C-U as creative grounds for aspiring artists

Champaign-Urbana is known for its eclectic music scene, with acts ranging from local to international fame. That’s why it’s no wonder that it’s the hub for kick-starting numerous musical careers and enticing creative musical passions.

The C-U has fostered some touring musical talents that started in the very dorm rooms’ students strum guitars in today.

“It all started in my dorm room with songs I had laying around and a guitar, and now it’s a lot bigger than that,” said Dan Durley, singer and guitarist for The 92s and senior in LAS.

The 92s consist of three other members, and are self-described as a rock band with a bit of indie, folk elements.

“At first we only played acoustic shows, then we got a gig at the Hard Rock (Cafe) and were able to do a lot of cool things in Chicago since then,” Durley said about the progression of his band.

The 92s won a competition called Rock & Vote hosted by the Chicago paper, The Red Eye, two summers ago Durley said. They got to play at Hard Rock Cafe to a full capacity crowd and then got to play at the Taste of Chicago that year.

The 92s haven’t been the only band to see success and progress since their beginnings in C-U.

A group called Grandkids, which has a folk-rock sound, has released a few EPs (Extended Plays, which are CDs with fewer songs) and an album, and have toured and played at Pygmalion Music Festival as well.

“Our lead singer, Vivian McConnell, was set to perform at Canopy Club her freshman year and she wanted to play with a live band, so she kind of recruited the rest of us to play this show and we’ve been together ever since,” said Evan Metz, vocalist and guitarist for Grandkids.

Metz, University alumnus of 2013, talked about how despite not being able to live off of what they do musically, the experiences they share together as a band have been some of the best.

“Recording the album was amazing. The first two weeks of it we were hauled up in a warehouse-like place, and that was fantastic,” he said. “There were tears, there were fights and it was a really intense experience working so closely and so creatively with people in one space for two weeks straight.”

“Looking back, when we weren’t in class, while everyone else was doing whatever they wanted on weekends or after school, we were out in a van together for hours, just the four of us, either recording, playing shows or touring,” Metz said. “After all of that, certainly I’d say they’re probably my best friends at this point.”

Despite the excitement of touring and bandmates’ close relationships, the lives of musicians aren’t full of adrenaline-rushed crowds and spectacular shows. Rather, there are challenges upon challenges.

Ryan Groff, lead singer and guitarist of the indie/pop-rock band Elsinore, knows all too well about the hard work and effort it takes to reach success.

“You have to be really organized or things get really hard,” he said.

Groff points out that the simple things are the struggle, like buying gas in order to travel. From traveling expenses to talking to booking agents, it can take a lot of time and effort to afford to be in a band full-time, he said.

Durley of The 92s said he feels strongly about bands investing in themselves.

“Just do it. Practice a lot obviously, but get out there and play shows and make sure the people in your band have the same vision as you do,” he said. “Also, invest in yourself because you will see the dividends of that investment later.”

But Durley also pointed out that for most people in this business, it is not all about making money.

“We make money sometimes on small things, but in general we’re in the red. Every band is kind of broke all the time,” Durley said. “So it’s not really about making money or anything; I just want to be able to put out good records and have a platform to do it.”

Aiming high, despite all the difficulties that come with the industry, is the only way to keep moving forward. Groff of Elsinore is a strong believer in that.

“We’re aiming for the highest rung on the ladder,” he said. “This new record we’re about to put out in the next month is the best record we’ve ever made … We feel like it’ll take us to the next level; definitely a goal for us is to one day be able to play for ‘Saturday Night Live.’”

The shaping of relationships, the struggle of building a fanbase, the constant need of making ends meet and the process of putting out music to take pride in creatively makes the lives of musicians exclusively challenging, but also very stimulating. Groff said that young people setting out into this lifestyle find out early on if they’re cut out for it.

But one thing that has made all three of these bands’ experience in the music industry a little easier is the Champaign-Urbana community.

“The C-U is an amazing place to start out as a band. I’m really thankful we started out there and not perhaps a bigger city or a smaller one; I think it’s the perfect size for it,” Metz said. “The music scene there is so vibrant (and) you don’t have to worry at all about what kind of music you’re going to make. Everyone is so open to all types of music. There’s always a place for you in C-U.”

Metz said he’s sad not to be in Champaign-Urbana anymore, but Grandkids will be coming back frequently to play shows, with their next show booked for Pygmalion next week.

Groff and his bandmates in Elsinore didn’t actually attend the University, but moved here after graduating from Eastern Illinois University.

“We were down at Eastern Illinois and we quickly heard about this totally awesome music scene happening up in C-U, so we started coming up to Champaign as often as we could.” Groff said.

Feeling appreciated by people in the city where one lives is very important to Groff and Elsinore. For them, there are few things more important than having a good hometown crowd.

“Being a big fish in a small pond like Elsinore is, is actually really exciting because it fills your emotional gap tank,” Groff said.

All three of these bands have come a long way from their beginnings and are continuing to grow. Each has made countless EPs, released albums (or is in the process of releasing albums) and have played for gigs with big crowds.

Durley summed up the sentiments of rising bands similiar to the 92s when thinking about the future.

“Music is something I want to do no matter what happens,” he said. “I would like to play music for as long as I possibly can to as many people as possible and to put out good records that I feel strongly about and care about. That’s the main goal.”

The 92s, Grandkids and Elsinore will be playing at the Pygmalion Music Festival, which takes place Sept. 26-28.

Saher can be reached at [email protected]