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While much media hoopla has been made over Rivers Cuomo’s time at Harvard last semester, many other, significantly younger, undergraduates have their own visions of rock stardom. Most of these dreams fade well before graduation, as consulting jobs and graduate school applications loom, and electric guitars and drum sets gather dust, waiting for their demotion to keepsakes mounted ironically on Brooklyn loft walls.
But some hardy souls look past the post-coital glow of Wall Street compensation packages and LSATs. Call them crazy. Call them naïve. Just don’t call them late…to rock.
If one thing is clear from the following profiles of alumni bands, it’s that there is no one archetypal “Harvard sound.” It is hardly surprising. The breadth of undergraduate musical interests on campus manifests itself in as many genres as there are bands on campus.
With alumni bands ranging from hip-hop crews with live instruments to folk rock ensembles, to Argentinean polka-fusion beatboxers (okay, that last one probably doesn’t exist...yet), Harvard alums seem stubbornly resistant to futile pigeonholing attempts.
Another layer of diversity can be seen in the varied stances these artists take towards the commercial aspects of their work. Some Harvard students make it their main life goal to get signed to a major label and tour the world, straight-up maxxin’ in stretch Hummers pouring Cris from their wrists.
Others are perfectly content to spend their artistic careers making 7” records in sets of 500 for a die-hard audience, or playing shows only in small groups of friends in a relatively small scene.
Many of the groups profiled here are wholly or partly recreational activities for their members, most of whom have day jobs. Some of them well on their way towards mainstream recognition, some are underground legends, some are defunct by this point, and others might as well be.
So if you’re looking for a step-by-step guide to TRL ubiquity or underground notoriety, look elsewhere (and be prepared to look forever). That’s not to say that nothing can be learned from these musical narratives.
Instead, what emerges from the variety of stories assembled here is that the most important step towards achieving fame and/or fortune in the music business is realizing that there is no one most important step. And that’s a real-life paradox that they won’t teach you about in Moral Reasoning cores.
—Will B. Payne
Lucky Dragons is the primary musical project of Luke Fischbeck ’00, a former DJ for WHRB’s Record Hospital.
Now a student at Brown’s Electronic Music graduate program, Fischbeck has toured across the country as the Lucky Dragons, collaborating with diverse artists to create a special form of organic glitchcore.
A collage of found sounds, spoken work, melodic noise, folk songs, and “beautytronics,” Lucky Dragons’ music can be found on a variety of limited-press 7”s, CDs distributed by “reverse shoplifting,” and numerous compilations.
The music, like the band, is small, personal, and tender—to give you an idea of how shows go, at a recent performance in WHRB’s studios, Luke had set up his laptop with a series of electrodes that he gave to different members of the audience, so that the small group of people could in effect “play each other,” music generated and shaped by the different combinations of body electricity
and circuits completed through people touching each other.
This emphasis on personal closeness and gentle care can be seen throughout the band’s aesthetic, from their hand-screened t-shirts to their individually numbered record releases. A good amount of their music can be downloaded for free from their website—after experiencing the sheer ecstatic aural blossoming of their music; you’ll never quite look at electronic music the same way again.
How “Harvard” is this? The three principle members of Invisible Downtown met on a FOP trip. Joseph M. Bell ’03, guitarist and songwriter for IDT, recalls: “I met a lot of my bandmates on FOP. I brought a backpack guitar, and we started jamming. We’ve been playing together since then.”
While most Boston area bands fret over their indie cred, Bell unapologetically proclaims mainstream aspirations: “We want to be big, dumb rock stars. We want to be able to have the freedom to make the records that we want to make and have them heard. We’re lucky in that we like and want to make pop music that lots of people can enjoy.”
Sonically, IDT resemble a number of middle nineties “grunge-lite” acts—Better Than Ezra in particular. But thematically, Bell and collaborating lyricist Michael J. Palmer ’03 channel the spirit of Michael Stipe circa “New Adventures In Hi-Fi.”
IDT keeps in touch with its Harvard roots by occasionally returning to the Quad.
Says Palmer, “There is a small community of bands that still use the sound studio in Pfoho,” which lets him “keep up with [Harvard] student bands.”
IDT’s debut LP is entitled “The Safest Place,” and the follow-up, “The Eighth Grade Talent Show,” is already well underway, with a tentative release date in June.
—Bernard L. Parham
The Indefinite Article
Abe Kinkopf ’04, says of his band The Indefinite Article’s: “We lie somewhere in between straight live hip-hop and crazy whacked-out rock-hop. Someone called us, ‘The Roots on crack, but in detox.’ That someone was me.”
The band, made up of Kinkopf as frontman/MC, with four Berklee students providing the live instrumentation, has been together since November of 2004 and plans on being around for a while longer.
“We all have this band penciled into our lives for the next two years,” said Kinkopf. “I would not still be [...] working a boring-ass job at a publishing company if I didn’t have these guys. I would be writing comedy in L.A. or children’s novels on the shore of some South American country.”
Dropping lyrical bombs like “I am Sam/Sam I am/Salmonella on your green eggs and ham,” over a mash-up of jazzy grooves, guitar crunch and reggae tinges, “Indef-Art” is never easy to describe musically, which suits Kinkopf just fine.
The thing about that makes Kinkopf proudest about his band “is that we are unapologetically off-center about our approach to hip-hop. Boston is actually a great place for this kind of music.” The Indefinite Article will be recording their debut EP this summer, as will Kinkopf, under the moniker Father Abraham. Check out www.indef-art.com for more info.
Comprising singer-guitarist Chris Snyder ’04, bassist Previn Warren ’04 and recently inducted drummer Joe Stroll, the States dabble in the kind of moody, airy rock that brings to mind bands such as Muse or a spacier Interpol.
Says Warren, “If Jimmy Page and Thom Yorke were pitted against each other in a Mexican wrestling match, and David Bowie was the referee, The States would be the outcome.”
Riding a wave of success after winning Buzzplay.com’s “Best Unsigned Band Competition” last year, the Brooklyn-via-Cambridge trio is hard at work.
Says Warren, “We are developing street teams around the Northeast that are helping build our local fan-bases. Our manager and lawyer, meanwhile, are working on securing us a record deal, hopefully at a major, within the year’s end.”
The band is currently playing a mix of venerable New York and Boston clubs, as well as less recognized venues.
“We’ve played all the hot ‘scene’ clubs in New York City but what we’ve enjoyed a lot more has been playing very local, random places like VFW Halls and teen centers, where kids come” to shows “because they love music and not because they want to be feel cool or part of a scene.”
The States will be at the Middle East in Cambridge on May 17th. Music and show dates can be found on www.thestatesonline.com.
Ensimismada began as a rock creation of four high school chums, Julia Jarcho ’04, Harry G. Kimball ’04, Zeke W. Reich ’04 and Michael Frank.
Upon entering college,
Jarcho says that the band was a bunch of kids who were “too self-conscious to be popular, too ironical to be punk, too awesome not to be friends.,” and feels that the band was often an outlet.
“I got to sing about sex in front of every guy I ever liked,” says Jarcho. “I also got to pretend to be a rock star, write songs without knowing any notes, and play the drums, which is the funnest thing in the world.”
Reich remembers the band as striving “to make music no one ever heard before.”
Part of that ambition came from Harvard, which gave him
“an education about the meaning of life and art,” says Reich.
For Reich, Ensimismada’s leading of a protest chant in front of Massachusetts Hall during the Living Wage Campaign was an incredibly moving experience.
Ensimismada is not currently playing together. “I’m in Berlin on a fellowship, being a lout, having done some playwriting/directing and trying to do more,” says Jarcho. “Harry is building stuff all over NYC. Zeke and Mike are being brilliant as always…” Although temporarily apart, this group remains tightly-knit.
—Candice N. Plotkin
Combining white Harvard men and hip-hop is a formula destined to surprise at the least. Witness Protection Program (WPP), an eight-man band of ’03 and ’04 graduates, used their unique angle as a sucker punch to “work against the institutional forces of the university,” according to vocalist Jacob Rubin. Performing hip-hop with live instruments, WPP members included MC Jacob Rubin ’03, MC Benny Peterson, drummer Peter Kennedy ’03, keyboardist Nicholas Britell ’04, bass David Sherman, Alan J. Wilkis ’04, DJ Cameron Kirby ’03 and percussionist Luke White’03 ’04.
WPP started playing at house parties and worked its way to opening for Jurassic 5 at Amherst. “After the night was over one of the guys from Jurassic 5 gave me a pound and I have never felt cooler in my life,” said guitarist Alan J. Wilkis ’04. While the band’s lyrics touched on everything from sex to the cosmos, Rubin says that their music was partially a response to Harvard’s suppressive forces. “We were trying to terrorize our audience in a soothing, ultimately helpful manner,” said Rubin. “We felt like the spirit of the students as often beaten into submission by the University hierarchy.”
WPP is no longer together but two of its members, Wilkis and Kennedy, have erected a new rock band from the WPP’s ashes known as A+P. Sherman is playing in the hip-hop band Audible Mainframe and Peterson is doing hip-hop in Boston as a solo artist.
The other members seem to have put music behind them for the present; Rubin is pursuing a graduate degree in writing, Britell is working in finance, Kirby is a paralegal, and White is in medical school.
—Candice N. Plotkin
What band would describe itself as “arrhythmic, atonal, amelodic”? Not any bands on VH1, that’s for damn sure: the closest thing to atonal on MTV is Britney Spears.
Then again, Eloe Omoe aren’t the type of band to give a damn. “We have really specific ideas about art and commerce,” says Tim Leanse, the drummer in the tandem avant-noise group for which Samantha B. Rowell ’97 plays bass.
Loud, low, and tumbling, the duo pummels audiences with a variety of noises that are all so disorienting that they find a place all their own, breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules. “We were both DJs on Record Hospital,” says Leanse, referring to Harvard’s own late-night radio show devoted to noise and hardcore b-sides from Korea, and other things you probably haven’t heard.
Now based out of Charlestown, the two fuse their brain-rattling thrash in a thrilling, visceral way that virtually guarantees them an RH-esque audience of those who love being challenged by what they listen to.
And how do they get by? “As far as being in a band and making money, it’s really kind of nebulous,” says Leanse, adding, “We both have day jobs.” Such is the fate of those who bear the uneasy listening cross.
—Henry M. Cowles
The Great Unknowns
“We weren’t expecting all of this.” Bassist Altay Guvench ’03 is quick to mention his disbelief at the sudden recent success of his band, the Great Unknowns.
Fronted by Becky Warren (a 2000 Wellesley graduate), the Great Unknowns had been playing together in various other groups (including the above-profiled Invisible Downtown and North House) for years before their current incarnation as a folksy rock quartet.
Although three out of four of the members went to Harvard (Guvench, guitarist Mike Palmer ’03, Andy Eggers ’99), the Great Unknowns have refrained from making any Ivy League references in their promotional literature, partly because, as Guvench mentioned, “we could see the argument against that” type of presentation for their target audience.
Given the buzz the band’s music alone has produced (radio stations as far away as Italy have given extensive play to their album), it seems like whipping out the H-Bomb would be superfluous at best. Indigo Girl Amy Ray was so taken with the band’s sound, upon hearing their debut album “Presenting the Great Unknowns” (released in December 2004) she almost immediately had them signed to her label, Daemon Records.
In fact, the band just finished a national tour with the Indigo Girls, an experience which Guvench describes as “awesome,” especially when the Girls invited the Great Unknowns onstage to join them for their song “Cold Beer and a Remote.”
One of the most surprising aspects of the band’s current success is that all of its members are actively pursuing other careers simultaneously, and haven’t had to completely abandon their other goals for the sake of their music.
Warren works as a museum educator in rural Georgia, Eggers is pursuing a PhD in government at Harvard, Palmer is working as a freelance filmmaker, and Guvench, while “still figuring out” his long-term career goals, is currently working for Media Unbound, a music recommendation start-up founded by several recent Harvard alums.
At this point, it appears that the Great Unknowns have been able to balance their musical and professional duties admirably, excelling in both “despite all our best efforts,” as quipped by an ever-humble Guvench.
—Will B. Payne
The name itself suggests a formula. Alan J. Wilkis ’04, a singer/songwriter/guitarist from New York with an incongruous drawl, idolizes Frank Zappa and calls Bach “the shit.”
Wilkis proudly calls Kennedy “a nasty drummer,” while Kennedy admires his bandmate’s lyrics. “We gravitated toward each other” after meeting at a jazz show in Winthrop House, remembers Wilkis. The duo released their first album, “A + P Rocks,” last autumn.
A + P’s website lists dozens of “influences” ranging from Björk to Metallica to Johnny Cash. Recently, Wilkis has been composing a love song using the “cool rhythmic patterns” he admires in heavy metal, “only making it sound pretty instead of scream-y and angry.”
Kennedy prefers performance to writing (“more Alan’s territory”) or being in the studio, (“tense, even sterile sometimes.”) and would “jump at the opportunity” to be a full-time musician.
Currently based in New York, A + P plans to expand its performance circuit this year, with concerts throughout the Northeast.
Returning to their college roots, A + P is planning a mid-June show at the SkyBar in Somerville. Their album will be on sale at www.cdbaby.com. Some tracks are available at www.myspace.com/aplusp.
—Laura E. Kolbe
The title of Bishop Allen’s debut album may be “Charm School”, but co-frontman Christian T. Rudder ’98 (and founder of the wildly successful website thespark.com) insists that it is not a winking reference to his alma mater: “[Charm School] is not an allusion to Harvard. Harvard is definitely not a charm school—if anything it’s the opposite.”
Lack of grace notwithstanding, Harvard played an integral role in Bishop Allen’s genesis. Rudder met his future collaborator, Justin A. Rice ’99, in the basement of Pennypacker, where both honed their musical sensibilities as disc jockeys for WHRB’s
“Record Hospital” department.
“We learned a lot about music from Record Hospital, and we certainly wouldn’t be in this band without that experience.”
Rudder describes Bishop Allen’s sound as “pop/rock” and cites Blondie as an influence. Nevertheless, tracks from Charm School like “Little Black Ache,” “Eve of Destruction,” and “Busted Heart” evoke “The Moon and Antarctica”-era Modest Mouse.
Bishop Allen is currently in the process of recording a follow-up to “Charm,” entitled “Clementines.” Rudder promises an improved, if familiar, experience: “I guess [‘Clementines’] is similar to the last record, but better. It has better production—not slicker—just richer, fuller, and livelier.”
Bishop Allen will embark on a national tour in support of “Clementines” this July.
—Bernard L. Parham
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