Nico J. Schwalbe ’14 opens the door of a tiny room in the Lowell basement filled with tangled cords, and I take a seat on an amp by the drumset. This is the rehearsal space for L.A. Jeff, a student band Schwalbe helped found. We are soon joined by Sam J.J. Newmark ’14, who greets me and immediately starts unpacking his guitar.
“Me and Nico met, like, week two of school,” Sam explains. “We spent a lot of time getting high and jamming in his room, which is pretty much the only thing you can fucking do in freshman year.”
It took another musical connection, however, to bring the whole band together—Harvard Radio Broadcasting, or WHRB. Band member Parker M. Crane ’13 met the two freshmen through radio, and the three started making music together.
“We got yelled at in the Co-op for jamming,” Crane recalls. His bandmates laugh, and they launch into a good-natured imitation of someone telling them off for being loud.
L.A. Jeff’s unique name comes from a similarly relaxed day. “We were just sitting around drinking on a Friday afternoon,” recalls Schwalbe. Newmark details the full story, recalling, “Nico was pushing for an acronymic name, and I had various suggestions, one of which was Low Hanging Fruit, LHF, and then someone heard it as L.A. Jeff, and then we started just making up this guy, this craaaazy dude, L.A. Jeff, we had to represent us.” Nico adds, “Sort of like Jeff Lebowski.” The members crack up. “Yeah, like the Big Lebowski!”
L.A. Jeff’s sound is even more distinct than their name. While many campus bands at Harvard take the route of a crowd-pleasing cover-band, L.A. Jeff writes their own music and only performs the occasional cover. The band fuses 1960s elements with each member’s personal quirks and styles for a sound member Saman Rouhani ’14 describes as a “pleasant mess.”
“There’s definitely a self-conscious throwback kind of element; we play a lot of very sixties, psychedelic, garage-influenced things,” says Newmark of their sound. “A lot of that was very much derived from the culture of American youth in the sixties, the teenagers who would just get a guitar for Christmas and want to start a band. A lot of it was also kind of, you know, centered around the drug scene of the sixties, especially, like, the more jam stuff, but it’s developed into its own thing.”
When asked which artists the group relates to the most, Crane pauses before offering, “I was thinking we sound kind of like Brian Jonestown Massacre.” Nico agrees, citing the neo-psychedelic band as a major songwriting influence. Rouhani mentions the Yardbirds, but says of L.A. Jeff, “we’re spreading out more, though.”
The band is not just a sum of its influences: it creates a style of its own in many ways, including aspects as simple as the ratio of instruments. “With three guitars, it’s gonna sound a certain way,” explains Schwalbe.
Newmark cites the triple force of guitarists as adding “a grunge-y element to the sound,” and goes on to explain that “with this number of guitars, it’s very hard to maintain a clean-cut sound.” Members’ personalities and instruments come through in the sound as well. Crane says, “I definitely lean kind of more towards funk as the bassist, but there’s only so much funk you can introduce into something like us.”
Originally called Lunar Volk, L.A. Jeff’s sound evolved along with its former outfit. The addition of Will Sisselle, who responded to the band’s Craigslist ad for a new drummer this past fall, turned the quartet into a five-piece, giving them the opportunity to explore a new sound as their current drummer became another guitarist. Though the band generally plays gigs at off-campus venues such as P.A.’s Lounge in Somerville and The Cantab Lounge in Central, they first performed at The Harvard Advocate and have played there several times since.
“They’ve been very good to us,” notes Newmark. Since their first Harvard gig at the Advocate, L.A. Jeff has played at The Lampoon, WHRB, and…Adams House?
“That was the worst gig,” laughs Schwalbe. (“The best worst gig,” a bandmate softly corrects.) “Twenty feet of people playing fucking corn toss in front of us, and anyone who wanted to listen was, like, forty feet away,” Crane adds.
The band has recently reunited after a break that began in December. Schwalbe reflects on the break, saying it has given the band “time to come up with a lot of new stuff, so in that way, it’s been positive to take a break.” Additionally the band is looking forward to a trip to New York in April. “I grew up in New York, and I have a lot of friends who do live music,” Rouhani says, “So it’s gonna be good.”
L.A. Jeff’s style may be well-suited for a New York City club, but how do they fare amongst their fellow Harvard students?
“There’s definitely a contingent of people who will come and see us,” says Crane. The group does, however, have a niche: “It’s really the radio and artsier kids because we’re all involved in that,” explains Newmark. Despite their specific audience, L.A. Jeff shows consistently attract fans. “Last time we played at P.A.’s [this past December] we had like 40 or 45 kids, and we were off-campus,” Crane recalls.
The student body will soon get their exposure to L.A. Jeff as they battle for a coveted spot in the 2014 Yardfest lineup. “We’re gonna be running against Hot Breakfast,” Schwalbe says. I ask L.A. Jeff what they think of Hot Breakfast, another on-campus band. “I’m gonna choose not to comment,” says Schwalbe.
“Oh, we went to their show,” Rouhani says. “It was fun, they played very conventional songs.” Schwalbe adds, “They know what they’re doing. They’re a cover band, which is not a problem, it’s just different. For us, it’s just part of the package with playing original stuff. The thing is, Harvard doesn’t have a bustling music scene, and especially for something like Yardfest which is played to, you know, what the majority wants, it’s understandable that we may not be what the majority wants. But I think we’re pretty content with that. There is more of a niche here for bands that just go play popular cover songs which, again, is not bad, it’s just different.”