— by Alyssa Rashbaum and Joseph Patel
The Hysterics aren't signed to a major label. They haven't groomed a following through a string of indie records. In fact, they haven't even released an official CD yet. So how did the Brooklyn, New York, foursome end up as one of MTV News' picks for You Hear It First? They have their science teacher to thank for that.
That's right, the Hysterics are only teenagers, still enrolled in high school. It was a demo song by the group's lead singer, 15-year-old Oliver Ignatius, that landed in the hands of J.P. Connolly, a science teacher at St. Ann's School in Brooklyn, and started the young group's journey toward semi-fame.
"I got this mix-CD from this senior student of mine," Connolly recalled while sitting in a classroom laboratory, "and the last track of it had just his name and no song title. I put it on and checked the track number a couple of times ... I was like, 'This is not something I should keep to myself.' "
Connolly didn't. The science teacher also helps run a music blog called Music for Robots (www.music.for-robots.com) and asked the shaggy, blond-haired Ignatius, a student in his biology class last year, if he could post the song — a jangled, '60s-inspired, harmonized pop ditty in the mold of the Shins or something you might find on the "Garden State" soundtrack.
Oliver liked Connolly, had bonded with him over music before, and trusted him with his song.
"He was just this funny guy with a bald head and glasses and making 'Goonies' references, and I thought he seemed pretty funny and cool," Oliver said of Connolly. "I found out he's into great indie hip-hop, like Madlib and Quasimoto, and that kind of cemented the deal."
Music for Robots is one of several influential MP3 blogs that are changing the way people are being exposed to new music. The reaction to Oliver's song, "Mostly Untitled," by the blog's regular readers was overwhelmingly positive. "All of us were like, 'Holy crap,' " Connolly laughed. "It made us all feel like we were losers when we were 15."
"[J.P.] comes back two days later and tells me that like an enormous amount of people downloaded it," Oliver remembered. "I thought it was really cool. I didn't know what to make of it, in all honesty."
Among those interested in Ignatius and his music was MTV News. We got in touch with him through Connolly, who wasn't surprised at the attention that Ignatius — who spent seven years of his life in Hong Kong while his journalist parents worked as foreign correspondents — has gotten. "What's clear in knowing Oliver as a person," he said, "is that the references he draws on musically and culturally are far beyond what a lot of people that age should have — what he's read and what he's listened to, his mental backlog of things he can draw on as influences and make satire of."
But when we called for an interview with Ignatius, the precocious teen said he was only interested in speaking with us if we focused on his band, the Hysterics, and not just him.
Luckily, we liked them, too. Enter lead guitarist Charlie Clarksfeld, 15, drummer Geoff Turbeville, 14, and bassist Josh Borocus, 14, who all met while attending St. Ann's. Oliver and Josh are the only two members of the band who still currently attend the prep school.
"I'm not really interested in my own solo work," Oliver explained. The songs from his demo, he said, would ultimately become Hysterics songs. "I honestly think we're all a little better off with each other in terms of playing music. It's exciting to have that dynamic between four people, which is personal and also musical. I don't want to do anything solo."
Oliver and Charlie share the songwriting duties in Hysterics, with Oliver fueling many of the songs with a powerful voice that sounds more developed than his age would indicate. "We took a trip to the Bahamas with [Charlie's] mom. It was cool. We wrote a bunch of songs there and those were kind of the original bunch that started the band. We liked the way they sounded."
Even though the Hysterics are young, they still know their history, drawing influences from a range of masters. Geoff is influenced by jazz greats Elvin Jones and Max Roach, while Josh finds inspiration in the bass lines of the Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh. Oliver appreciates a wide range of music, and he showed us his records by T. Rex, Velvet Underground, Prince, Love, and Sly & the Family Stone. Charlie had a much more visceral experience listening to Jimi Hendrix — after asking his mom for a pair of turntables.
"My mom said, I'll buy you a pair of turntables if you learn how to play a real instrument first," Charlie recalled. "I started playing [guitar] and my mom bought me a Jimi Hendrix CD. As soon as I turned it on, I fell in love with it. I never wanted the turntables after that."
In emphasizing the group's substance-over-style ethos, Oliver and the rest of the Hysterics sound more like savvy veterans. "We just play the music as it comes out," he said. "We don't have much perception of who we're making music for, honestly. We're just making it for ourselves and hoping it sounds good."
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