“Thousands of philosophers at one big hotel.” If that sounds like a lyric from an indie rock band, it might be because a few years ago, that scene actually helped start one.
Daniel Groll and Mike Fuerstein, both academics and jazz artists, met at a big event for philosophy Ph.D.s while schmoozing college departments to hire them as professors.
“Both Dan and I were standing there, like rejected prom attendees, trying to figure out what to do with ourselves,” Fuerstein said. “And we both had these histories as jazz musicians.”
So two years later, when Fuerstein came to Northfield for a job at St. Olaf College, Groll — who was hired at Carleton College the year before — sent him an e-mail. Would he like to be in a indie rock group that Groll was fronting?
Fuerstein soon took up drums for the band, joining Groll and guitarist/producer Jason Decker, another Carleton philosophy professor. A year later, bassist Andy Flory — a pop musicologist at Carleton and a Motown expert — would join the fold.
Today that band, the Counterfactuals, is less than a month off its debut album. “Minimally Decent People” was met with acclaim from the Daily Album and 89.3 the Current, which chose a track from the album as its Song of the Day.
“[They are] one of these new crops of local acts that are embracing Americana music in a contemporary, cool way,” said the Current music blogger Andrea Swensson, who describes the band’s sound as “finding that connecting point between roots, folk music and modern pop music and using modern pop sensibility.”
That sound has become popular in the past several years, with representation on Top 40 radio from mainstream acts like the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons. But Swensson said that she appreciates that the Counterfactuals stick to “songwriting as a craft, [with] more creative melodies.”
Groll, the vocalist, writes those melodies and lyrics. He often forgoes regular pop chords in favor of jazz-inspired ones, and works with the band to record songs that reveal layers of sound with each listen. Instrumentation on the album varies from the standard four pieces to saxophone solos, Groll whistling and even a cameo from the old-style Wurlitzer organ.
Almost every tune has something “crazy,” said Flory, the bassist and Carleton musicologist.
All fathers in their mid-to-late 30s, the members’ lives are a little more conventional — at least for professors, a job that requires teaching, research and traveling the country for academic conferences. With one night a week to practice among them, that means the band isn’t going on nationwide tour soon.
“We talk about maybe going to Madison, Chicago,” said Groll, joking like they were far-off cities in Europe.
Instead, the band said it would rather focus on recording a new album. And if it wasn’t for their schedules, “We could start on album No. 2 tomorrow,” Groll said.
When they do start recording, said guitarist Decker, the band will probably merge some of the rootsy and Americana sounds it first played as a two-piece group with the indie rock music it has blended into lately. He also expects some more experimentation.
With four Ph.D.s between them, will that experimentation borrow from their day jobs with, say, philosophy-inspired lyrics? Not likely.
“My philosophy research is really theoretical,” Decker said. “Music is completely nontheoretical.”
Groll agreed, and said the two passions can be complementary: Music and philosophy are “really good foils for each other.”
The band can’t resist some philosophy references. The album title is inspired by an idea in political philosophy, and the band’s name itself is a concept in philosophical logic. But Groll and others say the closest their two worlds meet is in their fan base. The Northfield music scene is supported in part by several small venues on and off the college campuses, which makes for a fan base including fellow professors and, of course, students.
At a Minneapolis show, said drummer Fuerstein, a couple of students from his class ventured out. The class had a paper due the next day, so they brought their laptops with them and worked during the show. “It was very difficult not to award a little bit of extra credit in that case,” he said.
Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer.