The Guster Dream: Striking a balance between college and musical aspirations
Every year, scores of ambitious young musicians got to college with a handful of songs, a MySpace, and a dream. At Tufts, one could refer to this phenomenon as The Guster Dream for, as most tour guides will tell you, the band Guster formed and played its first show on Tufts’ campus. More recently, the band Vampire Weekend gained fame after graduating from Columbia University. Strangely, few other colleges can lay claim to such commercially successful bands. This begs the question, what do musicians do at college to forward their musical careers? Why do they even go to college? What are Tufts musicians doing to realize the Guster Dream?
One such musician, freshman Hayes Peebles, was not always sure he wanted to go to college. A native New Yorker, Peebles was already well on his way down the path that the teenage Julian Casablancas trod when he shifted gears and applied to Tufts. He already had a solo EP on iTunes by his senior year and had played numerous venues in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn. “Here I was in New York City in this small private school,” says Peebles. “There was a lot of pressure for me to take the college path.”
Peebles, who essentially took a break from playing in his senior year, almost felt that the college process took away some of the pressure of his dreams to be a successful musician. Now that he’s at college, Peebles feels as though he played it safe and sometimes fears he missed a window. On the other hand, he still appreciates the intellectual benefits of the college experience and acknowledges, “I’m better than I was, and I think I’ve done myself a favor in terms of letting my music grow.” Now that he’s settled into college, Hayes is starting fresh, writing new music, revamping old material, and working on an EP to be released in 2011.
If any Tufts musician can show freshmen the ropes of performing on and around campus, it is Ben Crane. Crane began forming bands almost immediately upon matriculation and threw himself into every musical project he could find. Early in his freshman year, Crane responded to a flyer in the Granoff music building looking for a keyboardist, and soon thereafter began playing with Party Hat, which he refers to as an “aggressive alt-rock band.”
“That was my first taste of recording and playing shows, that whole romantic thing of what a real rock band should be,” he says. Crane also began his solo project, playing and recording “front-porch folk music.” He is currently playing with six other Tufts students in a band called The Smoking Jackets. This band is a clear departure from his solo work, with a poppy sound, piano-heavy instrumentation, and a large brass section.
With each of his musical endeavors, Crane has always taken full advantage of performance opportunities on campus, playing shows in Hotung, Brown & Brew, and numerous basements. As the head of the Musicians Collective at Tufts, he organizes an acoustic music showcase and a band showcase, creating other platforms for himself and his peers to perform.
Booking shows off campus, however, is a trickier proposition, requiring recorded demos, and a MySpace or other website to promote them. Self-promotion is something that Crane has wrestled with a fair amount. “I lose sleep thinking about it,” he says. “Everyone can do it for free and there’s a zillion crappy bands with MySpaces out there.” He contends that the success of a band hinges on creative use of the Internet—“Otherwise you’re going to get lost.”
Crane certainly has not gotten lost, landing gigs at Boston venues such as Lizard Lounge, All Asia, and most notably, TT and the Bears Place. Additionally, The Smoking Jackets just came off a summer tour and they will be playing a show upstairs at The Middle East this Thursday, November 18.
For Tufts freshman Dan Joseph and his band Take Care, which released its first album, Awakenasleep, in 2009, Internet promotion has been extremely successful. In October, the band released a new three-track demo and immediately began sending it to various music blogs. A few days later, the band noticed a significant increase in hits on their website. As it happens, the first blog they contacted, indierockcafe.com, loved their new song, “Halfway House,” and posted it on a list of best new releases alongside new tracks from Sufjan Stevens and Belle and Sebastian. The song got so much positive feedback that the site posted a second cut from the demo as well.
Senior Davis Vigneault also attributes much of his band’s success to their webpage. He started the band Astonishing Tales with his high school friend Henry Bloomfield, who attends Oberlin University. The band recorded and released its first CD, Astonishing Tales of the Sea, while still in high school. Now that the two band members attend separate colleges and can’t depend on support at their high school, they have had a tougher time selling the second CD. “Tufts isn’t as tight-knit a community,” says Vigneault. “ But I think we’ve compensated for that because we’ve been able to take advantage of the Internet.”
This combination of DIY competence coupled with high quality production permeates Astonishing Tales’ work. For their second album, Flipped, the duo took a month to create a studio in Vigneault’s house in Cape Cod to record the tracks themselves. “By that time I had accumulated a full set of recording equipment,” says Vigneault. “We took out all the furniture in the biggest room in the house, put mattresses on the wall and did test after test just to figure out mic placement.”
After recording and editing the album themselves, the band sent Flipped to a professional recording studio to be mixed and mastered. The result is a highly polished CD. “It’s not professional,” says Vigneault. “But I think it would be considered semi-pro.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Tufts band Knives for Sale has a very rudimentary MySpace page with a few rough recordings. The band formed in January of 2010 with three members: Tufts seniors Henry Felsman and Noah Schumer, and Gabriel Marr from Berklee College of Music. Guitarist Eli Mackinnon joined the group this August. Instead of sending their EP to various venues around the Boston Area, the group has started an event at The Burren in Davis Square called Tufts Tuesdays. Since the start of the school year, a Tufts band has played at The Burren every Tuesday, except for October 26, when Passion Pit came to campus. The conceit is that a band should be able to bring in a critical mass of friends over 21. If they attract enough people, the band gets paid for the show. Knives for Sale have already played three shows at Tufts Tuesdays and will soon play a fourth.
Each of these artists considers a continued musical career beyond Tufts. For Peebles, there’s no question he’ll be making music after college. Others, like Felsman of Knives for Sale, are less sure. “I would if I could,” says Felsman. “We’ll see if we get good.”
Joseph certainly thinks Take Care has a future. His brother, Kyle, wants to make music a career “and the rest of us are definitely on board,” says Joseph. “The tentative plan, I guess, is moving to Brooklyn. That’s really what’s in the back of our mind.”
Vigneault is attending Tufts Medical School next year, but is hoping to live with bandmate Bloomfield so they can continue to work on their music. Having worked on TEMS while at Tufts, Vigneault has become interested in emergency medicine but admits, “I’m very much willing to give up that idea so I could land a job that allows me to continue playing.” Like Joseph, Crane is thinking of moving to New York City— “Basically, after Tufts I’ll have a day job and spend every other waking moment playing a lot of music,” he says. Un-daunted by the occasionally grim realities of being a musician in the city, Crane believes in the power of positive thinking. “I’m a big purveyor of self-delusion,” he says. “You have to just believe it’s happening for you.”
After all, once upon a time the members of Guster were just three freshmen with a handful of songs and a dream; they didn’t even have a MySpace.