By Gabe Licht
DELANO, MN Room A144 at Delano High School isn’t just a language arts classroom. After school each Friday, it’s also home to the DHS guitar club, where the curriculum goes beyond grammar and sentence structure.
Now the club is ready to share what they have learned by recording and releasing an extended play, or EP, of five original songs.
The creation of the club
Joe Lawrence began teaching in Delano in 2011, having previously taught in Lakeville. There, he and fellow teachers had been playing guitar together and enjoyed getting weird looks from students while singing in the halls.
“Then I got here and was bummed out and desponded because nobody played anything,” Lawrence said.
Instead, he got his music fix by playing songs about grammar for his students. After one such song during freshman English class, he blurted out, “My dream is to have a guitar club at this school and make an album.”
“Most students looked at me and politely nodded in the tolerant manner that kids in Delano tend to appease these types of statements by teachers,” Lawrence said. “Kaden (Paulson), who up to that point December had yet to utter a word in class, raised his hand and said in his understated way, ‘I would be in that.’”
So the club began.
“It was mostly boys sitting on their amps shredding and me saying, ‘Hey, let’s try a song that’s not Guns N’ Roses,’” Lawrence said.
Lawrence had been playing for years, but that wasn’t the case for everyone. Their level of experience and training, or lack thereof didn’t seem to matter, as they all spent time learning from each other.
While they kept most of the music to themselves, some neighbors at the school took notice, including a girl named Clara who used the adjacent computer lab.
“She comes in during guitar club and says, ‘Be quiet!’” current club member Mary Schumacher said. “Or, if we leave the door open, we’ll hear a little voice saying, ‘Close the door!’”
Though Clara didn’t seem to be a fan, the club’s only gig that first year was at her birthday party.
“We played Sweet Child of Mine,” Lawrence said. “She loved it.”
First came covers, then came originals
Guitar club could easily be called songwriting club, as the members have collectively written about 20 songs.
For years, Lawrence had been writing songs, which he classified as “mostly old man songs like folk rock, acoustic types of things these kids would never want to play.”
That changed in the second year of the club, when members began writing songs together. One of those songs was Sophomore Blues. Paulson wrote the music and Lawrence began writing verses about kids in the club.
“It’s like our guestbook,” Paulson said. “If you show up enough, you get a verse.”
Other songs, such as Seven and a Half Steps go a bit deeper.
“The first time I heard it, I was almost in tears,” Schumacher said. “I thought it was about addiction and a 12-step program and I found out it started out being about noodles.”
Schumacher is right on both counts. When Paulson said he was going to go up seven and a half steps up on his guitar, Lawrence wrote that down. He also took notes when students talked about going to Noodles & Company because they were hungry. From there, the song went a very different direction.
“The songs are written by committee,” Lawrence said. “The writing process is an organic thing. It’s difficult to explain.”
It’s also a fluid process. Lyrics for the song Unhappy Medium were changed the day before it was recorded for the EP.
The making of an EP
“We’ve always wanted to record our songs,” Paulson said. “We record them on our phones so we don’t forget them, but we’ve always wanted to get it done for real.”
Club members weren’t sure how to go about that. Paying for studio time was not a viable option because the club, which is not officially sponsored by the school, is free and; therefore, has no budget.
That’s where Pete Johnson who operates Pete’s House of Groove out of his home came into the equation. He had heard about the club through his kids and thought he could help.
“As I was expanding my home recording studio, I thought I could offer them some studio time to help out the community a little bit,” Johnson said, “because it’s nice to see young people interested in playing real music instead of creating it on a computer.”
He also remembered how much it meant to him when someone recorded him and his music when he was 14 and decided to pay it forward.
Hosting the guitar club marked the first time an entire band recorded live at Pete’s House of Groove.
“We did it as a one-take recording with all of us in the same room jamming out,” Paulson said. “It sounds like we all went in individually, practiced our parts and did 15 takes each.”
“I think the reason it worked out is because we play really well together as a group,” Lawrence added.
After the music was recorded, the singers went into the studio to record the vocals.
“The songs were really good,” Johnson said. “I was impressed by the quality of the songs. I woke up humming one in my head.”
He mixed the tracks and sent them on to Matt Graunke of Dirtball Deluxe Music to be mastered.
“Basically, it’s just putting the finishing touches on the recorded product,” Graunke said of mastering. “It tweaks things up a little bit to liven it up and make it sound live.”
Getting involved in the project was a no-brainer for him.
“One reason I wanted to get involved is because when I went to Delano, they didn’t have a program like that,” the 1996 DHS grad said. “I think something like that would have really helped me in my career.”
He also believes in the talent of the guitar club members.
“If the guys I was playing with in high school were as good as these kids are, who knows what could have happened,” Graunke said. “We weren’t on the same talent level as these kids.”
More than music
Over the past three years, Lawrence has seen the members of guitar club change for the better.
“It’s nice for me as a teacher to see the growth of kids,” Lawrence said. “They don’t notice how they’re getting better at things.”
He has seen shy students become talkative, freshmen gain the confidence, and students embrace their creative side in the writing process.
“For me, it was learning how to be honest with people and not get stepped on in the process,” Schumacher said.
“It pushes you to do things you didn’t think you could do,” member Kate Bruhn added. “I didn’t think I could sing rock n’ roll. . . . My confidence went way up because I realized I could do a lot more than I thought.”
Even if a student attends just one meeting and learns how to play one new chord, Lawrence considers that a success.
He’s hoping releasing an EP will not only raise funds for the club, but also entice more students to join the club, which he thinks may become an official school club in the near future.
“Once you drop an EP, people might actually think you exist,” he said.
The EP is due out Dec. 19, with a limited number of CDs available for $5 each and electronic versions of the songs available online.
To purchase the EP or for more information about the guitar club, contact Lawrence at email@example.com.