Above photo credit: Vince Bellino
We start off the Lehigh Valley Underground Artist Q&A series with Doug Keller. Doug is the bassist for Philly-based folk rock outfit, The Band of Rivals, and the guitarist for Duke Maroon, a punk/sarcastarock band (pictured above). Beyond his bands, Doug is an emerging player in the Philly scene, and shared some of the many lessons he’s learned about creating a scene that benefits all involved.
We first became aware of each other at the Hard Rock Café in Philadelphia, where you were playing with The Band of Rivals. For those who are unfamiliar, tell us a bit about the band.
The Band of Rivals is project that officially began in 2013. A lot people think that the name comes from a rivalry between the members of the band and our unique musical influences, but that’s not the case. Sean Cox, Alex-Michael Alleva, and Abbey Mertz met during a Civil War-themed production of “Twelfth Night” at Eastern University. Sean loves the Civil War and literature. The play’s director called them a “band of rivals” and the name stuck.
Eventually, Greg “The Gong” Ondo and I were added to the group when they needed a full band for a concert at Melodies Cafe in the spring of 2012. Since that point, we’ve released two albums, played The Philadelphia Folk Fest and 2nd Street Festival, held concerts at numerous Philadelphia venues like Johnny Brenda’s and The Ardmore Music Hall, and made our television debut on PBS39’s Steel Sessions.
You do all come from varying musical backgrounds and tastes. At the outset, did you all expect the collaboration to work as well as it has?
Honestly, I didn’t think that The Band of Rivals could really be a collaborative group. When the band first played together, it was to round out Sean Cox’s live sound and we weren’t really involved with the creative process. Sean was the only member of the band that really aspired to be a folk musician, whereas the rest of us had other genres that we had grown up on. Abbey was classically trained, The Gong was influenced by Snarky Puppy, and Alex-Michael was a huge fan of Pearl Jam and other alternative bands. My musical inspiration had always come from the likes of Primus, Ween, Pink Floyd and The Pixies, so in that regard, I’d always felt like an outlier in the band. Also, my bandmates like Dave Matthews Band. Bleh!
Around the time we released our first album, there began to be a shift in the group where we started to let our influences become more prevalent. Part of this sea change was because Alex-Michael, The Gong, and I had been jamming in a rock outfit ever since we first played with Sean and Abbey. Being comfortable with your bandmates is a great way to breed creativity. This type of collaboration allowed The Band of Rivals to stray outside of typical folk music, and approach the genre from a unique perspective. During that time, we all really improved as musicians, as well. It’s really easy to play what you know, but when you’re thrust in to a new genre, you can really build musical chops. Our increased musicality – combined with the fact that we were all contributing to the music – allowed us to be a lot more passionate about the band, and that’s the reason that we’re so proud of our second album.
Together, the band taped an episode of PBS39’s Steel Sessions, a music show highlighting local acts from the Lehigh Valley and surrounding areas. What was that experience like?
Steel Sessions is certainly one of the career highlights for The Band of Rivals and myself. It isn’t every day that you get to be on television, so it was an incredible honor for the band to be selected for that television series. I really loved the way that PBS39 was so dedicated to fostering a musical community and giving artists an opportunity to appeal to a larger audience. Every episode features a local unsigned artist. I can’t really think of any other series that offers that kind of support. Everyone involved with the production was extremely kind and positive, and I really hope that there is a second season of Steel Sessions. I’ve watched all of the episodes on PBS39’s YouTube channel, and my favorite is John Hufford’s performance.
I didn’t want to overthink the experience. From the start, we knew that we would only get one take to perform the songs, so screwing up would have been horrible. Thirty minutes before the show began, my bass started having issues and I had to restring it right before our performance, which is why I’m constantly tuning during the show. It was also a difficult situation, because Abbey was away on her honeymoon during the recording. Abbey adds so much to The Band of Rivals, and whenever we perform without her I fear that we’re missing a crucial musical element and we come across as a bunch of creepy dudes.
Despite those issues, the show went really well. It was an insane feeling after the recording, because all of us were like, “did that really happen?” Over the course of 36 hours, we had some of the biggest events of our career. We recorded a television episode, played a concert that went out over the radio, and made our debut at the Philadelphia Folk Fest.
In stark contrast to The Band of Rivals, you’re also the guitarist for punk/sarcastarock band, Duke Maroon. How did that group come together?
Duke Maroon started as a collaboration between music snobs, Gene Meyer and myself, in the winter of 2012. I had written this song about Gene called “Attention Whore,” and we decided to record it, just because we thought it was great and very different than the music that we were used to hearing.
Like so many other rock stars, we erected a workstation in his parents’ basement and started recording. After completing that song, we decided that we had to share our music with the world, and Duke Maroon was born. Gene’s mastery of “GarageBand” has always been a huge aspect of Duke Maroon, and it allowed us to record something like 12 songs over the course of two weeks.
Before we recruited more band members, we played tons of open mics and were met with mixed reactions. Some people really loved it, because we were so different than the typical singer-songwriter types that frequent open mics. At the same time, we were definitely met with resistance. A lot of times, I think musicians take themselves a bit too seriously and their songs can be overly deep. Whereas some people were playing love songs about ballerinas, we were playing songs that used dogs pooping on the floor as a metaphor for nihilism. When writing songs, I think Duke Maroon tries really hard to ignore clichés or embrace them to death. In addition to our unique songwriting choices, Gene’s insanity when performing live is a huge part of our concerts. Gene does stand-up and improv in Philly, and that type of comedic approach allows us to keep things light and really engage with crowds.
When I asked Gene about constant elements in Duke Maroon’s music, he said, “Lyrically, one of the recurring themes is this blend of frustration, hope, and humor. Frustration with the stagnation of living with your parents in the suburbs, and the rigid attitudes of the ‘Main Line.’ Hope in the belief that, through rock and roll, and by extension art, we can find some type of freedom or liberation. There’s an enduring belief that something great is always just around the corner. Humor is a way of dealing with a lot of this, the aforementioned frustration, but also the anxiety that hope may be falsely placed.
There’s also an element of deconstructionism, just wanting to do the complete opposite of all the bullshit we see in the music of others. There’s wanting to subvert the pretentiousness and seriousness of other artists, and find an artist quality in even the vilest subject matter.
Duke Maroon’s “The Oops EP,” released in June, draws heavily from classic rock and underground punk, and touches on subject matter ranging from The Joker (“The Man Who Laughs”) to political tyranny (“King Shit”). Discuss what inspired the record and how it came together.
We recorded “The Oops EP” because we had finally assembled a full band. The addition of bassist, Garret “Gare Bear” Thompson, and Wes Parrish on drums radically improved our live performances.
Gene put it best when describing our most recent release (by saying), “‘The Oops EP’ is just a collection of our tightest songs to that point. (It’s) not really so much an album, per se, but our five best jams. There is a slight recurring theme of quirky isolation (‘Swamp Song’, ‘Living in the Cult’), while ‘Heart Attack,’ ‘The Man Who Laughs,’ and ‘King Shit’ can all be viewed as commentary on misplaced ego and its consequences.”
Does the contrast between your bands’ distinctive sounds present any challenges to you as a musician?
I don’t think the differences in the bands presents much of a problem, because each group provides a type of cathartic release for the other. What I get out of each band is completely different, and that kind of multidimensionality is at the heart of my personality. It really keeps the music fresh, because when I’m feeling burned out on practicing for one project, I can move on to the next and approach it with a fresh perspective.
Outside of playing in bands, you’re very active in the Philly scene. You work 3-4 shows at Melodies Café in Ardmore per week. Tell us about the venue and the types of artists who play there.
Melodies has been an extremely critical part of my musical career. I played my first show with The Band of Rivals there, and it was also where we released of our first album. Melodies is a great spot for musicians to hone their craft and perform in a positive environment. There aren’t many spots in the Philly suburbs that attract such great musicians. Melodies is also right next to the Paoli Thorndale line, so traveling there is extremely easy.
Their weekly open mic is always a swell time, and it allows musicians of all ages to get some stage time and network with other musicians, which is critical for any artist’s development. There is certainly a prevalence of folk music at Melodies, but there are all kinds of concerts that happen there. For example, there’s going to be a performance by a hardcore/noise band called Rosetta in January.
On a personal note, I love working at Melodies! I get to see musicians perform, and there aren’t many jobs where you get to do that. It’s also expanded my knowledge of the Philly music scene, because I’ll see an artist’s name again and again on social media, then finally get to see them in person at Melodies. I also love watching artists develop; watching kids go from playing covers at the open mic to having their own concert is extremely rewarding.
You interned for popular Philadelphia public radio station, WXPN, which is known for its support of the great music coming out of the city. What did that experience teach you?
I could probably write a novel on all the things I learned at WXPN. First and foremost, the people of WXPN love music, and there is a sense of joy that constantly seems to permeate from that office. I got the sense that everyone that works there knew that they had the coolest job in the world, and that they wouldn’t ever take that for granted.
I really gained an insight into another part of the music industry. Before my time at WXPN, I didn’t fully grasp music promotion and how musicians got their music on the radio, but after interning at WXPN, the path became a bit clearer. Another thing that I took away from WXPN was a sense of music community in Philadelphia. I started to understand that most of the big music publications in Philly are made up of the same people, and that more or less everyone involved in the scene knows each other.
I really respect WXPN’s commitment to helping local artists, and their Key Studio Sessions are beyond awesome. John Vettese, the nicest and coolest dude around, let me sit in on a few of the sessions, and watching the musicians record live was insane.
My only issue with WXPN was that I would spend a large portion of the day listening to Philly music, and it would make me want to go home and practice.
You’ve carried interest in radio over to host your own radio show, “World’s Finest,” Friday afternoons on WCHE 1520 in West Chester, PA. Tell us about the show.
“World’s Finest” is a radio show that airs every Friday from 4 to 5 on WCHE 1520 AM. We talk about everything and anything that can be considered geek culture. We’ve interviewed authors like John Dixon, scientists, and musicians like Friends from Earth and The Late Saints. On Halloween, we even had our first convention, which was a great experience.
I got involved with “World’s Finest” after Kyle Hudson saw Duke Maroon performing at an open mic. Kyle was literally 1 of 2 people in the crowd during that performance, but he was really impressed with our music so he asked me to write the theme song to his radio show. After that, I appeared on the show a few times before deciding that I needed to part of it. Kyle Hudson is one of the most driven individuals I’ve ever met, and collaborating with him has been an extremely rewarding experience.
I’ll always be grateful for the opportunities he’s given me. I really don’t think I would have been able to intern at XPN without him helping me out.
What role do you think public and independent radio stations need to play in discovering and launching the careers of new artists?
Public and Independent radio stations are extremely critical in the development of new artists. I think it’s just so much harder for artists to make it on to commercial radio stations, because there’s an element of business that will always dictate what music gets played. Independent and public stations are free to play music that they want, not just music that is financially viable. By playing music of pre-established artists, commercial stations get locked in cycle that is very hard for new artists to become a part of. Public and independent stations can take risks and play much more diverse music.
In a similar vein, how important are high-quality venues to the health of a music scene?
Music venues are everything in building a scene. Artists need to perform to hone their craft and gain the attention of new fans. Without a good location for concerts, a music scene will stagnate.
In your opinion, what can the artists do to ensure the growth of a scene that supports all?
Artists need to realize that it’s not all about them. Death to narcissism! One of the best ways for artists to contribute to a scene is to go out and see other people’s shows.
I was talking with Paul Hocynec one night at Connie’s Ric Rac, and we both agreed that you couldn’t just expect people to come to your shows, especially if you’re a new or developing artist. You could be the best guitarist ever, but if people aren’t going to your shows, venues aren’t going to book you again, and you aren’t going to have a place to play.
Other people’s concerts are also a great way to network and meet other like-minded individuals. At the end of the day, music is about community, not competition. Although this statement may seem obvious, it took me a long time to understand it. In my younger years, I treated concerts like wrestling matches. I definitely saw other bands as enemies because they were trying to do the same thing as me, like someone trying to wrestle in your weight class, but I was wrong.
Before we go, tell people where they can learn more about all of your projects!
I think the best thing people can do is follow me on twitter, but you can also check out The Band of Rivals’ website, Duke Maroon’s bandcamp, and World’s Finest website.