Fiddling Around

A year post-graduation, checking in with Morningsiders

“A surprising amount of Kant makes it into the post-graduate life,” Magnus Ferguson, CC ’14, tells me toward the end of our conversation. We’re sitting with Reid Jenkins, also CC ’14, in Reid’s parents’ Upper West Side brownstone, catching up a few days after Morningsiders’ EP launch show in early March.

The band, best known on campus for opening for Macklemore at Bacchanal in 2013, is about to leave on a two-week tour of the Midwest, spanning Chicago, Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis, and Nashville. While Magnus and Reid have been playing together since 2010, the lineup has shifted a few times since the band’s inception in 2012. Its latest incarnation, since August 2014, is a four-piece outfit: Magnus, Reid, David Su, CC ’14, and Cody Gibson, who is unaffiliated with Columbia.

“When we graduated, it was just the two of us [Magnus and Reid], and that was weird,” Magnus says. “That’s when we had to wake up and convince each other that the band existed. I think in the past half year, though, we’ve really gotten into this group.”

All four sing, with Magnus on guitar, Reid on the fiddle, David on drums, and Cody on the double bass. Magnus tells me that the group concentrates on “working within the parameters of our instruments.” “There’s always this voice that makes you think, if only we had an oboe or clarinet, that would make the difference,” he says, “but at the end of the day there’s some really cool stuff with what basically is a string band arrangement.”

They often add a fifth or sixth instrument for recordings or shows. In particular, their EP, unfocused featured Corey Dansereau, CC ’14, on the trumpet—before he left for India indefinitely, Reid tells me with a sigh. For the duration of the tour, the band will be travelling with Reid’s father, a professional musician (and member, along with Reid, of the Jenkins Family Band). “One thing that’s great about this band right now is that we’re modular in terms of the kind of space we play,” Reid says. “We have this very intimate setup.”

That being said, no one would complain about more horns.

“I wish I had a private horn section to follow me everywhere,” Magnus says thoughtfully.

“Don’t we all, man,” Reid adds.

Throughout our conversation, Magnus and Reid repeatedly describe their preference for smaller, acoustic spaces. “Where we shine is in the ability to put together these layered sounds in these harmonies and these arrangements in a room five feet away from the first person,” Magnus says.

Indeed, Rockwood Music Hall’s stage three, the venue for their sold-out March 6th EP launch show, was cozy and well-suited to the band’s complex sound. On songs like unfocused’s heartfelt opening track “Dots,” the rich guitar-string raspiness emerges clearly even across the room.

The audience, nestled around tables in the small space under the glow of soft red lighting (and a smattering of fake candles), was a curious mix: cardigan-clad recent Columbia grads, and a handful of older audience members—one of whom, midway through the show, shouted up at the stage to ask how the band members’ lives were going. “Our lives are super rad,” replied Magnus. “Thank you for asking, Dad. Nice of you to check in.”

The vibe was relaxed but with an earnest energy. Reid would often dance onstage and each musician played with comfort and seeming ease. The band seemed genuinely thrilled just to be performing. While Reid and Magnus told me that “Empress” and “Lightning,”—clear crowd favorites (many members of the audience, myself included, sang along for both songs)—were among the most difficult in their set, the performance lacked any perceptible signs of anxiety or strain. “It’s crazy to start playing and people are glad you started playing that song,” Magnus tells me. “Most of the time you start and have to convince people by the end that you’re not wasting their time.”

The end of the set brought screams for an encore. “Someone always yells ‘Empress’ again,” Magnus said, grinning, before launching into a boisterous cover of Lyle Lovett’s “Long Tall Texan.”

When I ask if the fanbase was still primarily made up of Columbia students, Magnus pauses thoughtfully. “You know, it depends on the venue. When we play in Brooklyn, Columbia does not turn up,” he laughs. “What’s been interesting is watching the audience change. It used to only be twenty of our best friends and family. These days, we try not to play shows in the city too much because it would be like charging our friends $10 to hang out with us once a month—we try to space them out. Now, it’s really hard to pin down an exact demographic.”

The two express sincere appreciation for the Columbia music community. “It’s always super energetic,” Magus says. “I’m just blown away by how supportive people are of their friends at Columbia.”

When this year’s Bacchanal opener Liberty Styles emailed Reid for advice about breaking into the city, he told them, “It’s actually amazing to be starting a band at Columbia, because people want to hear new music, people want to see the new Vampire Weekend, you know?”

And on the inevitable comparison to Vampire Weekend?

“It’s super flattering. Any likening to us and a successful band can’t hurt,” Reid says, laughing.

Magnus adds, “When I think of Vampire Weekend, I think of pretty complex and nuanced arrangements. Their songwriting is spot on and quirky. ‘Oxford Comma’ definitely came out of Columbia—you can see it. It was really cool when we were first starting out, playing a show in that chandelier room in St. A’s. It was cool trying to follow their ghost around campus a bit.” That said, Magnus tells me the band “definitely used to bristle a bit” at comparisons. “A lot of people were saying that we were like Mumford and Sons and at first and we’d be like, hey, what? But say what you will about groups like Mumford and Sons, they’ve made folk music work—they were the first to really catapult up there and become folk pop people.”

In terms of what being a successful band would look like, Reid stresses the importance of being able to make a living—and to have the financial ability to “make something really good that we’re proud of.” A full album, for example, is still a ways off. Right now, he and Magnus both live with their respective parents, teaching music to students on the side, while David does web design and Cody oversees financial management of an indoor decorating company. “There’s no creative middle class,” Reid says, echoing an article he’d read in the Atlantic. As Magnus puts it: “We’re floating. Indie music isn’t really … you don’t make money on it until you’re really making money on it.”

For now, though, says Magnus, “What I’m really psyched about is to go to these new cities and play these shows and not just break even, but leave people with some music.” While ticket and song sales (and even a Starbucks ad spot featuring Oprah—“it helped for maybe two months,” Reid laughs) aren’t adding up to a tremendous amount, the band has embraced a kind of bootstraps-y, DIY mentality suitable for their Americana sound. “We’re all putting as many hours as we can into the band, and feel ourselves improving a lot. The band is starting to coalesce and take shape—it has an attitude towards things, which is really exciting. It’s like watching something grow.”

The dream? “I want to play A Prairie Home Companion. That’s my main one. I want to inherit Garrison Keillor’s show,” Magnus says, strumming quietly on the guitar he’d been playing on and off throughout the conversation, at times familiar lines from their setlist, at others, covers of 90s rock songs. “I also have a punk album in me. Can’t let it out yet.”

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