First recording of lost James P. Johnson blues opera 'De Organizer,' libretto by Langston Hughes
Jamie Sherman Blinder
By Alana Valko
A stroll down Ann Arbor’s State Street past the Kelsey Museum of Archeology led four University of Michigan students to land on a band name: The Kelseys.
Three members of the Kelseys—lead vocalist Peter Kwitny, drummer Josh Cukier and guitarist Evan Dennis—met in 2016, their freshman year at U-M.
“My older brother was an RA in South Quad and met Peter at orientation, who was asking about the Ann Arbor music scene,” Dennis said. “I knew Josh from a friend of a friend, and the first week at Michigan we all got in touch.”
Their fourth member, bassist Liam O’Toole, joined them a year later after connecting on Craigslist during his own freshman year at U-M.
The band represents a spectrum of majors at the university—Kwinty is a business student who is minoring in music, Cukier studies mechanical engineering, O’Toole is working toward dual majors in history and Russian, and Dennis is a neuroscience/pre-med major who also minors in music.
A self-described “indie-dance pop band,” The Kelseys’ hi-fi, glossy sound mixed with coming-of-age lyrics encourage a universal audience to engage with their vibrant melodies. The band cites The 1975 and Vampire Weekend as influences and as comparable acts.
“We had a weird way of describing one of our songs as ’80s prom night’—kind of like the last guy on the dance floor, the last person out there,” O’Toole said. “Lyrically, though, we’re much darker than the sound.”
The band’s lyrics dance around subjects of love, perspective, growth and even death.
According to Dennis, who took the lead on writing “Half Right,” their songwriting process generally starts out individually and becomes more collaborative when they workshop the lyrics together.
“We realize The Kelseys sound needs to be more than just our individual sound, but our collective sound as a group,” he said. “On the last EP, ‘Summer Light,’ you can hear each song representing each of our specific tastes, but on our new EP coming out in March, you’ll see them mesh together to become one.”
Starting out, the band was able to obtain their first drum set from Stamp Nation Entertainment, which is a student-run music organization on campus that helps student musicians find practice spaces and music opportunities.
“Being at a place like the University of Michigan gives us access to so many great resources,” Kwitny said.
The band was able to record many of their accessory instruments for their new EP in the U-M’s Duderstadt Center’s music studios on North Campus, which included choir arrangements, horns and saxophone.
The Kelseys recently released a music video for a song off of their “Summer Light” EP titled “Pollyanna,” that has been making waves around campus. The song and video, which was filmed at a staged house party in Ann Arbor, tells a story of a girl caught in a battle between conformity and individuality as she’s entering young adulthood.
Sam Goldin, a recent LSA Film, Television, and Media graduate, directed the video alongside producer and architecture student Evan Parness, and production designer Kenzie King, who studies art and design.
“Being on a team of so many student creatives was so essential and rewarding,” King said. “We weren’t experts, but by working together we balanced out each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”
In total, more than 20 student producers, designers, dancers and cinematographers participated in the filming, with over 200 student extras on set.
“It was really cool to see the video come together to form a collective vision,” Parness said.
Since their inception, The Kelseys have become a well known Michigan band, regularly performing at venues like The Blind Pig, Cantina, The Elbow Room in Chicago and with Sofar Sounds. They’ve opened for acts like Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers, Atlas Genius and U-M alumnus Jacob Sigman.
When asked about their future, the band is hopeful to continue.
“I want to pursue this as long as possible while I still have my youth because I do see some innate entanglement between my musical career and engineering studies,” said Cukier, the band’s drummer.
“Whether or not this continues after college, which I think all of us really hope it does, music will always be a huge part of our lives,” Kwitny was quick to add.
Dennis, however, has a very wolverine-specific dream: “I’m hoping to hear one of our songs in the Big House one day.”
Catch The Kelseys at the Dance Marathon’s upcoming VictorThon, or stream their music on Spotify or Apple Music, where they will release their new EP in March.
Jamie Sherman Blinder
Jamie Sherman Blinder