Ever wonder what exactly English concentrators do after they graduate? John T. Drake ’06 ended up working for Harmonix Sound Systems—the Cambridge-based company located one floor above Walgreens in Central Square, which made the music video games Rock Band, Rock Band 2, and Beatles Rock Band. After working on publicity and marketing for Beatles Rock Band, he eventually got a chance to meet some of the real Beatles at the annual E3 Video Game Expo.
“They were both really nice guys, and it was great to just hang out with them and their families. We ended up taking a few pictures together where I was between Ringo and Paul—they sent me the one where they look great and I look Photoshopped in,” says Drake modestly.
Sitting in the same booth beside Drake in the Andala Coffee Shop in Central Square are fellow Harmonix employees Jon H. Carter ’06-’07, a fellow English concentrator, and Matt C. Boch ’06-’07, a VES concentrator; all three are also members of the Somerville-based indie-pop band the Main Drag. Carter and Boch, dressed in hoodies and graphic t-shirts, and Drake in jeans and a t-shirt, look the part of musicians off the gig. They reflect on their beginnings as the post-punk band The Blanks, its evolution into the Main Drag, and the future as they know it.
FROM THE ADVOCATE TO THE MIDDLE EAST
Even before the first day of the Freshman Arts Pre-Orientation Program, Drake, Boch, and Carter had begun to talk about music online over a Yahoo! group. By the time the Freshman Talent Show rolled around, the first incarnation of the Blanks had formed, performing Prince’s “When Doves Fly” on the steps of Memorial Church. Highlights of freshman year included a Valentine’s Day show at the Advocate (“We played songs with ‘love’ in the title for an hour and a half—it was great,” says Drake) and a show at the Spee, opening for what would be one of the last gigs of the Exploding Hearts, whose members died in a tragic bus accident a week later.
“We wanted to grow and develop in a different direction, and also realized after the first two years that we had to try to play off-campus more,” says Drake.
“If you’ve got the same 60 friends going to all your gigs, eventually your market base is going to just graduate and disappear,” says Boch.
The band soon found work playing in venues around Cambridge such as T.T. the Bear’s Place and the Middle East. Over time, another musical group began to emerge out of these three core members—the Main Drag.
As they continued to write music and play gigs, the members of the Main Drag eventually recorded several albums, including “Yours as Fast as Mine” and “You Are Underwater.”
“We record everything by ourselves using our own equipment, and we send out the material to get mastered by professionals,” says Carter.
The Main Drag even began touring, although Drake was hesitant to call these trips across the East Coast tours.
“They were more like sprints, you know, going from venue to venue in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, etc.,” he says.
But on a recent tour that included cities across Canada, the members of the Main Drag found their music more widely recognized than ever. Having full albums available on their website and as downloadable, playable songs in the Rock Band games helped spread the word for the Main Drag.
Drake recalls a memorable show in Calgary.
“Everyone seemed to know the words to our songs, and when I talked to people after the show, they said they had heard about us from Rock Band,” says Drake.
But how exactly did two English concentrators and one VES concentrator from Harvard go from playing weekend gigs at the Advocate to working on a best-selling video game franchise?
HAND-WRITTEN TO VIRTUAL SET-LISTS
As they see it, Boch led the Main Drag into the business of developing music video games. Boch worked as a video jockey around Boston and met a Harmonix employee at work. Based on his VES background, he was recruited after graduation to work on developing the hardware for Rock Band, including the physical guitars and drum sets used to control the in-game instruments. At the time, Harmonix had fewer than 100 employees.
“As Harmonix grew, I just tried to get all the friends in I could,” says Boch.
Soon Carter was hired to work in project management and production work, while Drake was hired to work in marketing and public relations. The work wasn’t easy. Early on, they spent anywhere from 60 to 100 hours making sure the newest Rock Band games were on schedule in development.
“I wasn’t prepared for the day-to-day life; working at Harmonix is very different from playing with the Main Drag, because the Main Drag wasn’t a daily grind,” says Carter.
There were other major differences between Harvard undergrad life and professional life.
“After college, it’s no longer like ‘I’ll see you in French section once a week, then I don’t have to think about French for a week, maybe drink Thursday night, etc.,’” says Drake.
“We had to deal with each other less in college. When you’re not in class, school is pretty much a social atmosphere, but it’s completely different out of school,” says Boch.
CENTER STAGE IN CENTRAL SQUARE
Did a Harvard education play into their success as a band and as full-time Harmonix employees?
“I have to say that being in section was great prep for being persuasive in meetings,” says Carter.
“Three things I learned in section: being prepared, being respectful, being persuasive. I also learned not to take things too seriously studying English ... it’s not like heart surgery,” says Drake.
It seems that these Harvard grads have very few regrets about where they ended up.
“We picked well to be involved in one industry which is totally dying, but another that is totally booming,” says Boch. Drake and Carter nod thoughtfully in agreement.
“Now that it’s the 21st century—to sound grandiose about it—we can see in real time the new ways that people are engaging in music. It’s pretty awesome,” says Carter.
“It’s pretty amazing how things have turned out. I can play a video game of a song I wrote in my dorm room in 2004 on my iPhone, which didn’t even exist then. It makes me feel old,” says Drake.
As we parted ways, I asked if anything was to be said about the growing media attention for the Main Drag and the members who made it happen.
“We’re just some kids from Harvard who work in video games,” says Drake, smiling.