Alumni Profile — Gentlemen, Start Your Engines
By Mary Hurley
|Gentlemen Hall (from the left): Phil Boucher '07, Rory Given '08, Brad Alderman '07, Jacob Michael '08, Gavin McDevitt '06, and Seth Hachen '06|
The six alumni in Gentlemen Hall are off and running with a new EP and a high-profile Billboard Battle of the Bands win.
Several years ago, they were fellow Berklee classmates. Today, as they performed at a South Boston street festival under the deep-blue sky of a late-summer Saturday, these six musicians are Gentlemen Hall (GH). And rock stars to the tween girls holding out their arms, iPhones, beach balls, postcards, and CDs to be autographed.
"I'm dying," one girl said to another. "He touched my shoulder!"
The anthemic, electronic-rock band was introduced to the festival crowd as the winner of the first-ever Billboard Battle of the Bands. That triumph secured their appearance on ABC's May 2011 Billboard Music Awards broadcast live from Las Vegas. The band performed on the same stage as Rihanna, Beyoncé, Black Eyed Peas, Cee Lo Green, and Keith Urban.
"The biggest adrenalin rush I've ever had in my life," Gentlemen Hall vocalist and guitarist Gavin McDevitt '06 told Billboard Executive Editor Bill Werde during a backstage interview at the music awards, which was live-streamed on Billboard's website. "We're a baby band. Something like this is the biggest thing we could ask for."
The Billboard honor is big indeed for promotion, exposure, and touring opportunities. The Boston-based band played at the Billboard.com Summer Blowout concerts in major U.S. cities, including New York and Chicago and was promoted on Billboard's website. Their corporate partnership with Chevrolet- this fall the band is participating in an advertising campaign for the new Chevy Sonic-is also the result of the Billboard contest. Chevy was a sponsor of the Battle of the Bands, and company officials met with Gentlemen Hall and their manager during the show.
Then there's the marketing and promotion deal with Live Nation, the concert promoter and ticket-sales behemoth. Gentlemen Hall's manager, Denny Young, president of the Cleveland-based Elevation Group, heard about a new Live Nation initiative to promote up-and-coming young artists. "I've got the perfect band," Young told Live Nation executive Dan Kemer. Gentlemen Hall is the first band involved in the initiative, which employs a promotion strategy that ranges from radio spots to gigs at small 250- to 1,000-seat venues and pre-concert shows at amphitheaters throughout the country. The Maroon 5 and Train show at the Gexa Energy Pavilion in Dallas, TX, is one example.
"There are a lot of firsts going on," says the band's flutist Seth Hachen '06. "We have a great team. They are helping make a lot of our dreams come true."
The Berklee dorms-the dream incubators-are where the band members met when they started the group three years ago. "What started out as more of a funk project turned into a modern mix of eighties pop and nineties rock driven by synthesizers and anthemic hooks," says GH bass player Rory Given '08. The core of the group was Given, Gavin McDevitt, and Brad Alderman '07; Hachen was the final member selected. The group was rehearsing in a basement, and one member told Hachen, "Hey, bring your flute."
"The power of six minds," is how Jacob Michael '08, another GH guitarist and vocalist, describes their success. "All areas are covered with the six of us."
While they all write together and share a like-minded work ethic, each member brings distinctive qualities to the group. With his trademark bowler hat, Hachen has a winning personality. McDevitt is the social-networking expert. Given has a keen business sense, while Alderman is the synth guru. Drummer Phil Boucher '07 is the driver; and Michael, the cautious realist.
"They balance each other out," Young says. "They are all really talented, with good heads on their shoulders. They all want the same thing."
Unlike many Berklee grads who head to New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville after Berklee, the band members made Boston-the college town with its serious, hip, and young fan base and multiple music venues-their home. "More than ever, people are going out to hear live music." Hachen observes. It was a hometown paper-the alternative weekly Boston Phoenix-that helped get them noticed, naming them best new act in Boston, in 2010. "These songs sizzle and pop with resuscitated beats, bass lines, and laser-booty synths that argue the last 20 years should be stricken from the record," a Phoenix reviewer said of "the spiffy dance-funk sextet Gentlemen Hall" and their Gentlemen Hall EP.
The Phoenix award, along with a VMA (Video Music Award) in MTV's Best Breakout Artist in Boston category in 2009, brought them to the attention of music-industry officials looking for talented new acts. The band even declined an invitation from Rolling Stone magazine and Atlantic Records to participate in the Do You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star? contest. The competition offered the winner the magazine cover and a record contract. "They had to sign away their lives," Young explains. In turning it down, the band displayed confidence in who they are.
The band's name provides few clues as to their identity. Does it belong to a Boston speakeasy, as has been reported? Was the label given by a hassled Berklee dorm residence director to those loud "gentlemen down the hall?" According to Given, the name stems from Hachen's uncle's tale of a "rather risqué" truck stop somewhere in the Southwest that big-rig drivers knew as "the gentlemen's hall." An artist friend designed their clever logo: an old-fashioned handlebar-style mustache with the initials "GH."
The band accepted the invitation to the Billboard Battle of the Bands and became determined to win. Three bands from six regions of the country were slated to compete for six finalist slots that would be determined by the amount of online support they generated. "We spent a good amount of time communicating with our fans about it and the word kind of spread on its own," Given recalls. "There isn't a barrier between Gentlemen Hall and fans of Gentlemen Hall, it feels more like a big family than anything, and everyone supports one another. A nice side effect of that is that people go the extra mile for us, and vice versa. It didn't take too long before the fans told their friends, the friends told their friends, and so on."
The six finalists hit the highway in Chevy vehicles accompanied by a video crew to document the trek to Vegas. The number of video views, as well as the number of visits to the band pages at www.billboard.com/battle, tweets, and Facebook mentions, created a "social score" that was factored into the judges' decision. According to Billboard, what swayed the judges in favor of Gentlemen Hall was "the force of a charismatic double-vocalist assault."
This fall the band is promoting its new six-song, self-released EP When We All Disappear. It was recorded in Cleveland, where two of the band members and the group's management are from. "We are doing this without a major label" Michael says. "We're not looking for a label."
Maintaining its strong fan base remains a high priority for GH. "A lot of bands believe that slamming people with content and constant updates is the way to grow, but we are as interested in our fans as they are in us," Given notes. As an example, he emphasizes that anyone can challenge them in smartphone apps like "Words with Friends" and "Hanging with Friends." (Their username is "gentlemenhall.")
They made at least one new fan at the South Boston festival. "Give him a free T-shirt," yelled Michael, noticing a very enthusiastic jumper. "I feel like he is our biggest fan." The young man was autistic, they found out later, and with the help of his mother, he promptly replaced his Red Sox shirt with Gentlemen Hall's. In Boston, that's a very big deal.
Mary Hurley is a grant writer in Berklee's Development Office.