A few weeks ago, I got the chance to sit down with emerging first-year jazz-pop group Muse etc., who spilled the deets on their recent musical endeavors. Keyboard player and vocalist Alex Neuser, vocalist and guitarist Jeremy Berkun, drummer Eric Chen and bass player Timofei Asinski joined me for a chat. (Trumpet player Jun Byun and saxophonist Oliver Koenig were absent.)
Muse etc. is the fruition of Bienen first-year Neuser’s college aspirations.
“One of my first goals coming to Northwestern was to start a band,” Neuser said. He quickly accomplished this goal; the musicology major said he met bandmates Koenig and Byun through the Bienen School of Music, and Byun soon introduced Neuser to his roommate, Chen. Berkun and Neuser met via a cappella auditions.
With Neuser’s extensive network of talented musicians, he devised a plan to get the guys together and proposed a spontaneous Saturday jam session. He initially agreed to individually meet with each band member, but secretly invited all of them to meet at the same time!
However, this soon-to-be band was still missing a vital instrument: bass. (Having been in a band myself, I know that finding a bassist is no easy feat!) Thanks to a chance flood in Bobb Hall that sent him on a Targé run, Neuser said he found that missing piece – and new gratitude for his leak-prone dorm.
Hauling groceries and a gorgeous new rug on his way back from Target, Neuser said his purchases spilled all over Sheridan Road where he happened to run into acquaintance McCormick first-year Asinski. He chatted with Asinski while collecting his purchases, and Asinski revealed that he was on his way to Guitar Center to test out basses. Neuser asked Asinski to join the jam sesh, and they headed off to Bienen with grocery bags.
The rest was history.
The moral of the story? Live in a flooded Bobb dorm room if you want to be in a successful college band.
Since their spontaneous, one-off jam session, the group has evolved into a full-blown band with friendship at the forefront of their craft.
“I love every single person in this band. As a group, we’re continuing to become friends outside of rehearsals … We like to go to concerts in Chicago, and we all have very similar music tastes. We bonded over our love of music.”Jeremy Berkun, Bienen first-year
The six members share a love of R&B Pop, deriving inspiration from artists like Steve Lacy, Frank Ocean, Mac Miller and more. The pop foundation of Muse etc. is strengthened by members Koenig and Byun, whose jazz backgrounds enhance the band’s unique sound.
“The Daily [Northwestern] describes us as a jazz-influenced pop band, which I think kind of works, but who’s to say?” Berkun said.
The members aren’t keen on being boxed into a single genre. They prefer to remain ambiguous in their musical stylings.
The name Muse etc. name honors this sentiment.
For the first two months, the band was untitled. The members’ group chat was called “The Band with No Name.” They decided it was time to devise a name, hoping to legitimize their presence on campus.
“We came across the idea of Muse etc. because someone had separately suggested Muse as an idea, kinda just cause it sounds cool, and then Oliver suggested the Wilco song ‘Jesus, Etc.,’ and he said he loved that song title, especially the ‘Etc.’ part,” Neuser said.
From left to right: Timofei Asinski, Jeremy Berkun, Eric Chen, Alex Neuser, Jun Byun and Oliver Koenig.
Since four out of six of the members are Bienen students, they thought “Muse etc.” aptly reflected the modernization of a classical term.
Besides their diverse musical backgrounds, the band’s songwriting capabilities contribute heavily to their authenticity.
“As soon as we started songwriting, that's when I think the emotional connection really clicked because we all understood what type of music we wanted to make,” Berkun said.
Their songwriting muse is personal experience, making for genuine lyricism. Berkun, in his song “Doomed,” writes about past relationship troubles, and Neuser captures core nostalgic memories in “Charlie Brown.”
Muse etc. made their musical debut at The Daily Northwestern’s “Notes from the Newsroom,” a spin on NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series. The members performed a mix of covers and originals, including Charlie Brown. The song came about with Neuser playing a simple beat on his computer, which soon catapulted into a frenzied, creative writing session. Byun helped Neuser create a tune, melody and fleshed-out verses to ground the emotion.
“The end result of our song sounded nothing like the piece that he [Neuseur] brought in… We expanded so much upon it… That’s the beauty of our band. We’re constantly flexible and changing the things that we do for the better,” Berkun said.
The band credits their songwriting chops to their diverse and complementary skill sets. Byun has “perfect pitch,” Koenig is “well-versed in music theory,” Neuser and Berkun have “good ears” and Chen is “rhythmically gifted.”
“You don’t just become a music major to major in music. You become a music major ‘cause that's what you want to do with your life."Jeremy Berkun, Bienen first-year
This allegiance to their craft is clear: The band, recently awarded a summer research grant from Bienen, said they plan to stay in Evanston for the summer to finish their album.
“We want people to hire us,” Asinski said. With a demo on the way, the band said they will hopefully be able to secure more off-campus gigs. In the meantime, they’ve graced quite a few eco-friendly venues, playing the Cats Who Compost formal and Earth Day Greenout festival.
One day, they aspire to play on NPR’s Tiny Desk – as long as they don't end up like disgraced guest Hobo Johnson, who the members said got his fair share of hate comments.
Don't underestimate these freshies, or their Peanuts comic strip inspired song. They’re chock full of talent, so keep your eyes and ears out for their soon-to-be Grammy winning debut album.