Growing East Bay music program, Three O'Clock Rock, lets kids let loose

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Billy Ribak reaches for the top of a stack of cassette tapes, like the kind people used to pop inside their Walkmans to listen to their favorite hits in the ‘80s. The ink that emblazons “The Jet Stars” on each tape, has barely dried, because this new release is so fresh. Along with Adachi Hiroyuki, the two sit in Three O’Clock Rock’s downtown Oakland studio, assembling the band’s first release, very much in a DIY style.

The Jet Stars wrote all but two of the songs themselves, but it’s worth mentioning that the band members are all 13-year-olds. They’re attending the school of rock and roll, or to be more exact, they are students in Ribak’s after-school program, Three O’Clock Rock.

“We teach them things that they may not know or that they should discover,” Ribak says folding sleeve inserts into cassette cases. The studio space on Franklin Street near BART is sprawling with colorful guitars, an upright bass, and a kick drum that displays the name, ‘The Ogres’ (one of the bands Ribak, himself a multi-instrumentalist and touring musician, is part of). 

“My style of teaching was to really incorporate all the instruments and not just have the kid do a private lesson with that one instrument.” He aptly describes the space as a “candy store” for music lovers.

A vinyl record collection of mostly oldies, early garage-rock and punk, from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Bo Diddley, and Link Wray to The Sonics, The Kinks, and The Cramps, sits on a shelf, indicative of the program’s aesthetic and style.

There’s even a soundboard with tempting buttons used for analog recording that actually gets put to use when the kids are recorded on quarter-inch tape, a bygone process in the digital era that favors slick overdubs, autotune and visible soundwaves ready to to be consumed as digital downloads (there are plans to include a digital download code in the Jet Stars’ cassette release).

Ribak has been teaching private lessons for about seven years, but his program has expanded to include group lessons for kids ranging in age from seven to 17. There’s now classes for adults, a film production component and cartooning classes. They also have scholarships available to make the program more inclusive and would like to deepen their relationship with public schools in the future, though they’ve already worked with Oakland and Berkeley Unified School Districts. 

“We’re growing. There’s currently six teachers, roughly 40 students.” Our priority is building a curriculum. Something that we can pitch to the public schools so we can have our classes at their school and offer that program at a good value for the parents. The music is getting kicked out of schools. We’re trying to update the music program.”

Their third summer session kicks off in June, but before he gets ahead of himself, Ribak has a big weekend to deal with, full of two shows divided into two groups of students; teens and pre-teens.

First up is Saturday’s ‘Teenage Metal Injection’ at Abura-Ya Japanese Fried Chicken, which regularly hosts live shows for the Three O’Clock rockers, and then it’s Sunday’s ‘The Metal Show’ at Octopus Literary Salon, roughly five blocks away.

Hiroyuki, the man behind Abura-Ya, dreamt of combining a music venue with a restaurant.

“The teenagers need a cool spot to hang out. They need a place where other teenagers hang out and Abura-Ya is a great place to do that. It’s accessible by BART, they have great food, live music, they often have DJs. It’s just a fun place on an artist-friendly street,” says Ribak referring to a downtown stretch of 15th Street.

As the winter session winds down, a growing roster of kid bands prepares for their live performance as each course culminates to the quintessential live rock show.

Posters advertise the gigs, listing bands like Death Metal Chickens, Hi Tech Boys, Black Cicadas and The Half Time Show as well as other fun activities like a makeup artist on-hand to deliver “mutton chops” and “facial warts”, an obvious homage to the recently departed Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, whose face graces the poster.

“Most of the bands playing are going to be following in [The Jet Stars’] footsteps,” says Ribak.

With a March 5th “record-release” gig at 924 Gilman Street Project (Berkeley’s storied all-ages punk venue) and past performance at college radio stations like UC Berkeley’s KALX, it sounds like a tough act to follow.

“We kind of usher in this fun philosophy.  I kind of grew up playing music with my brother and we’d come home after school-- my mom and dad would give us one hour to play only. We had instruments, we had a garage. We played inside the house too. That one hour of fun I had growing up at my house--not every kid has a drum set available or electric guitar available to just go and jam on with their friends after school. I wanted to make a place that kids could come to do that.”

It is a different kind of band camp and parents and students alike seem to respond. Francis Lau, a 10-year-old Oaklander, is one of the breakthrough talents. He’s been a student at Three O’Clock for a little over a year, but already had five years of classical piano background. His father, Edward Lau describes the program as “unique” and a “tailor made” atmosphere his son seems to be thriving in. Now, Lau rocks synthesizers to Kraftwerk and Devo songs, composes his own instrumental melodies and hams it up on stage when he requests into his headset microphone, “I would like you to sing along, ‘lalala’,” before breaking into a rousing rendition of Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”. 

Lau even appears in a video for his cover of Devo’s “Time Out For Fun” that got noticed and re-blogged by Pee-Wee Herman, surely for its quirkiness. A Facebook interaction between Ribak and Paul “Pee Wee” Reubens revealed that Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh himself was the one who brought the video to his attention.

The elder Lau touches on the program’s “community spirit”, which Ribak is big on when it comes to making songs and sharing them either through performance or something recorded. But at the same time, Ribak say’s it’s important for the youngsters to develop independence when it comes to the business side of the music industry. The curriculum includes learning marketing and promotions, but he’d like to see them booking their own shows eventually.

“Mostly they’re making relationships and having fun.The thing is with teenagers is it’s really difficult to fit in. With me, music gave me a lot of confidence. Being a lawyer or a doctor isn’t the only means of being successful. My whole life has basically been dedicated to doing what I love the most; playing music and I’ve found a way to continue doing music that wasn’t on the road all the time, by teaching and having a program for up and coming musicians.”

For more info on enrollment in the program click here and check out the Francis Lau Experience, Three O'clock Rock video below.