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United under one roof, Five by Two records fights age barriers in music

Security staff had grim predictions for local booker, music parent and owner of Five by Two Records Robert McCarthy as they got ready for an all-ages show packed with under 21 musicians late last fall.

“I guarantee we’re going to have people sneaking booze into the green room,” they said.

“I don’t think you know this community,” McCarthy responded.

Sure enough, when he went backstage a few moments later, McCarthy saw plenty of beverages. But none of them were alcoholic.

Several members of the band Glacier were chugging Polar Seltzer. Alex Paul of Girih had a juice box.

For three years now, McCarthy has been privately retelling stories like that to venue owners and promoters as one of the leading advocates for all ages shows in the Lowell and Boston scenes. With six teenage kids all playing as some of the youngest musicians in their scenes, McCarthy’s motivation for this fight and for his record company in general is personal.

Indeed, his Marlborough home is a fortress of music. McCarthy lives there with his five kids, Eoghan, Giuliana, Finola, Edmee and Declan. Recently, he’s also welcomed teen musician Aaron Garcia into the family as well.

Eoghan and Garcia both now play in the hardcore outfit, Reprieve. Giulianna, Finola and Edmee, meanwhile, have won awards and other national acclaim for their post rock work under the Circus Trees banner. Garcia has also released music using the solo moniker Pillbook.

McCarthy has led his family community of musicians through all of this with the mindset of tackling challenges and solutions as they arise. That is, after all, how Five By Two Records got its start in the first place.

“When I created Five by Two Records, we wanted to produce and release some records,” McCarthy explained. “One of the first things people ask when you do [release music] is ‘what label are you on?’ We didn’t have a label. So, we created one.”

From 2018 onward, McCarthy has run his label and quickly gained recognition within scenes that often otherwise shun younger acts like his children’s.

Just last year, Circus Trees dropped their debut EP Sakura. That helped them secure a nomination for metal artist of the year at the 2019 Boston Music Awards.

Reprieve’s debut single “No Signal”, meanwhile, earned national buzz within the niche hardcore community and helped propel that band on a regional tour through upstate New York.

For McCarthy and his kids, though, the record label and release schedule has long taken a back seat to McCarthy’s booking operations.

“I’ve been really insistent on finding spots where I could get kids onto a real stage during the real hours which was really difficult,” he said, explaining many venues often first offer his kids set times in matinee shows with little attendance. “Who the hell wants to be on a stage while the sun is out? It doesn’t feel right.”

Pushing that agenda, McCarthy has been making progress.

Last year Circus Trees joined several local post rock bands in heading to Indianapolis for Post Fest, a premier festival for their genre. Before that, McCarthy organized a sendoff show in Manchester, New Hampshire that placed his daughters and young musicians like them as headliners.

The show, he said, was a wild success.

Aiding him in all of this, he says, has been a crowd of larger touring bands for whom he has more than once booked his kids as openers.

“They desperately want to get in front of the younger crowd,” he said. “By 21, everyone is sort of drunk and jaded. So, to be able to play in front of 15 year olds, it means a lot to them.”

From here, though, the future remains somewhat uncertain albeit promising for McCarthy and his family label.

Circus Trees is currently in pre-production with Garcia in the family’s basement studio for their first full length album. With their success, McCarthy says, he hopes to one day transition the trio off the Five By Two name to enable them to sign with a bigger label.

Beyond that, Garcia has also amassed a considerable library of finished or nearly finished songs over the last year in particular. McCarthy and Garcia remain unsure of how much of that content they’re going to release, when they’re going to release it, and if they will do it under the family label, but they’re confident something will drop in 2020.

Finally, Reprieve is also in line to drop an EP of their own, marking their first release aside from their debut single last year.

“2020 is going to be huge,” McCarthy said.

On a more local level, however, McCarthy says he also wants to go to work repairing the hole in the Lowell scene that he says beloved venue UnchARTed left when it closed last year.

“A piece of my heart died with UnchARTed and a piece of Five by Two records died when they closed,” he said. “Lowell was a magical place for us and UnchARTed had so much of an impact. We need to get that back.”

In the end, he said, whether it’s his own label’s releases, the live performances he books, or the larger community he engages with online, in the crowds, or in green rooms chugging seltzer, McCarthy says there’s no room for age based exclusivism in modern Boston and Lowell in particular.

“People need the scene to continue,” he said. “And they need it to continue in a way that is not restrictive based on age.”

~ Dakota Antelman