Mark McDermott

The rise of the Radioactive Penguins, and other tales from the Summer of Rock

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The "megaband," a combination of all four bands who formed two weeks ago at the Dietz Brothers' Summer of Rock, perform a finale on the final day of that week's music camp. Photo by Mark McDermott

The “megaband,” a combination of all four bands who formed two weeks ago at the Dietz Brothers’ Summer of Rock, perform a finale on the final day of that week’s music camp. Photo by Mark McDermott

by Mark McDermott

They arrived a little before 9 a.m. on Monday morning, a bit of a motley crew. Few of the kids knew each other, but a certain order quickly fell into place.

A little girl with red boots and a pink electric guitar possessed natural rock n’ roll swagger. She wasn’t afraid to sing, and had certain ideas about how things should sound. A round-cheeked little boy with quick fingers and a bouncy disposition could play bass, or guitar, or whatever —  he was all in. Over in the corner of the room, splashes of music spilled from the hands of an intent yet joyful boy at the piano. A pony-tailed girl clung to her guitar and watched her mates attentively, taking it all in, a fast learner. An energetic little dark-haired boy knew his way around a guitar or ukelele and had a gift for trilling ornamentation. In the back, a little girl with big brown eyes and a steady demeanor looked at ease as she sat behind the drums for the first time in all the eight years of her life.

They had no name yet. But this was the beginning of the Radioactive Penguins. Their first gig would be in five days.

Their teacher, bandleader, shepherdess, and rock ‘n’ roll fairy godmother, Carrie Dietz Brown, was undaunted. Tall, with a wild brown mane, a dimpled chin and big wide open smile, Dietz Brown had been through this rodeo before. She is only 27, but her family has been putting together rock bands for the better part of 50 years. Herding cats is in her blood.

“Dudes!” she exclaimed. “We are going to jam!”

Dietz Brown gathered the group of six kids, ranging in ages from 8 to 12,  in a big, wood-floored practice room rife with musical instruments, including two pianos, a drum kit, four guitars, a bass, and a couple ukuleles. For the this group and the 20 or so other kids breaking up into four bands throughout practice rooms at Dietz Brothers Music —  a cheerful labyrinth of two story buildings surrounding a fountained courtyard tucked away off Sepulveda Boulevard, a couple blocks from the Hermosa border in Manhattan Beach —  the Summer of Rock had just begun.

The music camp has become a staple of South Bay summers for the last eight years. Dietz Brown’s sister and former bandmate, Robin Dietz Brown (they married brothers, who were also in the band, a somewhat legendary underground indie rock outfit called Foot Foot) had the idea for Summer of Rock. Their father Pat Dietz saw it as a good opportunity for his tight-knit crew of music teachers to pick up some extra work during the usually sparse summer season,  when regular students are often gone on family vacations. But the camp quickly took on a life of its own, spawning several bands who have stayed together beyond the five summer mornings they first spent together as little kids.

On this Monday morning, Dietz Brown knew the critical task at hand: find a drummer. The world is full of guitar players, and this group was no different; all came in with some experience on guitar, none on drums. But as they did a little “round robin” in which each kid moved around to every kind of instrument in the room, she noticed a little girl named Ella had an easy natural rhythm and an inclination for the drums.

“If you don’t have a kid keeping a rock steady beat, you are in trouble,” Dietz Brown said. “If you find that —  and if you find someone else who can sing, even better —  everything else you can kind of mask. It’s rock n’ roll, but drumming is pretty crucial to making the whole thing work.”

“So a drummer is key. It’s really hard to count and play, especially if you don’t really understand what you are doing. It’s very distracting —  all these cool kidsdoing interesting things all around you in a new place, a new grown-up you don’t really know… Ella was not a drummer. But she totally stepped up. She’s a really smart kid, brave, and super aware.”

The Radioactive Penguins take flight. Photo by Mark McDermott

The Radioactive Penguins take flight. Photo by Mark McDermott

Maddie, another eight-year-old girl, was doing her second rock camp in as many weeks. She stomped into the room in her red cowboy boots ready to make music, and naturally fell into the role of lead singer. Dietz Brown led the kids through a few different songs, but one immediately gelled: “Seven Nation Army”, the thumping White Stripes rock anthem.

As the newly-formed and as yet unnamed band lurched into the song, the alchemy of rock n’ roll kicked in. There were a lot of stray notes, and at one point the brown-haired boy with the uke held his instrument above his head, mid-song, shaking it until a pick dropped out of its innards.  But with Ella providing a steady beat, Maddie’s voice rose almost eerily above the din, and a little apocalyptic sing-song took flight:

“I’m gonna fight ’em off

A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back

They’re gonna rip it off

Taking their time right behind my back….”

This ragtag collection of newly acquainted kids thus became one tiny nation under a groove. As the song came to a not-exactly clean stop, even the kids seemed a little bit stunned. It was only Day One of their Summer of Rock, and they were already a band.

“Oh yeah,” Dietz Brown said. “That sounded tight, dudes.”

The family farm

A young couple named Merle and Patty Dietz in 1938 drove west from their hometown of Willow City, North Dakota, a village of fewer than 500 people about 30 miles from the Canadian border, nowhere near anything resembling a city.

They drove all the way to the coast of Southern California. As family legend has it, Merle drove down Rosecrans Avenue to the fledgling town of Manhattan Beach, felt ocean breeze for the first time in his life and realized it was the only time in his 25 years that he hadn’t felt itchy. He declared Manhattan Beach home.

Merle and Patty would have 11 children. Merle was a chemistry teacher who built houses in the summer and an eternally curious man who would obtain his Phd at the age of 50. The Dietz brothers, John and Pat, were the ninth and tenth children in a family of eight girls and three boys.

Music flowed through both sides of the family, all Midwestern farming folk who came from a culture in which people entertained themselves. As it had been through most of human history prior to the dawning of the music industry, music out on the plains of North Dakota early last century was something families and communities did together. People shared songs.

This was especially so with the Dietz family. Patty Dietz had an older brother whose band, The Dizzy Syncopators, became a hit all over the state, and music particularly suffused her life.

“Everyone in her family played something,” John Dietz recalled.  “Her older brother played a big part in her life, and it was a time when people —  instead of watching TV, like nowadays — they played music.”

Music was a natural part of the Dietz household in California, particularly among the girls.

“You know, the first six were all girls, and of course all six girls got piano lessons,” John said. “None of them did shit with them, so by the time it got down to the last, Pat and I…they didn’t press us into anything like that. When I was 10, my sister had a friend who had a guitar she wanted to sell and it was five bucks. And I think I had three and Pat had two.”

And so rock n’ roll entered the Dietz family. The Beatles had recently created a national sensation when they played the Ed Sullivan show. It was the mid-1960s and a generation of kids were forming the country’s first wave of rock bands.

“After Elvis kicked it off in the ‘50s, people were doing it, but really after the Beatles hit it just went nuts,” John said. “I remember seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I would have been 8 or 9 years old and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to do that.”

The Dietz brothers formed their first band when John was in 7th grade and Pat in 6th. But it took a couple years until they fully rocked.  

“The first successful gig was in 1969,” Pat recalled. “We played an eighth grade graduation party for my class and it was the first time we had enough tunes and got everyone up dancing. It was just a gig, you know. From then on we just did it steadily. It’s funny that our thing hasn’t changed at all, but everything around us has changed.”

The late great Kelley Preech and John and Pat Dietz, circa early 1970s. Photo courtesy the Dietz Brothers

The late great Kelley Preech and John and Pat Dietz, circa early 1970s. Photo courtesy the Dietz Brothers

One of the first and most influential popularizers of guitar for a mass audience, Gene Leis, had a shop in Manhattan Beach at that time. He had a famed series of self-instruction books and records and his Gene Leis Studios became a hub for the burgeoning scene of aspiring guitarists locally.

“Really, that was kind of like our hang,” John said. “We grew up in that music store.”

It would also serve as a blueprint for what would become Dietz Brothers Music: a guitar and music shop run by players with an emphasis on performing. John and Pat gigged all through high school, and then attended the University of Oregon, in Eugene, where they attended music school, gigged as a duo, and would each meet their future wives. John married Susan, a pianist and coloratura (the highest) soprano singer. Pat married Carol, a violinist, harpist, and viola player.

Though the larger music world beckoned, the Dietz clan went decidedly local. John and Susan returned from Paris, where she had made inroads in the classical and opera world, and lived near Pat and Carol. The guys gigged relentlessly, and in 1976 —  only after Gene Leis closed shop —  founded a guitar and music instruction shop that would take on a few iterations before moving to its present location on Sepulveda in 1991.

Many musician friends from the time pursued rock ‘n roll dreams. The Dietz brothers built a homemade empire, a beloved local institution that has been foundational in the lives of thousands of musicians over the course of 40 years. Rather than a life spent gigging on the road, they chose a life of making music together, with each other, their families, and their community. They have had seven kids between the two of them, all of whom have worked at the shop, and all who continue to play music in one form or another.

“That part of it was really deliberate,” Pat said. “We consciously set this up so we would be around…I call the business the family farm, because it’s as close as I can get, living in the city.”

What they have managed to do is set up a life that would not be unrecognizable to their North Dakota forebearers. Even as the kids became adults, the Dietz family still congregated for meals, for music, and for fun. Pat recalled that a former boyfriend of Robin’s once asked her a strange question.

“Are your parents Amish?” he asked.

“No,” she replied. “What makes you think that?”

“Whenever I come over, your mom is there. Everyone is there,” the boy replied.

“If you discount, say, the last 30 years, that’s not weird. That’s normal, right?” Pat said. “But in comparison to what he was seeing at home, maybe TV dinners, his take was, ‘These people must be Amish.’”

He mused that what at times has seemed an outlandishly different way of life —  one built around a tight clan and as much music-making as possible —  has persisted long enough to become regarded as almost hipster cool by some of his young employees.  

“We are locals, dude,” he said. “It’s just weird that it’s cool.”

A core part of the family business has remained live performance. The Dietz Brothers band, in various formations as jazz combos, classical groups, or rock bands, has performed an estimated 6,000 gigs. Pat Dietz says he has only ever been late for one. He hadn’t realized daylight savings time began that day.

“It was at a French restaurant down in Lomita, and I was on time, by my time, but I was an hour late,” he said. “The owner said, ‘Oh, dude, let’s just take the day off.’  That’s my karma. That’s the modern world working against me, daylight f’ing savings.”

If the Dietz Brothers are a family farm, as Pat suggests, his brother would add that it’s an organic operation. They have just done what has come naturally, and in so doing lived lives deeply within music.

“The thing is, when you do it as long as we’ve done it, you get to do a lot of different things, musically,” John said. “Rock bands, jazz bands, classical groups —  we’ve played so many styles of music. It’s just really a kick, and it’s still just a huge rush.”

“There’s been a lot of music made.”

Get Rhythm

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Late in the morning of Day Two, all four Summer of Rock bands congregated for the daily “Megaband” session.

They meet in Dietz Brown’s practice room, home of the “little kid” band that will soon more formally be known as the Radioactive Penguins. The other three bands are comprised of both older kids and a few younger kids who have been playing longer. Most are ongoing students at Dietz Brothers. Three other instructors are also part of the mix, as well as two high school aged student interns, Morgan Montgomery and Cole Edwards, who started out with Dietz Brown as summer campers eight years ago and still have a band together.

With this level of musicianship in the room —  as well as an assortment of instruments that includes a cello, a violin, a banjo, two pianos, vibes, a flute, bass, a recorder, a bevy of guitars, and voices —  Deitz Brown tells the little kids to let it rip.

“This is your guys time to shine,” she says over a din of jangling strings, 20 kids ready to pounce into song. “So everyone sing extra loud. We have all these cool instruments, so it’s a little harder to hear.”

The room is a big musical playground. The megaband bounces into gear, tearing into CeeLo Green’s “Forget You,” with a chorus of beautiful young voices cheerfully intoning, “I see you driving round town with the girl I love/And I’m like, ‘Forget you’ Ooo ooo ooo/I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough/And I’m like, ‘Forget you!’”

Penguins lead singer Maddie is wearing her trademark red boots and a billowy little white dress —  she’s more naturally cool at eight than most adults manage to be in a lifetime of trying —  and is part of an older girl chorus that is just killing it. Drummer girl Ella is wearing a blue summer dress and happily waving a green shaker in the air, while the wayward uke player from the day before, Jacob, is zeroed in, playing percussion in a perfect groove.

Every head in the room is nodding to the beat. As the song comes to an oddly clean stop, Dietz Brown leaps up in the middle of the jangly kid hip hop rock orchestra. “This is a weird scene we are doing here!” she says. “It sounds so good!”

There is a method to this lovely madness.

Carrie Dietz Brown hard at work with the Radioactive Penguins. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Carrie Dietz Brown hard at work with the Radioactive Penguins. Photo by Brad Jacobson

“It’s about letting them make so much noise, and then kind of breaking down why that noise is interesting,” Dietz Brown said. “And then guaranteeing they are going to succeed. You really can take any group of kids, give them the 15 hours of practice we do in this camp, and make them a band in a week’s time.”

Teachers also quickly identify not only aptitude and fit, but who is what —  those budding bass players or drummers lost in the mix of guitarists, or the kid who sings softly but naturally in key.

On Day Three, several key developments took place. A list of band names began to emerge among the little kid band, including Before Iguana, Grapefruit, Rubber Band, and Radioactive Penguins. Dietz Brown scheduled a vote for the next day. She also identified another singer.

Corey, a nine-year-old girl who played uke and guitar, had taken lead duties on “Bad Moon Rising” and nailed it. The band was scheduled to play the opening set of Day Five’s finale concert —  a midday show in the courtyard to which parents would be invited. The band had “Seven Nation Army” down solid. “Bad Moon” was a fast rising hit for the band and becoming a candidate for the other song in the set.

On Day Four everything coalesced. The band officially became the Radioactive Penguins. And after a shaky version of “Bad Moon”, Dietz Brown found a teaching moment that hit home. The day’s first take on the song, she told the kids, was “super rocking.” But there was one problem: they needed to play together. She gave them a new way to think about 4/4 time.

“You can buy something and use a dollar bill, or you can buy something and use four quarters, right?” Dietz Brown told the Penguins. “So you have a different amount of objects, but it still equals the same amount, right? So like four quarters equal a dollar — four strums equal a measure here. So what we are doing is we are getting a little bit mixed up with rhythm and tempo.”  

The Penguins launched into a second take, and from the stormy instrumental intro, it was obvious things had changed. Bassist Charlie (who happens to be a Dietz grandchild) held down the fort, rocking in his chair as he set up the menacing thump along with rock steady Ella behind the drums. Pianist Elliot, whose flourishes sometimes went a little outside what the rest of the band was doing, was completely on point. And little pigtailed Corey, who two days ago had been a tentative singer, belted out the lyrics, “I see a bad moon rising/I see trouble on the way….” while Maddie played perfect rhythm guitar and Jacob supplied a beautiful, atmospheric trill on his electric guitar.

Dietz Brown stood and clapped. “Perfection, dudes! You were listening,” she said. “That was tight!”

And so on Day Five of the Summer of Rock, the Radioactive Penguins took the stage first. Parents and siblings were packed in all around the courtyard, and up above on the balcony. The Penguins were on point, delivering their signature raucous “Seven Nation Army” and a tight, tight version of “Bad Moon Rising.” Later, for the finale, all four bands —  which included Coffee Back, SpongeBob Marley, and Chaos at Starbucks — ripped through an exultant version of “Forget You.”

Pat Dietz, standing over in the shade, stage right, got a little choked up. “Souls who love God know each other by scent, like horses,” according to an ancient Sufi saying.  Forty years into working the Dietz Brothers family farm, Dietz still recognized kindred souls in eight-year-olds.

“To kids that age, music comes so easily, like breathing, totally naturally,” he said. “I think as you get older, you think about it, or something. Especially with younger kids, they just jump in and start doing. It’s as natural as language….The kids up there, it’s kind of inspiring, man. Every time they get to the point of the concert, it’s just kind of moving. They just bang it out, and some kid gets up there and totally nails it, and you realize they are totally tapped in. And there is this moment where you just go, ‘Oh man, this is really cool.’”

The Radioactive Penguins little queen of cool, Maddie, echoed his sentiments.

“It’s like the best band I’ve ever known,” she said of her Penguins. “And the funnest.”

For more information on the Summer of Rock, see DietzBrothers.com. ER

 

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