He has a point: As co-star (along with Josh Peck) of Nickelodeon’s smash hit show Drake & Josh, Bell, with his boyish good looks and mop-top hair, has become a heartthrob to millions of teens, tweens, and their moms. A cushy life of adoring girls and fat paychecks awaits, provided Bell plays the game. “Which is exactly what I won’t do,” he laughs. Seated in a tour bus en route from Missouri to Michigan, Bell expands on what he calls the “teen idol nightmare scenario”: “Picture me at 30 still trying to act like a teenager on Drake & Josh. It’d be sad. Pretty soon you’d see me in real life living with a bunch of fellow losers in some horrible reality show. No thanks. I’ve got a bigger plan.” 

So what’s Bell doing in a tour bus, you may ask? Well, that’s part of the plan. A musician since the age of 13, he released his major-label debut, It’s Only Time, last fall. A startlingly mature pop-rock album that’s worlds away from the limburger of fellow pinups Jesse McCartney or Hillary Duff, the record, which contains an acoustic version of “Found a Way” (the Bell-composed Drake & Josh theme song) and a bouncy take on “Makes Me Happy” (featured not one, not two, but three times in the series finale Really Big Shrimp), finds Bell channeling influences such as the Beatles, Randy Newman, and Harry Nilsson. And now he and his band are on the road, playing to big crowds and loving it. But it’s not exactly the tour of his dreams. “I’m playing with Corbin Bleu [from High School Musical], and Aly & AJ, who are like this teen-pop girl duo. “They’re all nice people, and they do what they do well, I guess. This isn’t my scene, though. I’m a guitar guy. I need to rock.” 

To that end, the Les Paul-obsessed player, despite having several film and TV projects in development, is seriously considering chucking it all to give music his full attention. “It’s Only Time hasn’t sold so well,” says Bell, “and I can’t help thinking that if I was out on tour full-time instead of making TV shows that it would’ve gotten a fair shake. And now that I’ve done this tour and played to the biggest crowds of my career, I know in my heart that music is why I was put on this earth. If I had to make the choice between being an actor and a musician, it’s a no-brainer. Tell me when sound check is.”

This has been a hard tour for you, hasn’t it?
Hard? Well, it’s been strange. We draw a young demographic because of those other acts-my crowd’s a little older, not by much, but a little-but me and my band, we’re the only ones who play live music and use real instruments; we’re not doing a backing track kind of deal, you know? So we come out onstage and show these kids what a real rock band sounds like. You ought to see these 14-year-olds looking at each other going, “What in the world is this? Guitars, drums…Oh my God, I’ve gotta go buy a Beatles’ record now!” 

You’re not just there to entertain, but to educate.
Exactly! If I can inspire one kid to pick up a guitar and not walk down that American Idol path to cheesiness, then I’ll feel as though I’ve done my part. 

In the Drake & Josh movie Really Big Shrimp, your character gets a record deal, and during the course of the film you perform the song “Makes Me Happy” three times. Is the exposure bringing renewed attention to your own album?
Hopefully, we’ll be seeing some spikes in sales. But you know how record companies are: “Oh, the record didn’t hit No. 1 in its first week. It’s over, folks.” And sometimes records need time to catch on. The digital downloads are out of control, though. That’s just the way it is now: Kids download singles; they don’t always buy records. 

Even so, Universal would be crazy to let this window of opportunity pass them by. 
I’ve been telling them, “You guys have to come out to one of my shows and see what happens when I play ‘Makes Me Happy.’ The place just explodes! Like you said, the kids are hearing the song over and over in the movie. It’s like, “Come on, guys. Take the song to radio already.” 

It must be frustrating to have this huge fan base from TV, and yet your records haven’t sold commensurately.
Yeah, it is, but I’m in this for the long haul. I mean, I don’t want to say, “Oh, well, if this record doesn’t hit, the next one will,” because I still think this album has a chance. But so much of what happens is out of my hands. All I can do is make the best music I can, and show people that I’m not just some teen idol kind of thing. My influences have nothing to do with what’s happening today; they’re more like 30 or 40 years ago. The only music I don’t like is stuff from the ’80s. Synth pop and drum machines don’t do it for me. 

Tell me about your influences.
The reason I play the guitar is Brian Setzer. The guy just kills me. The first time I heard him, I was like, “I’m playing the guitar!” From discovering Brian Setzer I dug through my parents’ record collections and found the Beatles and the Stones-oh, and Led Zeppelin, of course. When I first saw pictures of Jimmy Page playing his Les Paul, I mean, my God, talk about one cool-lookin’ guy! And I always thought to myself, How can he have the guitar strapped down to his knees and still play so great? He had that thing practically touching the floor but he still could play those riffs and solos. 

Did Page inspire you to pick up a Les Paul?
It was him, but it was also a bunch of people. All those heavy guys from the late ’60s and early ’70s, they were all playing Les Pauls. What I like about the guitar is that you can get a really beefy rhythm sound if you add a little distortion, and then you can also get the coolest lead sound. It’s got beautiful clean tones, too. There isn’t much the guitar can’t do.
 
What was your first Les Paul?
Actually, it was an Epiphone Les Paul, and then I moved on to the Gibsons, which are just extraordinary guitars. I haven’t played a bad one yet. I have two Les Paul Classics, and I just love them. I use them for recording and playing live. 

I understand that, early on, you had a pretty famous guitar teacher.
That’s right. When I was 13, just before I seriously got into the guitar, I did a movie with Roger Daltrey called Chasing Destiny. Funnily enough, my character in the movie had to play guitar, and since I wanted to look convincing, I thought, Who better to ask than Roger Daltrey? And the cool thing about Roger is, he’s always playing the guitar. That might surprise people. If he isn’t shooting a scene, he’s sitting in his dressing room or wherever, strumming the guitar and singing songs to himself. He was the greatest. He showed me some chords and how to look good playing the guitar. 

At the time, did you know about his musical legacy?
A little bit, but he was very modest when it came to talking about it. I remember asking him, “So, Roger, what was it like in the ’60s? It was just the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who.” And he was like, “Oh, no. You gotta go listen to Bob Dylan. You have to check out Hendrix. And Brian Wilson, you simply can’t forget about Brian Wilson.” Remember, I was 13, so for him to tell me all this stuff, it carried so much weight. Such a cool guy. 

That must have been amazing. But tell me the truth: Weren’t you wishing that it could’ve been Pete Townshend giving you guitar lessons?
(laughs) That’s funny. Townshend, my God, he’s another guitar player who totally rocks my world. I don’t know why I didn’t mention him. Sure, that would’ve been cool to learn a thing or two from Pete, but I can’t knock Roger. He was so great to me. I hope one day I can be telling some 13-year-old kid all of my stories of rock glory. 

Let’s talk about where you are in your career. You’re a teen star, or “tween” star, as they say, but I know you want to be taken seriously as a recording artist. How concerned are you that you’re not going to shake the Nick Jr. image?
Somewhat concerned. But if you look at the tween artists who are coming out with records, come on, their music isn’t going to hold up in five years. It won’t hold up in two. By design it isn’t meant to last. It’s flash-in-the-pan stuff; it’s “product.” That’s not the group of people I want to be associated with. On one hand, I’m in an enviable position because I have this supposed high visibility, but I realize it can be a cul de sac. I already feel pigeonholed as Drake from Drake & Josh. I just want depth. I want my music to mean something. I’m not ashamed of my TV career-it’s gotten me everything I have, and that includes my record deal-but I have so much more to offer than just Drake & Josh

What I have to do is try to move my audience along with me. Look at the Beatles: When they came out, they sold records to 13-year-old girls. Gradually, their music got deeper and their audience got older. If they would’ve come out with Sgt. Pepper a year after “She Loves You,” people would’ve thought they’d lost their minds. And the thing is, I do have older fans than some of the other tween stars. I have people come up to me who are 22, 23 years old-they started watching Drake & Josh at the very beginning-so I think I have a pretty good shot. I think, if I make the right music, they’ll still be fans of mine when they’re 30. 

As a musician/actor, what do you make out of Jared Leto? Apparently, he’s given up acting so that he can devote all of his time to his band, 30 Seconds to Mars.
I can understand him doing so. After being on the road this summer…it’s just the best. I love music more than anything else. This tour isn’t even over and I can’t wait to hit the road again. The rush you get from being in front of a crowd is way different, and better, than being in front of a camera. Recording music, playing live-I get to control my content. That’s way more satisfying than any script I could receive.