We’ve all heard of musicians who make their own instruments; heck, diddley bows and cigar box guitars have been a tradition since the mid-19th century and jug bands are a back-country institution. But ever hear of any musicians who craft their instruments from the fruits of recycle-bin diving?
The Garbage Men are a group of five students from Sarasota’s Pineview High School who’ve done just that. These eco-conscious teens have been generating a rapidly rising buzz that’s extended into the Tampa Bay area and earned them some gigs here. At the start, however, things were a bit different. “We’d play on street corners in downtown Sarasota and maybe five people would walk by,” drummer Ollie Gray said.
The Men, all now 17 years old, have come a long way since those early busking days; though you’ll still find them playing on a street corner every Saturday at Siesta Key’s Beach Bazaar, their audiences have swelled substantially.
They played in front of 3,000 people when auditioning for America’s Got Talent in 2011. They also appeared on CNN last summer. And though they weren’t scheduled to perform WMNF’s 2013 edition of Tropical Heatwave, they cleverly positioned themselves outside the ticket desk and played there.
It attracted some attention.
“I never knew about them,” Heatwave attendee Courtney Walker said at the time. “I feel good about the future with kids like this.”
The group — lead guitarist Jack Berry, bassist Evan Tucker, saxophonist Harrison Paparatto, drummer Ollie Gray and percussionist Austin Segel — fuses a conscious message with a catchy sound that is impossible to overlook. “To see young guys not only make music but in their style, and to have chops,” Brand New Opiates frontman Lou Collazo commented. “It’s amazing … I hate them.”
Collazo and the Opiates shared the stage with The Garbage Men at State Theatre in St. Petersburg, where they were invited to play for WMNF’s Mick Jagger Birthday Tribute last month. A dozen area bands gathered to pay homage to the 70-year-old rocker in sets of three or four cover songs apiece. The Garbage Men’s performance was right in the middle of the lineup, and kicked off just as the venue had filled to capacity and the crowd’s interest reached a peak. The young musicians opened with “I Am King Bee” followed by a rendition of “Under My Thumb” that included a solo from “Gimme Shelter.” When they capped their set with a Stones medley that touched on “Jumping Jack Flash” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the whole place erupted in cheers.
While The Garbage Men’s gear looks like, well, garbage, the musicians have artfully crafted real music-making instruments and their own innovative way of playing them.
Take Jack Berry’s lead “guitar.” A reinforced cereal box serves as the body, a yardstick strengthened by a sturdier piece of wood takes the place of a standard neck for the guitar’s single thin-gauge “D” string, toothpicks make up the frets, and a bottle cap is used as the pick-up. Harrison Paparatto’s reedy “saxophone” is more like a flute, the body a piece of PVC pipe with holes drilled into its length and attached to a Fischer Price corn popper toy. He also has a trombone and bass clarinet made from garbage, but he prefers to play his recycled sax. Evan Tucker’s bass guitar is built the same way as Berry’s, also with a cereal box (Apple Jacks), but with an “A” string; he also has an ‘upright’ model created with PVC pipe and a wooden box.
As far as setlists go, Berry said the group tends to stick to classic rock. “It’s more recognizable and easier to play.”
Delivering classic hits with a total of two strings has presented its own set of challenges, but the musicians make it work. “I think I know how to play one-string better than a regular guitar now,” Berry said. “You have to make a special arrangement for sound, you have to really pull out the root and the melody.”
Drummer Ollie Gray faces similar challenges beating on his kit, made up of garbage can lids, pie pans and five-gallon buckets. “There’s a limited selection of things to hit,” Gray explained. “If I can’t replicate, sometimes it’s trial and error, you just hit a bunch of stuff and see how it all sounds.”
The Garbage Men’s message of keeping it green isn’t lost amid the band’s quirky yet faithful cover songs and original compositions, because they’re walking the walk with every show they play on their recycled gear. “Instead of throwing something away, it’s much better to re-use or re-purpose it,” Berry said. They’re charitable, too; all proceeds from CD sales are donated to Heifer International, a humanitarian organization dedicated to ending world hunger.
All told, The Garbage Men have all the characteristics of a mature adult group, yet none of the members are old enough to buy a beer at the venues they play. They have a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter handle, yet their parents still drive them to the majority of their gigs (curfew is 11 p.m.). The group isn’t sure what the future holds after graduation, but they’ve managed to build a solid launch point for pursuing musical careers, and all while shouldering the cause of activism in their community.