Band of Brothers: The Men of Music House

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Author: Rachel Stober

Down the stairs near Bell-Young Hall, simply follow the drifting riff of an electric guitar and the metallic pulse of a drum-set and the front door to Occidental’s music-themed house will probably be open. The house is surprisingly plain (and clean) for boarding a group of nine college students. Gathered in the living room, juniors Mikey Ursu, Leo Haroon, Pablo Warner, Connor O’Callaghan and Kevin Witkow constantly play music every afternoon, morning and night.

Their chemistry is immediately evident; they answer questions almost as a group, finishing each other’s sentences, referencing inside jokes and on several occasions making brief but grand allusions to themselves as the “adventure crew.”

The way the five quip back and forth, one would hardly guess that Witcow only recently befriended the group as their Resident Advisor. After a series of events, Witkow now lives in the house as “the former R.A.,” a topic they find ripe for comic material. The jokes and teasing fly freely around here; nothing is off limits within their tight circle, and they all seem to be able to take humorous criticism just as well as they dish sarcasm on each other.

Ursu, Haroon, Warner and O’Callaghan met in Stewie their freshman year, where they were playing and “being very obnoxious,” as Warner says. After two years of constantly annoying other residents, they started looking for somewhere they could practice on their own accord without causing problems.

“We wanted a place to play music and be able to create without bothering anyone, and this is a much better situation for that,” Warner said.

This is the first year students have lived in the house, as it had previously served as temporary accommodation for faculty and guest speakers. Because they are treading new ground, the members try to be as cooperative as possible with neighbors, usually not playing anything other than an acoustic guitar past seven at night. So far, this seems to be working. With the exception of one minor instance at the start of the year, the music house has received no noise complaints. Without having to worry about sleeping neighbors right on the other side of the wall, they can truly live and breathe music. In fact, music almost seems like air in the house; flowing from room to room and ever present, almost as if by necessity.

“It’s rare that we’re in a room, and there isn’t music being played, either by someone or on something,” Watkow said.

On an average day, Witkow said that he is awakened by his housemate’s music. While many people would grumble about an inescapable musical alarm clock, here its presence is welcomed as part of music’s deeply rooted place in the house.

“It’s nice being somewhere where music isn’t just something you can do, but it’s something where it’s the only thing to do,” Warner said.

The others agree, explaining how living in the house has contributed to their musical identities. Ursu, who was abroad and just moved in this semester, said he can already feel the house’s influence, simply by the amount they get to play.

“We never had this sophomore year,” Ursu said. “We never got to practice with each other so much, like every day. It’s great; I’m becoming better by the day.”

In addition to the extended hours of practice, the members of the house also explained how living together creates an environment that is ideal for the creative process.

“You’re constantly being exposed to [music], you’re constantly hearing people play and share their ideas,” O’Callaghan said. “I never thought coming in as a freshman that I’d be able to live in a place like this.”

With only six music majors in their junior class, and a third of them living in the house, they also feel that the house is a great addition to Occidental’s Music Department, bringing the students together and fostering collaboration. It allows them to expand upon the limited styles the department teaches.

“[The Music Department] also doesn’t offer the kind of music we can,” Ursu said. “They’re mainly classical and jazz focused . . . and they aren’t going to change that. You can play any kind of music in this house, so this is kind of like a haven.”

Indeed, the group has varied tastes in music and drastically different musical backgrounds. O’Callaghan, who also plays rugby and is a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, has been playing classical piano since first grade and is minoring in music. He mainly sticks to that initial genre and notes that he is currently working on a Prelude by Chopin.

Haroon, on the other hand, plays the drums and bass, which he began his freshman year when he found himself living surrounded by talented musical friends. Haroon fights what he calls an uphill battle preventing the others from turning to pop, with a style he describes as “stuff with a fat drum beat and that you wouldn’t find on the radio.”

Witcow, however, says he likes all kinds of music. He has been playing the guitar for around five years and picked up the bass this year, “because Leo has to play the drums,” he grumbled as the others laughed.

Ursu, a music major with hair reminiscent of an early Jimmy Page, began his musical career with ulterior motives before discovering his natural affinity for music.

“I picked up the guitar because I really wanted to get ladies,” Ursu said. “But then down the road . . .”

“He realized that would never happen!” Witcow interjected with a giggle.

“That’s not true!” Ursu said. “It became much more than that; I realized what music really meant to me, and it just became all about music.”

In addition to the guitar, Ursu sings and plays the drums, bass and some keyboard. He likes playing acoustically best, describing his style as folk rock, but with an emphasis on the rock.

Warner, the other music major in the house, says some of Mikey’s affinity for folk has rubbed off on him, but although he likes listening to everything, he likes making alternative rock the best, “where it’s rocking, but it has elements of everything.” For Warner, “everything” includes Latin, classical and strong jazz influences.

Growing up in Hawaii with a very musical and influential father, Warner’s musical career stems from jazz. He started alto saxophone lessons when he was in fifth grade and was performing by the time he was 11 at hotels, clubs and street performances, even learning to perform with professionals.

With training, he has since picked up singing and the guitar, his instrument of choice. When I asked if he knew what he wanted to do after graduating, he answered without hesitating, “I want to be a rockstar.”

Their disparate musical styles, pasts and futures don’t hinder their collaboration, but rather fuel it. With their various experiences, Ursu, Haroon and Warner created a band called Simian Pillage, a play off their beloved music professor and faculty advisor Simeon Pillich. Writing, playing and recording together, they integrate their styles to create a sound Warner describes as precise and catchy, but not pop-ish.

“Everything is fused,” Warner said. “We definitely have our own sound. I think it catches a lot of people off guard because it has elements of what you know, but it has a lot of stuff that’s just a little different because of our musical training and because of our likes and dislikes.”

The house’s latest and most exciting project, however, is the open mic show they have planned for Feb. 24. They hope to have the event in the backyard of music house, although the location has not been confirmed. During this event, they plan to promote alcohol awa
reness and safety while hosting a beer garden.

“In light of all the things that have happened with the whole Splatter dance, we thought it would be good to show that there’s a group of students here that know how to enjoy alcohol responsibly,” O’Callaghan said. “We think it’s stupid that the school allows a few irresponsible people to ruin [events] for the entire school, because the one percent should never decide what happens.”

Although the open mic will be the first event of its size the house is putting on, they have “Saturday on the Lawn” each week, a mid-afternoon jam session on their front lawn with anyone who cares to join them.

“Everyone on campus, even if you aren’t musically inclined by self-definition, should feel welcome to just come check it out,” Haroon paused then added, “Or just walk by and look at it like most people do.”

For those who love music, that invitation isn’t limited to Saturdays.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a music major or not, if you’re passionate about music, this exists at our school for people [like you], so come by … play music, have a good time, we’ll make something cool out of it,” Haroon said.

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