On March 25, six bands vied for a chance to play at Springfest on April 23. The event drew many skilled musicians out of the woodwork, providing a unique opportunity to discover talent on campus. Spanning from the rugged rhythms of The Cowboy Killers to the bluegrass vibes of Backwoods Station, Battle of the Bands had it all.
The genres ranged from indie folk to electronica to jazz, each band bringing a new element to the concert experience. While Ian Olson’s one-man-band laid beats over vocal tracks, Lattice Moore and The Beanie Babies went for a more traditional “garage band” vibe.
Fidel, a four-piece jazz band formed from Randy Bower’s jazz improv class, knew that the crowd was just looking to have fun. Drawing the audience in with playful original tunes and one kick-ass cover, the band members held the crowd in the palms of their hands (or rather, in the pads of their saxophone keys). The excitement in the room was palpable. When Jonah “Jazzy Lazzy” Lazarus ’17 first struck the drum set, perfectly in time with the opening chord, it was clear that Fidel had something to set itself apart.
Austin Clowes ’16, Nathan Are ’16 and Patrick Sullivan ’16 have played with one another since the beginning of the semester, jamming three or four times every week. Determined to play at the Battle of the Bands, these three recruited Jonah as their drummer and pooled together their repertoire — all just four days before the performance. How did they pull this off? What they lacked in rehearsal time, they made up for in tight musical relationships that allowed them to interact on stage with impressive fluidity.
When I interviewed Are and Clowes after Fidel’s victory, they seemed pleased with their win and ready for the next challenge: Springfest. I asked them how they will prepare for the upcoming performance, and they were clearly excited for the weeks ahead.
Do you have aspirations for what might happen beyond Springfest, for future gigs, travel, performances? Nathan Are: We got together with no expectation of what was going to happen, and the goal was just to get to Battle of the Bands and have something to play, and now the goal is to get to Springfest and have something that’s going to be fun.
Once the weather gets nice, it’s hard not to play music, especially outside. So I think there’ll be a couple of events around … like we played at the Spark event this past Saturday night, so I’m sure we’ll play some other things at Macalester … but we haven’t talked about trying to record or trying to do anything bigger in the Cities. Also, three of us are graduating and going in three separate directions.
Austin Clowes: We might play some house shows before Springfest.
NA: We might make some house shows. I think WMCN is having one come up.
So you guys jammed together earlier in the year, and then never really played gigs or for other people?
NA: Yeah, we’d never played with a drummer, and we had never played fully original music. You know, we were always playing jazz standards. We had talked about how it would be fun to figure out a couple different performance opportunities so that we would have something to work towards. But we had never played with a drummer.
How was it incorporating the drummer into the mix?
NA: Super easy, yeah.
AC: Yeah, he really is great at reading the energy and the vibe of the group, and plugging into that, and then making it three times better, and it was really nice to have a drummer who could just ground the beat and ground the groove. But what was interesting was that the first time we practiced together on Monday we didn’t know what the sound would be, or what we were exactly going for because we didn’t have a lot of time to nitpick over details or specifics. So we were kind of just like: alright, let’s make some music that we would want to listen to.
NA: Yeah, luckily Jonah’s good enough that he can do that, because a lot of drummers that you’ll play with, if they’re not quite as good, and not used to jamming … you’ll say, “hey, I want something that drops here, and that’s when it hits.” That makes sense to someone like Jonah. He knows what to do in that situation, but a lot of drummers will sit and stare at you and say “wait, do you want the snare on three?”
What are some of your strategies for making transitions when you’re improvising? Do you communicate with each other using eye contact, or do you have some set cues for the next person to go?
AC: A little bit of all of it. I mean, even in ensembles where they have everything set … you can watch a chamber orchestra be set, the violinist will still look at the conductor, take a breadth, move their eyebrows around, like, “ok guys, we’re really going on to this next part.” And that’s all exaggerated a little bit. You are more in tune with that stuff than when you are supposed to be looking for a cue, and you can generally kind of tell. You’ve been playing the same part for what feels like long enough, you’re about ready to get onto the next part, and you’re hoping that the other person is on the same page as you, and you make some sensual eye-contact.
Would you say that the biggest thing you have to work on is playing together, or is it something else?
NA: The longer we play certain tunes, the clearer it’ll get, and the tighter it’ll get, and the more comfortable we’ll get — not just with each other, but with the tune itself. I think that every time we play something we’re circling around this ideal version of that song … In that way, we’ll always maintain that sort of improvisational jazz spirit. And that’s what’s so fun: getting to know other people as musicians.
How much experience do you two and the rest of the band members have in writing music?
AC: I’ve got a lot. I was in a band throughout high school, throughout college, and every summer I’ve gone back and written and recorded an album. It’s different music though. I think that we’ve all written a good chunk of music. Maybe not Patrick.
NA: Jonah, I know, has been involved in a number of creative projects. I have some experience, but not a whole lot. I’ve always enjoyed coming up with little chunks and bits of music, but I’ve never sat down and finished a project, so I don’t have an album or any sort of recording. And that’s what’s really fun too, because we all bring different chunks to different pieces, and then figure out how they can work together, but then sometimes they don’t work together.
AC: Half of it is was just seeing if you can actually pull it off, and if it actually works.
NA: It’s like: “guys, we finished this song together!”
AC: That was a total victory, no one else noticed that, but making sure we finished the song at the same time: biggest victory of Battle of the Bands.
Hearing them joke about one another and the band itself in such an endearing way, one thing was obvious: Fidel clicks on and off the stage. Are sums up the experience of playing with Fidel perfectly:
“What’s so great about playing music with these guys is that we just like each other outside of the music too. We just enjoy being with each other.”