Flash in the pan: a look at Notre Dame’s student music scene
Mike Donovan | Friday, September 22, 2017
“Hey dudes! For those of you who don’t know us — which is, like, all of you — we’re JV Band Club, from the middle of nowhere. If you could, er, I don’t know, like buy our CDs or some s—, we’d totally appreciate it. It’s a three-hour van ride home, and we’re hoping to make it the entire way this time. Cheers F——! Let’s blow the f—— roof off this dump!”
So begins the bacchant enterprise that is Rockamura Fest — with three young gentlemen, two low powered amps, one sweaty house, no money and a slew of “scene” types gathered to celebrate the aimless rebellion of ham-fisted lo-fidelity rock and roll. Over the course of the night, the Nakamura Co-Op hosts 23 more student acts — each with a completely original set list. Between acts, bands and attendees discuss performances, creative plans, possible collaborations and potential shows. JV Van Club sells its CDs — hopefully enough to make it home.
In Ann Arbor, at the University of Michigan, the DIY spirit has a home.
Now consider Notre Dame’s nearest equivalent — the wholesome Lakeside Music Festival — a place where, hot dog in tow, you can see some of our school’s most interesting student musicians offer their original material against the wrath of administrative oversight and a certain band’s fratty covers of “Mr. Brightside.” If any potential components of a Notre Dame student scene exist in this setting, they’re probably drowning in vanilla ice cream.
We also have Acousticafe, a weekly open-mic event during which student musicians can blow minds and melt faces, provided they do so at a volume conducive to studying.
If a Notre Dame student wants to push artistic boundaries — if he or she wants to really put on a show — what are they to do?
To answer this question, I spoke with Julia Steiner (’14) who, along with Dave Sagan (’15), started the acclaimed band Ratboys in her first year on campus. She attributes its birth not to a bustling scene but to her class Facebook group.
“Dave posted something in that group, and I saw that he was playing bass in that picture. We kinda just made a plan to meet up when we got to college — to get together and play music. At that point we didn’t know anyone else, or hadn’t met anyone else on campus who played music,” she said. “It started out mostly in my dorm room.”
“Eventually we met a couple of people who were also kinda doing that sort of thing,” Steiner continued, speaking about the band Francis Luke Accord, whose art studio became a haven for Steiner and her bandmates.
On campus, Steiner and Sagan kept their operation low-key.
“When we started playing together and had few songs, we put together these random little shows throughout campus,” she said. “It was just me and Dave. I was playing acoustic guitar; he was playing electric guitar.”
These shows that were for the most part unsanctioned took place in the dorms — or, in one instance, the basement of Bond Hall.
“That’s part of the fun,” Steiner explained. “Breaking the rules.
“We actually did play one full-band show in the basement room of Breen-Phillips on a Saturday Night. That was one of the ones where we actually did ask for permission. The other ones were kind of rogue. It would’ve been cool to get exposure. To get people to come. Pretty much just word-of-mouth.”
But Steiner credits the South Bend music scene for helping Ratboys realize its potential as a band.
“The best thing, really, was when we were able to have a car and started going into South Bend,” she said. “We met tons of really good local musicians who had nothing to do with Notre Dame. That was really important. It’s hard to get off campus sometimes, and I feel like people make the assumption that there’s not much out there.”
When I asked her if there was anything we could do to revamp the on-campus music scene, Steiner stressed the importance of artistic direction and a keen ear.
“I think it’s important to, first of all, think about what you want. There was something really special about the underground aspect of what we were doing. On the one hand, you want people to enjoy and experience what you’re doing, and you want to meet people who are doing the same thing — but it’s also special to create things in isolation.”
Steiner also spoke to the dangers of Notre Dame’s reputation as an artistic dead zone.
“I just think it’s important for students to realize that, even though Notre Dame has this reputation, your peers are talented in many ways. There are kids in every class who are artists and make really cool art, even if it’s not apparent. Keep your ear to the ground and listen for it. We’re not a flash in the pan.”
With Steiner’s words in mind, I decided to track down one of Notre Dame’s most promising current artists — singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist sophomore Felix Rabito — to get his thoughts on Notre Dame’s student music scene.
Rabito, like Steiner, started writing early.
“I did [my music] mostly before,” he said. “It started in high school. When I was like 16 or 17, I started writing music.”
Rabito expressed disappointment about the lack of community among creative people on campus. He reflected Steiner’s point about the unchecked potential of our student body.
“It’s definitely isolated. I feel like, at Notre Dame, there’re so many really talented musicians. I mean, people are talented in general. But I feel like creativity, especially songwriting … there’s not a lot of that.” The perception, he claimed, is that “a lot of people think it’s a waste of time, even though [songwriting is] the most intrinsically joyful thing I do.”
Rabito does, however, believe that an artistic community can form naturally, if students are open to it.
“I don’t think you can force anything,” he said. “I was talking to Ladibree [sophomore rapper], and she voiced a similar opinion. Bree and I were talking about trying to create a grassroots culture that fosters creativity. Finding people who like to write and encouraging them. We were actually thinking about having a grassroots show.”
As a child of the famed New Orleans music scene, Rabito had experienced the grassroots music culture first hand.
“Growing up in New Orleans was really great,” he said. “In a lot of places it’s frowned upon for guys to sing and talk about their feelings, but New Orleans is a special place — it’s always been so accepting. Concerts in backyards and abandoned lots. Everyone started writing; everyone started painting.”
This kind of atmosphere — one in which students engage in creativity to build community — suits Notre Dame’s core values. Rabito specifically cites the school’s vibrant faith scene as a possible catalyst for an artistic movement.
“Today, especially in music culture, we all have this idea of individuality. This individual, or personal, idea that it’s cool to not conform; it’s cool to be better than things,” he said regarding indie and alternative music scenes. “But faith,” he continued, “helps you focus on the way you’re connected with those around you. It’s a path to empathy. That’s really what these esoteric indie artists are looking for. Empathy.”
“It’s a big misconception,” he concluded, “that faith is non-conforming.”
Notre Dame’s culture may not be cut out for an edgy, misfit-ridden music scene in the vein of the University of Michigan. The community, I think, is a little too welcoming for a serious countercultural movement against it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t build a music scene on our own terms.
As both Steiner and Rabito remind us, there’s a lot of talent here on campus. If a few people are willing to make the effort — starting bands, hosting shows, getting the word out — a scene will start to grow. In due time, we may even have our own versions of Rockamura, where musicians and fans gather by the hundreds to celebrate Notre Dame’s creative life. But, before any of this can happen, we need a first mover.