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Saturday, November 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Fair
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Big voices on campus: Madhatters sing their way to UW-Madison stardom
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Credit:Lukas Keapproth/Red Wave Pictures

Back in high school, not all of the MadHatters were the kinds of guys you'd expect sorority girls to be swooning over in college.

David Redick, 22, grew up in St. Louis and says he was a "massive theater nerd" as a teenager. He still knows every word to the rock opera Rent.

Bob Pierce, 19, grew up in Mukwonago. His crowning teen accomplishment was starring as Tree #3 in The Wizard of Oz.

Joe Meeker, 19, grew up in Waunakee. He spent his high school leisure time starting a barbershop quartet with other kids in his school choir.

Varsity jocks, eat your heart out. The 18 men of UW-Madison's premiere a cappella group are in demand at the Greek houses that line Langdon Street, frequently performing at sorority functions.

On April 16, the MadHatters host their spring semester concert at the Orpheum Theatre. They sold out the State Street venue the last three times they performed there.

The MadHatters are known for juxtaposing highbrow choral performance with lowbrow Top 40 hits in hilarious ways. They're not too proud to cover Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" or Passion Pit's "Little Secrets," or even "Party in the U.S.A." by Miley Cyrus.

That's because MadHatters thrive not just as singers but as entertainers. "There are tons of groups who can sing well and have decent arrangements but often lack the necessary stage presence to make an audience lose themselves in the performance," says Redick. "We rehearse our butts off so when we perform we can make it look easy."

The group's spirited identity is represented by the Badger red sports coats they wear at their concerts. The sea of red is a symbol of MadHatter unity. "These are some of the best friends I've ever had," says Logan Bernecker, 22. "Some of them will probably be in my wedding party later on in life, if they don't completely annoy me by then."

A cappella groups are a mainstay of campus culture nationwide, and the singing style is the focus of the hit NBC reality show The Sing-Off. Even so, most college students aren't literate in the art.

The MadHatters take the genre seriously. "It's tough to take a song that has a full band including electronic and synth instruments and then replicate it without any of the same resources except your mouth," says Bernecker.

Somehow, the MadHatters take a bunch of mouths and turn it into one of the fullest musical sounds you'll ever hear.

Out of many, one

It's seven o'clock on a Tuesday night in December, and on the main floor of the UW-Madison Humanities Building, 18 young men are singing "White Christmas" in perfect harmony. They're standing in a circle in the middle of a classroom - tenors, baritones and basses, eyes meeting eyes at each measure, brows rising and chins lifting with the onset of each high note.

They're not just singing. They're listening - waiting for their entrances, mindful of how their parts will shape the group's larger sound.

MadHatter songs sound as dense as a multitracked studio album. And why not? Every song is layered with 18 unique vocal styles.

Kabir Days, 22, says he'd like to think his voice has a soulful, crooner vibe to it. "My favorite types of music to sing are jazz and oldies," he says.

Mark Dennison, 19, sees his bass lines as providing the foundation for the rest of the group. "They may be repetitive," he says, "but they're way better than any of that high crap the tenors sing."

One MadHatter isn't a singer at all. Andrew Fitzpatrick, 22, is a beatboxer who uses his mouth to create percussion every bit as real as a drum machine's, and more soulful. "I shape the dynamics, tempo and rhythms of our songs," he says. "I have creative control over how I approach each song, and I try to bring something unique to every performance."

Each MadHatter might bring something different to the group, but their various styles are not in competition. Some members even see a low individual profile as a strength. Bernecker says that vocally, he's much more of a blender. "I physically have one of the quieter voices in the group," he notes. "That helps me blend with every single person. I'm also very conscious about my tone and the tone of those around me, so I can alter how I sound as I sing to make a more consistent blend."

Meeker has tried to turn being "nothing special vocally" into an asset. "In performance I'm both pretty confident and astonishingly awkward," he says. "Though if played right, people can find that awkwardness pretty funny."

Some MadHatters see their strength in their stage presence. "I've been told numerous times that I have some sweet dance moves," says Rogelio Becerra Ramirez, 21, a mechanical engineering major who grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico. "I like to groove to every song we do, even in practice. During a concert, I like to close my eyes, zone everything out, focus on my part, and let my body do what it does best."

Pop goes the choir

Drew Lake, 23, studies the serious subjects of finance, investment banking and economics by day. But on the stage of the Orpheum last fall, Lake donned a wig, sang falsetto and covered Katy Perry. "I'ma get your heart racing in my skin tight jeans, be your teenage dream tonight," he crooned before a crowd largely made up of delighted coeds.

The MadHatters understand the pop-culture reference points of their generation. They make no apology for using the tawdry side of pop to bring humor to their performances, and to their broader group identity.

Lake has a penchant for invoking pop divas. Last fall he wore a sequin top and exposed his hairy legs while singing "Party in the U.S.A." He danced in ladies' pumps. He stood before an enormous American flag. He put his hands up when Miley said the Jay-Z song was on. He lingered in a semicircle of MadHatters who provided the supporting instrumentation with 17 more voices.

Says Redick, "I see the MadHatters as an entertainment group, not an a cappella group."

That explains why the MadHatters occasionally venture into creative endeavors tangential to singing. Last year, the group created a four-part Internet serial they dubbed Mendota Shore. (Watch parts one, two, three and four.) The short films were Madison's answer to Jersey Shore, and they brimmed with the kind of shallow conflict that defines the MTV drama.

In one episode, MadHatter Miles Comisky is portrayed as a control freak. Musical instruments? He has no patience for them. He's shown snatching a guitar away from one MadHatter and dropping a pitch pipe in his lap. Another episode depicts a MadHatters intervention aimed at a member who'd become addicted to throat lozenges.

The group often include film shorts as a way to pace their live performances. They previously opened a show with a seven-minute "Day of the Gig" video.

Akin to the hype of college gameday sports shows, the video satirized the adrenaline rush that leads up to one of their concerts. Members are shown getting in shape by running the stairs outside the Capitol, set to the theme from Rocky.

Art of a cappella

The MadHatters' approach to performance may thrive on irreverence and humor, but make no mistake. The group takes the art of a cappella very seriously.

"A cappella music takes time and dedication to perfect," says Fitzpatrick. "It's the equivalent of having over a dozen different instruments, all performing melodies and harmonies in sync. Sometimes people don't really understand the time that goes into each arrangement and the practice that goes into each performance."

MadHatters began at UW-Madison in 1997. They've emerged as the leading a cappella group on campus, in part because of a grueling tryout process that involves multiple performances in front of current members.

The group is entirely self-managed. The 18 members handle all artistic and logistical chores.

Comisky and Redick, two MadHatters who major in music, handle the group's arrangements. "We start with listening to the song a bunch of times and figuring out the general form," says Comisky. "We identify big riffs or things that will be absolutely necessary within the arrangement. From there, you get creative. Often the best a cappella arrangements add something to the song that will make people sit up in their seats."

"A song like 'Forever' by Chris Brown is a pretty straight-up transcription," says Redick. "A song like 'Jesse's Girl' requires more interpretation, because the electric guitar can be hard to replicate in a live a cappella setting," he adds.

"A cappella music has many components to it," says Pierce. "Vocal talent counts, but there's a lot more. You have to be able to listen. Someone can be a stellar soloist, but if they can't listen and blend with the group, they won't succeed."

Pierce says the best a cappella feeds off the group's collective emotion. "You have to put your entire personality into your music. Your mood has to suit the song style for it to sound great. A cappella is entirely dependent on a positive and strong group dynamic. Nobody can carry the group alone."

Hatters brotherhood

Against all odds, the MadHatters have made a choir a very cool thing to be a part of at one of America's biggest college campuses.

"The enthusiasm that people have for this group consistently surprises me," says Meeker. "People really get excited about MadHatters, because apparently the student body never learned that in most circles a cappella is pretty lame."

Meeker says the group has defined his college experience. "The best friends I've made in college have been my fellow MadHatters. It's cool that a group with only one criterion for membership, having a good voice, ends up having so many cool people in it. I feel privileged to be a part of the Hatters brotherhood."

MadHatters

Orpheum Theatre, Saturday, April 16, 7 pm

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