kids stage curtain room
Morning warmup at Rock Band Land's summer camp.

On a narrow strip of Treat Street off 17th Street stands an unassuming gray warehouse with a hand-painted sign reading “Pat Clabernathy’s Indoor Donkey Farm and Retirement Home for Children.”

Inside, on any given day this summer, around 75 kids are screaming with laughter.

“We’re making weirdos by the dozen,” said a smiling Brian Gorman, co-founder of Rock Band Land, a year-round arts camp for youth aged “4 to death,” as he puts it. 

At Rock Band Land, young “rockers” learn the gamut of creative skills: Drumming, recording, guitar, improv games, keyboard, writing, storytelling, singing, songwriting, drawing and videography.

But, make no mistake — it’s not like ‘School of Rock.’

“This is not cute,” said Gorman. “This is real work. They’re doing real art, making real music, and it deserves respect.” 

Gorman met his business partner, Marcus Stoesz, at a show at El Rio, where Gorman coordinated July 4 events for ten years. The two reunited in Kansas while touring in bands, and both were working in education — Gorman as a preschool teacher, and Stoesz as a public school paraeducator for special needs students. 

By 2009, they launched Rock Band Land, and this year, Gorman pointed out, “our first 4-year-olds are now turning 20.”

The Pat Clabernathy sign on the front door is an absurdism: The owners of the commercial condo that leases the space to Rock Band Land told Gorman he wasn’t allowed to have a sign for his business on the facade.

“So, we made a sign that wasn’t for our business,” Gorman chuckled.

On Tuesday, the first of the summer’s two-week sessions, the morning started with Gorman on stage, mic in hand, playfully goading around 40 kids between 4 and 13 who sat cross-legged facing the stage. 

He called up different campers, leading the group in improv games to warm them up for a full day of “creative madness.” By the end of the warm-up, kids were rolling around, yelling and laughing. 

It’s a daily ritual. Afterward, rockers split up into groups to learn instruments, write songs and brainstorm ideas for the camp’s YouTube show, “Ugly Baby,” a variety show written by and starring the 8-to-13-year-olds. 

man door sign
Brian Gorman, the youngest child retiree at Rock Band Land.

The latest episode, “Dirty Diaper Stinks,” has game-show scenes, a short-form science fiction film and stand-up bits. 

“It’s Tik-Tok-y, psychedelic, cocaine-induced madness,” said Gorman of “Ugly Baby.” “It’s like ‘The Eric Andre Show’ for kids.” 

The camp’s expansive, scarlet-hued space is part professional-grade recording studio and part playground, with a mix of spotless Fender guitars, pearl drum sets and wagons filled with costumes and toys. The walls are lined with rockers’ hand drawn album art arranged neatly in black frames.

“We spend a lot of money to keep it nice for the kids,” said Gorman. “We don’t buy shit; we only buy nice stuff. If you’re gonna be playing with crap, you’re gonna sound like crap.”

Campers tend to be an economically diverse group of kids hailing from schools all over the city, both public and private. 

“We get so many kids who don’t fit in at school. We have a lot of kids on the autistic spectrum; every other kid has ADHD,” he said. “A lot of kids that struggle in other places thrive here.”

Many of those who attended the camp as children have returned as counselors. 

On Tuesday, as the big group of summer campers split off into sections, two teens on junior staff, Mia and Lena, corralled a younger group of kids into an outdoor area for snack time.

“When we were growing up, they were like our other dads,” said Mia, 16, referring to Gorman and Stoesz.

Mia started with Rock Band Land when she was 5. This fall, she will be entering her junior year at Gateway High School in the Western Addition.

“We used to be these kids, and now we get to work with them. It’s really rewarding,” said Lena, 15, a rising sophomore at Burton High School in Portola. For years now, Lena and Mia, who both sing and play keyboard, have been part of a group called Easy Definition that formed at Rock Band Land.

drum sun guitar microphone cymbal
The drum room at Rock Band Land, home to lessons for kids and adults.

Though the camp is for 4-to-13-year-olds, Gorman said once someone attends, “they can stay as long as they want to be with us.” Eventually, some become “cool teenagers,” he said, and they don’t want to stay on. But many, like Mia and Lena, do. 

One rocker started as an after-school camper when he was 4, playing keyboard. “Then, he wanted to learn to wrap cables,” said Gorman. 

“So, we taught him to wrap cables. Then, he wanted to learn how to run a mixing board. So we taught him how to run a mixing board.” By 11, he was running lights and sound for Rock Band Land shows. At 14, he started his own production business.

He’s now 18, and is foregoing college so he can focus on being a music tech. “We started him, but the credit goes to him for understanding his own passion.” 

“Kids who come to us and come to us regularly — there’s noticeable growth on their part for self-confidence, music and creative ability. It’s undeniable the change that happens.”

“Our goal isn’t to make rock stars,” he said. “Our objective is to make really cool people. We’re not interested in pumping out shredders.”

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Reporter/Intern. Griffin Jones is a writer born and raised in San Francisco. She formerly worked at the SF Bay View and LA Review of Books.

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  1. Rock Band Land is $750 a week, not including aftercare. There’s no mention of financial aid on their website, and it doesn’t look like they participate in DCYF’s Summer Together program. This amazing sounding arts education experience is only available to the wealthy. Such a shame.

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    1. Sadly not all camps have the funding for financial aid, no matter how much we all want it.

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