Carson Mac and the Ozites bring new life
On a recent Saturday night, I took my 7-year-old daughter to the Donut Whole to see a band someone at her school mentioned. I don't know what I was expecting, because when I think "kid band," my brain defaults to Old Skull, the bratty skate-punk band I used to read about in Thrasher in 1986. What I found at the Donut Whole was much different — Carson Mac, an 11 year-old singer/guitarist/songwriter, and his great band, the Ozites, playing to a crowd of 75 or so people crammed into the dining area, cheering on an incredible trio banging out covers from all over pop music's history- from Def Leppard, to Pharrell, to the Eagles, to Imagine Dragons, to Johnny Cash to whatever else.
What stands out about Carson Mac and the Ozites, aside from their age, is their ability to use their age to breathe new life into songs that you've been listening to since you were… well, their age. I don't know how many times I've heard "Hotel California" in my life, for example- too many, probably, and I've always hated that song- but Carson led his band through a version that really invigorated the dusty tune. And he carried his unique combination of youthful vigor, surprisingly nimble musicianship, and a deep songbook full of unexpected choices that kept the crowd both enthralled and eager for more.
I checked in with Carson after the show to find out a little more:
F5: Please introduce yourself and your band. Who does what, and how old is everybody?
CM: My name is Carson Mac — Mac is short for McNeill, my middle name. I am 11 years old. I play piano and guitar. About six months after beginning guitar, I performed in public for the first time in my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina. Shortly after that I began attending open mic night at The Artichoke where I met Nate Muscavage, who invited me to play his set breaks. About the same time, I met Michael Carmody who also allowed me to play a set break at one of his Donut Whole shows. Thanks to these two, I've been playing shows ever since.
Wyatt Gaugler, who's 10, has been playing guitar since he was 7. He became interested in playing guitar from listening to classic rock artists like Eric Clapton in Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dire Straits, Rush to country artists Brad Paisley and George Strait. Wyatt has studied guitar/bass with local musician and teacher Randy Fields since picking up the bass about two and a half years ago. He was enrolled at School of Rock and he was hooked! His favorite saying is 'You are not a true fan of a band unless you can name the bass player'.
Owen Ashley, who just turned 10, started drumming at age 7, also at School of Rock. While Owen wanted a train, his parents thought he would quickly lose interest. They reminded him of some toy drums he had as a toddler, which he revisited, eventually taking a trial lesson at School of Rock. Owen loved it so much, he and his parents went straight from School of Rock to pick out a drum set, and they haven't talked about train sets since.
F5: I was really impressed by the playing ability of everyone in your band — the vocal harmonies, guitar leads, the steadiness of your drummer and the floating basslines. How in the world did you find people your age who can play like that?
CM: Owen and Wyatt know each other from School of Rock, and a mutual musician friend introduced us last October. We began practicing together just after Thanksgiving of 2014, so we haven't played a lot of shows together.
F5: What benefits do you see as being a bandleader vs. solo artist?
CM: We have an awesome time working together. We practice at least three hours each week with extra practices during show weeks. Wyatt and Owen are wonderful musicians, and playing with a band is on an entirely different level than being a solo artist. We are more versatile as a unit.
F5: A friend of mine saw you play at Winfield to 500 people as a solo artist. What's it like for you playing to a crowd that size?
CM: Playing in front of large audiences gives me a rush. The energy of the crowd increases my adrenaline.
F5: I only saw the first half of your set Saturday night, but something that really stood out to me was the depth of your songbook. Aside from songs I might expect hearing young people cover (Pharrell's "Happy"; Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive"), you also play some pretty mature stuff. I'm thinking of Def Leppard's "Photograph" here, or your version of "Hotel California." What's your selection process like? How do you select what songs to cover?
CM: Whenever I select songs other than my own, I look for ones that aren't redundant both lyrically and musically. I enjoy complex rhythms and chords and great dynamics.
F5: Michael Carmody (owner of the Donut Whole) told me you played him a song about when you first moved to Wichita and saw tornadoes out your window — about feeling afraid and feeling out of place. Can we expect to hear more originals soon?
CM: I released a self-titled CD on iTunes last year and have written a few more since then. I have no plans for a new one in the near future but will continue writing. We appreciate the support that we've gotten from the local business owners here in Wichita. We will gladly play any venue who would like to book us.