Ahead of the Rockquest comp in Hamilton, Lydia Jenkin talks to finalists Get Off The Grass about their deceptively laid-back approach to what may be their biggest opportunity to start a career in music.

With the abundance of long hair and three-part harmonies, you could almost be stepping back to the 60s walking into the practice room of Get Off The Grass.

Apart from the computer tucked in the corner, it's all about guitars (there are 10 hanging on the wall and three in their hands), microphones, amps and drums, and the spine-tingling sound of four 15-year-old boys blending all those musical tones.

They've got the cool, nonchalant vibe sorted, but the moment bassist Matt Neale, and guitarists Julius Hattingh and Flynn Roser open their mouths in pitch-perfect harmony, it's evident there's an intensity of spirit in their performance. And when drummer Alex Estrin adds his subtle tambourine rhythm to the mix, the level of concentration is palpable.

Both Matt and Julius take the lead vocal at different points, and they've clearly worked hard to cultivate distinctive vocal characteristics. It's when they reach the jam section that the four rip loose and display some typical youthful exuberance. Their studied appreciation of guitar tones and inventive rhythmic structures reveal rock stars in the making, even though outwardly they're almost horizontally laid-back about the annual Smokefreerockquest competition in which they're finalists.


"We don't really mind if we don't win, we won't get all depressed or anything, it's not all about winning... we're not really nervous" Julius muses.

The final showcase takes place this Saturday at Hamilton's brand new Claudelands Arena, in front of judges and public. They're somewhat familiar with how it works (they came third in the Auckland regional section last year) but they're not cocky about their chances, instead taking the very zen approach that if they don't win this time, they can always try again.

But behind the relaxed exterior are a few clues that these Rangitoto College students do take their music seriously and will be giving it their all when they take the stage along with five other acts from around the country, in the hope of winning a prize package worth $20,000.

They've been practising every day. "We jam at morning tea and lunchtime at school," Matt explains, though they'd be practising anyway, even without Rockquest.

"It's pretty chilled" Julius adds, "we never practise all that seriously".

But given that they've been in their practice room for several hours on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and they have their music teachers coming by later to give them some pointers, it seems reasonably serious.

"That's actually one of the highlights of doing this - getting to hang out with our teachers outside of school, getting to know them" Julius notes.

The band's practice room is towards the back of Matt's house, and his family have become used to the noise emanating from within. His dad shrugs and says "it doesn't really matter how many of them are in there, there would still be noise, because Matt's always playing anyway".

The band room is well kitted-out (the wall of guitars mostly belong to Matt, who busks with his dad to fund them) and is surprisingly clean - there's plenty of teen spirit in the room but without any offensive odours. Having said that, this foursome seem to be on the mature side, and take their inspiration not from any current teen stars, but from the sounds of the 60s and 70s - The Beach Boys and The Beatles are favourites along with Radiohead, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Steriogram ("Tyson Kennedy is cool, we met him at Big Day Out") and Supergroove are local heroes, and they're looking forward to performing with the other finalists. They're not big radio listeners (apart from bFM on occasion) and part of their drive to write and play music is to create songs they'd actually like to hear on the airwaves.

Their songwriting technique is pretty casual "we just pick a genre and write a song" Flynn laughs, usually working around a bunch of chords, and figuring out the lyrics as they go.

Don't let their casual remarks fool you though, having all played their instruments for a number of years, they set themselves high standards of musicianship, and all four take music as a subject at school (that's where they met).

"It means we can use the Rockquest stuff for school assessments too," Julius points out. How savvy. And yes, they're getting good marks.

Despite not playing to their schoolmates too often ("we try to avoid that" Flynn jokes) they have a good following of friends and family who will be making the road trip to Hamilton to watch them strut their stuff.

"It'd be pretty sweet to win, but we'll just keep on doing what we were doing before, playing together, writing songs, trying to play gigs" Julius nods.

They wouldn't mind having the funds to buy another mic though, and maybe some recording time so they can get some tracks down, so the comprehensive prize package may come in handy if they are triumphant.

Otherwise they'll be back next year.

The other finalists
Aside from Get Off The Grass, the other five acts competing in this years final are pop-funksters A Bit Nigel from Taupo-nui-a-Tia College; punk-influenced trio Attic Sky's from Whakatane High School; indie-alternative four-piece The Velvet Regime from Naenae College; seven-piece folk rockers The Peasants (with two female vocalists) from Garin College in Nelson; and solo pop songwriter Massad Barakat-Devine (pictured) from Sacred Heart College in Auckland.

Massad is impressively professional for a 17-year-old. He won last year's Lowdon Best Song Award at the national final, and has already released an album and EP, along with a music video, but the competition was so much fun last year, he was dead keen to do it again, and make the most of the opportunity.

"It's amazing to have a competition that gives us these kind of opportunities that we won't necessarily get once we leave school; we're so lucky, and we get so much guidance and help."

Though he's performing solo on Saturday, Massad does play with a band sometimes, currently performing with members of last year's Rockquest winners The Good Fun (though they're no longer young enough to play at Rockquest).

"That was one of the great things about last year's competition - just meeting so many like-minded people who are really passionate, and keen...we might not all be the best sports people, but we're all good at music and really into it."

That's a common theme among Rockquest entrants - for many, music is their outlet and it's a great opportunity to showcase what they're good at. One of the songs Massad will be performing on Saturday is called Brain Dead and was actually written during a maths exam.

"It's about not being able to think" he laughs, "I had to wait to get my exam paper back before I could see what I'd written". It might be fair to say that only at Rockquest will you hear a song inspired by a maths exam.


What: Smokefreerockquest Competition 23rd National Final, including guest performances from Dane Rumble and The Good Fun.

Where: Claudelands Arena, Hamilton

When: Saturday September 17, 4-6pm

- TimeOut