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ISSUE 119 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 4/28/2006

Webs of rockers stick together

By John Douglass
Variety Editor

Friday, April 28, 2006

It is pretty impressive that St. Olaf's own Joey Kantor '07 can be connected to pop idols like Justin Timberlake and Gwen Stefani by less than six musical degrees of separation. The preposterous nature of that statement becomes easier to swallow when one realizes the extensive network of Ole graduates in the world of pop music.

To find our way into that web of connections and collaborations we could begin with anyone, but we will start with Matt Keil '97. Keil is currently employed as director of marketing and sales at a post-production house in the Twin Cities. His job involves editing music and effects for commercials for companies like the Target Corporation. However, on the side – or primarily, depending on which view you decide to take – Keil is a musician.

St. Olaf is obviously known for its musical prowess, but usually more in the way of choirs and orchestras, with the occasional a cappella male vocal group thrown in for good measure. In the past decade or so, St. Olaf has been churning out its fair share of other musical acts, and Keil is a perfect example.

As a first year, Keil came to St. Olaf with a different plan than most students. His main intent was simply to “put together a band and pursue that as far as [he] could.” Keil cobbled together a band and was playing Lion's Pause shows by October of his first year.

Keil drummed with as many bands as possible and by his sophomore year, his main project, a rock band called Bobby Llama, had taken off. He did not formally study music as a student but between playing, earning Finstad grants for his groups and organizing Student Activites Committee concerts, music was his life.

As we follow Keil past graduation, we fall further and further into this world. The path of Bobby Llama introduces us to the godfather of this musical mafia of Ole alumni: Alex Oana '92.

Oana, a prolific producer, sound engineer and mixer in the Twin Cities music scene, is the true link in this interconnected story. He produced an EP, as well as a full-length album, for Bobby Llama, but that is not where either of their stories ends.

Oana purchased a house with a truly storied history at 606 13th Avenue in Dinkytown. Previously known as Blackberry Way, it was a legendary house where local bands like The Replacements laid down records, and it became City Cabin, a haven for Ole musicians. Oana lived on the top floor while the recording studio was located on the main floor. Also located on the main floor was Peppermint Records, a studio supporting and producing many local acts founded by, believe it or not, an Ole: David Weeks '93.

Oana and Weeks both worked hard and developed a name for themselves in the business. Oana produced loads of albums for local acts and kept an eye out for acts from St. Olaf, which is where the next part of our story really begins to kick into gear.

The Hopefuls, a glorious indie-pop Minneapolis-based super-group, is the next step to take. Hopefuls members Erik Appelwick and Darren Jackson '94 formed the group after playing in a band called Camero, with none other than Keil. When they formed The Hopefuls, they recruited drummer Erik Fawcett '92 and “multi-instrumentalist” John Hermanson '93. Keil still performs with the band on occasion. Oh yeah, Oana recorded The Hopefuls’ album The Fuses Refuse to Burn.

Jackson's “other band” is called Kid Dakota and is definitely worth mentioning in its own right. A little less poppy and definitely more understated, the band has undergone all sorts of various incarnations, settling generally on a simple three piece that also includes Appelwick.

Hermanson has been in loads of bands in the area, most of which have a small devoted following on the St. Olaf campus, made up of students perhaps unaware of their shared heritage. Hermanson and St. Olaf buddy Chris Cunningham '94 performed as Chris and Johnny before creating bands like Storyhill and Alva Star.

When we move on to The Hopefuls drummer, Fawcett, we get to break out of the local music scene and onto the national and world stage. Fawcett and John Ostby '92 were roommates at St. Olaf and they play in another band called Spymob. Spymob is affiliated with Star Trak Records, the company run by the legendary producing team Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of The Neptunes.

When Pharrell was attempting to develop his pet project, a hard rocking hip-hop group called N.E.R.D., he was having trouble developing his sound. After he stumbled upon Spymob, he decided the combination of their mutual talents would create the exact sound he was looking for. Consequently, Fawcett and Ostby were bumped quickly into a much different and slightly bigger scene.

Also, Oana produced the albums for The Hopefuls, Kid Dakota, Alva Star, Chris and Johnny and selected tracks from the Spymob album.

Keil's current band, Kubla Kahn, is performing at the Lion's Pause this Saturday and is the link to the new generation of Oles making music. After being introduced to Keil through a teacher while in high school, Kantor, first mentioned way back in the beginning of this saga, began occasionally sitting in with Kubla Kahn.

Kantor's band, The Joey Kantor Trio, is comprised of a current Ole, a former Ole and an Ole alum and is a conglomeration of piano-driven pop-rock. While Kantor's band is opening for Kubla Kahn Saturday, the other band in which he plays, checks in for a visit to campus on Thursday, April 27.

The Matt Johnson Band, founded and fronted by Matt Johnson '05, is an acoustically rocking band chock full of St. Olaf students, some current and some recently graduated. The band is making the rounds while developing a solid core group of fans.

As two examples of Ole bands that hold down ties to the network of graduates in the business, The Joey Kantor Trio and The Matt Johnson Band provide us with a glimpse into the possible next generation of successful music makers.

“St Olaf has this world class choir – it's like the football team of any other college – and these world renowned Christmas concerts,” Keil said in an interview earlier this week. “Yet, really solid rock bands have emerged in a steady stream since the early ‘90s.”

And in case you were wondering about those degrees of separation, Joey Kantor is connected Matt Keil in Kubla Kahn, whose album was produced by Erik Fawcett of Spymob, who is in N.E.R.D with Pharrell Williams, who produced tracks for Justin Timberlake and Gwen Stefani. It's a small world, and Oles are everywhere.

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