By Ben Marcus

“Ambitious” is the word most often used to describe the Beach Boys’ 1966 album Pet Sounds. So it was equally ambitious for a bunch of South Orange County musical teenagers to take to the studio at the Los Rios Rock School in San Juan Capistrano and attempt to recreate the emotional, many-layered brilliance of Pet Sounds.

Los Rios Rock School students recorded a rendition of the classic Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. Photo courtesy of Alejandro Herrera.

Established in 2010, Los Rios Rock School now has a faculty of 12 teachers and 190 families/students from all over Orange County. According to founder Tyler Marolf:  “We have an 8,000-square-foot, performance-based lesson facility. Our school truly transforms young humans into unbelievable teammates, musicians and friends.”

Clinton Haycraft is the Director of Curriculum at Los Rios Rock School. When asked why he chose Pet Sounds, Haycraft said, “Pet Sounds is not your typical Los Rios Rock School album. It doesn’t give the kids a whole lot of opportunity to show off as individuals. There are no shredding guitar solos, no belted high notes or raspy screams, no heavy drum fills. It demands another brand of musicianship—one that emphasizes dynamics, nuance, blending and tone.”

In 1966, Brian Wilson worked on Pet Sounds for many, many months. It took a month just to lay down the background vocals for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Los Rios Rock School did not have the time and money for that.

Los Rios ran rehearsals weekly for three months with Justin Norman rehearsing the band in one room, while Erin Blagdon worked with the voices in the other—and Haycraft hovering between both rooms.

“Eventually, we brought the singers to the stage, and everyone rehearsed together,” Haycraft said.  “Having six instrumental players and 13 vocalists all amplified on stage together and trying to make sure they all heard themselves and each other was the most difficult logistical aspect of rehearsals.”

All the rehearsal led to one long, productive day laying down all of the tracks at Hybrid Studios in Santa Ana.

Anna Moellenhoff is an 18-year-old from San Juan Capistrano who first joined up with Los Rios Rock School in 2017.  She sang lead on “That’s Not Me” and said, “My experience through this project was very exciting and sometimes difficult. During those times when it was difficult, I was learning how to control my voice and not overpower the rest of the track. It took time, but I loved every step of the way, because it made me into a better singer.”

Lily Kelso is an 18-year-old aspiring musician from Laguna Beach who has been involved with Los Rios Rock School since 2018. Her thoughts: “One of the things that stuck out to me most was how the group dynamic changed over time. We started out with a hodgepodge of kids, and many of us either didn’t know each other or hadn’t spent much time together. This quickly changed. Over the course of many rehearsals and a lot of hard work, we all became really good friends. The coolest part about getting closer with everyone was to see it reflected in the music. Bit by bit, songs started coming together as we learned more unified vowels, got used to the Beach Boys sound, and found our rhythm with the band. The process was slow but extremely rewarding.”

After all that rehearsing and prep and concentrated studio time, how does Pet Sounds sound, as recorded by the students of Los Rios Rock School? Check out to hear for yourself.

Ben Marcus was an editor at Surfer Magazine for 10 years, living in Dana Point and San Clemente while working on 130 issues of that magazine from the office in Capo Beach. Since leaving the magazine in 1999, Ben has worked on a couple dozen books and one stolen screenplay and writes for a variety of publications. He misses Pedro’s Tacos.

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