A university professor, a doctor and a lawyer walk into a punk rock bar.
That’s not the start of a joke; it’s the start of the night’s entertainment.
They’re members of the band the 99ers. Half them are old enough to join AARP, and they have enough college degrees among them to wallpaper the stage. Add that the fourth member of the group is a stay-at-home dad and the manager is a corporate insurance analyst, and there isn’t a punk band stereotype that they don’t defy.
“We’re not looking for fame,” said Dr. Christopher Schoonover, the drummer. “Most of us don’t have time for that, anyway. I can’t drive to New Jersey in a van for two months. We’re doing this because we love it. It’s a break from what we do during the day.”
It’s the kind of band where the atypical is typical — unless there are other bands in which the drummer uses a break during rehearsal to check a message from the hospital on his pager.
“Do we have a medical emergency?” asked bass-playing attorney Doug Heeschen, wondering if the session was about to be cut short. “No, we’re OK,” Schoonover assured, returning to his drum set.
They take their music very seriously, but themselves much less so. That tone is set by the group’s founder, Prof. Stephen Brookfield, who holds national and international awards for his research in education, but this night was more interested in talking about the time he was kicked out of First Avenue after getting into an argument with a bouncer.
“It was very unacademic,” he admitted of his ejection from the Minneapolis club. “My wife was embarrassed by it. She was still inside, so I texted her that I had been kicked out. She decided to stay and hear the concert.”
Unlike his wife, Brookfield is not embarrassed. In fact, he’s written a song about it, “Thrown out of First Avenue,” that will be included in the band’s next CD, its fifth. Titled “Spark,” recording will wrap up by the end of December for a March release.
Despite the First Avenue incident — which came when Brookfield was tired from having just gotten off a flight after making a presentation at an educational conference — the band eschews the stereotypical image of troublemaking, egomaniacal performers.
“We’re embarrassingly nice guys,” insisted Schoonover, who had arrived late for rehearsal because he was held up at work. “I’m the most delinquent of the group because I got here at 8:08 instead of 8 o’clock.”
Their music is written primarily by Brookfield and stay-at-home dad Erik Kaiser-Crist. Their repertoire stresses the group’s local roots, with titles that include “Minnesota Day,” “St. Paul Girl” and “No Surfing in Fridley.” They define it as pop punk — punk music with a strong pop influence.
“The music we play is not that far out of the realm of what mainstream radio was playing 20 years ago,” Kaiser-Crist said.
Despite the Minnesota-centric titles, the songs tend to fare better elsewhere, manager Derek Kosky said. KFAI has played their stuff, but other radio stations haven’t been as interested.
“We get more airplay on the East Coast than here,” he said. “We seem to have a good rapport with the radio stations there. They like our style.”
They have played most of the local music venues in town, however. “Everything except the Xcel Center, Target Center and the Metrodome,” Brookfield quipped, turning more serious as he added: “The Twin Cities has an incredible number of places to play live music. It’s way better than New York as a place to be in a band.”
Because of their name, the 99ers often are mistakenly assumed to be connected with the Occupy movement, Brookfield said, but the name actually predates that by several years. It’s a reference to an ice cream treat in Brookfield’s native England, basically a soft-serve cone with a small chocolate bar jabbed into the ice cream. A survey of the band revealed that Brookfield is the only one who actually has eaten one.
“The specific chocolate bar is hard to find in the States,” he said.
Launched eight years ago, the band originally consisted of Brookfield, his son, Colin, on drums and his daughter, Molly, doing the vocals. They used stage names because they didn’t want people to write them off as a family band. “Too many ‘Partridge Family’ kinds of associations,” Brookfield said.
As the Brookfield offspring phased out of the group and were replaced, the band kept the tradition of stage names, although they don’t go to extremes to keep their real identities secret.
“My work friends know,” said Heeschen, 51, who performs as Doug Graves and whose day job is negotiating contracts for the state government. “Before I negotiate a contract, I always find out as much as I can about the people I’ll be negotiating with. If they back-check me, I don’t know what their perception must be.”
Brookfield, 64, whose stage name is Steve Shannon, holds the John Ireland Endowed Chair at the University of St. Thomas School of Education. “I’ve had students turn up at our gigs,” he said, adding that he isn’t entirely sure how he feels about that. “Sometimes I can feel myself grandstanding,” he said.
As an endocrinologist, Schoonover, 47, a k a Christopher Mark, has never had the topic of his musical alter ego come up with his patients at United Medical Specialties in St. Paul. And Kaiser-Crist, 41, who performs as Erik John, said his kids are just starting to realize that some of the CDs he plays for them are his own.
The band, which is taking a hiatus from gigs while recording its CD, expects to return to performing in January. They still enjoy their day jobs, but they miss the kick that comes from climbing on stage.
“There’s nothing like playing live music,” Brookfield said. “It produces a good panic, the kind that seizes you. Teaching is very satisfying, but it’s an intellectual experience. This is much more visceral. When you hit that power chord, it goes through your whole body.”