From Boston to Austin, Harvard alum band Chester French seeks fame. “If you have whack taste and you work hard, your shit will suck, unavoidably probably,” says D.A. Wallach ’07. “If you have good taste but you don’t work hard there might be a glimmer of hope in it. But if you think you have good taste and you work hard then that’s the best shot you can give yourself.” Days before the start of the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, Texas, Wallach unloads these wise words over the phone.
His band, Chester French, is scheduled to play several gigs during the festival in preparation for a month long tour in support of N¤E¤R¤D. These shows will be the first with their current lineup, comprised of Wallach, bandmate Maxwell C. Drummey ’07, and three studio musicians, including Tyler G. Wood ’01.
“They’re putting on the roller skates, now they’re about to step on the rink,” says Chad Hugo, one half of producing duo The Neptunes. Hugo’s co-producer and N¤E¤R¤D frontman Pharrell Williams was responsible for signing Chester French to Star Trak Entertainment, an imprint of Interscope Records, over a year ago. Though Wallach and Drummey have a contract, they lack a clear identity. Right now, they embody three distinct personas: the men they are, the men they see themselves as, and the men strangers perceive them to be. Chester French may just be a pair of scenesters, pawning off their need for attention as a love of music. They may be the messiahs of the album format in the digital music era. Or they may be two typically clever Harvard grads who successfully worked the system and are now enjoying sudden popularity.
Despite the fact that Chester French has yet to release their album, the two have carved out a career based on mere speculation, in the process blurring the divide between scene and substance. With over 2,000 showcased artists, SXSW is one of the most heavily-trafficked music industry events of the year. For many small bands, the festival is a high-stakes audition where throngs of label reps and critics search for the next big thing. Even for an already-signed band like Chester French, SXSW represents an opportunity for exposure. On the phone, it’s clear that both band members see themselves in a different category than the majority of SXSW acts.
“We’re not here for a big break. We’ve already got our deal,” Wallach says. “Some of these bands that are really buzzed about fail very quickly if they don’t have any substance. We’re already putting out a record.” “You can get buzz like this in a week and lose it in a week,” he continues. “I don’t care about buzz. I’m trying to build a 20-year career here.” Drummey agrees. “South by Southwest is, in a sense, a circle jerk of all these critics and all these fucking gatekeepers who just want to massage their egos by determining who they think is great. But we’re just here to make real fans.” Chester French, who haven’t performed live since their sophomore year, are also looking to work out the kinks of their live show before hitting the road for the first time ever.
THE HARVARD INITIATIVE
“No one knew it was coming when we ended up getting signed because I think a lot of them didn’t even know we were still making music,” Wallach says of the band’s breakthrough into the industry. Wallach first met Drummey in Annenberg Hall during freshman year. The two started a band, chose what they thought to be a cool-sounding name derived from John Harvard statue sculptor Daniel Chester French, and played a few gigs around campus before sophomore year, when they dropped off the radar. “We’d been playing a lot freshman year and then I think a lot of people just thought we sort of disappeared,” Wallach says. In fact, the two were busy making an album. “We spent a lot of nights during college working on this project with the intention being that—as opposed to bands that play around for several years and build a local following and tour a lot—that we would just have an album that was good enough to stand on its own,” he says.
A major label accepted the album—despite the band’s lack of performance experience or fan base—due to what Drummey calls the “genius of David Andrew.” Wallach discovered the e-mail address of Kanye West’s manager through an acquaintance who had designed Web sites for the artist in the past. “I e-mailed him some music, he loved it, so in the course of about a week Kanye finally heard it and was really into it,” Wallach says. “And three days later we were out in L.A.” Wallach went through a similar process to get the music to Williams. “I had read an article about his engineer, this guy named Drew Coleman. I e-mailed the guy who had written the article about his engineer and he gave me the engineer’s e-mail address. I sent music to the engineer and the engineer gave it to Pharrell.”
Chester French still inhabits an undiscovered niche within the indie music landscape, but this level of anonymity is likely to change within the coming months as the band gears up for the release of its first major album, prospectively titled “Love The Future.” “We just did a Rolling Stone shoot, we did Spin Magazine, we’re doing Vanity Fair, we’re doing GQ,” Wallach says. “But that’s all within the past four months or five months so it’s all happened very quickly. The way it is now, there are certain circles where people know who we are. Like, if I go into a hip sneaker store, someone will say something.”
FUCK THE SCENE
My first real encounter with the band occurs immediately before their second performance, a 45-minute showcase on the first night of the festival. Mere moments before he’s expected onstage, Wallach strides confidently into the venue with a bouquet of flowers. Then, responding to some apparent apprehension in the half-filled room, he begins passing out flowers to some of the women in the audience, enticing them to approach the stage. The set begins. In a tuxedo jacket with an undone bowtie dangling by the tulip in his lapel, Wallach croons with the exaggerated sincerity of a lounge singer, bombarding the crowd with off-color charm, lazy-eyed smiles, and an eager but ill-timed joke about Eliot Spitzer.
“This is my dream / All I wanted was to be seen,” Wallach proclaims in the lyrics of one song. After a few more original numbers and a dirty rendition of the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” the show comes to a close and I leave the band, who attend to a crowd of fans and Interscope representatives. The next night, I find Chester French backstage at an N.E.R.D show, basking in the reflected limelight of their mentor, Pharrell. “Pharrell’s been the best advice giver,” Wallach says. “He’s done all the girls and parties and whatever. And what he told us was fuck stylists, fuck being in the scene, paparazzi shit, and all the trendy L.A. stuff. Don’t be on a scene. Don’t be worried about being hip. Just work on your own shit.”
But in the company of several musicians and industry folk who mill around after the show, Wallach is nothing if not an intent and tenacious self-promoter, bringing the same keen and determined energy to networking as he does to performing. Looking to explore the evening’s after-party prospects, he questions rapper Pusha T. of the rap duo Clipse. “I hear there’s some Playboy party tonight. You think you might check that out?” Pusha T. shakes his head. “No man, I’m done. I’m going to sleep” “Oh yeah,” Wallach says. “Me too. I might just go to sleep.”
LOVE THE FUTURE
At 10 a.m. the next morning, the men of Chester French are on at the Yahoo! Music soundstage, where they’re taping an acoustic set. Wallach sports a self-consciously edgy pair of red Levi’s, and when Drummey appears in the exact same pair of jeans, I take it as an attempt at color coordination a la The Hives. Then I recognize the pants from the swag booth of the previous night’s Levi’s–sponsored performance. In truth, the jeans aren’t a fashion statement; they’re an example of the spoils awaiting those who work hard and have good taste. When the taping is complete, I accompany the band as they’re shuttled around to give interviews and collect more free perks.
After riding around for a few hours, I come to the conclusion that, idiosyncracies aside, Chester French are good guys. Wallach’s less-desirable, self-interested side is tempered by an amiable enthusiasm. Drummey, on the other hand, is an undiluted cynic. His interjections are slathered in sarcasm, and he becomes candid only when discussing his music and whether he would be pursuing this career if not for the immediate attention he and Wallach have received. “If anything,” Drummey says, “this experience has taught me that’s definitely true, because I resent every other respect of this to an extent. It’s not how I would choose to spend my day. I’ve probably heard D. A. talk about how we got signed like eight- or nine-hundred times. And it’s a story where, I was there. I don’t need to be told.” Also frustrating for both Drummey and Wallach has been the prolonged period between the album’s creation and its release. “We’re really proud of it and really happy with it and we like it a lot,” Drummey says. “So the focus of a lot of people we’re dealing with now is how to sell it.”
The band’s current level of success and notoriety doesn’t correspond to the volume of material they’ve generated so far. Currently without a set release date for their album, Chester French’s flashy profile on MySpace serves as the band’s only musical outlet. According to Drummey, this has been more than enough as far as the press is concerned. “We have some really good demos on our MySpace Page,” he says. Wallach has an alternate explanation and speaks of the music industry’s cliquishness with clarity beyond his years of experience. “The music industry at the top is very, very small,” he says. “And everyone is a copycat in a way. Once one person grabs onto something then a million people do. And so that’s sort of been our story all around. Pharrell gets behind it and Kanye gets behind it and people who otherwise wouldn’t look, look. And I think it is all hype until people hear the album.”
Contrary to popular belief, this album’s production was completed not in L.A. by Kanye West or Pharell Williams, but in Pforzheimer House recording studios by Chester French themselves. The fact that Chester French will be able to take full responsibility for whatever “Love The Future” turns out to be may or may not help their cause. With a level of production that is almost too good to be true, the band’s studio effects still cannot mask less-than-genius songwritting skills, causing their songs to occasionally sound more like masterful remixes than the stunningly original music they’re eager to boast about. “It’s an album you can play start to finish that is a cohesive piece of music and that is hopefully kind of an adventure for the listener,” Wallach says.
“And I think everything on it is really good. I think that we’d be failing at our job if we didn’t have that after spending three and a half years working on it.” That’s two and a half years in the studio, not on tour. A second, and possibly more problematic obstacle to the band’s success, is the drastic difference between their recorded material and the more organic, less polished quality of their live show. The degree to which their MySpace fans will be willing to embrace a crossover from highly produced studio project to funk jam band remains to be seen.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
In the meantime, Chester French’s seemingly unflappable cool needs no translation. Using his omnipresent cell phone, Wallach shows me the pictures from a recent Chester French photo spread for Italian Vogue. Swathed in flamboyant, form-fitting designer garments and displaying facial expressions that exude a calculated ratio of confidence and boredom, he and Drummey are convincing in their roles as carefree budding celebrities, posing jauntily among junkyard cars. Wallach laughs at my reaction when I tell him the pictures are somewhat tragically hip. “We got there and there were all these stylists and they’re so Italian! They gave me this vest and I said, ‘Okay, where’s the shirt?’ And they were like, ‘No, no shirt’ and they kept telling me, ‘It’s perfect. You look perfect.’” He rolls his r’s to imitate the siren-like purr of his foreign stylist. “I wish I could read the article,” he says. “But it’s all in Italian.”
On the fourth and final night of SXSW, Chester French is slated to perform at an exclusive party thrown by celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton, an early fan of the band. With a guest list sure to only include critics, journalists, and members of the music industry’s upper crust, the Perez Hilton crowd is likely to be a tough one. When I arrive, Wallach is already stationed at the entrance, passing out what appear to be giant condoms. When I get closer, I see that these objects are actuallly cleverly packaged copies of Chester French’s first official single, “She Loves Everybody.” The idea to package the singles in this way was Wallach’s last decision as the band’s manager. Today, in addition to taping an accoustic set for MTV and giving more interviews, Wallach and Drummey selected a new representative to lead them along their burgeoning careers. When I ask him what made him decide to fire himself from this job and hire another, Wallach explains that Chester French’s new representative was able to pass what he refers to as the “If that guy was my dad, would I be embarrassed?” test.
“A lot of these guys are hustlers but they’re not smart,” he says before going back to doling out his promotional prophylactics. An hour later, as Perez Hilton introduces Chester French, I venture backstage one last time. I ask Drummey if he’s nervous. He responds “Fuck no” before pushing past me with the rest of the band. Despite a former plan to just “have fun” and “be less antagonistic to the audience” during this performance, Wallach takes the stage with a vengeance. Attempting to sell his songs and win over the crowd using the same force of will and energy that landed him in front of viewers in the first place, he proclaims this night to be a monumental one.
“This is our third show,” he continues into his microphone. “We played a show the other night and after our last show I read a couple of blogs that said it looked like we were trying too hard. Well, you know what that makes me want to do? Try harder!” “Where’s N¤E¤R¤D?” says the man behind me. Wallach aggressively throws several of the condom-singles into the crowd, bruising audience member Amy Phillips, a reviewer for Pitchforkmedia.com. Phillips will ultimately decide the band has whack taste: her write-up denounces Chester French as “beyond terrible” and mocks Wallach for being a “Napoleon Dynamite-looking front man pretending to be a sex god.”
But this doesn’t make it online until morning. For the moment, Chester French has unceremoniously survived their first SXSW. As Wallach marches off into the Texan night humming melodies, Drummey and the rest of the band ready the tour van and equipment for the long haul ahead. Before we part ways, I ask the two what would happen if “Love The Future” tanks and all of Chester French’s hype, acclaim, and access to free jeans are suddenly gone. What would this mean for Wallach’s theory that taste trumps all? Though their seemingly unassailable confidence would seem to have precluded the notion from their minds, failure is an outcome the two have actually considered.
“We’ll get to make at least one more or they have to pay us a lot of money, in which case we’ll make another one on our own and keep it moving,” Wallach says. “Maybe go to grad school. That would be my next move, if this didn’t work out. I’d probably get involved in something like microfinance.” “We make music because we like to,” says Drummey, noting that in the event of absolute and crushing defeat, the men of Chester French are still sitting pretty when it comes to a fallback plan. “It’s not like we’re underqualified for day jobs.”