Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
“We’re the Hungarian Horntails! Are you ready to burn this place down into a fiery wreck?” yells 8-year-old Darius Wilkins, onstage with bandmates Rayn Feeney, 9, and his younger brother, Holden, 5. They’re in the middle of sound check on a muggy Saturday afternoon in June at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn. Seconds later, there’s another high-pitched yelp from Darius: “We’re the Hungarian Horntails, and we’re going to blow this place up with fire and rock!”
The Hungarian Horntails are not just a rock band whose members are kids. They’re a wizard-rock band, one of a growing worldwide cohort — currently numbering 183 bands — that emerged from the tight-knit, do-it-yourself community rooted in Harry Potter fandom. These bands use MySpace for publicity, produce and release their own music, and book concerts at libraries. The Horntails are named after characters from “The Goblet of Fire,” and their songs have titles like “Kill the Basilisk” and “Which Witch Is Which?” Their first album is called “Burn Voldemort’s Butt.”
With momentum from the release of the final book and the “Order of the Phoenix” movie, wizard rock is crescendoing. For wizard rockers and their fans, this is a time to mourn and rock out: the last summer for this community to pay tribute to Harry Potter before the series is complete, and the last summer for Web sites like The Wizrocklopedia and WizardRock.org to keep loving, obsessive track of the bands, the shows and the wizard-rock-themed festivals where muggles can rock out.
Darius, who has been strumming a guitar since age 2, started the Horntails after seeing Harry and the Potters — the flagship band of the scene — play a show in his hometown of Philadelphia. The Potters, aka Paul and Joe DeGeorge, aged 28 and 20, are two brothers from Norwood, Mass. Their first show, in 2002, was an impromptu performance in their parents’ backyard, where they dressed up as Harry Year Four and Harry Year Seven and sang songs like “Platform 9 and 3/4ths” and “I Am a Wizard” to a smattering of pals. Since that day, the DeGeorges have run with the idea, playing libraries, house parties and rock clubs across the country. (I first wrote about the Potters in 2005, later becoming a fan and friend of the band, and an avid follower of the wizard-rock phenomenon.) This year, they will average 130 rock shows, mostly over Joe’s college breaks.
With the Potters at the forefront, wizard rock has become a viable rock ‘n’ roll subculture over the past five years, through word of mouth and the Internet. Not to mention its value as a sidebar to mainstream media coverage of Potter books and movies. In 2005, with the publication of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the DeGeorge brothers found themselves featured in U.S. News & World Report and Entertainment Weekly. Pitchforkmedia even called Harry and the Potters one of the “best live shows of 2005″ at a moment when the hipster Web site was breaking bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
Meanwhile, the Potters’ MySpace page got the word out, and the brothers relentlessly toured, playing anywhere that would have them. It’s a common refrain among current wizard rockers that they picked up their guitars and computers after seeing the Potters; the band’s zeal and exuberance make being in a rock band look super-fun.
“I just know sometime after first seeing Harry and the Potters, we wanted to sing about Harry Potter, too,” said Kristina Horner, 19-year-old vocalist for the Parselmouths, who write funny songs from the point of view of snotty girls in the Slytherin house. The Parselmouths were one of the first wizard-rock bands, along with Rhode Island’s Draco and the Malfoys and the Whomping Willows. The Rhode Island bands formed as a joke on the Potters at a house show.
Wizard rock has spread with the speed of an Internet meme, with bands forming as far away as Russia, Norway and Australia, and with a range of funny names like Tom Riddle and Friends, expecto patrAWESOME! (a pun on the “Expecto Patronum” incantation), and the Hermione Crookshanks Experience. The bands are 50 percent female and tend to feature teens and kids. They take the do-it-yourself ethic very seriously, as Kristine from the Hermione Crookshanks Experience details: “I really applied that motto to every aspect of my ‘band.’ I did everything myself, writing lyrics, guitar, piano, recording, mixing. For the CDs themselves, I did all the artwork, bought CD cases, inserts, labels, printed everything out, bent and tore along perforated edges. It was exhausting, but in a totally self-satisfying way. I had my friend make all my shirts. I make stickers myself, and at the moment, I’m sewing lots and lots of S.P.E.W. hats together.” The wizard-rock scene is overwhelmingly positive. It’s not as though wizard rockers are starting a band to take over the world; they’re starting a band to pay homage to their favorite characters, having fun with their love of Harry Potter.
When it comes to the Horntails, Darius owes his development as a musician to his rock ‘n’ roll family. His parents, Ian and Tina, are creative people. Tina’s played the guitar since age 13, and she taught Darius how to use Apple’s GarageBand, a music-making application for Macs, once he saw her messing about with it on the computer. The young musician says that he started playing wizard rock on “March 30, 2006,” naming the date with the precise fervor of a kid. He started out with the name Sirius and the Blacks, but on discovering that band already existed, switched to the Hungarian Horntails. It’s been a little over a year, and he’s already played to sold-out crowds in Philadelphia and Boston as part of the Potters’ annual Christmas Yule Balls. This summer, he’s playing shows nearly every weekend in June and July.
Sound-checking at Pete’s Candy Store, Darius repeats his “Are you ready to burn this place down?” intro one more time, for the sake of several Brooklyn filmmakers filming his performance for a documentary, “We Are Wizards,” about the creative culture of Harry Potter fans. In the background, Ian tunes Darius’ guitar with one hand while holding 6-week-old baby Violet in his other hand.
Rayn squeals: “He’s blowing up my eardrum!” Rayn, her hair pulled into pigtails, first heard of the Horntails when her mother, bored one night, was looking up bands in their town, Hellertown, Pa., on MySpace. Upon seeing Darius’ page, Rayn said, “I’m going to sing in this band, and I know him!” She was right: It turned out that the kids took the same school bus. Rayn joined the band in February. She writes her own songs, like “Hermione’s Hairbrush,” and she notes, “Sometimes I include tiny parts for Darius.” On that particular song, it’s the chorus: “Hermione, brush your hair!”
In her hands, Rayn holds some papers with her song lyrics, her pink pencil case, and her pink leopard-print notebook. Noting the dark red walls of the oblong room, Darius said, “The place we’re in right now looks like the Hogwarts Express without the cart and without the candy.”
The crowd at Pete’s, a show advertised as “PB+Jam” through Time Out New York Kids, is full of well-dressed parents and kids. Some teenagers lurk in the back of the room. Darius and Rayn start singing a song called “You’re Dead!” which is written from Hermione’s perspective, where she’s gleefully informing Moaning Myrtle that she’s dead, over guitar that sounds like early Liz Phair. One of the Brooklyn parents starts giggling. Giggles aside, the young kids in the audience are stock-still in Darius’ spell.
Rayn gets a kick out of being a wizard-rock star, noting that she’s going to look back at this time fondly: “I was lucky enough to be in a band. You get to make more friends.” The friendship extends across the country, spanning regions and ages. Kristina from the Parselmouths, a college student, says, “Rayn drew us a picture in crayon of herself and the two of us with the caption ‘the parselmouths are some of my best friends.’ It almost made me cry.”
It’s hard to figure out where the cult of Harry Potter fans will go after the series ends. The wizard-rock bands are hedging their bets. “I think a common trend among wizard rockers is that we don’t really worry too much about the future,” Kristina declares. “We just like to rock out today, and if things are going good, then we’ll rock out tomorrow as well.” Joe from the Potters says that they’ve played the continental 48 states and have achieved their “manifest destiny,” while Paul says, “We’re excited to see how the last book works out, and that will probably present us with a better idea of how to wrap up our little project. Our ideal way of ending things would be to have our final show be in J.K. Rowling’s backyard … It would provide a sort of poetic closure. I think she’d dig it.”
As a movement, wizard rock has encouraged creativity and forged bonds among its fans, who travel far and wide. (For example, a recent Malfoys show at a library in the Boston suburbs drew teenagers and children from Vermont, Maine and Rhode Island who drove more than two hours to hear the Malfoys sing “My dad is rich and your dad is dead.”) This may be a niche audience, but bands can survive off the money they make doing wizard rock; while you won’t see the Potters playing “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” they’re continually touring. Harry and the Potters have had such a galvanizing effect on their audiences that a huge proportion of the kids who’ve seen the DeGeorges rock a library have, in turn, started their very own bands. In time, its likely that hundreds of bands and musicians will rise in the Potters’ wake.
Older wizard rockers, like the Whomping Willows’ Matt Maggiacomo, who has done time in “depressing” indie rock scenes, have nothing but praise for the next generation of kids. Matt runs a label, Cheap Rent, and serves as a big-brother type offering advice to bands on producing their own CDs and setting up MySpace pages. He rhapsodizes over the future he imagines for these young musicians, citing New Jersey teenager Kristin Davisson, who records as the Marauders: “Kristen is a 16-year-old girl who’s a budding genius, indie genius. Whatever she’s going to be at 25 is going to be brilliant. She taught herself to play accordion, and her dad plays in the band. She forced him to learn the bells.”
Paul from the Potters says that his favorite wizard-rock band is, in fact, the Hungarian Horntails, and when it comes to Darius, he gushes: “Darius is one of the most amazing performers I’ve ever seen. His song ‘Which Witch Is Which?’ is clever far beyond his years.” Matt adds, “When he’s 25 or 18 I can’t imagine what he’s going to do. I’m old and stuck in my ways, but kids are young and have so much potential.”
Darius’ current plans for music involve playing with the Horntails, his other band, the Rock Stars, and a new band that sings songs about the Lemony Snicket books. He’ll play to his biggest crowd yet July 20, the release day for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” on the steps of Harvard’s Memorial Church in Cambridge, Mass., as part of a bill with the Malfoys and the Potters. It will likely culminate in thousands swaying to the Potters’ set: 5-year-olds up front in wizard regalia; girls and boys in scarves and ties of Gryffindor crimson and yellow; young fans of the Potters in a panoply of “Rock the Library” T-shirts, all desperately, blissfully singing the band’s anthem (and the heart of J.K. Rowling’s series), “The weapon we have is love.” Their voices will echo across Harvard Yard, bouncing off the brick walls, for one perfect moment of mourning and celebrating before they learn the fate of Harry Potter, the boy who lived.
Elisabeth Donnelly is a writer based in Somerville, Mass. She has written for the the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix and PopMatters.More Elisabeth Donnelly.
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