They're goin' to California.
The Interstellar Elevators, purveyors of a jazz, funk and hip-hop blend "smoother than a baby's bottom," earned a spot among just eight finalists during a nationwide competition that had teen bands all across America submitting music and soliciting online votes.
The Elevators, comprised of frontman Billy "Rodriguez-Lopez" Richling, drummer Stefan Rehr, bassist Jake Strauss, percussionist James Low, percussionist and organist Vincent Simboli, and Campbell McClintock and Andrew Denicola, who both play saxophone — along with various and sundry additional instruments — submitted three songs to the competition, earning over 2,200 votes.
"We were surprised when we got picked," said Richling. "A lot of bands got more votes than us and also had good music."
SchoolJam, sponsored by the National Association of Music Merchants, selected finalists based on music first and total votes second. The eight finalists will compete at Downtown Disney in Anaheim, Calif. in January during a NAMM convention, according to Rehr.
The top band will win cash — for themselves and their school music program — as well as prizes and a trip to play live at the original SchoolJam festival in Frankfurt, Germany in March 2012.
"I am so incredibly proud of them," said Music Director Sal LaRusso. ""They are a group of dedicated and driven musicians.
"Success was bound to be a part of their future and we are fortunate to have them serve as role models and leaders," LaRusso added.
The Interstellar Elevators are the only hip-hop band remaining in the competition.
"We stood out in that respect," Richling acknowledged.
A recent review of The Interstellar Elevators EP, called Paper on Plastic, earned the band a comparison to legendary hip-hop innovators A Tribe Called Quest, whose album The Low End Theory is routinely cited as one of the best hip-hop recordings ever made.
"That was big," Richling said, smiling. "I'm a huge Tribe fan."
Their influences are diverse and include sources as varied as Lady Gaga — in the past, the Elevators could be relied upon to cover a Gaga song live — as well as jazz, "musician's music," according to Richling.
Together since 2009, the band practices together twice weekly. They plan to play live the same three songs they submitted to the competition: "Walk," "Better Reasons" and "Tired of Compton."
"We'll play a 15-minute set," said Rehr. Ironically, the band's biggest concern is not playing before top executives from NAMM, but whether or not the seven minutes allotted for equipment setup will be enough time.
The seven-man Elevators regularly incorporate a variety of wind, percussion and string instruments and equipment, including bongos, a turntable, an organ and a djembe, in addition to guitars, amplifiers and a drum set. SchoolJam will provide a drum set and "back line" equipment, according to Richling; the band will have to ship or bring the rest.
According to a NAMM public relations firm official who wished to remain anonymous, the judges for the competition will be announced during the second week of January and will include working music professionals.
Prior SchoolJam winners have gone on to study music at the collegiate level. Others have met with "A and R" professionals — that's artists and repertoire — to discuss a future in music performance.
“NAMM strongly supports teens’ passion to play music and keep music education programs alive in their schools,” said Joe Lamond, president and CEO of NAMM.
“The SchoolJam USA program is dedicated to providing students across the country with an outlet to express themselves, the encouragement to pursue making music and a platform to showcase their musical talents.”
Despite their early success, which includes more than 900 Facebook fans and local shows well-attended by a strong local following, the band members themselves are unsure as to how their work will translate to their futures.
Rehr indicated an interest in pursuing music professionally, although not in performance. Instead, he preferred an interest in scouting or music management.
Richling, the band's founder as well as the primary songwriter and arranger — "I write the skeletons, and everyone else adds to it"— said that he was interested in pursuing journalism or communication.
Two band members, Richling and Simboli, recently earned recognition as National Merit Scholars.
"We're trying to be realistic," Richling said, although he admitted that in his "dream world" the band would go on to achieve fame and fortune.
Nevertheless, Richling continued, "just because we have this awesome opportunity doesn't mean we'll stop playing [local] shows."
The Interstellar Elevators are actively fundraising to help defray the costs of the California trip.
According to Rehr and Richling — as well as the band's Facebook page — The Interstellar Elevators are raising funds by auctioning off themselves as dates.
"We know you've been dreaming about a romantic candlelit dinner with George Clooney," the band's Facebook page reads. "That probably won't happen, but you can take any of the beautiful manly men in The Interstellar Elevators on a lovely evening...for a price."