "Why the hell am I doing this? I'm burnt and I can't take anymore and I hate everything!" My shoulder's been tweaked out in chronic pain for months – it's ridiculous. But you know, people always ask me, "Why do you put yourself through it?" I'm like, "Is there really anything else I can do?" When they ask me questions like that, I just laugh. This is what I do! Maybe in the future that will change; maybe I'll want the white picket fence and the kids and a straitlaced job. But I remember when I was 14, making tattoo machines ... I sat down with Mom and said, "I'm never gonna wear a suit. I'm never gonna go to a job with a briefcase." For more information on the Pre-teens go to www.thepre-teens.com. Lisa Y. Garibay is the creator of ThenItMustBeTrue.com, a literary forum for musicians, filmmakers, and artists. She is a 2001 fellow with the Sundance Arts Writers Program.