MARLBOROUGH — After 24 summers, the Vans Warped Tour is hanging up its skate shoes. The traveling showcase for proudly juvenile pop-punk music has finally relented to dreaded maturity.
But if you happened to be at one of the last tour stops, at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield late last month, you may have noticed that the future of punk is in very good — if exceedingly small — hands. One of the most popular bands of the day was a four-piece punk group from this MetroWest suburb called Color Killer. None of the members has reached puberty; the lead singer, Lincoln Zinzola, hasn’t quite turned 9.
Lincoln is so tiny, his family doesn’t bother using feet to describe his height. He’s 49 inches, says his dad, Tony Zinzola, a restaurant broker who once drove to New Jersey and back in one day to bring his son, then 6, to see Tony’s favorite band, the Descendents.
Things are moving fast for Color Killer. They just released their first album, “Generation Z,” featuring 13 instantly grabby original tunes with titles such as “Go to Bed” (“I don’t want to,” of course) and “Toothless Wonder,” in which the band declares “the Tooth Fairy is a scam.” They’ve just confirmed a gig in October at 924 Gilman, the legendary Berkeley, Calif., warehouse where Green Day and Rancid got their start. And there’s a documentary film crew from New York making a full-length feature on the band.
For the kids in the band — Lincoln on lead guitar, 10-year-old Matt Hiltz on drums, and 12-year-olds Nate Dalbec and Dylan Huther on bass and rhythm guitar, respectively — writing and playing punk songs is just another part of a typical day, along with watching “Simpsons” reruns, bouncing on the Zinzolas’ trampoline, and doing battle on Fortnite and Ark on the Xbox.
The band essentially began online, when Lincoln’s solo cover of Green Day’s “Bang Bang” caught the attention of Larry Livermore, the cofounder of Lookout! Records — the label that launched the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. The Zinzolas recruited Nate and Dylan, who live on the same street, to play a school talent show, and Matt joined shortly after. Local punk bands have taken the group under their wing, adding them to dive-bar bills in Worcester and Boston, and Color Killer plays on the street whenever possible, as they did when Foo Fighters were at Fenway Park in July. They got the Warped gig through a friend of Tony’s who knew a guy booking the festival.
After Lincoln dyed his long veil of hair metallic blue, the other boys followed suit. Today, Nate is sporting Electric Lizard. Dylan’s lank hair, shaved like Nate’s on one side, is Purple Rain; Matt, who’s wearing Wildfire, has been answering to the nickname “Salmonhead.”
The families have been spending a lot of time at the nearest Sally Beauty Supply, says Matt’s mom, Kate Hiltz, an art teacher. As she talks, sitting around the island in the Zinzolas’ chaotic kitchen, she’s cutting the letters of the band’s name out of black construction paper. It’s for the float they’ll ride in the local Labor Day parade, she explains.
The whole scene is too adorable for words, but fair warning: Don’t call these kids cute. When it comes to their music, they’re dead serious. Even though Lincoln has brought out his Funko Pop! figure to show off — as a surprise Christmas present, the parents got each of the kids a custom-made figurine in their image — his face goes stony at the mere mention of “cute.”
“On the inside, Lincoln is screaming in pain right now,” says Nate.
The transformation that happens every time the members of Color Killer show up to play punk rock is uncanny, says Seth Kramer, whose Emmy-nominated film company (with co-producers/directors Daniel Miller and Jeremy Newberger) has been following the group through much of this year.
“When these kids walk into one of these dark bars, these places that smell like dead beer and sweat, it’s like the cast of Peanuts just showed up,” says Kramer, on the phone from Ironbound Films’ Hudson Valley home. The company, which is currently crowdsourcing funding for the film “Color Killer Save Punk,” has made previous documentaries on the late TV host Morton Downey Jr., and a team of linguists chasing dying languages, among other subjects.
“All the heads turn in complete disbelief,” Kramer says. “But after just a few moments, there’s a look of dawning appreciation.” Invariably, the whole crowd is soon wearing “ear-to-ear smiles. It’s such a joyous thing to watch.”
In just about a year together, the boys have already experienced all the usual struggles of any veteran rock band, says Kramer: “the dueling personalities, the tough tour schedule, the creative differences.” Yet what they’re doing is “so pure,” he continues. “They’re not doing this to become famous. They’re just neighborhood kids, not thinking about the future.”
For the kids in Color Killer, writing and playing punk songs is just another part of a typical day, along with watching ‘Simpsons’ reruns and playing video games.
Walking around the grounds at the Warped Tour, the boys were oblivious to the fans whispering and pointing, Matt’s mom says. During their set, when Nate sang the band’s tongue-in-cheek song about a kid who thinks he’ll grow up to be a football hero (“I’ll score one for the team/The cheerleaders will scream/Then me and my jock friends will punch a weirdo”), he called for the crowd to start a circle pit. His grandfather promptly got trapped inside the mayhem.
Out on the screen porch, conversation with these kids ricochets like a Super Ball. Asked if they can describe the personality each brings to the band, Lincoln says, “I’m extremely weird.” Matt offers that he’s the one who “gets very triggered very fast.” Nate calls himself “out-of-hand clumsy,” and Dylan says, “I’m the silliest, and I’m the one who knows all the memes.”
On a recent summer outing with his family and Dylan, Nate revisited one of his favorite places, the New England Aquarium. He thinks he might want to be a marine biologist when he grows up.
All of the kids and their parents agree that it’s Lincoln who’s most likely to carry on with a career in music.
“If Lincoln wants to be a professional musician, if not a full-fledged rock star, that’s his destiny,” says Kramer, the filmmaker.
For now, though, Lincoln is about to enter fourth grade. Matt — a year older, but no bigger — is going into middle school.
He’s going to hate it, Dylan warns, as any 12-year-old might.
Matt sits up on the edge of his chair with a goofy grin on his face.
“Hey, thanks for lifting my spirits!” he jokes.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.