School Bands

Sometimes the faculty just want to rock all night.

May/June 2011

Reading time min

School Bands

Photo: Courtesy Loose Ends

Everybody's workplace has a fantasy baseball league or an Academy Awards pool. But universities often inspire employee bonding of a more creative bent. Take Stanford's underground rock 'n' roll culture. Attend a department event, dorm party or even a discipline's national convention and there's a fair chance you'll catch a homegrown combo rocking out. Some bands are all faculty; others mix in staff, students and alums.

One draw for the players is that music offers an intellectual challenge distinct from the daily grind. As School of Engineering facilities coordinator Brian Carilli, founder of what is probably Stanford's oldest rock band, says, "I think music is a nice outlet for a lot of these people with a lot going on upstairs. It's a nice release for them."

And unlike classical music and jazz, rock and its pop cousins have no official home in the Stanford academic firmament, letting these particular outfits retain some serious outsider cred.

Here's a quick look at some of Stanford's acts.

The HyperTonics

Christine Wijman sings into a microphone.ROCKIN' DOC: Wijman sings for the HyperTonics. (Photo: Norbert von der Groeben)Home: department of neurology and neurological sciences. [Hypertonia is a state of abnormal muscle tension.]

Together since: 2008

Players: professor Greg Albers, lead guitar; neurocritical care fellow Charlene Chen, '01, violin; professor and department chair Frank Longo, keyboard; assistant professor Viet Nguyen, bass and guitar; stroke fellow Paul Singh, drums; and associate professor Christine Wijman, vocals

What they play: covers from The Who and the Eagles to The Killers and Cake

Coolest gig: an event for several hundred hard-partying neurologists, held last year at the 111 Minna Gallery in San Francisco. The audience was "screaming and yelling. I could have done anything and it wouldn't really have mattered," Wijman recalls. "People just loved us!"

Special recognition: Longo, a famous researcher in Huntington's and Alzheimer's diseases, was dubbed a "rock star of science" in a public service ad that appeared in GQ magazine; he was photographed alongside rocker Bret Michaels.

Glass Wave

Home: Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages
Together since: 2008
Personnel: Menlo Park videographer Colin Camarillo, drums; associate professor Dan Edelstein, keyboards and guitar; professor Robert Pogue Harrison, lead guitar; UCLA professor (and Robert's brother) Thomas Harrison, bass; graduate student Christy Wampole, vocals
What they play: original rock inspired by the western literary canon. "Hamlet, Ovid, Frankenstein—almost every song comes from a text we might have taught in IHUM," Edelstein says.
First gig: a surprise live performance in the IHUM course Epic Journeys
Lyric: from "Lolita"

there's just one thing that isn't right
something that keeps me up at night
beneath the lipstick and the blush
i think i got into too much

Loose Ends

Home: the School of Engineering and the School of Medicine
Together since: 1991 (Its current roster dates from 2007.)
Players: facilities coordinator Brian Carilli, rhythm guitar; biochemistry professor James Ferrell, PhD '84, MD '86, lead guitar; Palo Alto software consultant Jay Gitterman, '81, keyboard; San Francisco lawyer Daniel T. Purtell, '88, JD '89, drums; Mountain View microbial physiologist Renee Saville, MS '04, PhD '08, vocals; civil engineering professor Alfred Spormann, bass
What they play: classic rock
First gig: a PTA potluck at Escondido Elementary School
Regular gig: the Stanford gastroenterology holiday party
Quote: "We don't do it for the money."
—Brian Carilli

The Wrath of Grapes

Steven Block and Tim Stearns sit together with guitars in their laps.WILL PLAY FOR WINE: Block and Stearns are bluegrass duo, The Wrath of Grapes. (Photo: Courtesy Wrath of Grapes) Home: department of biological sciences

Together since: 2002

Players: professor Steven Block, banjo and mandolin; professor Tim Stearns, mandolin, guitar and banjo

What they play: bluegrass and newgrass

Regular gig: Picchetti Winery in Cupertino. "The best thing about it," says Stearns, "is we're paid in wine."

Best place to rehearse: an annual month-long, high-security retreat of science advisers to the U.S. government

Meanwhile, Outside the Aircraft

Home: School of Earth Sciences

Together since: 2010 (this incarnation)

Players: professor Page Chamberlain, banjo; senior Will Geier, mandolin; grad student Hari Mix, piano; junior Susannah Poland, vocals and bass; Jim Sweeney, MS '09, dobro, guitar and vocals; grad student Matt Winnick, guitar and vocals

What they play: a rootsy blend of country, bluegrass and funk that's popular at student residences, especially the co-ops. "We play the hippie houses," says Chamberlain, who's the constant in a group that changes names and personnel as his students come and go.

Tough audition: Trained jazz vocalist Poland was invited to join the band but asked if she'd learn the bass.

Regular gig: Every September, Chamberlain teaches a sophomore seminar 9,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and takes the full band with him. Poland lugs the bass up single-handedly.

Simon Firth is a writer in Palo Alto.

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.