The last time Harlem Shakes played Yale, they did so in November 2006 in the Ezra Stiles Dining Hall to launch then-nascent music magazine Volume. Its first encore since sharing the stage with Girl Talk that night will come in April, when the homegrown rock quintet takes its largest stage yet in the Elm City.
On the afternoon of April 29, before thousands of exuberant college students, the Shakes will do what many Yale bands have done before. They will open Spring Fling.
“I’m so, so excited to meet Sean Kingston,” said Harlem Shakes bassist Jose Soegaard ’06. “Every time [Beautiful Girls] comes on and I’m at a party, it makes me so happy.”
Lead singer Alexander “Lexy” Benaim ’06 is just as psyched.
“I … love Sean Kingston,” Benaim said. “First of all, he’s so adorable. Second of all, that song is really great. I can’t wait.”
But for at least an hour before the Jamaican-born rapper takes the stage, all eyes will be on former Calhoun College classmates Soegaard, Benaim and keyboardist Thomas Kendrick Strauch ’05, along with guitarist Todd Goldstein and drummer Brent Katz.
The band has not been seen on campus since November 2006. But back in the old days, before Soegaard, Benaim and Strauch graduated, the group was well-known for its legendary performances at Alpha Epsilon Pi.
“That was so much fun,” Benaim said, referencing the countless informal gigs the Shakes squeezed in between local club dates and trips to New York. “I got such a kick coming and playing those venues with our friends. Back then, AEPi was the only venue on campus where you knew the cops weren’t going to break up the show.”
The band still plays parties. Only now, the venues have are slightly more upscale.
In May 2007, the band completed its first nationwide tour, hitting clubs in St. Louis, Seattle and Omaha — to name a few — before heading home to New York. In their wake, the Shakes left a pack of feverish bloggers, music critics and fans who showered their only, self-released, EP, “Burning Birthdays,” with praise.
“The Harlem Shakes sound like they’re deriving more pure, unalloyed gratification from the sheer act of coming up with their songs than anyone living on this side of a heroin needle could reasonably hope to attain,” wrote James Cobo for Stylus Magazine in early 2007. “Burning Birthdays is merely an EP which packs way more fun than records should deserve to pack; it’s fun to listen to, fun to turn your friends onto, fun to obsessively check the Shakes’ MySpace for the latest details surrounding its release. The pleasures of just how … good it is, well, that’s my gift to you.”
In a review in Rolling Stone magazine in August 2007, Theo Spielberg ’10 interviewed the group and gave them a thumbs up, calling their appeal “universal.”
“New York-based five-piece Harlem Shakes sound like they were made for a groovy loft party,” he wrote. “Jagged riffs and ’50s doo-wop-inspired backing vocals, all layered atop fast-paced tracks.”
Fast-paced would also be an apt way to describe the Shakes’ lifestyle after graduation. Before the band quite understood what was happening, the Shakes were making a name for themselves within the New York indie- and garage-rock club scenes.
“I kind of stumbled into professional success. I was ambivalent about it, and we got invited to go on these tours with Tapes ’n Tapes and Deerhoof,” Benaim told the Cornell Daily Sun in November 2007. “But you know, we planned on it when we started making our EP — it’s kind of when things started rolling. That’s when we knew.”
An invitation to tour with San Francisco-based indie rock group Deerhoof sent the Shakes rolling through the South in the early months of 2007.
“That’s a band I listen to a whole lot,” remarked Soegaard. “For them to acknowledge even that we existed was a remarkable thrill.”
Soegaard’s remarks over the phone Thursday were short — the bassist had to lay down track for the band’s upcoming debut album, due to be released in the fall.
But before thoughts of an album or record label entered their heads, the Shakes were a mildly successful college garage band, in its first incarnation the collaboration of Benaim and high school friend and drummer Brent Kantz, still an undergraduate at Bard College in New York City.
“It was crazy. To be in a band at Yale was really a lot of work,” Benaim recalled. “We wanted to have normal lives in college and we also wanted to do the band as best we could. The band ended up taking a backseat to school when we were here.”
And now Soegaard, Benaim, Strauch and the rest of the band are heading back to Old Campus. Yale Student Activities Committee Spring Fling co-Chair Colin Leatherbury ’09 said while exact times are still tentative, Harlem Shakes will open around 3:15 p.m. on April 29 and play roughly one hour before ceding the stage to the “adorable” Kingston.
But Benaim, who still claims “a handful of good buddies” in the class of 2008, has another ulterior motive.
“My girlfriend is still at Yale,” he said. “Her name is Thai Taste.”