Performer - February 2003
School for the Dead: A Lesson Plan for Rock
Out in Western Massachusetts, things travel at a bit slower pace. It wasn’t until the sounds of a song heralding a bootleg videocassette of V66 sputtered across the airwaves (or maybe it was only some smoky bar since there’s not much radio anymore) that it became apparent how far behind things truly were. Even most people in Boston don’t remember V66 anymore - it debuted with Alan Parsons Project’s "Abracadabra" and was bought as a UHF affiliate for the Home Shopping Network a few years later. In between the two it was a local video outlet that you could get in the places that cable had yet to infiltrate.
The Cars "Shake It Up" was the first song that Henning Ohlenbusch remembered seeing on V66, but his memories have been tarnished thanks in large part to a videocassette that’s somewhere in drummer Brian Marchese’s house. Ohlenbusch thought so fondly of V66 that he wrote a song about it and his band plays it now. It’s that loving affection for pop music in it’s many forms that serves as the glue for School for the Dead. Perusing their voluminous website, all five members of the band have peculiar affection for ‘60s pop, but the paste that links them reveals itself in their continuing appreciation for the form. In there with references to the influence of Lennon and McCartney are heaps of praise for XTC.
School for the Dead came about quite by accident. Ohlenbusch always let his songs trickle out in whatever bands he played in, but he never really was the front man. When Fountains of Wayne were in Los Angeles, Ohlenbusch had the duty of catsitting for Chris Collingswood. That basically meant run of the place - that included his studio. Ohlenbusch said, "I was catsitting; he was in LA for 3 weeks. The first [week] was figuring out how to use all of the stuff in the studio and the next two were whipping it all out. It’s good to have a deadline like that." And just as quickly he had a disc titled Henning’s School for the Dead.
Ohlenbusch had been the bass player in Aloha Steamtrain at the time but things have progressed measurably since that combos demise. "I wanted to have a CD release show for it so I put together this band out of my choice from the people in town. It’s a small town with a lot of musicians that are really good and I chose my favorite ones to play that show and said, ‘don’t worry it’s just a one time thing, we’re not going to make a band out of it or anything.’ People wanted us to keep playing and everyone in the band wanted to keep doing it and then the Steamtrain finished and all of the sudden I had all of this extra time."
It wasn’t quite as easy as that to assemble a crack band. Ohlenbusch’s first choice for the lead guitar chair had to bow out for time constraints, but was quickly replaced by his former Humbert bandmate Anthony Westcott. As Westcott tells it, though there wasn’t even a moment of downtime between the two incarnations of the band. "When I saw their debut show, the one thing that was missing is that no one was singing back-up vocals. I asked if I could do that for the next show that they did, and I would play guitar and add some other things. There were plenty of parts that you could add to the songs. We were all going to meet and practice and we got hung up at a pizza parlor out in Florence. We were 20 minutes late to the practice to meet with [the original guitar player] and he had to take off. That was our one shot to [practice] and all of the sudden, the show was not a 6 piece anymore, it was just 5. I just went and learned all his parts and fell in that way."
With Westcott added to the core of Marchese, guitarist Ken Maiuri, and bassist Max Germer, the School for the Dead evolved from being a project to being a band. With five distinct personalities, being the leader is a title Ohlenbusch shies away from. He said, "It weird because everyone in the band is a really good songwriter and performer on their own, so it’s a bit daunting that it’s just my songs." Now however, the songs get worked through by everyone and it isn’t merely a matter of learning parts. Westcott adds, "Now we all sing harmonies if we can find a club that will give us 5 mics."
The music the band makes is rooted in classic pop-rock songcraft and falls between even the currently stratified genrification of rock. Ohlenbusch said, "I can’t describe the music to people. I can’t even describe other bands to people. Each person gets a different response. To my 60-year-old co-worker, I tell her we play rock and roll, because indie power pop means nothing to her, but I figure she pictures ‘Twist and Shout’ or Mötley Crüe. I do know musically that we are based around the songs. There’s basically songwriting and arranging and working on the songs."
"It’s not so much about virtuosos in the band. What I play is filling in pieces to color the songs," Westcott said. "We are basically a version of pop-rock, but if you say pop-rock you could mean Linda Ronstadt or Brian Eno."
Being called School for the Dead may stir some morbid curiosities, but the band sidesteps the issue claiming that the name really isn’t in reference to corpses climbing out of the ground at the chime of the school bell. Westcott said, "My own interpretation of the name is different from everyone else’s. I kind of made it what I wanted it to be. I’ve thought of it as School for the Dead being a day job. You’ve gone through school all of your life and college and now you’re stuck in this day job where your mind is just shut down. This is your school now until you die or you are dead because you’re just sitting at your desk staring at the clock."
The only time it’s been a problem is when the quintet performed live on a radio show in Albany. Westcott said, "The whole tenor of the show is folk-oriented and political, and the act before us played a song about a girl going into her school and shooting her classmates. And then the next guy did a spoken word piece about handguns and how they’re ruining out nation, and now, ‘Welcome to our stage - School for the Dead.’ It was the one time where I thought ‘I wish we weren’t called this.’" Of course then the band played the most upbeat poppy songs of the night. School for the Dead keeps all their gimmicks offstage, but with their experience, these reveal some of the most ingenious ideas.
Ohlenbusch describes: "Brian, the drummer, and I had been in a band together called the Aloha Steamtrain and through the last 4 years of that band we kept up a very verbose and up-to-date gig diary online that had pictures and descriptions of each show. A lot of people came up and told us that that was their homepage or they always read it, or make some comment about what we’d written — ‘oh, I heard you hurt your foot last week.’ Sometimes we wouldn’t write about the show, we’d just write about whatever. Some people would tell us it was their favorite thing about the band.
"When we started School For the Dead we thought, how can we continue that but make it even better - or to some people’s minds more annoying - and the fact is that everyone in this band is a writer, so I had the idea that instead of gig diaries, let’s just do a constant commentary. The general idea was that people might be interested in it, because besides musicians, writers, and DJs, most people don’t have any idea what goes on. They figure that if you play at The Middle East you probably made $1000 that night. So many people ask me if I have another job. I only have the other job, that’s my job, music isn’t a job, you don’t make any money at it. So that, for instance, is something that people don’t have any concept of what goes into it. Or if you do make money at it people are like, ‘but you only worked for an hour and a half and you made $20 so that’s pretty good." But there’s also all of this practicing and promoting and advertising. Just having to carry the amp up the stairs is worth $20. So I thought that people might enjoy this kind of insight into the life of a band."
The website (www.schoolforthedead.com) is updated constantly as all five members of the band have essentially an open blog that gives them a whole new way to communicate. Westcott said, "We are all pretty prolific. Some days there will be a lot of stuff." The band even schedules practices without phone calls or even emails.
Westcott added, "People who read this thing have an idea when they see us live that if we don’t talk during the songs they know what we’re actually like without us ever saying anything to them." Ohlenbusch concluded, "It is weird sometimes people will say things that you have no idea how they know and then you’ll remember that you half-mentioned it once. And the other really cool thing about it is if you go to google.com and search for rockumentary we’re on the first page that comes up."
While bands are learning how to use the internet to their advantage more and more every day, simultaneously inboxes are being flooded with spam for mortgages, porn, and forwarded chain mail. School for the Dead combines internet saavy with the principles of the chain to get their name out to the public.
"It comes from bad experiences with radio promoters and basically every normal avenue of trying to get the music heard," Ohlenbusch said. "Basically we do research on the internet to find the type of people who might be interested in the type of music that we make. Then we try and find the people who are really into it - maybe they have websites, or seem like the kind of people who make mix tapes. Then send them a disc just out of the blue (try and find their address or just ask for it) of these four songs, and then attached with that disc, four more discs with the same 4 songs. And then request ‘give them to your friends if you don’t mind, or if you like it make copies, but please don’t throw them out, just give them to your neighbor.’ And the idea is for each disc to have a serial number - we can probably handwrite them, there aren’t going to be that many - and ask the people to come to our website and put in their serial number and where they are, any thoughts they have and if they’ve passed on the other discs… all kinds of questions that might be fun, or annoying. There might be some kind of reward if you visit the website and put in your info. We were going to give a copy of the album, but we can’t afford that, so we’re trying to think of something to encourage people to give us their info, because it’ll be fun to see what people have to say"
The inherent problem became how can they get discs into people’s hands without incurring tremendous expense. Ohlenbusch used some ingenuity, "I thought of those AOL tins that they send with free minutes, because I think we can fit 3 or 4 maybe 5 discs in there." He’s collected a lot from around his neighborhood alone, and best of all "in a way we’re on the biggest record label of all, Warner is helping distribute us."
The band isn’t targeting people at the top of the food chain - the radio host who gets to choose one song per hour is going to have to like you a lot to make that spot your’s, so instead the band is targeting the audience that listens. For people who don’t get mountains of new discs, a new CD is something special. Westcott related, "Our drummer is really into the Monkees, and went around and found people who put together Monkees websites. The people he found were rabid crazy fans and he sent them email and said, ‘I want to send you our CD when it’s done because you’ll probably like our kind of music, because you’re into the Monkees.’ We actually met one of these people by chance at a gig that we played. She doesn’t have many CDs except Monkees discs and some other ‘60s ones, so for her to get some free ones is a big deal and she’s already raved about us in her website from seeing us live. It’s just a bunch of free promotion — however it helps, I don’t know, but it’s always nice to have overzealous fans like that."
Ohlenbusch said, "We’re trying to figure out the concept of touring and I’m trying to look at it from the same viewpoint as trying to not do things the same as everybody else. Touring is really fun for one thing so we want to do it because of that. It’s also really expensive and we don’t want to because of that. It’s not only expensive because it costs money, but it’s expensive because you’ve got to take the time off work. The third thing is - and this is a major mistake that bands that actually are trying to build up followings do - you’ve got to be able to play a show and then go back two months later and do it again and then do it again. We can’t do that because of the money and the lifestyle - we just can’t take off and live in a van."
As a trio School for the Dead toured down the East Coast last Spring, dipping toward Washington DC and Richmond. Since that’s not something they can do regularly, there needs to be an alternative. "We actually just got a really good recording of one of our live shows, and I’m going to convert it to MP3s so people can download it — it’s not video, you can’t watch it, but that’s the ultimate," Ohlenbusch said. "I also had the idea that we could have franchise bands where in every state they would have a School for the Dead. There would be a School for the Dead Connecticut - all different people, but they’d all play the same music and they all sell the same album."
While franchising is a bit far-fetched, the idea that the band can succeed without flogging the road is more and more possible in today’s world. The original game plan was for a different scope of live shows entirely. Ohlenbusch said, "When I started this band, I didn’t want to play clubs that have rock music in general. I didn’t want to play cities or markets, I wanted to play in small towns in libraries and other off-beat places for kids who can’t see music. But it’s just too hard, I’ve kind of given up on that. It seems like there’s a way to go around the huge mess of bands that are there.
"Partially because we’re all seasoned enough and because we have a wide enough taste in music, we’ve developed the skill to play really quietly if we want to. When we practice, we play at the level of my acoustic guitar, and I love the way it sounds and it’s different than the way we play live and we do rock. We offer up to everyone that if you supply 15 people who are interested in listening to music, then we will gladly come to your house and play. We’re not going to bring microphones, and we’re not going to play loud so you won’t have to worry about your neighbors. It’s like a movie night, where you rent a movie and have people come over to watch it, but instead of a movie, it’s like a band." Unfortunately most people didn’t get the concept; they usually assumed it was a band playing at a house party in reality the goal was a listening show, but the band still has hopes that they can do just that.