Fear of Flying, an acoustic pop group featuring three brainiacs from Gulf High School, has been performing at Hot Topic stores around the Tampa Bay area. They've sold 31 copies of their $5 CD. And the songs on the band's MySpace page have been played almost 25,000 times.
The trio's dirty little secret: Lead singer and songwriter MJ Pereyra, 17, can't read music.
"She does really complex stuff, as far as time signatures, changes of tempo and stuff," said keyboardist Steve Toth, 17, who lays effects and drum tracks on recording equipment in his bedroom. "Probably the fact that she doesn't know music theory doesn't set boundaries for her."
"It's so ridiculous, the stuff she writes," gushed bassist Rachael Hitchcock, 14. "You can't believe" how good it is.
MJ and Steve bring to the band a theory they learned in the International Baccalaureate program at Gulf High, where they will be seniors this fall. If you don't know how something is done perfectly, it frees you to be more creative because "you don't know what's right," Steve said.
But the trio has found a formula that works. Two teen girls wandering into the band's performance at University Mall in Tampa last Friday night likened Fear of Flying to young phenom group Paramore.
The music will reach even more ears with two concerts this weekend: The Big Punk/Pop Show tonight at Tarpon Springs' Neptune Lounge, and the Battle of the Bands '09 on Saturday at Rasmussen College in Holiday.
Good grades came first
Fear of Flying has been together about three months, practicing in jam sessions at the New Port Richey Library, among other places. They're guitar players, largely self-taught, with GPAs hovering around 4.0. Rachael, an honors student who becomes a sophomore this fall, skipped a year of school.
Her mother, former Pasco sheriff's Deputy Terri Hitchcock, is the band mom. She figures she's put 1,500 miles on her car during the past month and a half driving the teens to Hot Topic gigs around the Tampa Bay area.
"They have CDs, if you're interested," Hitchcock said last Friday to a couple pushing a stroller at University Mall as the band played at the trendy clothier. "They're not expensive, either!"
Ana Graham, 15, is the group's constant companion. She also attends Gulf High and maintains Fear of Flying's MySpace page, which streams its edgy songs.
All the members have a foot in other entertainment groups. Steve, for instance, also plays with a rock band called Worst Case Scenario — for which he singlehandedly negotiated his way through government bureaucracy to copyright the band's music.
In the past year, Steve also helped organize two Rock for Autism concerts at Gulf High's football stadium, in which local bands raised about $3,300 for autism causes. Fear of Flying was part of the Rock for Autism's May concert.
MJ — known as Mayj in her native Philippines, short for Mayjoy, her given name being Anne Marjorie — is cheerful, but quiet. MJ's cultural identity is important to her. "I'm intense, I'm hard-core, I'm Asian," she said.
She got the nickname Polar Bear Killer when a can of her beloved hairspray exploded under a seat in her mother's BMW. People teased her that it would damage the ozone layer and contribute to global warming.
MJ used to lacquer her backcombed tresses, but no more. She still lets her straight, blonde-tinged black hair curtain her eyes when singing.
MJ and Rachael are open to adding a real drummer, but Steve worries about how that would change their music.
"What we have now sets us apart from everybody," Steve said. "We've got a pop thing going on. If we end up getting a drummer … people might not like it so much."
The group hopes to line up a road tour next summer. Beyond that, college may make practices impractical.
Steve hopes to study architecture at the University of South Florida, figuring he'll save thousands by commuting instead of living in a dorm. MJ is considering the University of Florida and a medical career.
Rachael wants to take dual-enrollment college courses during her last two years of high school to catch up with the other two, and plans to one day be a doctor treating the most horrific of wounds, those of war.
But the band dream lingers. The group has made $155 selling their CDs, and is considering a $700 investment in making T-shirts. Hot Topic lets bands in the Local Static showcase keep all their revenues.
"I always dream about playing in front of a huge crowd. Don't you guys think about that?" MJ asked the other two.
"It's so corny," MJ said, "but they're singing your lyrics back to you."