By Joshua Zumbrun and Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Paul DeGeorge loves Harry Potter. Well, everybody loves Harry. But Paul DeGeorge loves him so much that he started writing songs about Harry Potter. So much that he started writing songs as Harry Potter. And named his band Harry and the Potters. And dressed like Harry Potter. And, when the Norwood, Mass.-based Harry and the Potters got popular two years ago, quit his job as a chemical engineer to devote himself to the band.
And Paul DeGeorge is not alone.
The little band that DeGeorge, 28, founded in 2002 with his brother Joe, 20, has since taken over both of their lives and helped launch an entire genre of music known as wizard rock. As anticipation grows for the release of the seventh and (sob!) final book ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," for those of you hiding from the Harry hype), wizard rock is at the height of its popularity. A half-dozen bands are touring the country, a couple hundred have songs on MySpace and are self-producing EPs or entire albums and waiting to see how it all ends.
As H.P. has evolved from book series to movies to breathless blog juice (Cho Chang and Harry will get together! Won't they ?!) to social phenomenon, it's inevitable that all the buzz needs a backbeat, an anthem, a soundtrack.
So, in the intensely social world of Harry Potter, when Matt Maggiacomo of Providence, R.I., invited Harry and the Potters to perform at a house party, there was much love in the room. When he invited them back the next year, April 2005, the crowd was bigger. Then Maggiacomo's friends Brian Ross and Bradley Mehlenbacher decided to open for the Potters by dressing up as Harry's nemesis, performing as Draco and the Malfoys. Maggiacomo joined the action by penning a few songs as the Whomping Willows, a nod to a magical tree that attacks people.
Other odes to Harry had cropped up: In 2000 the L.A.-based pop-punk band Switchblade Kittens penned an "Ode to Harry." Five year later, Alex Carpenter of the Remus Lupins posted a song about Severus Snape on MySpace, and discovered the online network that is wizard rock when hundreds of fans found him on the site.
At Harvard Square on July 20, Draco and the Malfoys and Harry and the Potters will perform for an audience -- the Harvard Square Business Association anticipates 10,000 to 20,000 people -- celebrating the midnight release of the final book. That's a respectable audience for bands signed to a record label -- an enormous audience for this type of niche band. Then they'll join the fans queuing up to buy the tome and read the final 784 pages of Harry's adventures.
The frenzy over Book 7 has propelled wizard rock to these heights. The bands have tens of thousands of friends on MySpace, with Harry and the Potters approaching 100,000. Maggiacomo has released two CDs. Draco and the Malfoys just finished their second CD, and later this month will join Harry and the Potters on a tour of the East Coast, Midwest and Ontario. Other bands, including the L.A.-based Remus Lupins and the Seattle-based Parselmouths, are on tour.
So what's the difference between those who rock as wizards and your garden-variety, non-thematically-inclined bands?
"I played for 16 years where people show up and the cool thing to do is stand there against the wall with your arms crossed and look down your nose at the band," says Brian Ross, 32, of his past life in indie-rock bands around Rhode Island. "But with wizard rock, we're all fans of Harry Potter. That gives us a common ground to start from. There's an atmosphere where everyone wants to show up and have a good time."
A love of rocking and Rowling is the only requirement. Most bands have a punk-rock influence, the genre has spawned everything from the Parselmouth's techno-influenced "Voldemort Fangirl" (sample lyric: "It's not personal / What I'm saying is true / Voldy, I'd rather just play fangirl to you") to the Remus Lupins's acoustic, lighters-in-the-air-style ballad "Remember Cedric" ("We know you tried / To make Hogwarts proud / So I keep 'em singing / Yeah, singing out loud / Remember Cedric Diggery").
* * *
"Who here feels like a muggle?" Paul DeGeorge wants to know.
He's onstage in front of an outdoor crowd in downtown Los Angeles. DeGeorge and his brother Joe are dressed in matching Potter regalia: white shirts under gray crew-neck sweaters, red-and-yellow striped ties, wire-rim glasses. It's hard to tell them apart, except Paul sports the studded leather belt.
No one, apparently, feels like a muggle. About 200 people sit on the grass. It's the middle of the afternoon rush hour; office drones and traffic stream past.
"Who here feels like a wizard?" Paul asks.
"Whoooooo!! Yeah!" Everyone feels like a wizard. Hands fly into the air, the crowd jumps to its feet. The brothers and their drummer, Andrew MacLeay, launch into the first song, "Voldemort Can't Stop the Rock." Everyone sings along, which is easy, since the title is pretty much the only line.
The venue? It's not the House of Blues, or even hipster hangout Spaceland. This is a corner of the lawn at the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. "Let's tear it up with our magical dance moves!" Paul says, and the crowd obliges.
The sound is simple, catchy rock-- think the White Stripes crossed with Raffi. Joe plunges into the audience with his mic; happy teenagers high-five him. Everyone jumps up and down, yelling along.
The sound quality is lame, the music is sloppy, but Harry and the Potters are not about fancy guitar work. And this is not a crowd of rock critics or posers. Median age: 18, though some gray-hairs hang in the back, singing along, and a few little kids run in circles, knocking into each other like puppies.
Some are garbed for the Harry Potter theme: here, a wizard cloak, over there, school uniforms. Harry and the Potters T-shirts with owls or lightning strikes or the words "Save Ginny!" are flying off the merch tables at the back.
"We're just really into the books," Clare Kelley, 18, says as she hangs out with a few friends before the show. "It's great how they promote the books and get kids to read."
Her friend Julia Wagner, 17, whose red T-shirt says "Reading Is Radical," saw Harry and the Potters the past two summers at the library.
So she must really like the music?
Wagner winces a bit. "They're really exuberant, that's what I like about them," she says.
Kelley adds, "I think they've gotten better."
Paul DeGeorge is the first to admit that musicianship is not the strength of the band. He sees this as part of its audience appeal: "They know we're not the best singers and keyboard players, but we're okay. And they think, well, I could do that, too. I think that's really encouraging to people, that all you need to be in a band is a guitar and a MySpace page."
That's it? What about, say, talent?
"No, no, no!" He's appalled. "I'm the first opponent to saying that's what you need to be in a band. The bands that I like, I look for passion and ability to engage an audience."
The DeGeorge brothers have vast quantities of both. The combination of their happy, who-cares personalities and Harry Potter fanaticism has cast a spell over book-loving teens across the country.
So is the band geeky? Or is it cool?
"I think it's geeky-cool at this point," Paul DeGeorge says. "I think the indie-rock community at the very least realizes we're taking a very DIY approach to this." DeGeorge is proud of the way he and his brother can roll into almost any town in their van and attract a crowd. He sees Harry Potter -- and, by extension, Harry and the Potters -- as a force for good.
"We're playing to younger kids when they're just starting to get into music, so it will have some kind of long-term effect on them," he says. "Hopefully, this will encourage them to stay in bands, and read, or get into art. This one girl in Texas brought us a zine she made all about Harry Potter. It's really cool to see that we're inspiring them."
When they first played L.A. three years ago, they had about 50 kids in a room at the library, says librarian Virginia Loe, who's in charge of teen programs and books -- and who's watching the show and singing along. The next year it was a bigger room, "but there were too many people," she says. Hence the move outdoors for this evening's gig.
The band gives Loe a shout-out from the stage.
It's an hour into the show and the brothers are tearing it up with "Stick It to Dolores."
"Tonight we are all one giant Harry Potter, united in the purpose of vanquishing all evil in a 500-mile radius of the L.A. Public Library!" Paul crows. Big cheers. He puts his guitar behind his head and flails away at it.
* * *
Twin sisters Megan and Mallory Schuyler saw Harry and the Potters perform in Olympia, Wash., in 2004. The Potters were performing in a garage (the Olympia library wasn't immediately on board with wizard rock).
"It's nuts. You can't leave their shows without being on a total Harry Potter high," Megan says.
Hooked on the idea, and with some film background (Megan works for a video production company), the Schuylers decided to create " The Wizard Rockumentary," a feature-length look at the world of wizard rock, now in post-production. The sisters interviewed bands and went to performances and fan conventions across the country.
They are planning to shop the film to festivals in 2008. As such, the Schuylers are the closest thing the world of wizard rock has to experts. (See also http://www.wizrocklopedia.com, a fan site run by Lizz Clements, 25, of Derry, N.H., who organizes a team of 14 regular contributors and reviewers for the site.)
"We all want to think that we're fighting for the greater good," says Mallory. "There's a lot of qualities in Harry Potter that we all aspire to. He's a hero with flaws, that makes him more believable. He's out there trying to do his best, and that's all anybody can do."
"And who wouldn't want to go to Hogwarts?" she adds.
Wizard rock is a bit like Puff the Magic Dragon; Harry is growing up too fast. The music will always be there, playing on old MySpace profiles and Web sites long after the creators forget their passwords. But in five years, will wizard rock be anything but a footnote in this literary pop-culture phenomenon?
"I think that people are always going to be engaged in this story to some degree," says Ross of the Malfoys.
For the most part, the future does not weigh heavily on the wizard rockers. They live for today, for the rock -- but for the love and the literacy, too.
"If we can make the library a cool place to hang out for the summer, I think we're doing something right," says Carpenter, 24, frontman of the Remus Lupins, on the phone from Idaho. He's in the midst of a 32-state, 56-show summer tour that won't make him rich, but will pay for itself.
"I'd had this lifelong fascination with wizards. And reading," says Ross of the Malfoys. "So to have a book come out and then this music that got kids to read and is about wizards? It's the greatest."
Talk to enough wizard rockers, listen to their lyrics, and it becomes clear there's something more in all this than just virtue and inspiration: Wizard rock is an escape into a different world -- maybe not Hogwarts, but a world of non-judgmental fun where grown-ups dress as wizards, evil is vanquished by song, and reading is cool.