Tufts student bands talk music, performing

Emperor Jones is pictured performing at The Tufts Daily Newsroom Concert on March 12. Courtesy Riley Bray
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From the rumbling practice rooms in the Granoff Music Center to various basements and stages across Tufts’ campus, student bands are drawn together by a shared love for live music. These bands are independently formed groups as opposed to registered student organizations. Some of them — Honeymoon, Fease, Salt Hog, Emperor Jones, Fossil and Chowder — are featured here, sharing their stories with the Daily.

While these bands vary in musical style, they all have a degree of rock influence. Zelda Mayer, a second-year student in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts dual degree program, is the guitarist and one of the singers of Salt Hog. She explained how each member adds a distinctive twist to the musical makeup of the band.

I think any band would be uncomfortable with genre naming, but like, [Salt Hog] has its own different sound, you know. I can tell you my influences, but I think we all have our own personal influences, so when we come together, it’s just all something completely different. I mean, I sure hope so,” Mayer said.

It can be difficult to reconcile the range of musical tastes and backgrounds that might exist within a band. Mofe Akinyanmi, a first-year student in the Tufts and New England Conservatory dual degree program who plays guitar and sings for Chowder, elaborated on this.

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I think one of the challenges was definitely trying to find a groove and settle on a sound. And I think we’re still very much still exploring different types of genres and stuff — like Owen, who plays guitar, he’s been blues trained for a long time, which was something that I wasn’t very familiar with. So we’ve been experimenting with a lot of different stuff,” Akinyanmi said.

Bands also have the daunting task of agreeing on a name. Junior Henry Scherb, who is the creative director and a guitarist for Emperor Jones, reveals that the band’s name is derived from the eponymous 1920 play by Eugene O’Neill.

My dad had a band in college, and they were called Emperor Jones,” Scherb said. “[Emperor Jones is] a super empowering play, just about a central theme of going against the grain, just defying all odds.”

Emperor Jones, Chowder, Salt Hog, Honeymoon and Fease were all founded during the current academic year, whereas Fossil started rehearsing in 2020.

Even though we started making music together over a year ago, almost two years now, we didn’t really have a chance to perform until … this year, now that you can; it’s more social and open … so it was the dedication of getting us ready to that point where we’re able to actually get on a stage and do the other half of the music making process,” Fossil’s drummer, junior Joe Sinkovits, said.

For Drew Cohen, drummer for Chowder — an all-first-year band — the pandemic impacted his journey as a growing performer.

I … sort of started playing in high school and really picked up when [COVID-19] hit, and for [an] obvious reason, that’s good for practicing on your own, but it’s hard to play in front of an audience and with other people … so the major challenge for me was basically learning how to play drums live with other people,” Cohen said.

As the obstacles to live concerts continue to wane, student bands are getting more opportunities to perform.

“We draw so much in our performances from the energy of the crowd,” junior Max Chow-Gillette, lead vocalist of Fossil, said.

Mayer expressed a similar sentiment.

It’s been exciting to play at different places for us, just because everything has a different feeling. And regardless of the crowd, even if you have … a crowd that’s not very reactive, I think it just builds up your confidence as a performer,” Mayer said.

Cohen gives a positive review of the atmosphere that bands face at Tufts.

The music scene of Tufts is extremely welcoming … after every show all the other bands that played … are the first to come up and welcome you and say what a good job you did, even if maybe you didn’t even do a good job, Cohen said.

Tufts’ musical groups also bring together students from different campus communities, guitarist and lead singer of Honeymoon, Rayn Schnell, explained.

All of us [in Honeymoon] are musicians but in different ways, coming from different campus clubs and organizations … we have people from orchestra, from jazz orchestra, pit band, Public Harmony, so all these different campus music groups that have come together to make our own kind of music,” Schnell said.

Jack Wish, the bassist for the nine-piece band Fease, was pleasantly surprised by the talent of his peers when arriving at Tufts as a first-year this year.

Asked what surprised him about being in a Tufts band, he answered, “definitely just the caliber of musicianship, … I didn’t come to Tufts because of the music scene. It’s not something I knew about. So I was definitely expecting to jam with people, but I wasn’t expecting, you know, a ton of great musicians. Everyone here can really play, so it’s been a real privilege just to get to know everyone here.

While there seems to be a supportive climate for student bands at Tufts, Sinkovits pointed out a drawback stemming from Tufts’ population size.

I wouldn’t say that the music scene at Tufts is incredible. It’s a small school, so it’s a small scene — there’s just not a whole lot of bands. … if you wanted every band at Tufts to play at one event, you could probably figure it out, and it wouldn’t be a terribly long event,” Sinkovits said. “That being said, though, I think the audience response can be really, really strong. You can pull a lot of people on campus to go to events if they’re advertised right.”

The camaraderie and convenience of forming a band among Tufts students can also serve as a limiting factor in outreach efforts,  first-year Spencer Vernier — the manager of Chowder — said.

An issue that I think bands have at Tufts [is] getting outside of the Tufts sphere … it’s kind of a challenge to book gigs outside of Tufts because people don’t really know you,” Vernier said. “It’s not an insurmountable thing, but it’s something that I guess we have to think about, how much we want our foot in the Tufts world and how much we want to be outside of it as well.

A successful band can take many shapes, and thus opinions differ on what the crucial elements of a band are. Despite that, many of Tufts’ musicians agree on the importance of supporting each other.

[An] important part is that you have to believe in everyone in the band. You have to be a big fan of your bandmates … That works in your favor because you have confidence in your band, but also, you know that they admire and appreciate the work that you do,” Mayer said.

Salt Hog’s bassist and singer, second-year SMFA student Lily Piette, added a different perspective.

I think roles do matter in a band. I don’t think hierarchies should ever exist, but I think in a band knowing … who’s the person that’s doing what is important,” Piette said.

For a band like Fease, the members’ relationships as friends underpin their relationships as bandmates, according to Wish and first-year Jack Goldberg, who the band described with a long list of roles, ranging from “Founder/guitar/epic dude” to “king/princess” and merch designer.

“One of the most special parts about being in a band, too, is you kind of get to know people’s musical personalities in addition to their ones in real life,” Wish said.

Goldberg added,I think we’re all friends at the core of it, which is why we really kind of mesh.”

Scherb emphasizes how the band, while requiring dedication, should serve as a respite from the chaos of everyday life.

We’re all very busy people outside of the band — everyone here at Tufts is extremely busy, so the added commitment to being in a band is definitely not something that’s necessarily easy to navigate,” Scherb said. “I don’t want Emperor Jones to be something that stresses people out. It should be a place where you can calm [down] and just unwind and play music together.”

Cohen speaks about college as a special place to get involved in a band for the first time.

You can sort of redefine yourself. I don’t think that’s necessarily unique about my college experience, but it’s definitely what’s made it easier to just say, ‘What the heck? Why not be in a band and just start playing gigs?’” Cohen said. “At my high school, I wouldn’t feel like I was ready or like it would be ‘me’, but there is no ‘me’ at college yet so you can just do whatever you want. And that’s pretty awesome.”

The independent music scene, particularly in rock and alternative styles, very often has an imbalance in demographic representation.

This music scene is extremely white, but I do think having three women, one of them being a trans woman … I just feel like we don’t have the standard masculine energy … and I’m really proud of that,” Mayer said.

The bassist for Chowder, first-year Halla Clausi, hopes for a greater awareness of existing band performers from minority groups.

“The big names in indie music or indie rock are generally white guys who are complaining about their lives, which they have the right to as well, but I definitely think that I do see this as a sort of move toward more women and more POC in the this kind of field because again, a lot of indie rock or alt music is really about kind of talking about the pains of life, and who else should talk about that other than people who are generally marginalized?,” Clausi said.

Her bandmate Akinyanmi sees Chowder as a means of encouraging people of all backgrounds to get involved with music.

I’m hoping that other people feel similarly inspired to go out and take risks and also make music and see that … it’s something that should be for everybody, Akinyanmi said.

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