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School of Rock
Submitted by Marika Christofides on Tue, 04/17/2012 - 2:56am
Editor's Note: The Counterfactuals will be appearing with the Rice County Roosters at the Upstairs Rueb on Saturday, April 21, at 8:00 pm. Here's Marika's profile of the band.
Well-loved by Carleton and Olaf students and non-collegiate Northfielders alike, The Counterfactuals – Daniel Groll, Andy Flory, Mike Fuerstein and Jason Decker – are on their way from being one of Northfield’s best-kept secrets to becoming a force to be reckoned with on the Minneapolis indie rock scene. I got a chance to talk to this group of professors by day and rock stars by night (or at least early evening), about the band’s origins, their sound, and their upcoming album.
The Counterfactuals have existed as Dan’s project since his days as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where he, another student and two non-student friends – a photographer and an architect - came up with the name and liked it, “totally independent of its philosophical implications.”
When he started teaching ethics at Carleton in 2009, The Counterfactuals already had a few songs in their repertoire. They only needed band members.
“We (Jason and Dan) went on a philosophy retreat, actually, and we did a music mix for the four hour drive to Wisconsin. There was a huge overlap in our tastes. Even stuff we hadn’t heard of each other’s we really liked,” said Dan. “When I came here I really lucked out with having Jason as a colleague.”
“I get that a lot,” interjects Jason.
“In some ways,” qualifies Dan.
Since then a sequence of several musicians - including the music department’s Alex Freeman and Manager of Campus Energy and Sustainability Martha Larson – have played with The Counterfactuals. St. Olaf Philosophy professor Mike joined as a drummer in 2011 and Andy began as a bassist at the beginning of this year when he started as Carleton’s new music history professor. “The theme of the band is that you’re not allowed to play the instrument you’re most comfortable playing,” says Andy. Dan and Mike both went to jazz seminaries for their undergraduate degrees – they studied drums and saxophone respectively – while Andy is more used to guitar.
Jason, as the band’s other guitarist after Dan, is the only eception to this rule. But he makes up for it with a vocal handicap: he can only sing Elvis Costello covers, or songs that Dan has written to sound like Elvis Costello covers. “I am not a very good singer and he happens to be sort of in a register that I can sort of sing,” he explains.
Dan describes the process of writing lyrics as agony, but not the kind of agony that comes from baring one’s soul – which he claims to have sold in the fourth grade for two dollars and a cookie. “I hate writing lyrics, so in every instance the music comes first,” he confesses. “Often I’ll have a song with no lyrics for weeks, sometimes months. And then I’ll decide I want to play it and I’ll have to come up with words.” Consequently most of The Counterfactuals’ songs are about “typical indie rock fare” – relationships gone wrong, or right – but are not autobiographical. Jason attests that sometimes Dan will send the band a demo that “just has babble over it.”
Dan, originally from Canada, concedes that the song “Sentimental” is about hockey and given “the tears running down (Dan’s) face the other day when we were watching those kids playing hockey,” Andy is unsurprised.
Although Jessica Paxton describes their sound perfectly on their Bandcamp page as “golden pop nuggets with a lively dose of twang,” The Counterfactuals’ songs are “deceptively simple.” Their collective musical background makes for some technically complex and unconventional jams just beneath the obvious indie rock influences. “Some of them are pretty far out,” remarks Andy. “What’s the tune? ‘Acquainted With the Night.’ The time signature changes every bar.”
“The other thing that’s distinctive is Dan’s voice, which is this bellowing baritone voice,” he continues. “The standard indie trope is the sort of wispy, ironic vocals and that’s not Dan at all.”
The Counterfactuals have been moving up in the world recently with three successful shows in the Twin Cities– two at the Driftwood and one at Wild Tymes - and with a mention in the Current’s Local Current blog and exposure on The Local Show; but they seem content with their local stardom. “Northfield is a great place to be a band,” Dan acknowledges. “There are reasonably cool places to play and there’s a lot of good music to listen to.”
Decidedly, none of the four would ditch their academic jobs if The Counterfactuals made it big – “The beauty of the academic lifestyle is that if you wanted to have some sort of an indie rock career and balance it you probably could,” says Andy. “But we don’t want it. The idea is just sort of to play music and have fun.”
Dan protests the lameness of this particular manifesto, and Jason amends it: “the idea is not to have fun.”
Still Dan, Jason, Andy and Mike do harbor big plans for the future – namely an album release this coming fall. “We were pretty pleased with the first big recording session we did in Dan’s basement,” says Andy. “We might use the Weitz center for some of it. That’s definitely going to be a nice thing to have available to us.” A very informal survey of the Carleton campus says that the atmosphere is highly anticipatory, and with Andy and Jason’s technical prowess and recording experience, fans can expect a well-produced record.
For those who can’t wait that long, a 3-track collection of demos including “Running Dry,” “Young Boy,” and the aforementioned “Acquainted With the Night” with lyrics by Robert Frost is available for free download here. Even better, The Counterfactuals will play a show upstairs at the Rueb on Saturday, April 21st and a show at The Acadia in Minneapolis on Thursday, May 10th. Both shows are great opportunities to support a local band, hear some delightful melodies, and see The Counterfactuals bicker amongst themselves on stage. Be there or be square!