Sitting Down with Mellow Drama

Verse 1

Caltech isn’t particularly accustomed to non-academic drama; just take a look at this edition’s front page. Mellow Drama, however, is a Caltech quintet, setting out to prove that we could all do with just a little bit of rock and roll lighting up our music scene.

Sylvia Plath observed that ‘melodrama thrives solely upon exaggeration’. Well, to avoid the artistic cynicism of Plath, and to not cramp the style of Lorde’s second album, the group drew on their more relaxed musical aesthetic: enter Mellow Drama. Since then, the band has continued to climb the octaves, with a packed rec-room show already under their belt, and a slew of originals coming thick and fast, Mellow Drama is not to be missed (see end of article for next-gig deets!)

Through a Caltech-tinted lens, one might clock Mellow Drama’s slightly edgy band members, quirky assortment of sounds, and a prolific talent for graphic design (@mellow.drama_band). With my interest piqued, and a Tech deadline looming, I put aside my musical-ineptitude and set about trying to understand what makes Mellow Drama’s beat, tick. What follows is a series of un-astute, but rather dazzled tales from their first concert, and a subsequent behind-the-scenes account of a rehearsal I was invited to eavesdrop on. I only ask twice of you, dear reader: I hope you will excuse any musical inaccuracy that I will almost certainly make throughout and I hope you take away even a small fraction of the glee I had in listening to- and getting to know the band.

Verse 2

As the shutters of winter term drew to a close, the Mellow Drama quintet assembled bright and bubbly in Caltech’s premier studio for up-and-coming music talent, the Catalina apartments’ North Recreation Room. Left to right Liam (Bass), Tal (drums), Ray (guitar), Thomas (Vocals), Elina (keys), stared down a rather finals-whipped Caltech audience. Their Instagram-announced promise? ‘To blow our socks off, and thus make them cold’ - a tall order for an LA-based band.

Thomas looked sharp as the point-man, sporting blue collar overalls with a white-collar bowtie. The boys with strings contested for the most musically hardcore by tally of most guitars flaunted (my count: Ray’s 3 to Liam’s 2!). For Tal looking fresh was operative, a minty green shirt and a brand new drum kit setting the tone. Finally, Elina stood poised over the keys, leather jacket mandatory. Nervous static filled the room, anticipation heightened as if waiting for the Californian spring rains. And then, at a goldilocks time of 8:12pm, Mellow Drama sprung to life. Kilby Girl to kick us off, a beautiful song, with star moments for all. Thomas’ delicate control over the opening verse, led swiftly to a full frontal rec-room roaring chorus, even managing to draw a few head-bobs from the onlooking Caltech crowd.

From one song to another, Mellow Drama danced impressively, keeping the crowd on its toes. The group wasted little time in drawing out one of its strengths, a band-wide talent for songwriting. Ray’s original, Loose Screws, quickly seduced the airwaves, with Thomas showing impressive variation in vocal scope from the tricky jumps of Kilby girl to the harmonious tones of this number. And when you thought the conforming bliss couldn’t end, in burst Tal, delivering a skilled and punch flourish on the drums to round off the number.

With the band on a roll, Mellow Drama looked to follow their namesake, subverting the status quo of the concert thus far, and shifting into a slow harmonious single, Helplessly Hoping. Exuding shades of Simon and Garfunkel, operating in two sets of two, each pair diving in and around one another. Despite a little more than a couple month’s practice, Mellow Drama’s inherent chemistry was plain for all to see.

Tal’s original, Open Door, took the crowd by surprise. The first section proved to be Elina’s triumph, driving forward the melody with unwavering quirk. Then the arrival of Tal warmed the pot; energy driving up and away; Ray’s tash appearing to detach and swim in time with his personal syncopation. The song’s success clearly gave Tal optimism for his future work, since it would only be a few week’s later that I was sat in the studio, listening him flesh out his follow-up hit.

The finale came two fold: first an underground song, which promised ‘to be a crowd favourite (for those who know it)’. For those with a musical ear, Liam had been dictating the bass firmly throughout the night. But for the rest of us mere mortals, the final number saw him come alive, as he revelled in a game of beat Tiki-taka across the stage. The song concluded, and Mellow Drama certainly had a new crowd favourite. The encore was also ‘underground’, this time to the tune of Dua Lipa’s ‘Levitating’. Needless to say the crowd loved it, and the dance-deprived Caltech students finally felt free to diversify from the rock and roll ‘bob’ to the Tik-Tok ‘swerve’.

I tried to catch up with the band after their performance, as they radiated a smorgasbord of emotions; joy, pizazz, honest surprise at how much people had enjoyed their set. I told them I hoped this would be their first rapturous applause of many, and decided any remaining investigative journalism could wait another day.

Verse 3

My journey led me to the bunkers of Fleming house, where our fabulous five take jamming to their favourite ‘underground’ songs quite literally. Sensing my enjoyment from their first round performance, the band very kindly offered to have me crash one of said sessions. But this session wasn’t any old Trader Joe’s jam; instead, Tal was pitching a new number - Coming Back to Life - to the group, with the only audience yet to hear the tune being Tal’s shower room.

It is quite difficult to describe the energy - the verve - that is created during one of Mellow Drama’s sessions: a 1000 mediocre words of California Tech writing certainly won’t do it justice. But to try and ground it in something many of our Graduate readers will know and love (/dread) all too well, you can picture it something like a research group meeting.

Enter Tal (ambitious young mathematical mind): ‘it’s super simple guys … notice the time signature: think e-over-pi - completely irrational’. He’s met with an initial front of confusion from the rest of his band, prompting a furious scribble on the whiteboard as he tries to explain his grand vision for the chords. And then, just like that, the intellectual penny drops, as the five fire new ideas, harmonies and counter-melodies all around; a musical hivemind descends on the room. Tal shifts from exacerbated student to a proud little conductor. Elina, the principal investigator of the group, reacts like any good PI: ‘I like to be lazy, take it just down the C, actually.‘ As the rigorous debate continues to rage, Thomas takes on the role of lab wise-crack. A spontaneous ‘tweet tweet’ to break moments of lull, or the occasionally encouraging, ‘you’re like an artist who can’t paint’, help keep any group drama loving and mellow.

Our fourth member, the prodigious student, Ray, sways quietly in the corner. Bar a subtle sounding of notes or an occasional tilt of his glasses, you’d be forgiven for mistaking him absent. And then, just when the tune is beginning to hold water, in he jumps, excruciatingly executing a finger-splitting chord to the result of a rather beautiful tune. The band approves - ‘I don’t know how he does this magic, but it is magic’, Tal would tell me later. And yet they still want to push their friend: ‘spice it up’ and ‘make it harder!’, echo Tal and Liam in unison.

Now they’re really on a roll. ‘It’s giving Whitney Houston, but more jazzy’, Tal quips, ‘…Whitney New Orleans, no, Whitney Austin’. Liam, on bass, begins to join the show. Like any good bassist worth his salt, he bides his time: ‘I don’t like songs where bass mirrors everything; I want to bring it all together, pull the strings taught.’ Armed with his trusty loop pedal, low and slow he begins to exercise himself over the song’s foundations, resonance and harmony galore.

Sensing things are going too well, inspired by genius, Tal sets out to ‘mess it all up’. ‘Four notes, figure them out,’ he asks of Elina. Yet she more than finds the magic, wielding a major 7th chord and giving Tal the opportunity to exclaim his best praise yet, ‘yes yes yes yes!’. With the tune at its peak, Thomas finally allows himself to peek at his lines. Tal is hoping ‘to make him work pretty hard with this’, yet Thomas looks unphased, remarking the lyrics remind him ‘of that Jewish mouse that comes to America’. Touched by the sentiment, Ray takes a momentary break from his craft, and plays the Fievel Mousekewitz theme tune. The final flourishes descend on the tune, minor skirmishes breaking out on the state of a minor 7th b flat chord - ‘no no it’s just modulation,’ clarifies Liam. I‘ll take his word for it.

‘Let’s run it’. Thomas assumes centre stage, promising me to have some moves for next time I see it. You know what comes next? Sure you do - it’s just like in all the movies, ‘a one, a two, …!’ Verse leads to chorus, to a bridge, then a final chorus, fin. Almost miraculously, in what is a little over an hour, Tal has managed to take his little earworm and pull together something you’d pay more than a dollar to listen to on iTunes. As their first full run draws to a close, I’m a little lost on how to express my love for the song I’ve just heard. Luckily, a much more musically licensed talent in Ray manages to summarise my thoughts perfectly, ‘Tal, this is really, really fucking good.’

Meeting Mellow Drama has proved a mighty adventure, and I thank them for their patience, fun and for five new and friendly faces that I’ll bump into most days at Red Door. Many of us might take it for granted, but Caltech is a little special like that. Mellow Drama are going to be playing their hotly anticipated second gig (tonight! - assuming you are a good Caltecher reading the Tech on the day of publication) . For all the details, all the rage, follow @mellow.drama_band.

While there may be no drama on demand, don’t miss the magic of Mellow Drama; there’s some serious talent at the Tech.