By Josh Kraus
If you’re wondering where you can catch five history PhD students busting out wistful folk-rock tunes on June 3, here is your answer. Introducing The Night Owl Choir: a diverse group of musicians who would rather be channeling a brooding Neil Young than researching the Byzantine Empire.
Set to release its debut album by the end of the year, The Choir is relatively new to the Chicago music scene. The group formed in the spring of 2008, after meeting each other as graduate students at UIC. Multi-instrumentalist Doug Miller had recently left his Minneapolis band of eight years, The Winter Blanket.
“That band was the focus of my life,” Miller says. “However, when I started grad school, I decided music would have to take a backseat.”
But Miller’s admirable ambition was quickly interrupted by the musical talent he discovered inhabiting his corner of the school.
“I was blessed, or cursed depending on how you look at it, by the presence of fellow musicians in my department,” Miller says.
Apparently, untapped talent can’t hide anywhere, not even in the fluorescent stained hallways of a history department. The group originally wanted to play for fun, Miller says, but they soon realized the band possessed enough talent to surpass what could have just been a ragtag cluster of twenty-something’s tinkering away in between study breaks.
Thus, The Night Owl Choir was born in full. Besides Miller there is Perry Clark, Tom Dorrance, Jenna Nigro and Exa von Alt, each of whom are credited with multiple instruments and abilities, making the group dynamic that much more unpredictable. The Choir boasts three primary songwriters and vocalists: Miller, Dorrance and Nigro.
“We are big fans of The Band,” Miller says. “Their use of multiple lead singers and penchant for playing musical chairs is an inspiration to us.”
But don’t expect to hear The Choir croon about the tales of brave Ulysses; the three songwriters leave their educational material to the classrooms.
“I write from experience,” Miller says. “Tom makes stuff up. I have no clue what Jenna is singing about.”
The differing writing styles find a comfortable home in The Choir’s nostalgia-steeped sound, uniting to form a cohesive and evocative panorama of melt-in-your-mouth acoustic hymns and unrestrained electric anthems. The dreary wonderment of Neil Young’s “On The Beach” can be felt in “Diamonds,” as swatches of fluttering dobro puncture the song’s ominous atmosphere. In the unassumingly honest and catchy “It’s Not Me,” gentle percussion and simple chord changes outline Nigro’s delicate vocals as she casually sings, “Why do I think so much, why do I drink so much, why do I fall so hard in love?”
Although the band is still in its youth, the members are constantly attempting to evolve its sound.
“We are trying to introduce more complicated vocal parts and become more confident ?as singers,” Miller says. “We spend most of our time trying to figure out how to make ?everything cohesive without sounding too uniform or predictable.”
For a band that has been active for less than two years, its zeal is praiseworthy at the least, but throw in being a full-time grad student and you have to wonder how this group of future college professors can stay motivated. While Miller admits that playing music while earning a PhD is extremely difficult, he has his reasons to keep the band going.
“I do it for the experience,” Miller says. “I like crashing on people’s couches. I like exploring different towns. If you are good enough at it, playing in a band provides a paid vacation.”
The Night Owl Choir has played the majority of their gigs in and around Chicago, but the group is currently booking shows around the Midwest, and is planning to tour in support of its album’s fall release.
“There is no greater feeling than being in a van at three in the morning on an open highway, surrounded by your best friends on the planet, with good music on the radio,” Miller says. “That’s when I am happiest in life.”
The Night Owl Choir plays at the Empty Bottle on June 3, along with indie-rock heartbreaker Julie Doiron.
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