Balancing college and music: How pop-funk band USP does it all


Seniors Madeleine Vogel, Derek Skala and Ben Kevelson, juniors Seth Roberts, Emile Hamwey, Geo Kulp and Joey Willenbucher, and SUNY Geneseo grad James Ambalavanar form the Rochester-based pop-funk band USP. the Campus hours spoke to them in the middle of the recording session about creating their band, their work in forming and running a band as full-time students, and the creative process among the engineers.

Quotes have been edited for brevity, style and/or clarity.

How did USP start?

Kevelson: We had been looking for a few years to start a band with jazz musicians, but we didn’t really have the people to do it. You really need a perfect storm of players, especially in terms of the rhythm section, and it took a few years for people to come together. The last bit was when we met James, who is this really talented drummer from Geneseo. The first rehearsal we had was in June last summer, and then we played our first gig at Tin Roof in August, and we played gigs off and on, recorded on and off, and tried to do everything we could.

Vogel: You mostly look at junior and senior AME majors, and Ben and I have been close since freshman year, so a lot of the connections to start the band kind of came from there.

What does a week look like in general for you and how do you balance student life with USP?

Vogel: So we’ve had a few irregular weeks, but for a long time we’ve been trying to have regular rehearsals on Thursday nights, and our big rehearsal day is Sunday for usually three to four hours, either at Chez James or at Rettner. , depending on what you do. We do combos, read sheet music, browse sets for upcoming gigs, stream live — we have live streams in James’ basement on Sundays called ‘Groove Cellar’, which you can tune into. Also, a lot of our members spend time organizing the band, so we spend time working on things that people are arranging covers for as well as original pieces that they are working on.

Hamwey: We do a lot of “if you fix it, we’ll probably read it and play it”, which is a great culture to have – it benefits us because it makes it easier to create new things that we love, because everything comes naturally.

Roberts: So basically throughout the week we send covers of songs that we want to do in our group chat and our Slack.

Vogel: Our whole group chat is just Spotify links and “oh, we should play that!”

Roberts: Yeah, and usually if more than one person likes the song, we’ll have someone arrange it, usually the person who suggested it. I tend to do pop-troll songs, so I did Miley Cyrus, I did “Shake It Off”… usually there’s always a few funk songs that everyone except Madeleine knows, but we usually try to pick songs that we know, that our audience knows, and that we’ll have fun playing.

Hamwey: We try to balance the really technical stuff with stuff that people like to hear because you have to have both, right? We have to have songs that we’ll like to play and songs that people will like to hear.

Vogel: It has to be relatable music – depending on who we play, we might sit down and play the longest, most complicated jazz song ever, but that might not work for the audience at all. . We had covers where we performed them, and then we were like, “never again,” and we had to work on reading our audience to make those decisions. For example, we had a Stutson gig that was broadcast live where we were really drilling our technicality, but then in a place like Tin Roof, it’s not like people are going to watch for licks really specific! They’re just looking to have a good time. Part of the minor success we’ve had really comes down to figuring out how to give people the kind of good time they’re looking for.

Who came up with the idea of ​​”Groove Cave“, and do you have any ideas for moving this forward?

Hamwey: “Groove Cellar” came as an inspiration from one of our favorite musicians, this pianist named Emmet Cohen, and when the pandemic hit he started doing these livestreams in her living room with these incredibly talented jazz musicians. Then he started adding more camera angles than his phone and better microphones, and continued to improve the quality of the production with more high-profile guests. We thought something similar would be a great way for us to connect with our community – Rochester is a big, big city, but many of us have people who want to connect from further afield and we want to include. We try to do our live streams every two weeks, Sundays at 2pm, and work on both improvisation and covers. A friend of mine is a film student and he is going to help us improve the quality of our production in terms of video and audio.

Kevelson: One thing that live streams are great for is that since this group is relatively large and we have varying schedules, it’s hard to find a big block of time together to do something. If there’s not a gig we’re working on, it’s hard to fan the flames and keep pushing to get together and keep working, so having something we can work on in a cohesive way that we will help keep practicing and maintaining a fanbase is very helpful. It especially helped last semester when our gigs were still nebulous and we were really fresh as a band.

Are there any endeavors that you’re really looking to push forward, like collaborations like the one you did with BB Dang?

Roberts: Yeah, we’re trying to sell Madison Square Garden.

[Everybody laughs]

Vogel: I feel like each of us comes from a very different musical background here, and we’re looking to play shows with people we have a connection with. The more we realize that there are people here who do the same things as us, the more we can work together and continue to work on our own sound. The BB Dang/USP collaboration was a gig we got through my knowledge of their lead singer, Isabella, (LINK BB) and we are looking to do more things like that in the future. Trying to expand our reach and doing it for the love of music and making connections is so important.

Ambalavanar: Even if we didn’t have concerts, I would come here and play music with these guys every Sunday. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing music.

Willenbucher: It’s in my top two.

[Everyone laughs]

What does the creative process look like for you guys who make tracks?

Willenbucher: I took the lead on the recording because it’s something I like to do, and I mixed our last single, ‘One Way Ride’, but I also wrote a lot of our music with Ben. Seth came in recently with a song that I think is one of our best, so now we’re working on trying to record several tracks and trying to fit them into an album.

Kevelson: We also knew that we wanted to do some original songs, but for our first shows, we focused exclusively on covers except for one original. Recently we had a few days where we went into the studio and tried to produce as much new music as possible, which was interesting to see how differently everyone approaches the creative process. There are many different aspects to putting together a track, and we’re like a Swiss army knife in how each has a function to make it all work.

Hamwey: It usually all starts with a voice memo, and over time on rehearsal we start to put more stuff together. After everything falls into place, that’s when we start thinking about live arrangements and what we could do to record it.

Vogel: When we walk into the studio, you’d think there would be too many cooks with such a large group, but there’s so much going on in the recording process than having a group of people with experience AMEs who know what to do makes team operations run so much smoother. When it comes to the technicality of mixing, that’s where opinions become more difficult.

Hamwey: There was never a time when we had a disagreement that was groundbreaking, though, and it speaks to the respect we all have for each other and our prioritization of this band and its culture.

Vogel: I think it came early on, though – when we first played “Suit and Tie” I think we all kind of swooned and got stuck. Then we all looked at each other like, “woah, did that just happen?” From the first month we started playing together, we all clicked, and the respect came immediately as a result. I think the most important thing is that we vibe so well on stage – I can just turn to Geo or anybody else and immediately attach myself, and with a band as big as this, I think it speaks to the way we do things.

Ambalavanar: I have voice memos from our first rehearsal that I still listen to.

Kevelson: The good thing about livestreams now is that everyone can see that group dynamic, which really sets us apart from other bands that only release music.

Is there any upcoming news that people should watch out for?

Hamwey: all our updates are published on our Instagram, so if you’re interested in what we have to come, be sure to check it out here. We have excerpts from past concerts on our Youtube channel as well as our live streams.

USP will perform at 75 Stutson Street with the UR Jazz Combo on April 2 at 7:30 p.m. Proceeds will benefit Ukrainian relief efforts.


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