Arts & Entertainment

Chester French, those Harvard grads with street cred

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Before we can get into any substantive discussion of why the Los Angeles-based power pop duo Chester French should be taken seriously as one of the fastest rising "It" bands of the moment, the group's members would like to dispel certain Ivy League misconceptions about them.

Granted, singer D.A. Wallach and multi-instrumentalist/arranger Maxwell Drummey have been known to wear button-down shirts, blazers, ties and khakis, especially in promotional photos. But that doesn't mean they're preppies. To hear them rationalize it, they simply couldn't afford nicer -- or weirder -- clothing and settled for a "business casual" look.

And to be certain, although the band mates graduated from Harvard University last spring, they're not "the next Vampire Weekend" (as some online pundits have called them). Whereas the Columbia University alumni in that indie band lean toward an African-inflected alterna-rock, Chester French, which will take the stage for a sold-out performance at the Viper Room tonight, is all about wry-yet-rockin' '60s-accented narrative pop.

Their shimmering songs can conjure Dr. Dre and the Kinks, psych rock and surf music, while still sounding totally modern.

Most important, though, even with the band members' prestigious academic pedigree and profoundly Caucasian racial profile, never assume that Chester French is anything less than totally down with the streets.

Opening up on tour for the electro-funk-rap-rock group N.E.R.D. in March, Chester French managed to win over legions of opinionated urban music fans, building expectations for its upcoming album, "Love the Future." Among those in the audience at the group's maiden New York gig last month were hip-hop impresario Damon Dash, up-and-coming rapper Charles Hamilton and the controversial rap radio host Miss Info from Hot 97 FM.

Pretty fly for some white guys.

"Most of our fans -- we've really had a lot of folks who, from the best I can tell, are primarily fans of hip-hop," Wallach said recently over lunch at a Beverly Hills boutique hotel. "I think that's really cool. You look at their profiles on MySpace and we might be one of two or three acts that aren't rap that they are into."

The crossover didn't come without a certain amount of institutional backing, however. Chester French is signed to Star Trak Records, a boutique imprint distributed by Interscope and operated by the multi-platinum hit-making producer duo the Neptunes (responsible for hits for Justin, Britney, Madonna and Snoop, among many others).

The group's profile in the hip-hop world was super-sized when word leaked that three of urban music's foremost shot callers -- Kanye West, producer-rapper Pharrell Williams and So So Def Records label chief Jermaine Dupri -- took part in a frenzied bidding war to land the rights to Chester French's new album even before Drummey and Wallach had graduated from Harvard.

So why all the love from the hip-hop community?

"In all our early promo stuff, we had blackface on," Drummey deadpanned.

He's joking, of course. But the comment belies Chester French's ascendance in a rapidly changing landscape where barriers between rock and rap are falling faster than ever and divisions between black and white music are no longer even enforced.

"Hip-hop has been a music with an entrenched understanding of authenticity; there was a stigma associated with listening to anything that seemed counter to it in any way," said Drummey. "But at this point, those lines don't exist. And there's starting to be more of both a critical and artistic recognition of that fact."

Wallach, a Milwaukee-born African American studies major, and Drummey, a Boston native who majored in anthropology, met in Harvard's dining hall freshman year and forged both their friendship and musicianship while recording songs in their dorm's basement studio.

Taking their band moniker from the sculptor responsible for the Lincoln Memorial, Daniel Chester French, the group cut a demo their sophomore year and began sending it out to record companies, including many of the usual indie label suspects such as Fueled by Ramen, Domino and Brillo.

"But they didn't respond at all," Wallach said. "So you just sort of make the rounds, and we thought, 'Let's try and send it to the hip-hop guys.' Specifically, we though maybe Pharrell and Kanye would like this."

It proved to be a shrewd move. At Star Trak, Williams -- one of the members of N.E.R.D. and an avowed Steely Dan fan -- had shown an openness toward indie rock, having signed and toured with the Minneapolis pop rock band Spymob. Likewise, West had collaborated with several white rockers in the past, including Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine, Chris Martin from Coldplay and singer-songwriter-producer Jon Brion.

"Unlikely white dudes are hot in hip-hop at the moment," pointed out Jonah Weiner, senior editor at Blender magazine, "They're, like, a must-have."

The group floated a CD to West's manager. Inside of a week after nailing an audition with West in Los Angeles, they were sent a contract to sign with the rapper's Island Def Jam-distributed G.O.O.D. Music imprint. Concurrently, an operative for So So Def Recordings alerted Dupri that West was circling Chester French, prompting him to make a counteroffer.

But Wallach also had made contact with Williams' recording engineer, who hyped the producer about Chester French's CD. Star Trak maneuvered to land the group, offering something the others didn't: total artistic freedom.

"It came down to being on Interscope versus being on Island," Wallach said. "We loved everyone we met. But we asked people which company had their [act] together."

Nonetheless, the band mates are hardly the biggest rock stars to recently have graduated from America's preeminent citadel of higher learning. That honor belongs to Rivers Cuomo, introverted frontman for the multi-platinum-selling nerd-rock quartet Weezer -- an obvious influence on Chester French's narrative songwriting -- who departed Harvard with a bachelor's degree in English in 2006.

A year earlier, while all three were still there, Wallach and Drummey succeeded in tracking down their guitar hero. Which is when Cuomo opened certain doors of perception.

"We ended up having dinner with him, the two of us and 11 female Asian college sophomores," Drummey recalled. "He recommended we try Vipassana meditation." That is, a restrictive Buddhist practice that prohibits speaking and mixes mental discipline with physical abstinence to purify body and spirit. "We had read Rivers did it and were interested as a creative adventure," Drummey continued. "We followed his advice and ended up going on a 10-day silent meditation retreat in western Massachusetts."

But not everything went as planned. "We left after four days," Wallach said. "It was too boring!"

chris.lee@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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