If you walk the streets of Ann Arbor, you’ll inevitably end up in one of the many cloisters of student occupied homes. Keep your ears open, though, because amidst all the worn and lazy looking houses, you are bound to hear a college band like The Pop Project practicing.
And if you keep walking until you’re a few blocks west of Main Street, you will find a district of abandoned warehouses. This is the second kind of music Bohemia in Ann Arbor because many of these warehouses have been gutted out and converted into rehearsal space for local artists and musicians to rent. Although “The Technology Center” may be an odd name for one of these warehouses, with its boarded up and broken windows, its eerie lighting and its shady location, bands like Smokestack, Funktelligence, and many others make it their rehearsal headquarters.
Whether it’s an informal acoustic practice in the kitchen of a house leased by nine people or a bass-laden groove penetrating through an ill-funded renovation only to flood into the air of a more desolate part of town, the world of the Ann Arbor college band extends beyond clubs and bars.
But it’s no easy task to project a comprehensive view of what it means to be a college band in Ann Arbor.
“I don’t really know how you can define a college band and what it means to be a college band in Ann Arbor; that’s why I think the music scene is dope, because you can’t really define that. There are so many different styles of music and creativity here that everybody’s got there own little niche, whether you’re playing frat parties, the street corner or The Blind Pig,” said Jackson Perry of Funktellignce.
Zach Curd of The Pop Project shares similar sentiments, saying, “There are so many different types of bands in Ann Arbor – there are jam bands, hippie bands, punk bands… It’s hard to fit in the Ann Arbor scene because it’s so varied.”
As difficult as it is to create a universal rule of what a college band is, many bands share similar experiences in their lives. College bands may have yet to “make it” in the music industry, but their commitment to music nevertheless presents stresses, demands, and questions of sacrifice. Money is one of the biggest concerns of a college band trying to either break into the scene or remain there.
“Money is huge. We’re trying to make this our living … What we do with our gig money is we pool it back into the band. We bought a van, rehearsal space, CDs, tour expenses. It adds up. As a result, none of us really get paid, but we’ll get a meal here and there. It’s for the love and the goal of actually making it,” said Perry.
Another local band, Smokestack, also wants to make music their career. Next year, they plan to go “balls-out” and live off the money they make as a band. Guitarist Chuck Newsome optimistically predicted, “I think it’ll work out, one way or another, if you work hard enough at it … I can’t think of another thing in the world I’d rather do, and that’s all that really matters.”
But it’s not just about making money as a band; it’s also about not falling into any pitfalls. Curd explained, “You learn who to trust and who not to trust and who is good at putting on shows and who is not … There’ve been shows where you don’t get paid, and getting your equipment stolen is not fun at all. But we don’t sit and dwell on what has happened to us that’s bad and crappy.”
Being in a band also adds a new angle to the college experience. “My whole college life is different. A lot of my friends are out partying real hard on the weekends while I’m out playing music every weekend, which is what I’d rather do. I think it would get old going to the same bars night after night … I’m meeting people in the music industry and musicians all over, and those are the kind of people I’m going to be dealing with after college,” reflects James Sibley of Smokestack.
However, the time-consuming life of being in a band can cramp the relationships of musicians. “It’s really hard to find a girl that can understand the demands. There was a time that every night that we didn’t rehearse, we were playing shows. We were gone all the time; I never had any free time to spend,” said Michael Demps of Funktelligence.
Perry added, “I’m in a relationship right now that’s going well, but every relationship before has ended because of circumstances from the band in one way or another … It even came to quitting the band, but that didn’t work.”
But these are the kinds of sacrifices being in a serious college band might require. Sibley commented on the difference between being in a band just starting up and being in a dedicated college band, saying “Back then, it was all a learning experience, and it still is, but now it’s more than just friends getting together and jamming. Now, we’re on each other, really trying to push each other, trying to create something.”
To the listener who doesn’t know about the dynamics of being in a college band, all that he sees and, consequently, all that matters, happens on the stage. It’s at the venues where all the intangible efforts are manifested, and it’s also where fans are made. “To see a good turnout at a club, that puts value to it, makes you realize that there’s a purpose to it, to make somebody feel good. That’s the whole goal – to make people feel good,” said Perry.
While The Blind Pig seems to be a staple venue and is the stage that a lot of bands credit as the venue they grew up on, Leopold’s is making headway as being a part of the local scene. “Leopold’s attracts a lot more locals. They only display local artists’ visual art on the walls … a lot more local cats who aren’t necessarily a part of the university tend to go to Leopold’s,” commented Perry.
But there are downsides when it comes to playing the Ann Arbor scene. “I hate when people (who run venues) look at you like an inconvenience because they’re thinking ‘God, you have to play. Alright, get your shit out of the way, I just want to get my day over with.’ It’s really awesome when they actually care about listening,” said Dave Lawson of The Pop Project.
Pedro Martinez-Fonts, manager of Smokestack, added, “Going into a venue, every night is a big night – you meet people with no interest in furthering your career, and you also meet people that are genuinely psyched to have you, enjoy music of all kinds and are great hosts.”
Vying entertainment also seems to be a negative aspect of the Ann Arbor scene. “I think that the current interest in straight-up club music and so many clubs that don’t even have live music, won’t support live music and just go for that whole club thing like DJs and trying to sell a lot of liquor brings down the interest in live music,” said Perry.
The Ann Arbor scene also includes an informal but very present competition between bands. “There’s a lot of cats in Ann Arbor; there’s a diverse scene here as far as music, but also a crowd that likes to listen to everything. But I don’t think that one band’s fans know about another band. It’s like every band has its own following, but there aren’t too many bands that share a following,” observed Demps.
Through all the hardships and sacrifices, one thing in particular distinguishes the Ann Arbor college band from bands of other scenes: diversity and quality in the music. Or, as Perry put it, “It’s about creative originality.”