University Blues

An illustration of one of Pass By Catastrophe's album covers, which includes all four band members wearing military helmets
Illustration by Amanda Legge

Student band Pass by Catastrophe faces an uncertain future.

by Chasity Hale

The Rolling Stones, the English classic rock band, are named after the Muddy Waters single “Rollin’ Stone.” Belle and Sebastian, the Scottish indie-pop band, are named after a French novel by Cécile Aubry—“Belle et Sébastien.” Pass By Catastrophe, the Palo Alto–based indie-rock band, are named after an urban myth that holds that if a catastrophe, such as a fire, were to occur during some grade-determining event, all affected students would pass automatically. In the fall of 2018, when college sophomores Max Kilberg and Dexter Simpson named their band Pass By Catastrophe, they did so because, in Kilberg’s words, “There is always a sense of uncertainty. At all moments, we are kind of just hanging on by a thread.” But the young band never imagined the new meaning their name would take on in the midst of an actual crisis.

When I was a high schooler in South Florida (culturally, a very different place from the Bay Area), I was a member of an imaginary band. We had a name (Barbara & Co.), song titles (“Mistake No. 4.,” “An All-American Sadness,” “Oh Heck,”), and even album art. But there were no actual lyrics, instrumentals, or vocals. What we really were was a group of friends who loved music. In the mornings, during home period, we would use a five-way headphone splitter to listen to the same songs at the same time. We bonded over psychedelic pop, indie folk, and ’80s dance-rock, and we always referred to ourselves as “the band.” When we graduated from high school, “the band” dispersed across the United States. Our “singer” stayed put, our “bassist” moved up north, our “drummer” moved to the Midwest, and I—the “lead guitarist”—moved to the West Coast.

Back in Florida, house, reggaeton, and trap streamed from everyone’s car and headphone speakers. When I first arrived at Stanford University, I had no clue what kind of music Californians listened to, but I made it my mission to find out. I started writing for the Stanford Daily, the university’s student-run newspaper, and one of my first projects was to write a feature on the Stanford music scene. Pass By Catastrophe was the second band I interviewed.

The first time we spoke, it was late February of 2019, and the members of the band shuffled out of the blue-black night into a conference room on the first floor of the Lorry Lokey Stanford Daily Building (better known as the Daily House), where I work. Pass By Catastrophe was started by Kilberg and Simpson, who lived in the same student residence house as freshmen in the 2017–2018 academic year. They would overhear each other’s music practice—Kilberg’s guitar strumming and Simpson’s singing. They quickly became friends, and eventually started to perform together. A year later, as sophomores, they formed the band and brought on two new members: Sam Silverman (another sophomore) on drums and bassist and multi-instrumentalist Zach Plante (a Dartmouth graduate and research assistant at Stanford). The band members’ musical backgrounds were varied: Simpson spent years performing musical theater while Plante played in a campus rock band at Dartmouth. Inspired by genres ranging from jazz to thrash metal, the musicians united around a common goal: bringing rock music back into the mainstream.

In May of 2019, Pass By Catastrophe recorded their debut three-song EP at the historic Hyde Street Studios (formerly Wally Heider Recording; see “Listening Through the Walls,” Issue 2). The studio doesn’t look like much from the outside, just a faded teal Art Deco–style building with dark blue double doors and its name scrawled on them in red graffiti letters. But inside are state-of-the-art recording gear and a rich history. Pass By Catastrophe recorded and mixed their record in just three days in Hyde Street’s Studio A, where well-known artists including Tupac and the Grateful Dead have recorded. The band felt inspired by the studio’s rich music history and well-equipped to execute their vision. They embraced the mood of each song and channeled their emotions into the recordings. During “Pretty Lady,” an upbeat, energetic track, “All of us just got together and started dancing and singing and screaming,” Simpson said. And before recording the plaintive “What It Takes,” “Everyone took a moment to think about how they were going to access their core melancholy,” he said. “And from there—without talking, without saying anything—we all went to our respective places and started to lay down the track.” The record was mixed and mastered in August and released in October.

The first track, “Pretty Lady,” features bright, open guitar tones and peppy drum beats. It’s reminiscent of something off a mid-1970s Rolling Stones album. You can practically hear the smile in Simpson’s voice as he sings. In contrast, “What It Takes” is a meld of finger-style guitar and weepy strings blended with even, aching vocals. When Pass By Catastrophe’s EP first came out, I was studying abroad in Paris. I would often listen to this song while on the Métro, watching people spill in and out of the subway car and gazing at the world blurring by outside the windows. The final track, “Paperboys,” starts off with slow and soft electric guitar and sleepy vocals, but as the song progresses, it swells to an optimistic anthem. This is one of Pass By Catastrophe’s greatest strengths: the patience to let a song build and the assuredness and talent to know that it will pay off. There is a video of Simpson in the studio recording this song, bobbing in place during the instrumental break, waiting for his moment to belt into the microphone. Through musical storytelling, the band creates tracks that feel both nostalgic and dynamic.

Shortly after the EP was released, Zach Plante’s father, Thomas Plante, a professor at Santa Clara University, sent an email to his class. The subject line was “personal FYI re: my son’s band,” and in the email, he included the link to Pass By Catastrophe’s Spotify page. A screenshot of this email was posted on an Instagram memes page and included in a popular Twitter thread about laid-back college professors. The Instagram post has over 32,000 likes and dozens of comments praising the band. Afterward, Pass By Catastrophe rose in popularity. Their most-listened-to song, “Pretty Lady,” has been streamed over 50,000 times. No more are the days of channel surfing on the radio or trialing records at listening stations; in the digital age, people discover music through social media and streaming services like Spotify and SoundCloud. Pass By Catastrophe, as a band popularized via the internet and formed in one of the most technology-focused, future-oriented regions in the world, has had a journey drastically different from any of the classic rock bands they evoke. Different because of the discovery opportunities offered by music streaming services and social media, and now, different also due to our unprecedented historic moment. This past spring, as professional musicians lost their main source of revenue (and often, their sole livelihood), with the cancellation of live shows and in-person performances, new musicians and young bands like Pass By Catastrophe faced the possibility that their careers might be over before they had begun.

In the winter of 2020, Simpson was working in New York, Kilberg was studying abroad in Florence, Italy, and Silverman and Plante were still on Stanford’s campus. Their plan for the spring quarter was to pursue more off-campus shows in the Bay Area and make new music. But then the pandemic struck. The coronavirus outbreak in Italy became severe in February, sending Kilberg home early. A few weeks later, in early March, Stanford transitioned to remote learning and sent home all students without extenuating circumstances. Now, the band is scattered across the country. While apart, they are developing their musical skills and preparing for the future. Kilberg is learning about music production, and Simpson is studying songwriting and composition. They plan to modernize their sound and experiment more. Simpson told me he’s thinking about “how we can begin to be a little bit more rebellious with the rules in general, how we can start to think about incorporating instruments and sounds and rhythms that you might not traditionally see in a rock song.” He added, “We’re always going to have that call of the vintage sound, right? That’s the music that me and Max grew up with, that’s the music we love.” But for Simpson, now is a time to explore musically, and to build creatively on what the band knows and loves. 

Rolling Stone writer Elias Leight recently observed that various digital music services “are seeing huge surges in activity” from independent music makers during this period of social distancing. As a music lover, I find these new releases bring peace in an otherwise stressful time. When asked about the power of music to bring people together emotionally during a time when we must be physically apart, Simpson said, “I think there’s an incredible dichotomy in music, which is that on one hand it’s an incredibly personal experience. There are songs that have memories associated with them that make you nostalgic, that make you feel a certain way when you listen to them.” He continued, “But it has to be said that we’re missing the other side of the coin, which is that music is inherently an incredibly social medium. It is, at its core, intended to be shared.” Through livestreamed listening parties and virtual concerts, musicians are trying to connect with their fans from a distance, but of course, we all still long for in-person interaction. “I think that’s something that not only the music community, but also just the general community, is missing—the ability to truly share in music and to gather together.” Simpson’s words brought me back to a Wednesday night this past January. I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with my classmates, watching the indie rock band M.A.G.S. perform. Colorful projections danced across the ceiling, the floors trembled with locomotion, and music filled the room.

As I write this, the Stanford campus, and most others around the country, stand empty and silent.

I yearn for the concertgoing experience, the one that can’t be re-created through the electronic circuits of the internet, and I, along with many others, eagerly await the days when we can once again stand close enough to our favorite artist to see the phone flashlights reflected in their glassy eyes, hear our voices join a chorus of others, and sway together, lost in the moment. ♦

 

Chasity Hale is a senior at Stanford University, majoring in communication with a concentration in journalism, and minoring in creative writing. She is the editor of the Arts & Life section of the Stanford Daily, the university’s student-run newspaper. In her free time, she likes to run, watercolor paint, and watch sitcoms to ward off existential angst.