Nearly every kid that gets hooked on heavy metal has at some point slung a guitar onto their shoulders and bashed out a few songs with their friends. Hell, glance back at the late 1980s and I was one of them. But like me, most of them never get out of the basement. Barely teenagers, Unlocking the Truth have already become a viral sensation, opened for rock gods like Guns N’Roses and Motörhead, played a set at this year’s Coachella Festival, and earlier this week inked a $1.7 million dollar deal with Sony for their debut album.
Tonight, Unlocking the Truth will open for Queens of the Stone Age at the Mann Center, just the latest highlight in what has been an unlikely and meteoric career for the three African-American middle-school metalheads from Flatbush. “It’s surreal,” says guitarist Malcolm Brickhouse, 13. “When we were younger, we used to have dreams of being this big when we were older, like 21 or something like that.”
It’s strange to hear a 13-year-old look back on the dreams of his youth, but Brickhouse and his bandmates have packed a lot of experience into a few years. He and drummer Jarad Dawkins, 12, got exposed to metal via the soundtracks to Japanese anime like Naruto and Bleach and the entrance music for WWE superstars. “The background for both was heavy metal,” Brickhouse says, “and I guess as we watched it a lot we got addicted to that kind of music.”
Brickhouse started playing guitar at the age of 7 with the encouragement of his parents, who supported any endeavor that their son was interested in. “My whole thing was, if you turn the TV off, you can pretty much do anything you want in my house,” says Brickhouse’s mother, Annette Jackson, who now co-manages the band with Alan Sacks, co-creator of Welcome Back, Kotter. “At one point they were ninjas, they were superheroes, they were wrestlers, and the next thing you know now they want to be a band.”
Bassist Alec Atkins, 13, joined a couple of years later and the band, then known as Tears of Blood, made it to the second round in the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night competition in 2012. They carried that momentum into their outdoor performances in Times Square. Eric Clapton drummer Steve Jordan discovered them playing in Washington Square Park later that year.
While she was fine with Brickhouse’s interest in music, Jackson was initially uncomfortable with his choice of genre. “I didn’t grow up with metal,” she says. “I listened to Soul Train and Bandstand, so I automatically assumed that metal was the devil’s music. So my thing was ok, fine, if you must play that kind of music, please don’t play the ‘kill your mama’ music. But the music they listen to really isn’t talking about the devil and all that kind of stuff.”
While the band members bonded over their love of metal bands like Disturbed and Metallica, their tastes proved uncommon among their peers. “It is kind of unusual because most of my friends listen to rap music and pop music,” says Brickhouse, who admits to also enjoying dubstep and pop singers like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga (but definitely not rap). “But I like being myself and not following the crowd.”
That crowd has responded in different ways to the trio’s success, Brickhouse says. “The friends that I made before all this happened are still my friends and they congratulate me. The new friends I have are kind of jealous, but that’s ok, I don’t really care.”
Unlocking the Truth plans to head into the studio sometime in the next month and to release their album by the end of the year. Brickhouse has larger plans beyond that goal, though. “I hope that we can become a legendary band like Guns N’Roses. I also want the fans to know that they can do whatever they want to do no matter how old they are or their nationality. Nobody would think that an African-American teen band could be this big, so I want everybody else to know that if they follow their dreams they can do whatever they want to do.”
As for Brickhouse’s mother, she’s working to balance Brickhouse’s touring schedule with his schoolwork, but wants to make sure he can take every advantage of his burgeoning success. “This is not a part time job,” Jackson says. “Opportunities are coming and you have to ride the wave or you’re gonna miss out. You don’t get to see this all the time. How many people do you know in your own life who said, ‘This is what I want to do’ and it happened? C’mon – I’m 50 years old and there’s a few dreams that passed me by. Win or lose, when they reach 50 years old they might be working as a postman but they’ll have some good stories to tell.”
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