The musicians of $lot Ma¢hine cite the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Bad Brains, and the Ramones as influences, which is pretty cool in this era of prefab badness. The fact that none of them could get into a PG-13 movie makes it even cooler. And not only do these kids kick some serious ass, but Viv (age 7, vocals), Yan (10, bass), Jasper (11, drums), and Liam (12, guitar) also happen to represent a big tongue stuck out at the local electronic music scene that literally birthed them: Viv and Jasper Sharp are the sons of Jonah Sharp, aka techno-jazz recording artist Spacetime Continuum, while Liam Brown's big poppa is house music guru DJ Jenö. These dads, both expatriates from the U.K., craft soulful dance-floor grooves appreciated by an international audience from Tokyo to London. Their kids, on the other hand, just wanna rock.
It's been a little over a year and a half since the formation of $lot Ma¢hine, but the youngsters have already accomplished much. They've gone from playing gigs on holidays at their Creative Arts Charter School in Potrero Hill to performing as the opening act at local venues such as the Great American Music Hall, the Rickshaw Stop, and the Bottom of the Hill, places that countless adult bands would cut their guitar-massaging arms off to play. They've also attracted the attention of some notable rockers.
"We have no intent of having kids anytime soon," says Jillian Iva, vocalist for S.F. dance-rock femmes fatales Von Iva, "but after [we] played a show with $lot Ma¢hine we wanted to procreate just so we can pop out precocious rockers like them. They're awesome!"
"Like us, $lot Ma¢hine challenges the punk status quo," offers John Gluck, conductor of the 30-member Punk Rock Orchestra, a local collective that performs traditional punk cuts with typically classical instruments like violins and cellos. "In many ways, punk these days has become rigid, elitist, exclusive, and closed to new ideas, exactly what it set out not to be. It has, with a few exceptions, lost its sense of humor. $lot Ma¢hine and PRO challenge that by saying you can be a bassoon player or 7 years old and also be punk."
Adds PRO founder David Ferguson, "We think it's inspiring that still another new generation is stepping up to the punk challenge with panache."
There's a crazy cacophony of sounds flying out of the various rooms of SOMA's Lennon Studios as I walk its halls on a recent Tuesday night. No one mentioned which space $lot Ma¢hine would be rehearsing in, and an ear pressed up to random doors elicits clumsy drums and clashing guitars -- in other words, not our boys. Finally the very end of the hall is reached, where tight guitar chords are genuinely marrying bass lines and frenetic drums through the door of a corner studio. There's also the delightfully messy shouting of a 7-year-old boy. Here we are, a real band at work.
My arrival means it's time for $lot Ma¢hine to take a break and settle down for its first-ever interview, and while everyone is well behaved, no one really wants to stop practicing. An errant drumbeat or bass riff punctuates the beginning of the conversation. Unprompted by their fathers, who are both in the room, Viv, Jasper, and Liam make it easy to see that they're itching to play, that it really makes them happy, that it's not some manufactured idea from their musically inclined dads. Later, in fact, when asked about whether or not music might be his kids' career path, Jonah Sharp will say the magic words that show there's no danger of him becoming something like the raging dad/manager that Joseph Jackson was in the '70s: "If that's what they want to do then fine, but an education won't take second place."
Growing up with Dad's turntables on all the time, Viv and Jasper were curious about DJing but haven't gravitated toward it.
"It looks kinda hard," says Viv.
"It's probably not hard if you practice," replies Jasper, by all accounts the member who practices the most, "but it's still something I don't think I would do."
"Jasper says that he got bored of hearing me playing techno/electronic music all the time when he was small," Jonah notes. "I remember buying him a CD player on his third birthday and a bunch of CDs: James Brown, Bob Marley, and the Ramones. It was the Ramones that made the most sense to him. ... Punk music is about energy, and kids can relate to that."
Likewise, Liam is not a big fan of electronica. "It's too, like, hypnotic," he charges of house music.
"I used to take Liam to the record stores in S.F. a lot when he was younger," remembers Jenö. "He would take the house and disco records I'd pick out for him to listen to and instead switch the speed of the turntable from 45 to 33 -- or vice versa -- and listen to them at the completely wrong tempo. He loved doing that, and if I ever corrected the speed for him, he'd tell me the music was too boring, and he'd change it back."
$lot Ma¢hine's original lead singer was actually another friend, a girl who liked Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguilera. Perhaps it was a good thing that she didn't last long with the group, which is decidedly unimpressed with and uninterested in MTV.
"She had to move away for some reason and then we replaced her with [Viv] because he was, like, the only choice," explains Jasper.
It was a good choice. Inspired by the snarls of the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten, Viv's the perfectly gorgeous little lead, having already perfected the punk pout and eliminated any stage fright after $lot Ma¢hine's first gig (Halloween 2003 at Creative Arts). The band is happy with the selection: It has both a frontman and an original lyricist in Viv, whose subject matter ranges from Burger King and pizza to rubber bands.
"He makes up his own stuff," says Liam. "And his voice sounds really raspy; that sounds cool."
Every band needs its dark horse, the strong silent type shrouded in mystery, eyes hidden behind a swirl of bangs. In $lot Ma¢hine's case, that would be Yan Ingram, the only member not to have a local electronic music luminary as a parent, but that's about all I really know for sure. His stock response to most questions is a smile that's shy and skittish, as if a teacher had just asked him a question that he's embarrassed to answer out loud. When favorite artists are brought up, Jasper mentions that Yan likes Eminem.
"I did like him," Yan corrects, his eyes darting downward, revealing no more, though Jasper interjects that Yan also likes Motörhead.
At a $lot Ma¢hine concert, it's not unusual to see little kids flailing their arms in the air and bouncing with abandon, and adults buzzing to one another about the spectacle of it all. People are generally surprised by how good the band is and by the potential it has. Believe it or not, $lot Ma¢hine's sound isn't miles away from the deliberately simple beauty of a group like the White Stripes, working a basic idea and following it to its limits.
The band has written 11 original songs and has recorded several of them for a release early next year on Jonah's label, Reflective Records. Dad is even toying with the idea of pressing the material up on 7-inch vinyl, punk's preferred traditional format.
It might not be overnight, and they might have to join with some like-minded bands, and probably polish the rough edges of their skills, but it's not inconceivable that these tykes could eventually conquer and topple the status quo. For now, they're content to fight the good fight for the salvation of punk's future, mainly after school and on weekends.