Marcel shows off his vinyl collection (Photo: Daniel Kielman)
In the late afternoon on a sunny Saturday, and Marcel’s * mother is fussing with her son’s hair — again. “I don’t know why your hair is so fuzzy today,” she says, reaching out a hand to smooth Marcel’s wispy, chin-length locks. He ducks slightly in an attempt to avoid her reach and makes a slight noise of protest, but soon acquiesces.
Meet Marcel, the Bay Area’s rising music critic.
He’s 13 years old.
Marcel’s blog, Marcel’s Music Journal, has crept into the local consciousness mere months after its inception. While most Tumblrs toil in obscurity for years, MMJ has only been breathing for about a year and has already gained a surprising amount of fame, especially considering the keeper’s age. What began as a typically tweenage Tumblr full of silly GIFs and smarmy quips is fast becoming one of the most visible outlets for quality music journalism in the Bay Area and beyond.
Marcel lives in Aptos, swaddled in the tall woods of the Santa Cruz mountains just south of the city proper, in an old barn. It’s not what you’d think: Sylvia works in interior design, and the place is that magazine-spread kind of immaculately messy. Old paintings commingle on the walls of front room; a mishmash of chairs populate the kitchen. It’s dark and, after the sun drops behind the trees, cold. The bathroom is in a building out back (Sylvia put all the plumbing in herself). And still, in spite of the nip in the afternoon air and the quiet of the forest, it’s as cozy a home as you can imagine.
Marcel’s room is a bright haven, though a little austere for one that belongs to a kid of thirteen. When you walk in, you face the record player. Today’s selection is T. Rex’s The Slider, the sleeve for which is propped up with great purpose; Marc Bolan’s face presiding over the scene and staring wide-eyed out into the dim of the kitchen. A Bobby Darin 45 lies lazily on a bookcase, gazing up at a Jimi Hendrix poster on the wall. Jeff Beck hangs in a corner to the left.
It’s pretty clear upon meeting Marcel that he’s a smart kid — a really smart kid. He’s well-spoken and mature, and, as evidenced on MMJ, expresses himself in text better than most kids his age — hell, he can write circles around most adults. In just one afternoon, he freely and eloquently discusses his love of film history (Charlie Chaplin in particular), the technical specs of the camera he currently uses for interviews, favorite records (vinyl records) and the influence of The Beatles on his life (“My favorite band of all time. To me no other band has been able to express so much lyrical content that resonates with me…with the exception of a few White Album tracks that I don’t like”), but it’s all punctuated with hearty laughs and enthusiastic hand gestures. He’s wise beyond his years and impossibly ambitious. Typical thirteen-year-old pursuits don’t seem to interest him. Right now, his world revolves mostly around rock ‘n’ roll and reaching deadline, but he’s not so consumed by his interests that he’s bypassed his adolescence. More than anything, he is genuine and sweet.
Marcel, like many kids, had to navigate a childhood of obsessions before he got to where he is now. First it was geography, which he knew so well by age six, Jay Leno and Oprah sparred over who would get him on their show. Next it was gardening, which saw him tending a vegetable garden while the family lived in Italy for a spell. Then came movies and film. Slowly, music crept in, and around age twelve it finally came to a head. “It was kind of a natural thing,” he says. “I was into several things before I got into music, and I guess I started to get into music cause, you know, my mom had her huge record collection.”
Though the blog is recent, his interest in Bay Area music is nothing new at all — it’s been the foundation of the family for years. Sylvia grew up in San Francisco, and was a fixture on the local music scene in the 1970s and ’80s. “I started babysitting for the Grateful Dead when I was twelve,” she says later, in the last remaining sunny spot out in front of the house. She began photographing events in high school, and her photography put her in touch with bands that would go on to be big names. “The bands that were small (back then), you could still see in small clubs. Back in that time, we would routinely bring the bands back home for an after-party. Bow Wow Wow, The Pogues, The Clash, Tom Petty…U2 was crashing on peoples’ floors in San Francisco, spending the night.”
“I’d always be fascinated by it,” says Marcel of the rock ‘n’ roll that his mom brought into the family home. “I’d see a Beatles record, you know, (just) the cover art. Then I started listening to the Beatles and a lot of classic rock, and I liked the community environment of music journalism, I guess you could say. It just seemed so interesting to me and I really got inspired from it, and I think I finally found my something that I’ll be stuck onto forever.” Marcel keeps neat stacks of music magazines in his room near the door, and saves the note cards he uses for video interviews.
The blog began humbly enough, and began to pick up steam when Marcel began regularly adding music coverage, a byproduct of his passion. “It started out just as a regular Tumblr, and, like, late last year it just evolved into a blog about music,” he says. “I started publishing reviews around December, last January, and I started picking up there and I took off.” MMJ received a major boost about three weeks ago, when his video interview with Deafheaven, a band from San Francisco known for producing full-throttle, aneurysm-inducing metal, went not quite viral, but got pretty close. Marcel sat down with George Clarke and Kerry McCoy from the band before their appearance at the C2SV festival in San Jose at the end of September, and the two, in sharp contrast to their sweaty, somewhat terrifying in-band presence, graciously — even sweetly — responded to all Marcel’s questions with earnest answers. Almost as soon as it went live, The A.V. Club caught wind of the interview and disseminated it to their social circles. Other sites like Stereogum — as well as the band itself — posted the video soon after. All in all, it brought Marcel a couple thousand fresh views and a wave of new Twitter and Tumblr followers that continue to join up.
“I’m still shocked, like days later, the response that Deafheaven thing got,” he says. “I would have never guessed in a million years that A.V. Club, Stereogum would pick it up. Ever since that happened I gained literally 100 new subscribers on YouTube and like over 8,000 views, and a couple of the main editors from Rolling Stone started following me after that. Publicists, editors for Consequence of Sound, started following (me).”
He himself is becoming visible, too — after all, it’s hard not to wonder about the kid who’s been seen crawling around backstage at concerts and festivals all over the Bay. More and more musicians are wanting to work with him. “Some people just want to take him under their wing,” says Sylvia. “He’s getting respect from some pretty sensitive, intelligent people.” Tame Impala‘s Kevin Parker “just looooves him,” so says Sylvia, and Devendra Banhart extended a standing guest pass to Marcel, to any show of his, in any town. Iggy Pop — who’s referred to around the house as “Uncle Iggy” or simply “Iggy” — asked to see some of Marcel’s lyrics (he’s a songwriter, too) after a long, exhilarating dinner with him at C2SV. “I am currently awaiting response,” says Marcel with an easy laugh.
The magic of Marcel is that, when you meet him, he’s completely disarming. His youth, his enthusiasm, the sheer novelty of his breadth of knowledge all have the power to bring out the softer side of typically cynical rockers, and elicits refreshing responses that reporters closer in age to the bands almost certainly couldn’t coax out of them. “He’s learning,” says Sylvia. “He represents the fan. That’s really a big value (to the bands); someone coming from his perspective.” Most subjects seem a little wary at first, but two or three questions in and it’s clear that this kid isn’t your average, fumbling fan. He asks evocative, interesting questions. He brings up obscure trivia that, in the olden days, could only be gleaned from poring over liner notes and album inserts. He often surprises his subjects, even embarrasses them sometimes with the information he digs up (all in good fun, of course). “He was very organized and seemed to have done his research,” says George Clarke of Deafheaven, interviewed in the C2SV video. “We’ve dealt with people twice his age that don’t understand those concepts.”
The sudden fame is also changing the direction of the blog. “I never thought I would have such a wide audience. It’s kinda changed how I’m blogging. I’ve really thought about what would appeal to people, what would not appeal to people. Mainly it’s…doing my own thing, but I’ve been keeping the pace up (now) ‘cause I’m behind on some important stuff.”
Given his maturity, it’s sometimes easy to forget that he still has only just entered his teens, and ultimately, Sylvia has the final say. She’s a good sport though, and really, she kind of loves it. “I thought my wild days were behind me, but it’s like I’m a born again rock n’ roller with taking Marcel to gigs and record shops,” she says of her inadvertent role in MMJ’s operations. “This barn is part of a conversion project I was supposed to have done this past summer,” she says. “Magazines were waiting for this project to be finished. I put his work ahead of mine and it put me behind schedule.” She doesn’t sound bitter, or sad, just stating the facts. “It’s a tricky balancing act, cause I don’t want him to lose the momentum he has going.”
What momentum? What does the future hold for Marcel’s Music Journal? “Wow. Um, I’m not so sure, cause, like…since the beginning it’s been really unpredictable, and it still really is,” says Marcel. “I’m just hoping to go somewhere with this and really make something out of it.”
But for now, in front of a large Jimi Hendrix poster in his bedroom, he’s deciding whether he just wants to give up on his hair altogether and wear a hat instead.