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Poised for stardom

The Baltimore Sun

Before the tour van and the record deal, before the girls begging for autographs, they were middle school mall rats who made a terrible racket practicing in their parents' homes.

They were kicked out of Towson Town Center for skateboarding. And they spent hours trying to chat up the pierced and tattooed employees of Hot Topic. Last year, the store started selling T-shirts with their logo.

"Ultimately, I think we would like to take over the world eventually," says Alex Gaskarth, the 19-year-old lead singer of All Time Low, a punk-pop band made up of four 2006 graduates of Baltimore County high schools.

Nearly everyone knows (or once was) the kind of kid who wants to make it in music. Like plans to be an astronaut or a pro athlete, these dreams usually fade. But every so often, some local kids make it big.

The members of All Time Low, already veterans of the recording studio and gigs from Little Rock, Ark., to Las Vegas, are setting out to make the most of their biggest break yet. The guys are on the bill for the 13th annual Vans Warped Tour, a coast-to-coast summer festival of music and extreme sports, and for many, an important stop on the road to fame.

"There was definitely something that set them apart from a lot of the other kids in their genre of music," says Matt Davis, who hosts radio station 98 Rock's emerging artists show, Noise in the Basement.

'Interesting journey'

The band's van is, as the members put it, "pimped out." But for now, it's parked in the driveway of Gaskarth's parents' Cockeysville home.

"They've taken every one of us on an interesting journey," says his mother, Isobel Gaskarth.

"Of course, everybody would prefer to see their kids take the safe and sound route," she says. "But it's not just pie in the sky for them at this point."

On a recent Friday night, the crowd starts to shout as soon as the lights dim at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Field House. Dozens of blue screens blink on as audience members point cell phone cameras and digital camcorders at the stage, much as earlier generations waved lighters.

Bathed in red light, the band members vault onto stage, shaggy hair flying. For a moment, they jump up and down, like exuberant kids on a bed, then wheel away.

"Should I write myself out of the history books?" sings Gaskarth, wearing a low-slung white belt, oversized sneakers and what one band mate calls "girl jeans." Beside him, guitarist Jack Barakat, 18, jack-knifes across the stage, fingers flying across his electric guitar.

Zack Merrick, the bassist, jumps in jeans so tight they show his leg muscles. Rian Dawson's arms beat a blur over the drums. Members of the audience sway their cell phone cameras and belt out the lyrics.

They are one of two bands opening for the All American Rejects, whose 2005 record, Move Along, went double platinum. But many of the hundreds of people attending the university's Quadmania concert say that they came to hear All Time Low.

Between songs, Gaskarth gives a shout-out to some of the band's biggest fans. "Everybody look, there's our parents," he says as the middle-aged folks wearing khakis and pantsuits blush on the bleachers.

The band members' parents have, like countless others since the dawn of rock, wondered whether their children's musical experiments were just a stop on the road to steady employment. But they are clearly proud of their sons. At the UMBC show, Zack Merrick's mother, Carla, dances by the stage.

Later, Isobel and Peter Gaskarth talk about seeing their son on stage.

"It's kind of thrilling, and at the same time, I keep thinking of him as a little boy and wonder how he got there," she says.

He adds: "I wish he wouldn't swear, but I guess that's how rock is."

Band's beginnings

After the performance, a mob of girls buzzes around each band member, seeking autographs and photos. Merrick, his hair sparkling with sweat, gamely wraps his arm around one girl after another and grins at the cameras.

"They're amazing, and they're all hot," says Jenna Sipes, an 18-year-old Carroll Community College student.

When asked to name her favorite band member, Ashley Mascari, a 15-year-old South River High School student, shapes her hands into a heart. "Zack Merrick," she says. "I'm looking at that gorgeous boy as I speak."

The guys weren't always so smooth. Back in middle school, Barakat would come to Gaskarth's house after school to practice in the playroom. They sounded "terrible," Gaskarth's mother says.

The boys experimented with new sounds, new musicians, new names for the band. Then as a freshman at Dulaney High, Barakat pestered Dawson ("the best drummer in our school") in French class each day until he started to play with the guys.

Dawson, 19, is the only one in the group who played seriously in the school marching band. It took his drumming to "the next level," he says, and taught him skills that he uses on stage.

Merrick, 19, the lone Towson High grad in the bunch, was a friend of a friend who showed up for practice one day with a bass, an amp and a skateboard. After practice, "he just pulled out a skateboard and started doing tricks and we were like, 'Whoa, this kid's legit,' " Barakat says as he eats a bagel at the Nautilus Diner in Timonium.

The guys moved their practices to Dawson's house, where they still practice today, in the basement near the washing machine and his stepfather's workbench.

Soon the band was playing at St. John's Lutheran Church in Phoenix. At first, only their friends and parents would come, but their audience grew.

"Me and my friends would make our own T-shirts and go," says Emily Eickhoff, 17, a senior at Towson High who has been watching the band perform since she was a freshman.

The boys started to play at bigger local venues, like the Ottobar and the Recher Theater. They asked members of more established bands for tips on managers and contracts. They created a MySpace.com profile, sent their songs to other bands and responded to every fan message.

Originally, they covered songs by blink-182, a pop-punk band that rose to prominence in the 1990s, but now they almost exclusively play songs that Gaskarth writes.

The summer after junior year, they headed off on a self-booked tour with a car of parents following them. "We'd get to venues and be super-stoked - 'This is going to be a sick show,' " Barakat recalls. "And then, it's like, 'Hi, Mom.' "

Still the boys had a blast. Hanging out with musicians they idolized. Dyeing their hair in a bathroom at the Chicago Ritz-Carlton. Animal cracker fights in the van. Meeting lots and lots of girls.

And then they had to go back to school.

"It was so hard," Barakat says. "I would be like texting our manager in the middle of bio class."

On Valentine's Day 2006, they signed with Hopeless Records and made plans to record a CD, Put Up or Shut Up. Then they broke the news to their parents: They wouldn't be going to college in the fall. They were going on tour.

Barakat says he put his hands over his ears when his parents tried to discuss his decision with him: "I would be like, 'Blah blah blah, I'm going to be a rock star.' "

The guys went to Ocean City for senior week and then started their tour, this time without parents.

They played for 10 days of last year's Warped Tour, then traveled the country with a few other bands. Girls would hand Gaskarth "My Little Pony" figures, which he keeps on his amp for good luck. Some fans would ask them to re-enact the gymnastics routines and ribbon dancing from the giddy video on their MySpace page.

Merrick, who plans to study photography eventually, says that he takes pictures of the towns where they play. Life on the road can be exhausting, but "who better to tour with than your three best friends?" Dawson says.

Recently, the guys returned from touring to stay at their parents' homes and record another CD.

They'll leave on the Warped tour in June. The tour's founder, Kevin Lyman, says acts like My Chemical Romance and Good Charlotte, another band with Maryland roots, have gotten a boost from participating in the tour.

With eight or nine stages and four acts performing simultaneously, the key to making it on the tour is developing an unusual personality and generating word of mouth, Lyman says.

The guys try to be realistic about the odds of making it big. But on a spring night in the suburbs, surrounded by screaming fans, they glow in the stage lights.

To the crowd at UMBC, they sing:

"Break out, break out, as we escape through the windows, head for the car, and never look back, singing, singing. Break out, break out, our time has come and we've got these big-city dreams."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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