By Craig Manning
In 1965, Bob Dylan released an album called Highway 61 Revisited. It was a fusion of his folk music roots and a much more rock-oriented sound, and today, many consider it to be one of the greatest and most important albums in the history of rock and roll. The album’s closing track is “Desolation Row,” an 11-minute poetic finale that gave Dylan’s folk fans one last straw to cling to, even as he tore down the barriers between two musical genres.
A quartet of Western Michigan University music majors, Theo Kuepher (saxophone), Matt Landon (guitar), Andrew Rose (upright bass) and Derek Swink (drums), also blur musical lines on their debut album, titled “Remember to Breathe,” so it is rather fitting that they decided to take that legendary Dylan song title as their band name. Landon agrees, though he didn’t originally take kindly to the name.
“Theo suggested it in the spring of 2010, right after we got together. I didn’t like it at all, so we kind of dropped it for awhile,” said Landon. “Then I went home for the summer and started writing music for the band, but the only thing I was listening to was Highway 61 Revisited. By the time we went back to school, I knew ‘Desolation Row’ had to be our band name.”
Sonically, Desolation Row’s experimental, rock-infused modern jazz bears no similarity to Dylan’s music, either on Highway 61 or any other album, but a similar sense of musical exploration pervades their songs. The four members, all of whom are in their final year as music majors at WMU, came together in the spring of their sophomore year and began toying with the idea of forming an actual band. That seed grew into their first full length album, which they recorded in a single day in the Dalton Center recital hall last May, in partnership with Gordon van Gent productions.They spent the rest of the summer in post-production, adding auxiliary instrumentation, musical flourishes and effects, like the vinyl scratch that starts “E,” the album’s opener.
Remember to Breathe is an entrancing album, ranging from the free form jazz block-party on the opener to the tense, emotional swell of centerpiece cut, “The Actress.” Rose and Swink make up an exceptionally tight-knit rhythm section, while Kuepher’s rich, wailing saxophone and Landon’s effects-laden guitar give the band their soul and rock edge, respectively. The music is exquisitely composed, but Desolation Row leave plenty of room for improvised soloing to show off the chops they’ve spent countless hours honing in practice rooms at Western.
“It’s been great here,” Landon said. “I’ve learned so much, not only from my professors but also from my fellow students. It’s inspiring to work with so many great musicians.”
The music school, renowned especially for its jazz department, draws hundreds of hopefuls to audition days every year.
The members of the band, whose influences range from jazz legends (Miles Davis, John Coultrane), to lesser known veterans (Wayne Shorter, Ben Allison), all the way to modern indie-rock favorites (Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens), represent four thoroughly different musical backgrounds, but have been brought together by the programs at Western.
“It [the bands unique sound] could have been a huge mess,” Kuepher said, “but we just wanted to make music that was true to ourselves, and at the end of the day, I think it works.”
Desolation Row will release Remember to Breathe this Sunday, Nov. 13, and will mark the occasion with a CD release concert at the Union. Doors open at 5 p.m., with a $5 cover charge or free admission with purchase of the album, and the kitchen and bar will be open for business. The concert will begin at 6 p.m. and is expected to run for two hours, with a full front-to-back performance of the record, as well as a few surprises thrown in for good measure.