Being in Class vs. Being on Stage – An Interview With What Hands Are For

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Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo doesn’t just look like a college-going bookworm. He graduated from Harvard at age 35 in 2006 after years of success as a musician. Tom Morello graduated with a BA (with honors) in political science from Harvard in 1986 long before being the famed guitarist for Rage Against the Machine. Sam Beam, also known by his folky sobriquet Iron & Wine, started out as Professor Beam of film and cinematography at the University of Miami and Miami International University of Art & Design before he ever released his first album in 2002.

Three musicians from three completely different spectrums of the music world with three different types of experiences when it comes to music and education.

The two can certainly go hand in hand. Not necessarily easily, but with much ambition, passion, and determination, you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. Much like the previously mentioned renowned musicians, What Hands Are For is an up-and-coming band from Southern California that hasn’t allowed their education to fall by the wayside. As of this coming fall semester, all five members of WHAF will have graduated with bachelor degrees from Cal State University, San Bernadino.

I had the opportunity to speak with singer-songwriter Daniel Baeza and bassist Jonathan Gilcrest about the difficulties and responsibilities of being in a band while also being passionate about education. Please read on as we discuss their views and experiences of the subject as well as some updates on the band.

How long have you all known each other?

Daniel: Well I’ve known the guys for about 6 years. Before that, they were already in local groups together.

So did you start WHAF before college?

Daniel: There was a previous band with a different singer and the same members beforehand but it pretty much started during college.

How did you make the decision to start the band knowing the pressures of being full-time students?

Jon: For me, music has always been the most important thing. I tried to quit college a number of times just to pursue the band and take it on the road. We all decided at one point that we were going to take a break from school and go on the road full time but our parents were like, “No you’re fucking not! No you’re fucking not! No you’re fucking not!” So we ended up spending the last year in college.
Daniel: There were certain points of our college careers where we almost just dropped everything and went on the road. I think if it weren’t for the pressures of our parents, my parents especially, because they said I had to at least finish and get my degree, then I could do whatever I want or whatever makes me happy.

So how do your parents feel that you’ve chosen to pursue higher education rather than only focusing on the band?

Daniel: My parents are so pro-college. My dad’s actually an instructor and a counselor at CSUSB and my mom teaches a health science lab at the same college. They’re very cheered when it comes to college and having an education.
Jon: My mom did a little bit of community college. My dad has a degree. He was the same way, super big about getting me to go to school so I could have a back-up plan. So now that I’ve graduated and spent all that time in the circle jerk of college, I work at Walgreens with my wonderful college degree.
Daniel: I kind of wish I would’ve spent the time on the road, not to talk shit on college, because it helps you, I guess, learn… about things… (laughs).

What are you all majoring in?

Daniel: Well me, Kenny, and Jon are actually done with college soon. Kenny has a degree in biochemistry, Jon has a degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing, and I have a degree in math communications with a concentration in journalism. AJ is finishing up his last quarter and will get his degree in history.

Did you guys take any music classes throughout college?

Jon: I was originally going to be a music major. I had the greatest instructor. I don’t know if this is pertinent, but I don’t know if I should call him “he” or “she” because he was a transgender so maybe I should say she. But she was this opera singer and I would spend all my time in community college with her… I study a lot of theory. I’ve never really been good enough at an instrument to major in music which probably doesn’t sound good for our band…(laughs)

Honest at least…

Jon: Yeah. Music majors are always super skilled. Always cellists and piano players. I’m just a bassist. So I studied that stuff and it helped with the songwriting because I learned about how harmonies are supposed to move and parallel fifths and parallel eighths which are octaves, and it’s nice to learn all the things that as rock musicians we’re not supposed to and it makes things more interesting. We’ve adopted that in a sense. Kenny hates using power chords and hates uses open octaves because they sound like empty tones so he throws a lot more harmonies in there and parallel thirds. I’m just talking gibberish at this point. But I think that’s something any musician should do in college, is take theory classes. Once you learn the fundamentals, it opens up an entire new world of what you can do with just a guitar.

How difficult has it been balancing your school workload and the tasks of being in a band?

Daniel: It was really very difficult actually. There have been points with the band in certain points of the quarter where we wouldn’t play any shows, we would barely practice. I’m not gonna lie; it was so so so hard to do this to be in a serious band and be enrolled in college.
Jon: That’s one of the benefits of college is that you learn time management. We work, we have jobs, then we have school, then we have the band. We really had to plan things out and partial our time as much as we could. Practicing at 2 in the morning in a grungy practice space and a lot of all nighters. You get used to it. I’ve learned to live without sleep.

You can sleep when you’re dead, right?

Jon: (Laughs) Exactly! Like I said, there would be times when we’d have practice scheduled and I hadn’t slept and just got off an 8 hour shift and you don’t wanna fuckin’ practice.
Daniel: Yeah, no one wanted to practice or it’d be like, “Oh, I have to finish up this paper. I can’t practice.” Or like, “Let’s at least just practice for an hour. Just run through the set.”

What advantages do you think the band will obtain after having stood the test of full-time schooling?

Daniel: Well, I think a lot of personal skills like time management, and patience, and just balancing your life out period.
Jon: I think from the creative aspect, you’re exposed to a lot of different things in college. You’re exposed to a ton of culture, force-fed all this culture, which is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing. So in a sense, I think that helps us from the artistic standpoint as well as helping us achieve higher goals, more so than your standard rock music. I know there are plenty of people that don’t go to school that are great artists, but it helps us.

How has the creative writing factored into the writing of your music?

Daniel: It does actually. It’s really funny how things worked out like that because I can name a few songs where I was sitting in a lecture and I was listening to my instructor. Everything he was teaching me was blowing me away and I would write a song on the spot. There was a communications class and we were watching “Citizen Kane” and he was giving us this really in depth character analysis of Charles Foster Kane and I was just so taken aback at some of the similarities he and I shared and I wrote a song during that class that ending up being a song we used for our music video. There have been multiple times when I’ve just been so inspired in class and I’ve written songs on the spot or wrote a song derived from certain subjects we were taught.
Jon: I also think that when it comes to the musical side of things, the creative writing process has helped me in a sense to my approach to song and how I go along with the group, encouraging different things, because I treat songwriting like a workshop now. Instead of just writing a jam, it’s like, “What is this part doing? Why is this part doing this? What is it gonna lead to?” Creative writing has helped the process of just creating art in general.

You’ve started a web series with footage from “The WHAF House”. What can you tell us about that and how you make time to party in the midst of being in a band and going to school full-time?

Daniel: (Laughs) Jeez, I don’t know. I think an important thing we’ve learned is that you work hard and you play hard as well. (We all laughed there.) Don’t get us wrong, we love school and being students but there also comes a time when you have to let your mullet out. You gotta let your hair down. (We all laughed again, obviously). Times like that, we make sure to capture anything that goes on in our down time to relieve all that stress that’s built up from schooling and anything like that.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, but as an example of a well-educated musician, Brian May, the guitarist of Queen has a PhD in astrophysics. Do you guys have any well-educated musician idols?

Daniel: Wow! That makes so much sense because Queen is frickin’ genius. I feel like such a noob for not knowing that. Well I once heard that Keith Buckley of Every Time I Die was an English teacher. If there’s anyone’s writing that I respect a lot, it’s his. Some of his online blogs; there’s this one where he’s on a motorcycle just driving through the city and he’s talking in prose, and it’s so good. (Laughs)

Yeah, I interviewed him once. He seems pretty fucking smart.

Daniel: Yeah. He’s a super intelligent guy.

So you guys recently released your single “Jungle Riots”. Is this going to be on a forthcoming album?

Daniel: I… don’t know. (Both laugh) That’s a good question. The writing of this album has been an interesting process. Right now, that song is serving as a kind of stop gap. We don’t know. It might end up on the record.
Jon: That is a really good question.
Daniel: We don’t know if we want it on the record or not. The other songs we’re writing are just so much better.
Jon: That’s not to say that we don’t think “Jungle Riots” is a good song, because I love playing that song.

How’s the new record going? Any release date?

Jon: We’re hoping to start recording it at the end of the year. Or in fall at least. Ehh… we don’t know. (Laughs) We have a complete set of songs. We’re gonna start working with Kyle Black again and see where it goes from there.

You’re said to be touring on and off throughout the year. How do you schedule that around your schooling?

Daniel: In that situation we usually look for the breaks. Spring break, summer break, long weekends, and stuff like that is when we usually try to do those trips out.

Do you guys have any advice for aspiring musicians who may be torn between being a genius and being a rock star?

Jon: (Laughing) My advice, from my experience would be… I don’t know if this is right or not. I’m fresh out of college so my perspective may be skewed but, do the fucking rock star thing first. Do the music thing first. You can always go back to school and be well-read in the meantime. I’m not sure if Dustin Kensrue (frontman of Thrice) went to college but he’s a very well-read person; deeply intelligent. College is an interesting choice that you make. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort.
Daniel: Some advice I’d have to give is that it is possible to do both. Being in a band is like taking three extra classes where you have to go on a lot of field trips. You’re taking on a lot more weight but it is possible to manage it out and be successful in both.

Thank you. Lastly, what do you think hands are for?

(Both laughing) Oh no! That’s the first time we’ve ever been asked that in an interview!

Daniel: Opening beers and working. Mending your fences.

Written and conducted by: Brian Leak

Brian Leak

Editor-In-Chief. King of forgetting drinks in the freezer. Pop culture pack rat. X-Phile. LOST apologist.
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