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Class acts: UW-Madison bands are back in a big way
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Credit:Sarah Nelson

UW-Madison students Quincy Harrison and Cliff Grefe were profiled in USA Today last December for a song they wrote in the basement of their Langdon Street fraternity house.

Harrison, 20, and Grefe, 19, didn't get national press for breaking musical ground. They'd barely begun performing together as Zooniversity months earlier. The raps and beats were simple on their debut single, "Coastie Song (What's a Coastie?)."

But their lyrical depiction of a campus stereotype was starkly unfiltered, and for some, offensively so. In this telling, Coasties aren't just coeds from New York. Zooniversity portrays Coasties as young Jewish women who drink Starbucks, don North Face and Ugg fashions, and freely spend "Daddy's money."

"Coastie Song" has solicited about 200,000 views and listens across YouTube, MySpace and other websites. That number is similar to the online exposure a national indie rock hit typically gets.

Here in Madison, "Coastie Song" is heralding what could be the most important local music story developing this year. After a relatively quiet period, the UW-Madison music scene is on the rise. Undergraduate bands are playing more local stages, and to a degree unseen in decades, live-music venues are operating on or near State Street.

A single event highlights this trend on Friday, March 12. Three increasingly influential student bands will share a bill at the Pub, 552 State St.: the Nod, the Choons and Meteorade.

It's an event that defies entrenched local music norms. For years, Madison's most active live music venues have resided in the near east (High Noon Saloon) or near west (Annex). But along with longstanding campus venues like the Memorial Union Rathskeller, a growing number of commercial spaces for local and touring bands are now a short walk from Library Mall, including the Pub, Opa, Samba Brazilian Grill, the Orpheum and Majestic theaters, the Frequency, Brocach and the Argus.

In a series of interviews, student musicians and academic student services staff suggested the cause of this campus music revival: Changes in technology have emboldened a new generation of undergraduates to more broadly participate in creating music. And as more students create music, they seek venues near campus to play.

"We're on an upswing now," says WSUM general manager Dave Black. "The DIY nature of media makes it more natural for this generation to think, 'I can make my own music.'"

"How we record music is pretty cool," says Zooniversity's Grefe. "We have a studio in our [fraternity] house that we made from scratch right as summer was ending. We have the software, keyboard, microphone and everything all in the room. We also soundproofed the room with egg cartons and mattresses we found on the street that other people didn't want."

Brett Newski fronts the Nod, one of the most successful campus bands of the past few years. Newski says the new wave of UW bands seeks closer venues for the most practical of reasons: "When you're a young band you usually don't have a car to transport your gear." Having venues near campus, he says, "makes it that much easier for us."

'Everything happens online'

Last year, Majestic Theatre co-owner Matt Gerding began hosting Wisconsin Union Directorate shows in his venue to try to bridge the musical divide between campus and community. He hires student interns and makes it his business to keep current on new musical trends. He says it's clear that more college students are making music nationwide. "They're creating a huge following completely on their own."

Last month, the Majestic presented Mike Posner, a Duke University student who Gerding says created a buzz for himself on YouTube, Facebook and MySpace without any radio support or a major label.

"The show sold out in advance," says Gerding. "It's amazing. Artists like Owl City and Pretty Lights have had a similar story. They create music with new technology and develop hype with a very limited amount of classic promotional models."

John Sprangers, 22, plays guitar and keys in the Choons, one of the UW-Madison rock bands scheduled to play the Pub on March 12. "I use a home recording program to flesh out the parts," he says. "With a midi keyboard and a guitar, I can record all of the tracks - drum parts and keys - in pretty short order, and I can use the program to make sheet music and tabs. With this material, the band can be playing new original songs very quickly."

Sprangers says it isn't just changes in the availability of recording equipment that has helped fuel the Choons' initial success. "We benefit tremendously from social media," he says. "Even though we're just getting our bearings locally, our front man has communicated through Twitter with people as far away as Australia who like our music.

Sprangers says the Choons use social media to find venues and advertise their shows and merchandise. "Everything happens online except for the shows themselves," he says.

The Choons are among a wave of current campus rock bands and artists that includes the pop-rock of Meteorade, the bluesy rock of Dirty Jive, the funky sounds of the Bombshelters, the rootsy pop of Anna Wang and the acoustic folk-rock of P.C. Allen. These acts build on the success of student electro-jammers Steez and the quirky high-energy sound of the Nod.

A growing number of music-related student organizations are among the hundreds of campus clubs, according to Eric Knueve, interim director of the Center for Leadership and Involvement. That includes a cappella groups like MadHatters, the redcoated, necktied young men who do dramatic interpretations of pop hits like Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars." The group increasingly uses YouTube as an outlet for reaching audiences.

Gerding believes national success stories of home recording artists like Adam Young, who performs as Owl City, have motivated students to try to compose their own songs. Owl City's "Fireflies" became a number-one Billboard single in 2009 and has generated album sales exceeding two million copies so far.

"I think students and young people see these artists come out of nowhere and develop these huge followings by making music with all kinds of new recording technology, and they think, 'Hey, I can do this, too,'" says Gerding.

"I think the Ramones probably inspired more kids to form bands than any other artist in history because they made great music that was really simple to play," he says. "Kids are being similarly inspired by artists like Owl City who make music that is just as simple and easy and can be made in a dorm room with nothing more than a laptop."

Change you can trust?

The rapid changes in recording technology and social media may be sparking an explosion in UW campus bands, but it's also leaving some student musicians unsure of what platforms they can rely on to endure.

Nathan Schaefer, 22, is a guitarist and vocalist in Meteorade. "I'm not sure that everything has settled down and found its niche yet," he says. "When MySpace first launched, it was very convenient to use. You could browse all local bands in an area by giving it a zip code. That was how we learned more about the Madison scene when we moved here, and how we found bands to contact when booking shows."

But Schaefer says MySpace has started feeling more corporate. "The ability to find local bands is gone," he says. "Instead they shove 'top music' charts in your face."

Concerns about the new platforms lead some student musicians back to more traditional methods of recording and distribution.

For the Choons, home technology is used to develop songs, but not to burn them into their final form. "We've been doing the recordings we sell and put our names behind at Full Spectrum Studios in Fond du Lac, with a producer," says Sprangers. "It's part DIY and part paying a pro."

Truth be told, Schaefer's trust in technology doesn't run deep. "I think, overall, our generation came of age right when everything was changing," he says. "I heard good stuff on the radio when I was in grade school, and the idea of using the Internet to find music seemed strange until I was in high school. Our drummer Krista was big into her local punk scene. She read print zines and ordered albums from her favorite labels using snail mail."

But it's harder to find reliable outlets for learning about music, he says. "Most of us still have a friend we trust to find new bands and show them to us."

For most students, the advantages of the new media outweigh the uncertainties. "It's a lot easier to find great music today," says Sprangers of the Choons. "When I go to [the review aggregating site] Metacritic, I know any band scoring above an 80 is bound to have a very interesting album."

In high school, Sprangers didn't know much about indie music because no radio station played it. "But now I can log onto Pitchfork from wherever I am and find out about great music a little outside the mainstream."

Do-it-yourself memories

College is about having unforgettable experiences, and that's what's happening in the UW music scene revival.

Brandon Beebe, guitarist and vocalist for the Bombshelters, vividly recalls a show at the Ram Head Ratskeller, a recently closed venue that operated on North Henry Street. There was, he says, "just the feeling of being underground in that hedonistic place with a huge pit of people dancing in a euphoric, sweaty mess in front of you, and both familiar and unfamiliar faces surrounding you on either side of the stage with huge grins and fists pumping. You'd look back into the hazy blackness and see endless bodies that you know are packed to the back walls with a line out the door. Knowing that you are supplying this entire place with one of the best nights they've had all year. And feeling, if only for the night, like a real rock star - I'll never forget it."

The Nod's Brett Newski says that rock's new independent work ethic suits college students like him just fine.

"We do everything ourselves," he says. "We really pound the pavement to reach the ears. It's a do-it-yourself era with recording, promoting and booking. No one can afford a roadie to change their strings. We should probably just call the new record DIY."

He says the Nod rents an old, dirty rock 'n' roll basement under a liquor store. "It's cheap rent, and we get a discount for mopping the floor and taking out the trash each month. Love it."

Given the higher profile of undergraduate bands and music groups, more high-impact student recordings are bound to help steer the direction of Madison's music scene, on and off campus.

Zooniversity has already released a follow-up to "Coastie Song." It's a rap serenade to Chancellor Biddy Martin and features the singing of MadHatter Sam Petricca. The three-minute single finds fraternity brothers "Beef" and "Quincy" professing romantic adulation for Martin, who is a lesbian. Like "Coastie Song," "My Biddy" is sure to be taken as funny by some, offensive by others.

Like it or not, it's thoroughly collegiate. I have a hunch a lot of Madison music will be in the decade ahead.

Merlyn's headlined last great burst of campus-area live music

Not since the days of Ronald Reagan and Rubik's Cube has a high-profile rock nightclub operated on State Street. From 1979 to 1983, a venue called Merlyn's brought live music to the campus area. The now-legendary club operated at 311 State St., and the Replacements, R.E.M., U2 and the Police all played there.

Owners Serge and Delila Ledwith hosted plenty of local music, too. And the local bands from that era - Spooner and the Appliances-SFB among them - loom large in Madison music history.

"At its best, Merlyn's was much more than a nightclub. It was an idea," says Delila Ledwith, who now practices employment civil rights law in Texas.

Merlyn's nostalgia runs deep online. On Facebook, the group Merlyn's Living Music Club has more than 200 members and serves as a scrapbook for the former venue.

At Isthmus' TheDailyPage.com Forum, the thread Memories of Merlyn's began in 2007. "Merlyn's was a golden moment in Madison's musical development," wrote Newlow in a post that includes the following memories: "Climbing the wall to sneak into the X show; U2 trashing my friend Amy's apartment after their gig."

With live music in revival on campus and State Street, will another Merlyn's rise again?

Correction: Originally this article said Brandon Beebe's band is Meteorade. He is with the Bombshelters.

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