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A Cappella from Hell

When you’re a Bub, you’re a Bub all the way

The night of Tufts’ 2006 Homecoming show, 400 people, mostly female, squeezed into Goddard Chapel, that sanctum of dark wood and stained glass, to hear a group of singers who go by the ungodly name of the Beelzebubs. In due time, a clean-cut sophomore, Ben Appel, stepped forward, decked in a Republican power tie. He exuded an innate low-energy magnetism, his movements so lazy he appeared to be in slow motion. The song was “19-2000” by the Brit band Gorillaz, and the background started up simply enough, with the Bubs—as Tufts’ celebrated all-male a cappella singers are also known—chanting in a near monotone, distorting their voices to sound robotic. Further along, Ben came in singing “You get the cool! / You get the cool shoeshine!”

At the bridge, the tension built. The Bubs grew quiet. They pulled in tight around Ben, affecting a don’t-mess-with-us attitude as he sang, all serious and mysterious, “They do the bump.” On bump, they raised their left hands defiantly and snapped twice. “They do the bump!” (snap, snap). “They do the bump!” (snap, snap). Then Ben stood bolt upright. “YOU GET THE COOL!” he shouted, and the crowd applauded wildly.

The cool? It’s debatable. You’d be hard-pressed to find a thing about a cappella—with its finger-snapping and matching khaki pants—that your typical college kid would say is cool. Still, collegiate a cappella is the kind of frenzied subculture that over four years might make your name on campus.

Nationwide, it’s hugely popular, boasting some 18,000 active participants. It’s also profitable (the Harvard Krokodiloes earn, conservatively, $300,000 a year) and much publicized (a cappella groups have appeared on CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman). The pop singers Art Garfunkel and Jim Croce, the ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer, the actresses Mira Sorvino of Mighty Aphrodite and Anne Hathaway of The Devil Wears Prada, the actor Peter Gallagher, A77, of FOX’s The O.C. —they all got their start in collegiate a cappella. According to The Looming Tower, the Pulitzer Prize–winning book by Lawrence Wright, Osama bin Laden sang in an a cappella group, too, and distributed recordings of its tunes about jihad.

Within this universe, the Beelzebubs, founded in 1962, are legendary. The Bubs have the distinction of being the only collegiate a cappella group whose music has been played in outer space. Rick Hauck, A62, piloted the seventh flight of the space shuttle, and on June 20, 1983, the group’s recording of the fight song “Tuftonia’s Day” was used as the astronauts’ wake-up call. The Bubs regularly sing with the Boston Pops. They’ve performed at Carnegie Hall.

For group members themselves, however, the Beelzebub pedigree can be as much a curse as a blessing. After all, they must withstand the ever-present pressure to live up to that exalted status. Being a Beelzebub means giving your life over to the hive. On top of the travel schedule—it is not uncommon for the Bubs to drive through the night to sing a five-song set at, say, the University of Michigan—there are rehearsals three nights a week. In the days leading up to a performance, those rehearsals have been known to last until sunrise. And while the group can always count on a bulwark of support from Bubs alums, it doesn’t necessarily alleviate the strain.

The problem took on nearly epic proportions in 2006–07 as the Beelzebubs faced work on a new album, something that, by tradition, they do roughly every other year. At the forefront of their minds was their effort Code Red, recorded in 2003, a meticulously produced disc on which they convincingly imitated instruments, so that the a cappella versions of tunes were almost indistinguishable from the originals. Code Red received enviable notices. A review from the tastemaking Recorded A Cappella Review Board (RARB) raved, “Who are these superhumans?” And if the influence of an album on other artists counts for anything, then Code Red was a very important work indeed. A game changer. In a cappella circles, people talk strictly in terms of before Code Red and after Code Red.

With a hit like that, it’s no wonder the Bubs agonized over what to do for an encore. The critical response to their 2005 album, Shedding, only made matters worse. While Shedding swept the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards, not all the RARB write-ups were sufficiently adulatory for the Bubs’ taste. “After a group comes out with an album as perfectly imitative as Code Red was, I’d expect them to move on to different ideals,” one reviewer groused. At a meeting earlier in the year, the Bubs had done nothing but debate the title of the new album—for nine hours. And the larger issue of how to “move on to different ideals” had, for a long while, seemed insoluble.

Such paralyzing anxiety was one more reason why Ben Appel was so valuable to the Bubs. He wasn’t just a riveting soloist; he was also the group’s music director, and he was key in advancing ideas his fellow Bubs were thrilled about. He and other forward-thinking group members had generated talk of going in an entirely new direction, opting for a more natural, “organic” sound. They were even floating the possibility of a high-concept album, with tracks leading directly into each other, possibly using dialogue as connective tissue. But Ben’s biggest asset might have been his attitude. To lead a group with such a rich history, a group whose alums are often still involved in its day-to-day business, one must not be awed by the legacy. And he wasn’t.

The only difficulty was that mere days after their performance at the Homecoming Show, Ben would announce to the assembled Bubs what the group’s officers already knew: he would be leaving the group to deal with personal issues. He was overextended, and his grades were slipping dangerously.

The Bubs rallied. In the days before the Homecoming Show, the officers set about replacing Ben and settled on Lucas Walker, A08, an energetic, take-charge physics and philosophy major, even though he would commit to only one semester. Immediately, Lucas emailed former Bubs who at one time or another had said they’d arrange particular songs. Their help was crucial: one of the biggest jobs of a music director is to pull together a repertoire for the group, and Lucas, whose forte was his leadership ability, not his song-arranging skill, knew he couldn’t do it all himself. While some guys were taken aback by the urgency he communicated (“Do you need it now?” one asked incredulously), the alums threw open their safety net. They wouldn’t let the group fail.

Soon enough, song arrangements were on their way, the Bubs were back on track, and at the end of the semester, Lucas was succeeded by Alexander Koutzoukis, A09, a skinny, soft-spoken sophomore, perhaps the strongest musician in the group, who quickly proved his mettle with a Bubsian idea: a medley of two current hits, Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back” and the Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons.” The Bubs learned the arrangement on a Tuesday night. On Thursday they came up with some choreography—a snake-charming PG-13 striptease in which they flung away their blazers, ties, and shirts. Then on Friday they performed the thing, flawlessly, at their concert (thanks to an all-night rehearsal).

More significantly still, the Bubs decided on a defining aesthetic for their new album. Basically, they wanted to build on the notion of an organic sound. Or, as Alexander puts it, they wanted to get away from mimicking instruments and let their audience know, beyond any doubt, that everything they heard came from living, breathing human beings.

For that reason, many of the arrangements would feature the Bubs singing actual words beneath the solo, as opposed to the habitual jeer-neers for guitars and random oohs and aahs. Leading into the chorus on Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mama, I’m Coming Home,” the Bubs would sing selfish love-aaaaaahhhhh. Later, the group would echo the solo, singing have it all. Alexander says that “these are textual things. If we’re singing words like selfish love, it gives us a chance to emote and express the song. It’s singing words versus singing dim and wow. It allows us to embed that aspect of our live performance into the album.” And he’s right. No matter how much you tweak a guitar with the help of computer software, it ain’t gonna sing selfish love. The new album would be produced, polished. But it would unmistakably be the product of the human voice.

Now all they had to do was put the theory into practice. Shortly after New Year’s Day, the Beelzebubs descended upon a lake house set deep back in the woods of Moultonborough, New Hampshire, an estate owned by their founder, Tim Vaill, A64. The larder was stocked with Bubs staples (peanut butter, white bread, and dozens upon dozens of eggs); it was a 20-minute drive to get milk, farther for anything more substantial. In this seclusion—this a cappella monastery, if you will—the group would, over the course of 10 days, complete most of the raw tracks for their new album.

Here again help was available, this time from Ed Boyer, A04, a Bubs alum who had graduated from the dual-degree program at Tufts and the New England Conservatory, then gone on to become a full-time a cappella producer. As an undergrad, he had done substantial production work on Code Red, but he was more than willing to aid the Bubs in their quest to get out of that groove. He had his own bag of tricks to contribute, his own ideas about how to enhance the organic sound. What remained to be seen was whether the Bubs could loosen up enough, let go of their perfectionism enough, to put those ideas to good use.

One afternoon at the New Hampshire hideaway, Ed singled out Matt Michelson, A07, the Bubs’ president, and directed him to pluck out the notes to “Mary Had a Little Lamb” by tapping his index finger against his teeth. Ed adjusted the speed of the recording. He adjusted the pitch. Colors flashed on his computer screen. Lines bent. And somehow when he placed this track behind the trippy 15-second bridge of the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour,” the song sounded better, more fleshed out. “There should be just enough going on in the background where you hear something, but you’re not sure exactly what the thing is,” Ed explained.

Then Lucas Walker suggested adding “tickles” to the track, so the Bubs pinned down one of their number and tickled him for thirty seconds. Ed recorded it, tweaked the track, added an echo, and then played it back in reverse.

“It sounds like seagulls,” someone said.

“Try it without the echo.”

Someone questioned why the laughs were in reverse. “Is that weird just to be weird?”

“Isn’t just weird the point?” Ed said, his right eye twitching—a sign that he was concentrating. He meant to remind them that this was “Magical Mystery Tour,” and that weirdness was part of the package. He played the laugh back again, behind the seagulls version and the tooth-tapping “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The group was unconvinced.

“We’re beating a dead horse,” Ed said.

“It doesn’t sound backward,” someone said.

To recap: The group had, by this time, spent 20 minutes debating the merits of a track that would be more or less inaudible to the naked ear.

They moved on to Peter Gabriel’s “Diggin’ in the Dirt.” Someone said the emotion was missing, that the track needed “a raw human factor.” “Can we get someone to cry into the microphone?” Lucas asked.

On the final night in the Moultonborough woods, Ed Boyer sat down with the Bubs and played a rough mix of the album. The group appeared to be pleased with what they heard. Ed himself had reservations, however. It was “too choral,” he thought. It sounded to him like “a big group of guys singing.” In other words, it wasn’t interchangeable with Code Red, but had the Bubs really broken aesthetic ground? Would this new organic sound come across as progressive, or would it seem like an a cappella album recorded 20 years ago?

And even if the Bubs themselves were not especially conflicted about their work at the moment, they would become contentious again soon, most notably during spring break, on an 11-night tour of the West Coast. At 10 o’clock one evening they locked themselves inside a Super 8 motel in San Diego for a listen to a more refined but still not completely finished version of the album, to be called Pandaemonium. It would be seven hours before they left the room.

Their biggest fight that night, over “Mama, I’m Coming Home,” turned into nothing short of a debate over the soul of Pandaemonium. There were two versions of the song—with and without vocal percussion. Lucas Walker led the charge against percussion, arguing that it would compromise the Bubs’ new aesthetic. The percussion didn’t sound organic, he complained. Alexander Koutzoukis prosecuted for the opposing side. He felt that there was no energy without percussion, and said that although he, too, wanted to be cutting edge, he didn’t want the music to suffer. “The point is to put out the best album we can,” he maintained.

Looking back, Ed Boyer doesn’t find this quarrel surprising. Nor is he astonished that it went on until five in the morning. What concerns him is the kind of decisions that can emerge from sessions like these. “When they came out of that meeting the consensus was that they’d use percussion on ‘Mama’—but it would be mixed quietly into the background. That’s like wearing half of a winter coat in the snow.” But the kicker was, none of it mattered. Ed and another professional, Bill Hare, the ace California sound engineer the Bubs had worked with for their past several albums, had already decided to use percussion. “The reason we pay Bill Hare is because he’s mixed hundreds of a cappella albums,” Ed says. “He’s not taking notes from fifteen kids who’ve never mixed an album before.”

Ask a member of the Beelzebubs why they do this, why they have these marathon arguments, and he’ll tell you it’s because it’s always been done that way. It’s part of the Bubs tradition, together with the punishing rehearsal and travel demands. The result is an insider culture that can become downright restrictive. Even Matt Michelson, who served loyally as Bubs president throughout that 2006–07 school year, is candid about the costs of belonging to the group. “I wouldn’t trade being in the Bubs for anything,” he says. “But did I miss Tufts? Did I miss college? Yeah.”

Fittingly, the release of Pandaemonium in April 2007 coincided with another tradition—Bubs in the Pub, the annual spring concert in the Dewick-MacPhie Dining Hall. Every time-honored custom received its due that night, including the one that says group members must dress up as if for Halloween. Lucas came as Che Guevara. Matt was a flamingo, in black leggings and a pink bodice. There were senior speeches, private jokes about things the audience didn’t understand that went on and on. As the concert came to a close, after three-plus hours, the Beelzebubs invited all the gathered alumni up onstage to sing “Brothers in Song,” the title track from their very first album, released in 1964. After a tumultuous fall and winter, they had found their old equilibrium.

As for the new album, it was a triumph. It didn’t take long for the message boards at RARB to light up with chatter. Matt Emery, the music director of the Duke a cappella group Rhythm & Blue, started the thread with a one-word entry: “Wow.” Matthew Bolling, an alum of Virginia Tech’s Juxtaposition, was among the first to point out the change in the Bubs’ sound: “The CD . . . really sounds like it thrives from the raw voice. This is something that a lot of male groups just could not achieve.” Almost no one mentioned “Mama, I’m Coming Home” or, for that matter, much of anything the group had debated internally. When the official RARB reviews came out, Pandaemonium received straight fives, the top rating.

It’s easy to make a punchline out of such efforts—of spending $30,000 recording a collegiate a cappella album, of worrying about the reviews on something called RARB (though, within that realm, the Beelzebubs do set the agenda). After all, Hollywood has been making fun of a cappella for years. In the 2006 season premier of NBC’s The Office, for example, one of the characters (played by Ed Helms, a vet of Comedy Central’s Daily Show) bragged about singing in an a cappella group at Cornell called Here Comes Treble, and from that moment on, a cappella became a joke on the program, reaching fever pitch when the Helms character serenaded a co-worker in 2007 with ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me”—backed by his old group on speakerphone.

But the Bubs, for all their obsessive absorption in their music, do show a rudimentary understanding of their status in the world. They refer to their alums as Dead Guys. And indeed graduation is nearly always the death of one’s a cappella career. Even the small percentage who go on to fame and fortune tend to achieve it in some other realm. One day you and your fellow Bubs are wowing standing-room-only audiences. The next day you could be playing an open mic night to a half-empty coffeehouse. Or worse, sitting in a cubicle. The thing about a cappella is that it exists in this incredible space: college. It’s the one time in life where everything is momentum. Moreover, there is an undeniable pleasure in the music itself—something so simple about the human voice, about harmonizing with your best friends. The problem arises when you take a cappella out of the context of college. Then what is it, really? A cover band. With no instruments.

But in the case of the 2006–07 Bubs, you’d have to make that a cover band with no instruments that felt like it was on top of the world. Of course, a new incarnation of the group would inherit the formidable task of following up on Pandaemonium with an album that was somehow equal, or better, or just as innovative in some yet to be determined way. For the time being, though, it didn’t matter. For the time being, the Beelzebubs’ reputation was secure.

A senior editor at GQ, MICKEY RAPKIN has written for the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly. Pitch Perfect, from which our article is adapted, is his first book.

Adapted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Pitch Perfect by Mickey Rapkin. Copyright © 2008 by Mickey Rapkin

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