It’s not until you’ve traveled north on Georgia Avenue for a while—with the minutes passing like so many street names—that you realize how big Silver Spring really is. And by the time you’ve made your way past Glenmont, the comfortable suburban houses really do begin to look the same. That is, unless there’s a slightly used-looking white van parked out front with a skull and crossbones mounted where the front license plate should be. That, you see, is what’s called a band van. And that is what tells you you’ve arrived at the Pocket Rockets’ practice space: drummer Mat Lewis’ parents’ house. If you need any more confirmation, the sounds of rehearsal waft your way as you approach.
The Rockets practice in a room that looks as if it used to be somebody’s den. Worn-out carpeting covers the floor. There are a piano and its bench in the corner, a sofa against one wall, and a souvenir-store coconut monkey perched on a shelf, its painted eyes fixed on the backs of guitarist Lili Schulder and bassist Carmen Clark. They finish a song, which they describe as new and “more serious.” And though the vocals are pretty inaudible, the music at least sounds a smidge darker than usual. And, oh yeah: It’s loud—at least for a subdivision. But the ‘rents don’t mind the racket.
“All our parents are supportive,” says the 18-year-old Lewis. “And not just of us [individually]. We’re all members of each other’s family.” Schulder, 19, clarifies: “We all dated.”
Lewis met Clark, who’s also 18, at a middle-school dance. She thought he looked like Sean Lennon. “I was so used to clean-cut people,” she jokes. “Then this dirty bum stole my heart.” That was long before the two began playing rock together, although the pair would soon attend James Hubert Blake High, an arts-and-humanities-heavy school in Silver Spring. “It was a new school,” says Clark, “so there was absolutely no tradition.” And, at least when she and Lewis arrived, no upperclassmen—which left Clark longing for some good old-fashioned bullying. “I never experienced being looked down [on],” she says. “That would have been kind of cool. I could have told my kids.”
Schulder also seems to have been held in high esteem during those fragile high school years, at least by the punk-rock community at Rockville’s Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, which she attended from ninth through 12th grades. “I’m friends with a lot of the kids at JDS who were a year or two younger [than you],” says Lewis to Schulder. “I talked to them, and they all think you’re so cool ’cause you liked David Bowie and you wrote your term paper on him.”
“It was a good paper,” says Schulder.
Providing a good term-paper subject is actually the least that the British rock icon has done for Schulder: It was her love of Bowie-style glam rock that first brought her and the other Pocket Rockets together. She and Clark met in alley after a Fountains of Wayne/Imperial Teen show at the 9:30 club in 1999. “I was hanging out with my…friend,” says Schulder, “and [Clark was] with [her] friend, and was talking about how [she] wanted to start a rock band, and I overheard.” Schulder decided to get involved when Clark’s friend said the fateful words “a glam-rock band.” That’s when Schulder “turned around and was like, ‘What’s up?’” The two exchanged telephone numbers. “Then we realized that we lived 10 minutes away from each other,” says Clark.
For a little while, Schulder and Clark played sans rhythm section: They had no drummer or bassist. “Then we were like, ‘We should probably get a drummer. And a bassist,’” Clark says. She contacted then-ex-boyfriend Lewis because he was the only drummer she knew. Initially, the band also included Rachel Morris, an acquaintance from Blake. After just a few months, however, the Rockets and the bassist would go their separate ways, because of that eternal rock ‘n’ roll stumbling block: musical differences. “We played a lot simpler…
stuff back then,” Lewis says. “And she idolized Flea,” finishes Clark.
So the band soldiered on without Morris. Clark eventually picked up the bass. And in spite of his junior-high romance with Clark—and the lessons a wiser man might have learned from Rumours—Lewis picked up Schulder. When that relationship ended, in January 2001, the situation made for, as Clark puts it, “some turbulent times.” Lewis is more frank: “You could cut the tension with a knife,” he says. “One of our friends came to see us at practice…and afterwards he was like, ‘Mat, that was nuts.’”
By April of last year, though, the Rockets had not only gotten past their Fleetwood Mac moments but had also managed to record an album with Elephant 6 vet Bill Doss.
Recorded in under a week at an Athens, Ga., studio, the recently released Love or Perish is full of energetic, slightly off-center pop songs addressing such favorite Pocket Rockets subjects as school-age romance (“Song for Giraffe Boy”), clubgoing (“A Film by Shooting”), and, of course, the transformative power of Bowie records (“Glam Saved the Day”). In other words, perfect material for the Rockets’ label, the Cambridge, Mass.-based Teenbeat Records.
So it couldn’t have taken much convincing to get D.C. area expat and Teenbeat honcho Mark Robinson to put it out. Still, the band is a bit fuzzy on how it all went down: When asked about the details of the arrangement, the Rockets reply, in unison, “How did that happen?”
Schulder is dubbed the ambitious one (which she chalks up to being one of six children) and admits to having received an e-mail from Robinson two days after she sent a copy of the recordings to Teenbeat headquarters. “The weird thing,” says Lewis, “[was that] he e-mailed back but he only said, ‘Your CD’s pretty good.’…He didn’t say anything other than that, so we were sort of like, ‘What does that mean?’”
On Halloween, the Rockets appeared alongside labelmates such as Flin Flon and Aden as part of Teenbeat’s CMJ Festival showcase in New York. November brought an appearance at Art-O-Matic. And the band has plans for more extensive travels this winter. But that would be after Lewis returns from a tour with the much-hyped Athens-based garage-punk outfit the Agenda, a group that also includes his brother Ryan—and happens to own a certain skull-and-crossbones-decorated van parked out front.
Initially, Clark and Schulder say, they were not entirely stoked about the delay. “At first, I think, we were kind of upset, because we felt kind of abandoned,” says Clark. “We wanted to go on tour at the same time.”
“I’m very possessive of him,” she adds.
Lewis fails to see that—or even the Rockets’ acceptance to three different colleges in three different states—as a major obstacle to the band’s success, however. “I think,” he says, “that no problem between the three of us is going to be so bad that we wouldn’t be able to overcome it.” —Mike Kanin