Brothers in Song (Saint Louis University)
Feature story for Universitas magazine, Saint Louis University, Summer 2006
Brothers in Song
SLU's all-male a cappella group has brought a new beat to campus.
By Allison Babka
Photo by Steve Dolan
They play practical jokes. They argue with a spirit the Survivor cast would be proud to possess. They sing through the wee hours of the morning.
No, they’re not family, but close enough. They’re the Bare Naked Statues, SLU’s only all-male student a cappella singing group.
Formed by a handful of determined students, the Bare Naked Statues could be called SLU’s version of the 1990s R&B group Boys II Men. The singing is there, along with the requisite “All together now!” choreography and coordinating stage attire, but that’s where the similarities end. The Statues exhibit their own brand of energy, originality and purpose, filling a need they noticed on campus. And they do it all with no instruments except their voices.
The Founding Fathers
When Lawrence Hwang (A&S ’01) was a SLU senior in 2000, he began singing for the University Chorale, his first foray into the campus music scene. As pleasant as it was, though, the chorale just didn’t supply the type of experience Hwang thought he needed.
“Though chorale was enjoyable, the music we sang wasn’t exactly young and hip,” Hwang said.
He thought about his friends in college a cappella groups around the nation and decided to try to form a group at SLU.
“At chorale practice, I pretty much turned to my right and asked if that guy would be interested, then turned to my left and asked if that guy would be interested,” Hwang said. “The first person I asked, Rob Turner, said that he was thinking the same thing.”
Hwang and Turner (A&S ’04) soon generated enough interest to form a small band of seven singers, which eventually evolved into a group of 12, later known as the “Founding Fathers” of the Bare Naked Statues. The group’s name was inspired by the outdoor art throughout SLU’s campus.
The group began rehearsing popular radio songs in barbershop style, practicing in dorm lobbies, cafeterias and patios. Eventually, the men received support from the University, becoming a chartered campus organization and getting an adviser in David Brinker (A&S ’94), a musician and assistant director of SLU’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art.
“Father Terry Dempsey (MOCRA director) heard them practicing in Xavier Hall and invited them to sing in MOCRA sometime,” Brinker said. “That led to their first spring concert, which was held in the museum.”
The concert was a hit and became a tradition for both fall and spring.
“When we started the group, we didn’t really have any expectations. We were just praying that enough of our family and friends would come and fill MOCRA,” said Hwang, who graduated from SLU’s School of Medicine in May. “It was really cool, though, as our audience grew each time.”
The concerts became more and more elaborate, with the Statues gradually adding special lighting, video screens and better choreography to their shows.
“Watching their first show at MOCRA and comparing it to what they’re doing now with theater and video — and they’re famous now for videos — the Bare Naked Statues offer a whole entertainment package,” Brinker said.
After that first year, the Bare Naked Statues began holding annual auditions to fill spots left by departing seniors. As the roster changed, so did the talent and the emotional makeup of the group. Something that remained, however, was the sense of family among group members.
That was especially true for Will Heran, who hails from Florida. When Heran came to SLU in 2002, he realized he had to start making friends from scratch because he knew no one.
“I was in musical theater, played guitar, tuba and electric bass in the high school band. Music was just part of my life,” Heran said. “When I came here, I had severe culture shock and was concerned I wouldn’t find a niche in which to perform.
“I don’t know what I would have done had I not been part of Bare Naked Statues,” Heran continued. “The group played such a strong role in my development as a person.”
Heran, who served as the group’s president before graduating in May with a degree in aviation management, said that the Bare Naked Statues’ main purpose is to bring the excitement and uniqueness of a cappella music to campus. And united in that purpose, the members just try to have fun.
“When it comes down to preparing for a spring concert, there’s so much stress — finals, making a CD, long rehearsals. But in the end, it’s about having a good time singing together,” Heran said.
Colin Harris, who will be a junior this fall and serves as the group’s on-campus business manager, echoed Heran.
“We love hanging out with each other,” Harris said. “We like to joke that it’s a fraternity. During one of the concerts a few years ago, we even wore the letters ‘BNS’ and were ‘Beta Nu Sigma.’”
It’s important to the group that they continue to sustain that familial bond. They believe that when their personalities are in harmony, their music will be, too.
That sense of family continues even after group members graduate. BNS alumni attend concerts when they can, cheering for “the new guys,” offering continuing support and sometimes even singing a few bars on stage for old times’ sake.
“Our alums really support the group,” said Brian Funke, the group’s music director who graduated in May with a degree in aviation science. “If they’re in town, they come to our smaller gigs, and many try hard to be here for our big spring show.”
“We’ve had very happy times and dysfunctional times, so we’ll always be like a family,” Heran said. “I think graduating from the Statues might be difficult. What will I do with all my free time? I was talking with last year’s BNS president who said that everything’s easy enough at first, but come fall, it hits you like a ton of bricks.”
“Once a Statue, always a Statue,” Harris said.
Life as Rock Stars
Because they spend so much time together, BNS members can feel a bit of stress. Vying for featured parts, deciding what to wear, wooing their sudden horde of groupies and still maintaining academic excellence can take its toll. But the Statues take it all in stride.
“Singers are crazy-dramatic, particularly when auditioning within the group for a solo,” Heran said. “But despite the bit of competition, the audience response ends up the same. We all know that everyone who auditions for solos has good, strong voices, so no matter what, you put on a good show.”
There’s plenty to do as a big concert approaches. The Bare Naked Statues have to decide about advertising, merchandising, choreography and special theatrical options — and that’s after selecting and arranging the music.
“When gearing up for a show, we discuss songs we might enjoy doing. Then we work with a computer program and arrange the harmonies. It’s a real group effort,” said Funke, who also leads the group during rehearsals.
And conflicting schedules often make for odd-hour rehearsals.
“Most of us have jobs, extra classes and other clubs,” said Harris, who works at Simon Recreation Center. “Because of that, we might have practice 6-8 p.m. Sundays, 10 p.m.-1 a.m. Mondays and 9-11 p.m. Wednesdays.”
BNS concerts always are hits, though, and the group sees more campus support and excitement with each show.
“We thought it was pretty amazing when we packed the theater in Xavier Hall for the first time,” Hwang said. “We were running around screaming like excited little kids. I mean, how did this happen?”
And, of course, with this newfound campus notoriety come the screams and flashbulbs.
“We sang at a Washington University function during the 2002-2003 season and were invited to a party afterward,” Heran said. “So we were walking through University City when a car stopped and rolled down the window. An elderly woman, part of a couple, leaned out the window and asked if we were the Bare Naked Statues. We replied that we were, and she said, ‘You boys did such a great job!’ We couldn’t believe we were recognized, but we loved it.”
Not every member craves the spotlight, however.
“I shy away from the ‘star experience,’” Harris said. “It’s cool, but I try to remember that it’s only a college a cappella group. It’s not like we’re huge rock stars. We have to forget it and try to get our heads back on straight.”
Something for Your CD Library
As the talent and popularity of the Bare Naked Statues grew, the group decided to record a CD. Please Don’t Feed the Statues, featuring tracks such as U2’s “Running to Stand Still,” Coldplay’s “Clocks” and Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time,” went on sale in 2003 and has been so well-liked that the group ordered several reprints.
Hwang said that recording the CD was one of the high points of his Bare Naked Statues career.
“When we finally came out with our first real CD, it was a big achievement because it was essentially the original Statues, which made it all the more special,” Hwang said.
For Brinker, the CD pushed the group to step up even more.
“Watching them learn about working in a recording studio, fine-tuning their voices, mixing and producing, and now seeing how they carry that on stage,” Brinker marveled. “As they have gone along, they really have fine-tuned the musical aspect, and the recordings probably have played a role in that.”
Finding time to record a CD is no easy task, as the latest generation of Statues knows. BNS is working on a follow-up disc that Funke said may have a bit of a different sound. The group hopes to release it during the 2006-2007 academic year.
“It’s amazing to work on the new CD with 11 other guys. It’s more work than I thought, though,” Harris said. “In the end, it will be worth it. In the studio, there’s pain, temper and singing lines over and over until they’re right, but you realize that once it’s done, it will be amazing.”
Reflecting on Past and Future
What does the future hold for the Bare Naked Statues? For starters, they inspired the formation of Beyond All Reason, SLU’s all-female a cappella group. Additionally, one BNS alum is trying to form an a cappella group at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he attends medical school.
The Statues also are submitting their songs for contests and CDs featuring collegiate a cappella groups. And there’s always the hope that schedules will come together and the group will mount a tour. They’ve already performed at the University of Chicago and Washington University. Next, they’re thinking about possibly visiting high schools to aid SLU recruitment.
The men reflect that their time in the Bare Naked Statues is one of the things that made their SLU experiences so memorable.
“I’ve had the privilege of being at SLU for about nine years,” Hwang said. “Looking back, I’m proudest of graduating from the School of Medicine as well as establishing the Bare Naked Statues and the relationships with these great guys.”
Brinker sees how that ever-present familial bond has sustained the group.
“It speaks to camaraderie of brotherhood and that support, but looking at the bigger picture, it’s the sense of continuity,” Brinker said. “We’ll have to wait 10-20 years to see how the group continues, but even now, because of that connection, former Statues keep coming back. They haven’t lost touch with the wisdom and sense of fun that helped get the group started.”
Harris, the junior, is looking even further ahead.
“If I have kids, I can’t wait to tell them all about my time with the Statues,” he said. “They’ll be like ‘Dad, you’re a dork.’ But it’s really been one of the best times of my life.”