Degree of popularity
Ivy Leaguers Chester French aim their extracurricular activity at the charts.
In Chester French’s own not-so-serious universe, pop stardom is served like breakfast in bed. In recent years, few bands have attracted more attention before they’ve released any music. Chester French was recruited by the majors like a pre-law valedictorian out of Harvard—where it had been fairly anonymous. As French’s D.A. Wallach explains, working on your own thing is typical in the Ivy League: “Most people at Harvard are doing some intense activity in addition to school. It’s a good place to be motivated.”
Now as a pop act with a heavy MTV push, the duo of Wallach and Maxwell Drummey risks leaving the smooth-sailing waters of mere blog-buzz status for the public’s fickle ear. On its playful debut for Pharrell Williams’s Star Trak label, Chester French takes the piss out of stardom while hustling toward it.
In reality, the two, both in their early 20s, are closer to studio craftsmen than the bad-boy pop stars portrayed in their songs (“Motherfucker, this is in my hands / And I’ll be calling the shots,” for instance). During our phone conversations with them, the muso geeks even name-drop Jeff Lynne’s pre-ELO band the Idle Race as an influence. And Williams is more than a label boss; he’s an inspiration. “He’s not partying. He’s in the studio every day,” says Milwaukee native Wallach.
Named after the sculptor of a bust that overlooked the dining hall where the friends met (the same sculptor, Daniel Chester French, who designed the Lincoln Memorial)—it sounded “old school”—the band made an EP and played some campus gigs in 2003. When not studying African-American history and social anthropology, respectively, Wallach and Drummey set to work on crafting an album, using school facilities, studios and some dorm-life perks. “We had broadband Internet connections and were downloading droves of music,” Wallach says. “There is that time when you are young when you sit down and listen to all of the Beatles records or Bowie’s records. It’s magical. We had those experiences while we were working on the album.”
It shows. The preppy poppers’ sonic concept was to make classic guitar hits with visceral, post–Dr. Dre production. The resulting Love the Future renders rock’s warm, fuzzy past with hip-hop’s digital clarity and braggadocio: Guitars come in as chunks of neon on “C’mon (My Own)”; snare hits are like lasers. But there are timeless baroque-pop elements, too. String quartets swell and swoon through “Fingers” and “She Loves Everybody,” while the sax-and-harpsichord bouncer “Neal” sounds like ’60s soft-rockers the Left Banke filtered through Kanye West. It has to be the quirkiest thing pimped to teenagers in quite some time. As for the theme, Boston-born Drummey cracks, “The record is about our nascent and emerging manhood.”
Despite the groupie-toasting tune “Bebe Buell,” it’s not all Champagne on ice and strippers in the pool just yet. It takes a long time to capitalize on a hyped debut album. “A lot of the album we made before we graduated. We’ve been sitting on it for a year and a half,” Wallach says. “It’s been totally frustrating. Musically and creatively, you move on pretty quickly.”
To fill the gap, the band dropped a goofy, celebrity-studded mix-tape called Get Familiar with Chester French, which plays up potential pop hits amid silly skits about the evolution of a college nerd to A-list asshole. It also features rap-leaning jams like “Campus Kingpin” with the Clipse. Frankly, the fiery guest-MC work doesn’t do a whole lot for French’s ornate music. But as a marketing tool, the mix-tape has blown up, exponentially increasing the band’s Twitter subscriptions and allowing it to sell a few more discs out of the bus—the 2009 version of a taste of fame. There’s probably a class on it at Harvard this semester.
Love the Future is out this week.