Chester French's 60s pop-inspired sound took the band straight out of Harvard into a major label record deal
When their song "She Loves Everybody" was chosen to play over the closing credits of an episode of "Entourage" last month, the members of Chester French were more nervous than celebratory. D.A. Wallach , the talkative, ginger-topped half of the band who handles vocal duties, told some friends that the song might be used on the HBO show, but then started to worry that it would be cut, or, worse, would be featured in a scene that didn't match the tone of the song. It wasn't until the tune, an ode to safe sex, began playing over the credits that he could finally enjoy the moment.
Maxwell Drummey , the shaggier and quieter half of Chester French who plays most of the instruments on the band's songs, watched the show at home in Jamaica Plain, where he said his mother was more excited than he was.
"It seemed weird to me," he says while draining the last of his cola from a mammoth glass at the Border Cafe. "Here was this song that really isn't finished, so it was like our demo was playing on TV. We didn't have any money to go to a mastering house."
The "Entourage" placement is the latest in a string of wild good fortune that has followed the two 21-year-old recent Harvard grads in the past year. Last summer they were working toward degrees in African-American studies (Wallach) and social anthropology (Drummey) and creating songs on the side, in the Harvard recording studio where they spent much of their free time. Now they've graduated , they're partying with Pharrell Williams, and they've just signed with Star Trak, Williams's record label and a subsidiary of Interscope.
"The past year was surreal at times," says Wallach. "We'd be flying off to a meeting with Jermaine Dupri , and then we'd be back at Harvard recording a flute player for her classical festival audition tape."
Chester French, named after celebrated Massachusetts sculptor Daniel Chester French , is inspired by both hip-hop and 1960s pop music. Although the two well-scrubbed men would probably get carded at an R-rated movie, their music has a mature swagger that comes from their multi-genre influences. Songs such as "She Loves Everybody" and " The Jimmy Choos" are intentional throwbacks that channel Gene Pitney's heartache and Brian Wilson's sunny melodies, married with spry, electro-lite pop.
"It's a retro sound, but it's also very modern," says Andrew Coleman, an engineer/producer with the Neptunes who first put Chester French's music in the hands of Williams. "As soon as I heard their first song I loved it. It's totally different from a lot of other things I'd heard. It's like straight-up '60s beach music, but with some strings. It's a different sound, and that's what I responded to."
The musical direction of Chester French can be traced to the pair's dissatisfaction with the current state of popular music. Aside from hip-hop, they see little value in Top 40 offerings, and they get downright belligerent when the subject of indie rock is raised.
"Indie rock people don't like us," says Wallach between bites of Caesar salad. "And we don't like them at all."
To escape from the present, they went back nearly 40 years and became completely enamored with the Zombies' record "Odessey &
"We really got deep into trying to figure out how to write good songs," says Wallach. "We were listening to all these old records and really trying to figure out what makes them great."
In their freshman year, Chester French was a five-piece band playing gigs on campus. But by that first summer, Wallach, who hails from Milwaukee, and Drummey, from Jamaica Plain, started working together as a duo. By the end of their sophomore year, they were listening to -- and dissecting -- Motown, the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, David Bowie, Les Paul, and Mary Ford while working on their first record. Their music doesn't ape the past, but borrows from the intricate chamber-pop arrangements that were all but de rigueur in the pop songs of yesteryear.
On the surface, Chester French songs such as the perky "People" seem to have nothing in common with hip-hop, but the duo says they try to approach their pop in much the same way that a skilled producer creates an intricate hip-hop track.
"If you're making a great hip-hop track, you're looking for great moments," explains Wallach. "And a great beat to go with it. We're making songs that have a lot of moments to them, a lot of surprises and twists and turns. The mentality is informed a lot by hip-hop production."
Most of the duo's forthcoming first album, "Love the Future," was created after classes and during study breaks at a Harvard recording studio with Drummey and Wallach crafting songs by building sonic layers. Orchestral parts were played by friends and members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. Wallach originally auditioned as drummer but his high school rapping skills and gregarious Midwestern personality landed him the spot of lead singer.
Shortly after Chester French finished their album during junior year, Wallach began sending it out, targeting his hip-hop heroes specifically. Within a few months, the pair found themselves with a combined offer from Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music and Dupri's Island/Def Jam, and another offer from Williams's Star Trak. There was also a bidding war among indie labels that were interested in the band.
"The fact that we had interest from the people we admire so much was absolutely amazing to us," says Wallach. "We are such fans of all those guys, and here they were, seriously interested in what we were about."
They ended up going with Williams's label because they felt he had a better understanding of their music.
They admit their social life and sleep suffered while trying to study and record simultaneously. But they say Harvard was an ideal place to work on a degree as budding pop stars -- especially budding pop stars who are incredibly humble.
"That's the cool thing about being at Harvard," says Wallach. "Once things started happening with record companies, no one cared. No one here is impressed by anyone else. Everyone here thinks they're so incredible that they have no time to celebrate other people. We have been able to avoid getting caught up in our own glory."
Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com.