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Charlie Brown, bass guitarist for Eyeball Skeleton, has adorned his Epiphone with no fewer than four SpongeBob SquarePants stickers. His bandmate and brother, guitarist J.J. Brown, has a decal featuring the absorbent cartoon star (and, until recently, one featuring the Powerpuff Girls) stuck to his gleaming black ax.
On the instruments of just about any other rock band on the planet, the stickers might reflect some finely tuned sense of ironic frivolity. But the Brown brothers aren’t actually making an arch fashion statement. And Eyeball Skeleton is no ultra-precious twee-pop outfit. J.J. and Charlie Brown are honest-to-goodness punk rockers—and the 8- and 10-year-old musicians, respectively, are honest-to-goodness SpongeBob fans: “Oh, I can’t wait for the movie,” says J.J., chatting between songs at a recent band practice.
In the family living room in Edgewater, Md., the band, consisting of J.J., Charlie, and their father, 29-year-old Bill Brown, runs through its repertoire after a Friday-night dinner, as a plate of cookies sits on the coffee table. Hooked up to mini-amplifiers, the band runs through its self-titled theme song; J.J. sings over Charlie’s bass line and Dad’s crunchy riff: “Eyeball skeleton/Eyeball skeleton/Ridin’ down a road on a foggy day/…the bogeyman came and guess what he said/He said the maple lady said he got a pointy head.” Midway through the number, Nelly, the family hound, runs into the living room, tripping on cables, cutting off Bill Brown’s guitar.
Beside the eponymous number, the 4-year-old band’s catalog features a wealth of similarly whimsical nuggets—“The Smokey Turtle,” “Flat Top Vampire,” “Bad Guy Stew,” and “I Don’t Eat Cereal on the Weekends,” to name a few. The whimsy—not to mention the brain-embedding hooks and melodies—have made the band a hit with birthday-party attendees and at least one major college radio station’s DJ corps.
Though Bill Brown, a social worker in Baltimore by day, plays drums for D.C. indie-rock outfit Spoils of NW, Eyeball Skeleton doesn’t officially have a drummer; he plays guitar, constructing the band’s beats on a home computer with Fruity Loops software. But before the music is composed, the band starts with the lyrics, or sometimes even less than that. “We think of words, get out a notepad, and put ’em together,” says J.J.
In the case of “Flat Top Vampire,” J.J. says the process was even simpler: “I just drew a picture. I didn’t know what a flattop was, so I drew a flat head.” The lyrics (“He never wanted a unibrow/One eyebrow is disgusting to him/He went to Uncle Ant’s barbershop/To get a fresh flattop”) flowed forth soon after.
The collaborative process also worked for the name of the band: “I came up with ‘eyeball,’” says Charlie; “I came up with ‘skeleton,’” says J.J. “We we’re fighting over it, so Dad said, ‘Put ’em together.’”
Although divided on their band’s nomenclature, the Brown brothers agree on their influences: the Cure, the Beatles, the Monkees, the Kinks, the White Stripes, the Hives; Charlie wears a Beastie Boys T-shirt. But above all others, they cite Weezer—J.J.’s lightning-bolt guitar strap, he points out, is identical to Rivers Cuomo’s. Later, the band runs through an impromptu “My Name Is Jonas.”
Not all the band’s touchstones are enthusiastically parent-approved, though. Iron Maiden and Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades” rate sheepish mentions from J.J. and Charlie. As does Prince’s Purple Rain: “We’re not allowed to watch the movie, though,” J.J. says.
Despite the casual practice in the living room, Eyeball Skeleton’s main habitat is the family laundry room, which serves as the band’s primary practice space, office, and recording studio. The group’s gigging equipment, two amplifier stacks taller than their users, sit against the wall amid shelves of CDs and crates of vintage hiphop LPs. On the floor sits a box full of Eyeball Skeleton singles ready for the mail. “These guys don’t see me [when I’m] in here late at night sending these out,” says Bill Brown.
After the band recorded its first song—“Eyeball Skeleton”—here on a dusty, ’80s-vintage Fostex four-track, Bill Brown, a New Jersey native, shot off a CD to the radio station he listened to in high school and college: Princeton University–affiliated WPRB. Within weeks, the station took to Eyeball Skeleton, sending it to the top of the playlists.
“It became sort of a localized phenomenon,” says WPRB DJ Jon Solomon, who compares the band’s music to “a Jad Fair record, or something like that.” “Listeners would freak out….There were always people who were like, ‘What was that song? I gotta have that song,’ People were drawn to the charm of the songs, and they’re so ridiculously catchy.”
As Bill Brown would send the station a new single every couple of months, the DJs snatched it up. Since Eyeball Skeleton started in heavy rotation at WPRB, college radio stations at Harvard and Brown, among others, have also started playing the band’s tracks.
In all, the band’s released four CD-R singles, including “The Bouncing Apes,” a jungle-themed number that features several extended-family members making ridiculous monkey noises. Such absurd DIY production touches embody the band’s all-for-fun, fun-for-all ethos, one that separates them from a previous kid-punk band, Old Skull, a name that Bill Brown hears bandied about a lot, to his annoyance. “We get a lot of people who think we’re copying off of them,” he says.
The Wisconsin hardcore-punk band featured another father-and-prepubescent-sons team, albeit one that took a much less fanciful worldview: The band played profanity-laden songs with titles such as “AIDS,” “Homeless,” and “Kill That Man,” and released an album titled CIA Drug Fest before petering out in the early ’90s. “Those songs had an anger to them that these don’t,” Solomon says. “[But] I mean, who doesn’t like vampires and skeletons when you’re pre-10?”
In April, the band played an in-studio performance on DJ Dr. Cosmo’s WPRB radio show in Princeton. Though the performance wasn’t public, per se, it drew a heavy portion of the station’s air staff. “About 20 college kids pressed up to the glass, trying to see what was going on,” Solomon says. “I think the Brown boys were pretty overwhelmed.”
Even before the Princeton performance, the band had caught the eye of another media outlet, D.C.-based kids’ variety show Pancake Mountain (“Youth Brigade,” 12/19/03). The show’s creator-producer, Scott Stuckey, says the CD-Rs were near-instant hits among the yet-to-be-aired TV show’s staff. “Everyone was like, ‘Let me borrow that!’ They had this great artwork,” he says. “We knew when we had a dance party, there was no doubt [the band would be invited to play].”
In February, the band played the theme song on the first Pancake Mountain on-air dance party, alongside Thievery Corporation’s electronica and Uncalled 4 Band’s go-go. The band had to overcome some jitters: “They were a little scared, especially after Thievery and the Rasta guys, [but afterward] all of us were like, wow,” Stuckey says. “We want to have them back.”
With all the buzz, the band’s sold hundreds of discs to mail-order customers up and down the Eastern Seaboard, but the DIY music business has not been particularly lucrative for Eyeball Skeleton: Between the CD-Rs, jewel cases, artwork, bubble-wrap envelopes, and postage, the band’s hardly breaking even, says Bill Brown.
But Solomon, who doubles as the owner of independent label My Pal God, will be taking over the record-sales side of Eyeball Skeleton, putting out the band’s first LP, he hopes, by March 2005. The nine songs for the album have already been recorded; all that remains is for Charlie and J.J. to do the artwork. A draft of the album’s cover sits in the laundry room; it depicts a bus full of the Eyeball Skeleton characters—Flat Top Vampire, Cyclops Girl, the Bouncing Apes, et al. inside, with the Smokey Turtle smoking away atop the bus.
With My Pal God, Eyeball Skeleton has a label with national distribution through the same outfit, Southern Records, as D.C.’s high-profile Dischord and DeSoto indie labels. With that kind of reach, the group can take as much underground-music fame as it can grasp—“I can see it gaining an organic momentum, like ‘You gotta hear this,’” Solomon says. But Bill Brown and his wife, Missy Brown, say the less fame, the better.
“It’s just fun; it’s not something that I tried to put together,” he says. “I always had guitars lying around, and they’d be fooling around with ’em. I thought, I better get these guys some guitars, ’cause I can’t afford to have them breakin’ my stuff anymore.”
With raw, unpolished production values—tinny vocals, overbright guitar, synthesized drums—there’s little mistaking this family-bonding activity for an aggressive stab at fame. But modest intentions aside, the novelty-act label hangs over Eyeball Skeleton, making predictions of future returns unreliable—just ask Old Skull or the Shaggs, the three teenage Wiggin sisters of New Hampshire, whose hastily recorded 1969 album Philosophy of the World was reissued twice and remains in print today, a novelty classic.
Another recent, more mainstream group also dogs the band: Before practice starts, Missy Brown seems a bit uneasy about the reporter in the house. “It’s not the kinda thing where we’re the next Hanson,” Missy Brown says, as Charlie nods.
“Do you even know who Hanson is?” she inquires.
Charlie scowls a bit: “Yeah, Dad told me.” Later, after his mother’s left to do some baby-sitting, when asked if he’d be interested in riding Eyeball Skeleton to fame and fortune, Charlie nods enthusiastically.
Charlie’s road to the big time starts, well, in the back yard: The band’s next show is the Oct. 30 installment of Rock ’n’ Romp, the concert series aimed at an all-ages audience held on the back lawn of Silver Spring mom Debbie Lee.
And if Eyeball Skeleton doesn’t catch fire nationally, it will still have a following at the Brown brothers’ school, Mayo Elementary.
Kelly Hogenkamp, Mayo’s music teacher, says the school’s embraced the band, from the principal on down; she plays the band’s songs in her classes. “The kids all know about it and request it all the time,” Hogenkamp says. “It’s nice for the other kids to see there’s fun in music.” (“Even the fifth-graders” like the band, fourth-grader Charlie reports with amazement.)
Hogenkamp hints, though, that the boys ought to spend more time practicing their other, less fun instruments—J.J. plays the cello; Charlie, upright bass. “It’s good to be able to read notes,” she says. But “they are rock stars…so that’s cool.”CP