The lights in Woolsey Hall are hot as we break into our third song. A sea of faces, many masked or painted, gazes up at us with some interest. Woolsey’s notoriously poor acoustics mean I can’t hear myself singing, or the bassist playing, or really anything except my guitar and the drummer. Somehow, we hold it together anyways, and walk off after four songs to a smattering of applause.
Maybe the best thing about opening for the Yale Symphony Orchestra Halloween Show is that, for as long as our band stays together, we will be able to say that our first show sold out a 2,700-person auditorium in eight minutes. So maybe we weren’t the main cause of that demand. And so what if no one was paying attention. When you’re in a band at Yale, you count your victories where you can.
It has become a Halloween tradition for independent student bands to open for the YSO’s vaunted performance alongside a silent film. This year students trickled in dressed as Red Sox players and University administrators, finding their seats as we began our set. For undergraduate bands The Teaspoons, Low Strung and Rain Brigade — and for my own fledgling band — the WYBC Yale Radio-organized Halloween pre-show was an unusual moment near the spotlight.
The narrative of Yale’s meager student band scene is a well-documented one — each year, campus publications report on the dearth of venues and lack of interest. While musical groups with historical precedence on campus, such as the Whiffenpoofs and Tangled Up in Blue, boast a strong alumni community and attract crowds with ease, it is more difficult for independent bands who form and break up in four-year cycles. And without a pre-established fan base, many of these groups graduate without ever fully getting on their feet.
Sitting at a table in the Trumbull basement, The Teaspoons’ Tommy Bazarian ’15 spoke about the struggles of being an independent band on a campus where so many other musical groups have established themselves within the Yale tradition.
“There’s a lot of amazing music, which I really love, but it often crowds out the thing that we like to do,” he said. “We basically make it happen for ourselves.”
According to Max Weinreich ’16, assistant director of records for WYBC Yale Radio, the “obvious problem” is the absence of suitable venues available for groups like The Teaspoons to perform in.
But the simple explanation that there’s nowhere to play is unsatisfactory. On Thursday night, we certainly had a venue — we had the biggest and best hall at Yale. But if the stage in Woolsey gave us a platform, it also gave us perspective: the crowd was more focused on their phones and their friends than on Pineapple Rock (our band).
Maybe we weren’t good enough. But I got the sense that we could have been U2 in disguise and people still would have texted until the YSO came on. It’s just not in people’s minds to listen. Rock ’n’ roll needs more than a home on campus. It needs a hand.
What kind of boost does the music scene need? According to Colin Groundwater ’15, “It’s a big question.”
He is someone who spends a lot of time pondering that very dilemma. “I certainly think a greater diversity of venues would be helpful,” he said. “The other thing that’s hard, too, is that the campus music scene is rooted in a DIY ethic.”
Groundwater was echoing Bazarian: we’re on our own. It’s not just a question of having venues, Groundwater continued. People are not aware of the scene, nor does it make itself known.
My limited experience on the Yale band scene would lead me to agree. Pineapple Rock only earned the opportunity to open for the YSO show by winning a poll on Facebook. The poll, YSO President Claire Xue ’14 said, was meant as a way to select bands popular with the student body. At the time of the poll, our band had never practiced together, let alone played a show. And as if that shouldn’t have adequately disqualified us, we called ourselves Pineapple fucking Rock.
But thanks to a Facebook/email get-out-the-vote operation on par with that of the Ward 1 campaigns, we canvassed our way onto the program for one of the year’s most highly anticipated events. When a group like ours wins a contest aimed at choosing Yale’s most popular student bands, you begin to wonder where the bar for ‘popular’ is set for independent bands at Yale.
WATCHING NATHAN CAMPBELL
WYBC’s Colin Groundwater ’14, who organized the Halloween pre-show along with Max Weinreich, said he hoped the exposure it offered might help student groups expand the scope of their limited audiences.
“Did I expect screaming fans? No. You’re opening the Halloween show,” Groundwater explained. “My expectation was a large room full of open ears, and I think that’s what we got.”
The chance to play for a new and fresh audience wasn’t lost on Bazarian,who appreciated the chance to perform a “more anonymous” show. The Teaspoons don’t often do covers live; in front of such an unfamiliar audience, though, they added a cover of the Beatles’ “I Want You/ She’s So Heavy” to make their brand of folk more accessible.
But winning the crowd over doesn’t require changing your sound, and for the most part, Bazarian’s group didn’t. He and Groundwater agreed that live music from an enthusiastic and talented group can appeal to an audience broader than those who might consider themselves fans of a certain genre.
“The cool thing about live music is you can really get into something that you wouldn’t necessarily buy on iTunes,” Bazarian said.
A strong campus scene isn’t simply a function of the overlap in taste between those making the music and those listening to it. The YSO show gave bands the chance to convince students skeptical of bluegrass or garage rock that a bluegrass or garage rock show can still be fun. Groundwater believes that passionate performances, rather than simply songs with broad appeal, are key to developing the campus scene.
Whenever Groundwater brought up showmanship, he cited Nathan Campbell ’14 with near-reverence. Campbell’s band, Sister Helen, plays on campus a few times a year. While Groundwater acknowledged that Sister Helen’s style of music — “scary prog rock” — may not attract the average Yale student, the band has achieved quasi-fame through its captivating live performances, the power of which Groundwater can attest to.
“I will never forget my first 216 show,” he recalled. “I will never forget watching Nathan Campbell rip his jacket off, and then fight it, and howl into a microphone. Did it scare me? Yes. Will I always remember it? Absolutely.”
Halfway through our interview, someone started practicing piano in the Jonathan Edwards College common room. With the sound overwhelming Groundwater’s voice, we were forced to move. It was the Yale band scene in miniature: two self-professed rock snobs struggling to make themselves heard over a virtuosic, but thunderous, piano.
ODD ONES OUT
“Team effort: let’s not sound like assholes this time,” Jake Backer ’14 said to his bandmates at a table in Bass Café, where I had sat down with the members of Rain Brigade.
Backer, in a sweatshirt, jeans and a weekend’s worth of scruff, was referencing an interview they had done last week. According to a laughing Ethan Schneider ES ’14 (also a member of The Teaspoons), the piece “didn’t make [them] sound awesome.”
But despite all that, Rain Brigade exuded the character of a quintessential Yale band: resigned or even content to play bars and distant basements, they survey their own situation with a cutting but lighthearted wit — all the while speaking in hushed tones about the independent music scene at Wesleyan, where “If you aren’t in a band, you’re the odd one out.”
I’m a neophyte of the Yale band crowd, and while Groundwater is one of its champions, the four seniors who make up Rain Brigade have been a part of it for four years. At the Halloween show, Rain Brigade found themselves playing first at the SSS simulcast despite being the most senior band of the four selected to play. They discussed their show’s reception with characteristic humor.
“If Facebook likes are any indication …,” Gelernter began, “— we got three,” Backer interjected.
The organizers and musicians I interviewed all agreed: it’s the quality of the shows rather than the popularity of the genre that makes for a great rock scene. Some people who love rock will show up no matter how far off campus you put the radio station’s house; others wouldn’t show up to Woodstock if you gave them a free ticket. It’s those in the middle, of which there are many, that define a scene’s success. Those are the people that the YSO show, that great performances, are supposed to appeal to — the Taylor Swift fans who Nathan Campbell manages to enchant with his “scary prog rock.”
But no matter how insistently you pursue that section of the student body, there’s no guarantee that you will be successful.
“The thinking sophomore year was, ‘We’re gonna do the YSO show, and then people will start knowing who we are,’” Gelernter says. “And that didn’t happen.”
Half an hour before Pineapple Rock’s first public performance, there was no functioning PA system in Woolsey Hall. The microphones and the speakers, both provided by the Undergraduate Organizations Committee, had incompatible input jacks.
“Thank god Tim Follo [’16] thought to just stick the wrong kind of cable in the speaker,” Groundwater recalled, explaining the eventual improvised solution for the equipment problems that nearly derailed the entire pre-show — which every band interviewed made a point of noting. Follo, who was managing sound for the SSS simulcast, said the equipment had been borrowed from five different places.
By all accounts, running this year’s show felt like flying blind, even though the pre-show has been a tradition for years. But it’s always been chaotic. Last year, the stage in SSS was managed by WYBC, the stage in Woolsey by 1701 Records. This year, bands who opened were forced to pay for tickets to a show they were playing in. These issues all point to a larger one, a deeper campus unfamiliarity with the very notion of an indie rock scene. We aren’t used to making rock music at Yale, and we aren’t used to listening to it. That unfamiliarity itself is the result of multiple factors undermining the development of the Yale indie scene.
When I asked Rain Brigade if they thought more places to play were necessary, Schneider responded, “Can you just put in a laugh for that question?”
But to stop at that misses the larger point. The lack of venues is a symptom as much as a component of a cycle in which student apathy, physical space and a lack of new bands combine to keep the scene quiet.
Backer, who’s seen this play out firsthand, explained the situation. “There aren’t enough spaces for the bands who want to play, but there aren’t enough bands to justify more spaces,” he said.
And when you have neither bands nor spaces, as the students interviewed demonstrated, it’s hard to attract a potential audience. Without an audience, bands don’t form, and the cycle perpetuates itself. It’s not simply that the lack of physical space stifles the formation of bands on campus, and this is a decidedly different explanation from those that have been offered in the past. It seems likelier that the cycle would be broken with the formation of more bands as opposed to the construction of new venues — there is more motivation to carve out spaces when there are groups to fill them.
But Yale students don’t form bands like students at other schools. We’re busy. When I sent my bandmates a Doodle poll to find available rehearsal times in the weeks before the show, it took only a few seconds of looking at the results to determine that there was not a single hour for the entire week of October 7th when all three of us were free.
Rain Brigade’s Sam Gelernter sympathized. “In order to play music and to play in a band, you have to be ready to devote a lot of time,” he said. “There’s not a lot of people, especially in that type-A environment, who are willing to spend that much time on music.”
Backer interjected: “On rock music.”
Yalies are willing to devote time to classical or jazz or a capella, but not to rock. Being in an independent student band is seen by many as an “opportunity cost,” Schneider said. “I think that Yale students have this complex where they really need to feel that they’re accomplishing things,” Weinreich said. “Starting a band even if you don’t think you’re going to have much of an audience just doesn’t really strike me as a very common thing to happen here.”
As a veteran of Yale’s independent music scene, Backer has reason to be discouraged.
“Honestly, after four years of wishing it would grow, I have no hope,” he said.
Some of Yale’s more prominent bands — like Sister Helen and Rain Brigade — will dissolve when their senior members graduate this year. While Groundwater said he doesn’t yet see new bands taking the place of those that have left, he is “excited to see what the abyss spits back at us.”