Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks Named Pfoho Faculty Deans
Harvard SEAS Faculty Reflect on Outgoing Dean, Say Successor Should Be Top Scholar
South Korean President Yoon Talks Nuclear Threats From North Korea at Harvard IOP Forum
Harvard University Police Advisory Board Appoints Undergrad Rep After Yearlong Vacancy
After Meeting with Harvard Admin on ‘Swatting’ Attack, Black Student Leaders Say Demands Remain Unanswered
“Experience it. Enjoy it. Just don’t fall for it.” So goes the tagline for “Almost Famous,” a movie in which the protagonist must negotiate the conflicting philosophies of a decadent world of rockstar debauchery and the intellectual gravity espoused by his mother. While characters find themselves increasingly caught up in the entrancing world of rock and roll, its risk and danger become clear by the film’s end.
Members of Harvard student bands face a similar dilemma. Though these students would like to engage with their passion for playing music at a serious level, they face pressing obstacles. The lack of institutional support, students’ academic and professional ambitions, and their other extracurricular activities stand in the way of full commitment to a band. A resultant wariness permeates Harvard’s student band scene.
“FOR THE CHICKS”
One stop away from the Harvard Square T-stop, near local concert hubs the Middle East and T.T. the Bears, the Harvard undergraduate band Third Rail is conducting their Wednesday night practice. Third Rail is a cover band that plays a wide variety of famous pop tunes—everything from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” to Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”—though they are hoping to transition to playing their own music sometime next fall. As I sit and watch them play in a building of band practice spaces, smoke and heavy metal hang in the air. Third Rail complains about the perils of being in a student band at Harvard.
“There are plenty of musically talented people at this school, but it takes a lot of energy to make a band,” says Warren S. Loegering ’12, guitarist for Third Rail. “You can’t be a band by yourself.”
“There are six or seven of us, and scheduling is a massive challenge,” adds Samuel R. Berman-Cooper ’12, the band’s bassist who is currently taking a year off from school in order to properly devote himself to Third Rail.
“Speaking of, I can’t do any of those times,” interjects another musician. The whole band erupts into a discussion on their respective schedules.
Indeed, for its musicians, being in Third Rail is the most important in an array of other commitments. From coping with the conflicts of the afterschool tutoring program Keylatch, the a cappella group the Harvard Krokodiloes, lab assistant positions, and other extracurriculars, Third Rail members must perform logistical gymnastics in order to find enough time for practice.
The money they have earned from playing monthly performances at Tommy Doyle’s and other private gigs in Boston-area fraternities, sororities, and Harvard final clubs has enabled them to afford their own space. “We have a lot of equipment and we need to have a place where we can store it. We need to have somewhere to put the gear. This place provides that as well as a place to practice and record,” says Alexander E. Trevino ’12, their drummer. “There are places you can play on campus … I don’t want to sound like I’m whining but they aren’t organized, accessible, or well-maintained. If you leave your stuff in there it might get stolen or broken. It’s a slew of problems. I don’t know exactly how to solve them but they’re there.”
Rising to meet the challenges of orchestrating a student band, however, Third Rail members do demonstrate dedication to playing music. “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else—anything else would be boring,” says Berman-Cooper. “I know music is what I want to do. Regardless of degree, I’ll do music for a few years and try to make it in the music industry.”
Most other members of Third Rail echo Berman-Cooper’s sentiment. Barthalomew A. Sillah ’12, however, a Human Development and Regenerative Biology concentrator, has a different take on the matter. “See, I don’t do the whole starving artist thing like them,” he says. “I like just doing what I do and having a place to perform.” Sillah has doubts about pursuing a career in music.
Nonetheless, Third Rail agrees on certain benefits presented by being in a college band. “Why be in a band?” Loegering asks rhetorically. “Because I love playing music. And obviously for the chicks.”
PICKING UP THE PIECES
Conflicting commitments and schedules, however, deter many Harvard musicians from making bands as cohesive and committed as Third Rail. Even when enough musical ambition abounds to support multiple bands at Harvard, it ebbs and flows with the passing years.
“The problem with all the organizations centered around rock music on campus is that—unlike those tied to classical music groups—they usually live and die on one or two people, one band, etc.,” says Daniel J. Thorn ’11. Thorn is a guitarist for The Sinister Turns, a band composed of one Harvard undergraduate, two graduates, and one other Bostonian that plays gigs around Boston. “The Harvard College Alliance for Rock and Roll (HCARAR) was really good when [its members] were around, and after they graduated, it died.” HCARAR formerly worked to help musicians form bands, find them sound equipment and practice spaces, and organize concerts, though it is no longer active. “There’s kind of a cyclical interest in being in a band on campus,” says Thorn.
Veritas Records, a student-run record label that recorded music in a studio in the Quad and helped students learn how to use their equipment, has a similar history. “Veritas Records would have a battle of the bands at the Queen’s Head back in the day. But when the class of ’07 graduated, people didn’t keep it together,” says Thorn. “They never last. Once that one band graduates no one really knows how to pick up the pieces.”
MAKE US FAMOUS
As an extension to this lack of structural organization, student musicians on campus often seek to play in a band informally. Take the folk-bluegrass band Plump Concord, for example. The band focuses much of their energies on finding creative places in which to perform, rather than creating a fan base or writing their own music. “The most interesting aspect of us performing is that we do a lot of busking,” says Denison. This means playing in outdoor or underground spaces, such as a corridor near Veggie Planet that Denison thinks has particularly good acoustics.
Busking is not all Plump Concord does, however. “We played at Arts First, which was literally the first performance we ever had,” says Denison. “We are doing this [interview] for fame, and we are hoping that you’ll make us famous,” she adds jokingly. In fact, Denison views her band in different terms. “It’s a chance to hang out with friends but also a chance to explore and have fun,” she says.
This nonchalance can draw ire from more seriously aspirational performers. “People will get together and practice for Cultural Rhythms, one battle of the bands, and I wish they had the wherewithal to stick with it,” says Isaac S. Shivvers ’10-’11. Shivvers has played with a number of Harvard bands, including Third Rail, and took time off school to go on tour with a band. He feels that Harvard’s band culture is largely disappointing. “The only limit to the Harvard music scene is the students … More people have to want there to be a music scene,” he says. “More good individual musicians come out of here than good bands.” Even Thorn, who has looked outside the student bubble to find a more serious music group, is not pinning his future to his band. “Even though I don’t plan on making a career on [music], I like taking it as far as I can while keeping my day job,” he says.
KEEP SAYING YES
Far from the Harvard sandbox of standard opportunities, in which success in careers like consulting or finance can come quickly and right after graduation, uncertainty characterizes the future of college bands. “There’s a saying in the music business that you can live off philosophies and creeds but you can’t eat off them,” says Damon H. Krukowski ’85 of Galaxie 500, the seminal slowcore band of the late ’80s and early ’90s that played together at Harvard. For Krukowksi, now an Expository Writing preceptor, success in music was unexpected. “After college, [music] strangely became a profession,” he says of his postgraduate years.
At that time in his life. Krukowski was studying in the Harvard Comparative Literature and English graduate programs. “I never made the decision to pursue a career in music, but it just sort of happened. Our band kept getting bigger and bigger, and we just kept saying yes.” Like members of many student bands today, Krukowski did not expect his passion for music to turn into something much greater.
However, a lot has changed in the Harvard student body since Krukowski’s undergraduate days. He claims that there was less overriding ambition in the student body than there is today. “It was a lot more normal to be without a sense of direction, and the music scene was particularly a concentrated group without direction,” he says. The increasingly professional aspirations of Harvard musicians today are a new problem in fostering successful student groups. “We didn’t really have a sense of what else we could do,” says Krukowski of his generation’s career choices after graduation. “There wasn’t really a network of grants and internships. There was no plan.”
Despite the lack of today’s competitive professional sensibility, Krukowski claims that undergraduate bands still faced significant issues. “[My undergraduate band Speedy and the Castanets] couldn’t get a lot of shows. I think we played every show we could and that wasn’t a lot,” Krukowski says. “There was a battle of the bands every year and one year we entered and came in last. So we were not getting gigs.”
For folk singer David A. Wax ’05—whose band, The David Wax Museum, was recently featured in the New Yorker—time at Harvard was explicitly for academic pursuits outside of his passion for music. After spending two years at Deep Springs College, he says, “I came to value my role as a musician in the community.” However, he decided to postpone doing music full-time. “I thought that it made more sense to pursue a more academic path for the rest of my undergrad years,” says Wax of his decision to attend Harvard. “There wasn’t really a happening music scene [at Harvard],” he adds.
For Wax, then, something about the idea of Harvard itself indicated a departure from his talent and passion. “I was so consumed with my academic work that music fell by the wayside at the time,” he says. The victory of academics over music at Harvard is possible even for an aspiring musician with the tenacity and commitment to succeed.
SPARK OF DEVOTION
For those willing to brave disappointment, however, the music scene at Harvard and around Boston can be an enduring resource. After traveling on a 66 bus half-full of hipsters to Allston, I walk down a winding residential street and see a 20-something serenading his skinny-jeaned girlfriend with an acoustic guitar, pass by multiple houses emanating loud music, and push through a cloud of smokers to enter a dimly-lit basement. This is Wadzilla Mansion, an underground music venue that Socrates R. Cruz ’06 and his roommates used to run out of their basement.
The walls of Wadzilla are covered in murals painted by local artists and friends, red lanterns cast an eerie, grungy glow around the venue, and state-of-the-art sound equipment hangs from the ceiling. Cruz’s band Moniker is playing for their Happy Birthday show, in celebration of the one-year anniversary for throwing shows at Wadzilla.
“I’m still academically interested, but—oddly enough—being at Harvard led me to realize my true passion,” says Cruz of his transition from the academic world to the harsh realities of the music business. “I’ve played music all my life. While I was at Harvard I concentrated on other things. I was in the Harvard mariachi group [Mariachi Veritas], but things didn’t come together ’til my senior year with [my band] Major Major. Instead of writing a thesis, I started a band and wrote a lot of music.”
Cruz decided to forgo his interest in research in Latin America after graduation, and instead moved to New York to try to make it as a musician. “New York is dead,” says Cruz, who moved back to the Harvard area after two years. He has been out of college for nearly five years now without taking his music too far outside his basement. However, Moniker does play shows around Boston and is planning to embark on a 20-city tour. The decision may be a timely one; while I was fortunate to have visited Wadzilla on February 12, the venue was shut down on February 16 by the City of Boston due to permit issues.
Cruz, who until recently was in a band with Crimson arts editor Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey ’13, represents something unique in the extended Harvard music scene. That he has left behind academia to pursue his musical dreams demonstrates his commitment to pursuing music as a career. Despite his lack of commercial success thus far, Cruz is sustained by his engagement with music. Watching him play at his own personal venue and interact with artists and fans, it appears clear that he is happy with the choices he has made.
“You have to go out and do things on your own,” says Cruz of succeeding with a band. “You have to create your own opportunities.” Though the Harvard music scene provides its members with opportunities for fun and experimentation, this essential ingredient of serious independent effort is broadly lacking in the music culture here. All it would take to reshape this reality is the spark of devotion.
—Staff writer Kelsey C. Nowell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.