In 2003, Drew De Four — my college friend, barbershop quartet-mate, and also a talented pianist, asked me to join him in an ambitious rock band he wanted to form. He was intrigued by my Stick playing particularly.
After much discussion, the band agreed with my suggestion of having no guitars, even though all of us were guitarists. I felt that a guitar would fight with the Stick for sonic territory and identity. The ensemble ended up being Chapman Stick, piano, electric violin, and drums; and all of us sang.
We chose the name "The Closers" (as in closing the deal, although it could be interpreted other ways as well). I helped Jay, the violinist, find a better, dedicated electric violin, and he settled on the Viper from Wood Violins. Also, Drew and I wanted to keep singing barbershop, so we essentially forced Jay and Phil (the drummer) to learn, and we became a quartet as well as a band.
We played a lot of fun and expressive music with funky rhythms, vocal harmonies, and interesting instrumentals. Many pieces were compositions Drew had written earlier that were adapted for our new ensemble.
Then in October, Drew's younger brother — with whom the others had played in a previous band, was tragically killed in a car accident. We sang a barbershop song at the memorial, which was a very emotional experience. A lot of things changed, and Drew became more antsy than ever about making something of his life now. We started practicing five to six days a week with ambitious goals, and I was asked to learn a huge portion of the old band's material in a very short time. We put on a significant concert and recorded some material. We then put in a lot of time rehearsing for the regional college barbershop quartet competition, which we won (barely), thus getting the opportunity to compete at the international contest.
Drew found out online about a recording studio in upstate New York that had a built in apartment and the promise of cutting off normal day-to-day ties to the outside world to focus entirely on production and recording. The week after my graduation from EMU, we were in Binghamton preparing to record our album. The producers reviewed all the material we could send them, including all my past albums, and selected bits of ideas they thought could be used in the construction of new pop songs. We lived there for six weeks, writing and recording. The whole process was interesting, complex, and a bit stressful. The producers vetoed the name "The Closers" (it was one letter away from "The Losers" they said), and after a lot of annoying debate we (grudgingly) ended up with a new name: "Darktown Saints."
Over the summer, we competed as a quartet (under the name "The Extremes") in the international college competition taking place in Louisville. We also attended Harmony College in Missouri, a major week-long workshop within the Barbershop Society, where we got many valuable lessons on life and on music. We toured around Michigan as a band, and undertook business preparations for full-time commitment to promoting the upcoming album.
This was released in March, 2005. It was inherently unique because our unique mix of instruments. All the tracks were collaborative efforts of the four band-members and two producers. All the songs have both intriguing elements along with compromises about which none of us were completely happy, though the album was generally well received by critics and fans (we had our share of people claiming this was the best album ever recorded). Here are the two (of 12 total) tracks that are based primarily on my compositions:
The album was catchy, but it was a bit over-produced and had lacked the improvisational expressiveness, vocal harmonies, creativity, and overall fun we had
before as The Closers. The songs seemed contrived and were more the result of a formulaic production process than of a sincere expression.
We planned a national tour for the summer, based in part around Drew's connections as a "dueling pianist". Also, to be in conjunction with his piano bar playing (which revolves around performing covers), Drew insisted we learn a lot of covers as a band. The interesting factor to this was adapting everything to our instrumentation. We covered pop and rock hits, and even metal, country, funk, and rap — all with Stick, violin, piano, and drums. We even covered a Flecktones piece where every single instrument changed: banjo to piano, harmonica/sax to violin, bass guitar to Stick, and synthaxe drumitar to regular acoustic drums.
As fun and successful as we were in many regards, life on the road is tough. Finances were not easy to deal with, and there was a lot of stress and interpersonal issues. Being in a group venture like this requires a lot of compromises. I think Drew had ideas all along about what he wanted to do and was more interested in pursuing his personal direction than in being an equal partner in a group. At the end of the tour, things were really not working as a band, and we ended up fulfilling our obligations for the rest of the year but then went our separate directions.
Looking back, it is clear to me that a lot of our potential was lost with the shift from music to business. There were a lot of arguments about our direction and priorities. Interestingly, none of us were consistently on any particular side of an argument. At times, I argued against selling out to commercialism and against what I felt was uninspiring music. At other times, I was arguing for going along with the producers and looking for a dedicated manager and other business for pragmatic reasons. In the end, we all matured and learned a lot through the whole experience.
Aside from the studio album, we made a few other recordings, mostly pieces by Drew, covers, and jams. Some are interesting, and the potential of this unique ensemble comes through, but our best playing occurred at various points on our tour and never got recorded.
Drew went on to focus on a solo career, traveling the world and maturing in his songwriting. Check out his stuff at www.drewdefour.com. Phil (the drummer) went back to school to finish his music ed degree (on saxophone no less - quite a talented multi-instrumentalist and singer) and is now teaching high school band in Tennessee. Jay moved to California to try to really do something in the music scene there, still dedicated to his Viper violin. I started teaching full time and have since dedicated myself to scholarly studies and private teaching although future creative projects are in the works as well.
© Aaron Wolf