Rocking the Ivies

From the Bands:

Theo Spielberg – Baby I Don’t Mind

Theo Spielberg – Icestorm Coming

Ryan Harper – The Morning Air

Ryan Harper – Paraselene

Ryan Harper – Snow-Covered Eyes

David Kant – I’ve Found Our Documents

Meet the Battle Kites: Mai, Ryan, Marissa, Ben and Chris. Three days ago they were called Portico, but never mind that. Now they’re the Battle Kites. And they’re here to rock you.

Of course, there are a number of obstacles to this plan — and settling on a name is the least of them. Where to perform? When to rehearse, in between school and extracurriculars? And how to combine musical influences like Yo La Tengo, My Bloody Valentine and Talulah Gosh while still maintaining a sense of humor about themselves?

The Battle Kites united in early November. Singer Mai Wang ’10 and guitarist Ryan Harper ’10 met while square dancing on a glee club retreat, and the rest of the band fell into place through a fortuitous convergence of mutual acquaintances.

The motley circumstances of their meeting are in keeping with their overall feel. After all, they rehearse in a humble Vanderbilt common room, complete with the requisite hotel-reject sofa (“Sorry, that smells,” Harper apologized). There’s a stack of D.S. books on the mantel and a bike with a precarious kickstand a few feet away from the coffee table. CBGB it’s not.

As the band begins to play, though, they manage to transcend their surroundings. Their sound is a dreamy haze, sweetly melodic but awash in distortion. The rhythm section may be a djembe drum, but somehow that potential liability works in their favor, giving the music an organic feel. Another liability — their lack of a bass player, unusual for a five-piece lineup — is dealt with by reworking the bass line into a violin part for Marissa Grunes ’10.

In the middle of a song, Wang whips out a Moleskine notebook and starts playing with lyrics, thinking out loud as her band mates play on. Harper watches over her shoulder and they pause to discuss. When writing lyrics, either Harper or Wang tends to take the lead, but when writing music, they collaborate with guitarist Ben Lasman ’10.

The Battle Kites may only have two complete songs at the moment, but none of the members are new to music. Harper, Lasman and Wang all performed in bands in high school, and both Harper and Lasman have recorded original material. Lasman says it hasn’t been too difficult to find other Yalies interested in music and bands — “you just have to ask around.”

The Battle Kites are just one of the many groups of Yale musicians trying to figure out how to reach an audience, explore their craft and meet fellow would-be rock stars. But despite Yale’s manifold strengths in the arts, students in bands often find themselves on a surprisingly difficult path, prompting the question: Is Yale fundamentally incompatible with rock and roll?

“Good Times, Bad Times”

The freshmen of the Battle Kites may be optimistic about the opportunities available to musicians at Yale, but classmate Theo Spielberg ’10 isn’t so sure.

During high school, Spielberg played guitar and drums as part of several bands that performed on the Sunset Strip. As a Yale student, however, he’s found it hard to be part of a band, both because of scheduling conflicts and the difficulty of meeting potential collaborators. Growing up in Los Angeles, Spielberg says there was a “band-centric” culture that he finds “noticeably absent” in New Haven.

“There were a lot more venues that were bookable,” Spielberg said. “Also, there was a lot of healthy band competition and cooperation that went on.”

Ted Gordon ’08, editor-in-chief of the music magazine Volume, has been involved with several bands since coming to Yale. He has found, however, that the undergraduate music scene too often consists simply of jamming: Guys with guitars who get together to play from a shared knowledge of Led Zeppelin or the Beatles or mid-nineties alt-rock. But, while Gordon has played Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times” more times than he can count, he says that such jam sessions rarely lead to stable bands or original material.

This is probably because the typical Yale musician must choose between dabbling in myriad activities and throwing themselves whole-heartedly into a band. Gordon applauds recent graduates the Harlem Shakes and Thee Tenements for making the latter choice, though Shakes frontman Lexy Benaim ’06 points out that doing so was not without its costs.

“Trying to be in a professional band while you’re at college is like trying to make out with the sun,” Benaim said. “If you somehow achieve success, it’s gonna hurt.”

Perhaps the most pressing limitations on today’s fledgling scene, though, are the simple questions of space and money. Gordon notes that on campus, there’s virtually no place to practice or perform that’s not “small, shitty or hard to get.” And while some off-campus students have tried to host performances in their homes — Gordon notes the successful efforts of the Yalies who live at 109 Howe — the cost of hiring a band can be prohibitive.

Pete Feigenbaum ’05, who led Thee Tenements during his time at Yale, also cited the lack of resources and space at Yale as serious obstacles. He recalls, for example, absconding with practice room P.A. systems for off-campus shows and getting around restrictions by checking out practice room keys under friends’ names.

But Feigenbaum sees a certain level of inevitability in Yale’s limited scene. Given the University’s competitive academic environment — not to mention its status as a multi-billion dollar corporation — it seems an unlikely breeding ground for rock musicians. Students are admitted for their ability to write papers, solve problems and juggle a million extracurriculars, not to write songs, ooze charisma and pursue show business dreams. And besides, how genuine would a rock scene be if it was financed by an institution as staid as an Ivy League university?

“Going to college ain’t too rock ‘n’ roll to begin with,” he pointed out. “Convincing rock ‘n’ roll comes from desperation and the lack of other options, and almost everyone at Yale has a plethora of opportunities in their lives.”

“I want to be part of that.”

Several groups of students, however, are trying to envision a rock scene that takes into account Yalies’ many interests — and thus far, they’ve achieved a measure of success.

Last year, Patrick Dewechter ’09 and Andy Wagner ’09 played in a now-defunct rock band called Catch. Their friend James Pollack ’09 recalls seeing them practice in the L-Dub courtyard, surrounded by a flock of girls, and thinking “I want to be a part of that.” And as the three musicians got to know each other, they realized that student performers needed a more established way to find each other. Thus was The Bridge born.

A bimonthly open mic event, The Bridge’s founders hope to provide a place for students — including musicians, writers, actors and comedians — to perform and meet other performers. Held in the Saybrook 12-pack, where Dewechter and Wagner both live, it has a low-key, social atmosphere — people might come primarily to see their friends, but the organizers relish the inevitable mixing that takes place. In fact, Pollack notes that one of the distinctive qualities of The Bridge is that it doesn’t just attract the stereotypical rock-show crowd.

“Pat’s a rower,” he points out. “I play rugby.”

Pollack says they hope to draw students who are passionate about music, but who might not identify themselves primarily as musicians.

The Bridge has grown partially in collaboration with Torn Curtain, a new organization that’s similarly dedicated to promoting student artists. The brainchild of fellow musician David Kant ’08, Torn Curtain also aims to give an array of talented students the chance to perform.

“Although Torn Curtain has been created in response to [Yale’s] lack of a popular music scene, I don’t want to limit it exclusively to popular music or to music at all,” Kant said. “I want to open it up to contemporary music, poetry, comedy and essentially any performance art.”

Kant hopes to expand the ranks of both promoters and musicians affiliated with Torn Curtain and to stage an early-spring show in conjunction with The Bridge. In addition, he has been exploring the possibility of cosponsoring concerts with WYBC and getting student performers on the air.

In the same vein, Alice Wang ’08 is currently planning a magazine-format radio show on WYBC that would work in much the same capacity as The Bridge and Torn Curtain — broadcasting student work, but not exclusively pop music.

“My hope is that more students will begin to recognize the radio station as a legitimate venue for student expression,” Wang said. “I really believe that WYBC has the potential to be as effective as publications and performance spaces in terms of promoting and exhibiting student work.”

“Only in Dreams”

So far, The Battle Kites have played only two shows together. At one, a Weezer cover show, they performed the song “Only in Dreams”; at the second, they debuted original material. Both shows were held in the Calhoun Cabaret, a small, dank performance space located in the basement of Calhoun College, and sponsored by Torn Curtain or The Bridge.

The band plans to take advantage of the TD recording studio soon, but at the moment, they’re all juggling what Wang calls “lots of side projects” — Lasman, for instance, plays in a dance-hardcore band and Wang writes songs with another friend about such topics as Pocahontas and the Hudson River. At any rate, as freshmen, the members of The Battle Kites have plenty of freedom to explore their options, musical and otherwise.

The next step for The Bridge, though, its founders agree, is money: They plan to register as a student organization in the next year and begin seeking Yale funding. They’d also like to start a Web site, featuring show times for student performances and recording schedules for the Silliman and Timothy Dwight studios. Dewechter speculates that they could even have features modeled on purevolume.com and use a list of most-listened-to songs to determine headliners for Bridge-sponsored events.

One largely untapped resource for student musicians in search of funds may be the student activities fee. Committee for Campus-Wide Activities president Bill Fishel emphasizes that the fee, instituted at the beginning of last year, has created a great opportunity for those hoping to plan shows. The CCA, which is funded by the fee, awards grants for activities open to the entire campus.

“Not a lot of musicians consider us,” Fishel said. “I’d love to see as many as possible apply.”

It’s not clear what the future holds for The Battle Kites. Mai Wang says she loves the atmosphere of the off-campus shows she’s been to, and speaks hopefully of renting a house herself her junior year, providing a space where she can perform free from college bureaucracy. Looking beyond the next three and a half years, she and her band mates say that music is important, but it leads them in different directions. Wang says that she considers herself primarily a writer, but would love to tour with a band. Harper wants to write film scores. Lasman hopes to be a rock star or a novelist. Or, he adds quickly — as if to blunt the naked ambition of his first two choices — “a lazy mom.”

Yet despite what he said earlier about the ease of meeting fellow musicians, Lasman throws in a rather plaintive last-minute request.

“If you talk to any other bands,” he asks, “will you tell us about them?”

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