"Dear Ms. [X]
Please excuse Zack from school on Friday. He was in Detroit recording his debut album with Nox Boys, which, by the way, is really killer."
That's not how the note actually read, but that's what Zack Keim and two of his mates from Fox Chapel Area High School were up to on Labor Day weekend.
The garage-rock band had three days in the Motor City blocked out with Jim Diamond, who is no small deal, having produced The White Stripes, The Fleshtones and The Cynics, among others.
Nox Boys are the youngest band on the roster at Get Hip, the respected garage label run by Cynics guitarist Gregg Kostelich, who hasn't made a practice of signing artists who barely shave and are too young to play clubs.
"This was the first time we ever had the band's parents have to sign a contract," he says.
Nox Boys (short for Blawnox) were impossible to resist, reminding Mr. Kostelich of a young version of The Cynics. Zack, a mere 16 years old, comes on like a young Buddy Holly wandering into a Black Lips gig.
He started performing when he was in eighth grade, backed by Bob Powers, a veteran slide guitarist he met at Moondog's open stages.
"I thought he was really talented," says Mr. Powers, "and it was refreshing to hear someone that young doing Bob Dylan and Van Morrison covers and classic rock."
Along with being a blues player, Mr. Powers knew The Cynics from the '80s and played in punk bands during his 20 years in New York City. His inspiration to use slide in a garage group came from the long-forgotten '60s band The Misunderstood.
They formed the Nox Boys in December 2012 with Mr. Powers' nephew, drummer Sam Berman (who comes from a musical family), and bassist Zach Stadtlander, both Fox Chapel classmates.
Although Zach was a bit more into blues-rock and Sam more into punk and grunge, they got on board quickly with the retro style.
You could say they were going along with Zack Keim's ride.
"Well, the thought's crossed my mind," says the 17-year-old Zach Stadtlander. "I try to not to think about it, but there is a thing about him that it seems like the world kinda moves around him a lot."
It was hard in Pittsburgh to find the right support system.
"Zack saw my record collection and was like really fascinated," Mr. Powers says. "I said, 'You know what, there's actually a record company in Pittsburgh that is doing this stuff.' He said, 'Wow, can we meet them?' "
They landed the Get Hip deal by showing up at a Cynics gig at Mr. Smalls and handing them a raw rehearsal demo tape. Mr. Kostelich and fellow band member Michael Kastelic brought them to the Cynics headquarters and let them use their back line.
"I was blown away that Keim got good tones out of the guitar amp," Mr. Kostelich says. "And I looked at the settings, and I was like, 'My God, I would have done the same thing.' That's pretty damn good. That impressed me."
Between the Get Hip sessions and various school and all-ages gigs, there was no panic in Detroit. They emerged with an 11-song self-titled debut that comes out of the gate with the garage stomper "Desperate Girl" that sounds as unhinged as the Stooges. Zack Keim's vocal borders on maniacal as he snarls, laughs, curses and howls through a nasty kiss-off while the rhythm section races and guitars moan and squall.
The boys do most of their business on two-minute rockers that inject fresh, sometimes punk, energy into '50s- and '60s-style garage with reverbed guitar.
"It was a great experience," Zack Keim says of going to Detroit. "He has all this vintage gear -- amps, microphones -- and we recorded a bunch of tape, which was really cool because I've recorded on a computer before but nothing like onto analog tape."
Nox Boys hit the ground running -- "they were well rehearsed, better than most," Mr, Kostelich says -- and producer Diamond let them do their thing in the loft studio.
"They had it together for their first time in the studio," Mr. Diamond says. "We cut most of it live and overdubbed the vocals. They all did a great job. Zack is a good songwriter and has some very catchy stuff!"
"Before we went, we practiced them a ton at Get Hip, so we knew how we wanted to put the songs down," Zack Keim says. "And Jim didn't really change anything, but he threw in a couple ideas, like add some delay on this track, add some reverb."
The producer added piano and "Save Me," and Mr. Kostelich souped up "Military School" with fuzz guitar.
That song, Zack says, "is about my best friend. He went to military school for a while and I was kind of mad at him because he was messing up -- he was messing up in school and just disobeying his parents. When he went to military school a second time, that song came out."
The teen angst extends to "Novelty," which he says, is "about being useless and no one caring about you." Same with "I Don't Care Anymore."
"The Witch" and "Mr. No One," about a ghost, were written over Halloween. "We're not trying to be too deep," he says. "Just plain and simple with the songs."
The clear standout though is "Desperate Girl," with that howling vocal.
"It's basically about hating an ex-girlfriend, a girl that kind of tore my heart apart," Zack says. "A high school thing. It's pretty basic. It was like the second day. I was trying to do something different with the vocal, making it garage-y. Like an Iggy Pop type thing. Like a whiny vocal. I think I only did one take on that song, and that's the way it came out."
Mr. Kostelich says the record is getting a great reaction already in Madrid, where the Cynics are garage royalty, in France and on the "Stoned Circus Radio Show."
"People are pushing this for us because it is a great debut record and they're blown away that they are 16, 17," Mr. Kostelich says.
A future Nox Boys tour of Europe, where garage rock is a delicacy, is not out of the question.
Closer to home, like at school, Sam Berman says, "I think [we're] really appreciated. You don't have people going up and asking for your autograph. I'm not trying to act like I'm the big superstar. But I feel like, yes, we've come to really garner everyone's attention, and they've come to appreciate us more than ever now that we're on this record label and some of the songs have been played in Spain."
Although he graduates in the spring, along with the 18-year-old Sam, Zach Stadtlander intends to see what can come of this band beyond high school.
"We haven't sat down and talked about it, but personally I think it would be silly of me to throw this away. The band is a priority."