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Mom and Pop Rocks

Pinewood Derby: Shh, the kids are sleeping.

Clay and Jency Rogers bought their East Mesa house when the market was good for young families. It's a clean, well-lighted place in the middle of a new subdivision, but it's in East Mesa, to be sure. To the north of it is where Guadalupe Road ends. Just stops.

But it's a good place to live, despite the fact that from their driveway the Rogerses can almost see the Las Cruces, New Mexico, off-ramp. The houses in their neighborhood, though built on the eerily repetitious model common to Phoenix sprawl, are set far enough apart to offer a sense of space and breathing room. Their neighbors are young, like them, and everybody's still getting to know everybody else.

"There's a lot of lawnmower-borrowing," says Jency, slyly.

"And we haven't had any complaints about the noise," adds Clay, twiddling the knobs on his Ibanez bass. "That's good."

The Rogerses' home, which doubles as Pinewood Derby's practice space, is a study in suburban incongruities. Clay's bass rig is positioned just inside the immaculate kitchen, next to the baby gate blocking the stairs to the second floor. Jency's drum kit is set against the half-wall dividing the foyer from the living room. A guitar amp is wedged into a far corner of the living room, between two couches. It's a Frankenstein's amp, sort of; an Ampeg head, fashioned from what used to be a one-piece outfit, that's been cut in half and set atop a Marshall speaker. Two microphones face each other in the dead center of the living room, toward which all the speakers are pointed.

This setup should eat up the entire first floor, but somehow it doesn't. Having a child has made the Rogerses absolute wizards at making use of available space. And it's only going to get more crowded; Clay and Jency are preparing for the arrival of their second baby in October.

Clay and Jency Rogers and guitarist Clay Whipkey make up the trio currently known as Pinewood Derby. In the beginning -- this was 1996 or so -- they were Seatbelt and, with added member Natalie Espinosa, they were also Jerome. Jerome was a slower and less noisy affair than Seatbelt ("This was in the days when 'emo' wasn't a bad word," notes Whipkey), and when Clay and Jency got pregnant for the first time, it became their full-time project. When Jency got close to delivery and Espinosa moved to California, however, everyone took some time off.

In 1998, with all parties healthy and well, the three formed Pinewood Derby with drummer Mason Cooper. Jency played bass, and both Clays took guitar and vocal duties. Then, as Pinewood Derby's web site (www.goderbygo.net) succinctly puts it, "Mason busted his leg real bad" and new mom Jency moved to drums. Clay Rogers moved to bass, and Pinewood Derby became a trio, which brings us up to date. Until July 14, that is, when Pinewood Derby will play its final show at Modified.

After which -- why not? -- the formidable trio will add some members and become something new: A multi-instrument combo playing under the name English Accent, featuring piano, guitar, horns, and God knows what else, tailored to the coffeehouse circuit instead of the club scene.

It's a natural progression, in a sense, and they've already played some dates as English Accent -- enough at least to give them the confidence to move forward. Having played together in some form or another for close to seven years now, Clay, Clay and Jency find themselves making a transition from being young musicians to being parents and workaday breadwinners, which is part of the reason why Pinewood Derby is coming to an end.

"We can't just hop in a van and go touring," says Whipkey, a husband and father himself. "Pinewood Derby was more of a loud, fast band, and we all have families and kids now. It sort of became a situation where you have to make a commitment to one thing or the other. My wife and I have a daughter, and I was going out and playing in clubs where they couldn't come along. It's too noisy, it's too smoky. My wife didn't even want to come out anymore. She'd heard all the songs already anyway. And it gradually got to where they almost weren't even connected to that part of my life. I felt really alone, and I wasn't happy."

Clay and Jency, too, had started to feel the tension between the current band incarnation and their family obligations. The conflict reached a sort of climax, oddly enough, at Pinewood Derby's highest-profile gig, this year's May 12 show with Jimmy Eat World.

"That was the night they filmed Jimmy Eat World's video [for "Bleed American"] at Nita's Hideaway," recalls Jency, "and there were all these stage lights and film lights set up. We did our set and then stayed around for the Jimmy show, and it was all very energetic. But when we got home I started feeling really bad, really terrible. I was about four months pregnant then; I'd already had Blake, but I'd never felt this bad during my pregnancy with him. So we went to the hospital and they found out I was completely dehydrated. I'd been drinking water all night, but somehow that didn't help; I was low on electrolytes. The nurse who was with me asked me what I did, and I told her. She got this real knowing look on her face: 'Ah, you're in a rock band.'" She smiles at the memory. "I spent all of Mother's Day in the hospital."

 

"We're getting more grown up now," says Clay Rogers at one point. "We can't really be young anymore." And though the members of Pinewood Derby are in no sense long in the tooth -- they could still pass for late teens -- one gets the sense that their "growing up" has been as much a conscious decision as a simple inevitability.

You can't talk to Pinewood Derby about Pinewood Derby, for example, without the conversation eventually coming back around to the kids: What's good for them, what's a safe environment, what's too noisy. "Even what we do now is too loud for the kids to be around," judges Rogers, "and we're not even punk."

That's a right enough assessment. Pinewood Derby is built more on the straight-up indie pop-rock model: hooky riffs, raw vocals, creative detunings. But their current and evolving family situations seem to have had an impact even on the music they play.

It's hard to hear "Not Tonight, Not Ever," for instance, without thinking of Whipkey's comments about how his music was threatening to distance him from his wife and daughter: "My life is a constant effort trying to make them happy," he sings; "This may be the one chance I get to run away." But in the middle of that ugly rumination, the narrator pulls himself back: "Let go of the things that will only leave me anyway . . ./Go from under-estimate to giving thanks . . ./It's not really a sacrifice./My heart's around your little finger." It's a brave song, and when you imagine that last line sung by a new father -- to his wife or to their daughter -- it's even more so.

"Not Tonight, Not Ever" can be heard (along with two other cuts, "Make a Wish" and "Playing Catch-Up") on a split CD EP with Fightshy called Friends of Ours, released last year. That EP, along with a single track on a Modified compilation disc, represents the totality of Pinewood Derby's recorded output.

"But the weird thing was, it sold really well," says Clay Rogers.

"We even had a release party at the Lucky Dragon," adds Jency.

"They sold, I think, 100 copies at that show," Clay continues. "We were really happy with it, too, because it was the first time that we'd done any recording where anybody else gave us any direction. We were really naïve. We'd done some recording in other bands, but our goal was always to get in and get a bunch of stuff done and do the next song. I think we went in with 10 songs the first time, and it was like, 'Did we get it? Okay? Good. Next tune.' But when we recorded for the EP" -- Friends of Ours was recorded at Living Head in Phoenix, under the management of local impresarios Mike Hissong and Clay Holley -- "that was the first time anyone had ever said to us, 'Uh, guys, that sucked. You need to do it again.' It was really important for us to hear somebody say that," he laughs.

"The more we've played," adds Whipkey, "the better the songs have gotten, I think. Like for me, it's hard to go back and listen to stuff I wrote a few years ago; it's embarrassing. But I think our next project is going to be a much more recording-centered one. I think it's good that we're only really starting to record just now."

However, fans of Pinewood Derby who always hoped for more will experience a bit of a deluge on the evening of the band's last show. Along with the split EP, they'll be selling a new disc featuring four previously unreleased songs at the venue. And -- Clay Rogers is almost embarrassed to admit this -- the grand occasion will be documented on film, purportedly for public consumption at some not-too-distant date.

"A friend of mine who's got a video-editing company wants to tape the show," he says sheepishly. "I have no idea what's going to happen with the tape, though. It probably sounds egotistical, but I'm kind of excited about it. He's bringing a couple of guys to help him tape it from different angles."

 

"He's bringing a film crew?" asks Whipkey, apparently hearing this information for the first time.

"Yeah." Clay Rogers shifts on the couch and grins at his shoes. "But it is the last show, you know?"

Talk turns to Pinewood Derby's plans for making their last gig a kind of art experience, complete with theme decorations and maybe even costumes. "We want to make this one a show that people talk about later," says Whipkey after talking through a number of possibilities. "One that they'll be especially glad they went to."

"And I love that it's at Modified," says Clay Rogers. "It's a great space. [Owner] Scott [Tennant] doesn't make a dime off it, it's just a place where he lets really cool things happen."

Not to mention that playing their final gig at the formidable Roosevelt Street venue is a way of bringing it all back home.

"We played our first show ever as Pinewood Derby at Modified," says Jency. "I'm really glad we can play our last one there, too."


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