Great Unknowns Reintroduced

On Friday, Dec. 3, one of Harvard’s more successful alumni bands convened at the Lizard Lounge to play a set of heart-felt and polished songs off of their debut album, Presenting the Great Unknowns. This 10-song collection of “rock music for the road,” as lead singer and rhythm guitarist Becky Warren dubs it, was released by Daemon Records on Dec. 7.

“We use a lot of traditional instruments—mandolin, banjo, accordion—and a lot of our songs are about traveling,” Warren says. One of her original goals was to create a 12-song concept album with each track featuring a different city. Though she did not achieve the feat, she says the influence of that idea is nonetheless evident on the Great Unknowns’ debut.

Warren, along with Mike J. Palmer ’03 (guitarist and Eliot House alum), Andy C. Eggers ’99 (drummer/mandolinist and Mather alum) and Altay Guvench ’03 (bassist and Pforzheimer House alum) has constructed a group of strikingly diverse tracks, which share an underpinning sensibility and a roots-rock/Americana vibe that never sounds derivative despite occasional homage to early Wilco, Son Volt or Uncle Tupelo.

Their Lizard Lounge show marked only the third Great Unknowns concert and the first since June 2003. Eggers says geography has been a big obstacle for the group. “We’re always running around and since we live in different cities it’s been hard to play together,” he says. Given these difficulties, he proclaims that the band is “psyched to play this gig.”

Their excitement carried through in their vibrant performance at the Lizard Lounge. Though they don’t have a particularly physically dynamic stage presence (with the exception of guitarist Palmer), the Unknowns play their songs with a certain verve that suggests a band truly enjoying their music and performance.

The band hasn’t always played this “rock music for the open road.” Palmer confesses that the band’s roots lay in “playing some trippy hip-hop version of an Elvis Costello song and wanting to form a Beach Boys tribute band.”

Warren adds that the group didn’t have a specific direction in mind. “We basically just practiced,” he says.

The Unknowns’ lax attitude towards self-promotion and development of a fan base is evident even today—Warren was painfully cautious about asking for fan e-mail addresses, apologizing by saying that she felt “sleazy” and “like [she] was coming onto the audience” by soliciting information.

The band has only recently begun their current forward-moving trajectory. Warren almost quit before the band had really gotten started, but was called back to the music through her obsession with a single album: Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. “Becky got really psyched about it and got us all really psyched about it,” Eggers says, “though Altay was really skeptical at the start.”

Williams’s recording made Warren realize that all she wanted to do was write that album. She wrote a letter to the band explaining why she felt they had to do Presenting the Great Unknowns. Only then did the band’s sound start to come together to lay down the foundation for their current musical sensibility.

From this auspicious start, the band recorded an album and played two shows, the first at Harvard’s own Kirkland Café.

“Essentially, we got together, then we all moved apart,” Warren says. The logistical strain of having members in different cities was felt by the band, but they dealt with this by recording most of Presenting over three days in December of 2002. However, scheduling conflicts meant it would take over a year to finish production.

The band recorded almost all of the album at Quad Sound Studios in the basement of Pfoho. The four all met though QSS, and talk about it with a certain degree of nostalgia. Warren, a Wellesley student at the time, was recording and needed the musicians to fill out her sessions and play a couple of gigs with her. Guvench still has a formal association to Quad Sound as the current director of their semesterly comp.

One might wonder how the Unknowns were able to publicize their album enough to strike a record deal despite their confessed aversion towards self-promotion. The answer lies in a local singer-songwriter named Rose Polenzani, whom Guvench knew through a friend of the band.

Polenzani gave a copy of the album to the owner of her label, Daemon Records—who happened to be Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. The disc was a burned copy of the recently finished master disc. “Mike’s cell phone number [was] written on the top in a Sharpie,” Warren nostalgically recalls.

After two weeks, Ray called Palmer, who stunned Warren and Guvenchwith the news. “We spent several months not even telling people that [the album] had happened because we thought it was going to fall through,” Warren says.

Now, a little further along in their relationship with Daemon, the Unknowns still seem remarkably positive towards the label. “We are incredibly lucky that Daemon has been so willing to work with us given that we all live in different cities,” they all agreed.

When asked about the difficulties of balancing a career in the music industry with a more conventional occupation, Eggers replied that “almost every musician has a day job of some kind…for example, I have a day job that’s really flexible and I’m a grad student, but really everybody does something along those lines.” Regardless of their burgeoning musical career, the bills still have to be paid.

Nonetheless, the simpler joy of playing music was apparent from the looks on the Unknowns’ faces this past Friday. They enjoyed an almost Last Waltz-like vibe as the Lizard Lounge was packed with friends both past and present. Warren, at one point, stated that she wanted the band to be thought of as “the band with a heart of gold.” It seems as if a road of possibility stretches ahead for the Great Unknowns.