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MICA Bands Put Baltimore on National Music Map

Alumni and Faculty Creativity Goes Beyond Visual Arts

Posted 09.01.11 by MICA communications

Ponytail group shot. (Photo by Joyce Kim '07)

As far as homework assignments go, the one Ken Seeno '08 and his classmates were given back in 2005 was fairly standard. After all, students at MICA are often asked to collaborate, brainstorming together in pursuit of innovative ideas. The outcomes of such projects are wide-ranging and often extend beyond the life of the class. However, the result of that particular assignment-- the art rock band Ponytail-- was longer lasting and more successful than any of them ever imagined. And it's just one example of how MICA has played a key role in Baltimore's emergence as a major player in the national music arena.

The city's national reputation for being home to a thriving music scene has been fueled by an abundance of rock groups known for original and eclectic sounds, with styles ranging from electronic to folk, hip-hop to jazz. Many of these artists have gained national attention and attracted international fans, including Ponytail. 

The band has been praised for its energetic "sugar-rush type" by the BBC, has been featured on MTV Detox, and was chosen by The Simpsons creator Matt Groening to perform at the May 2010 All Tomorrow's Parties music festival he curated in Minehead, England. Named "Best Live Band" in 2007 and "Best Band" in 2008 by the Baltimore City Paper, Ponytail released its third record, Do Whatever You Want All The Time, in April 2011. 

"We formed Ponytail in an experimental painting class called Parapainting. Faculty member Jeremy Sigler, a poet from New York City, chose the members of the band during a class on intuition and chance," Seeno said. "Years later, I have traveled all over the world and have created bonds that will last a long time. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything."

After performing with classmates at a show at the end of the semester, the band, whose members also include Dustin Wong '06, Jeremy Hyman '08, and Molly Siegel '08, continued to perform. They booked shows and eventually put together a tour on their own. Things just grew from there. 

Seeno explained, "Someone asked us if we wanted to release a record, so we did. Then someone asked if we wanted to tour with Battles, a successful experimental rock group, and we said "yes." Then we were asked to release another record, and then we had PR and booking agents-- and it kept going for five years. Everyone came to us. We have toured in the United States, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, and our music is released all over the world, including Japan. And we were strangers when Ponytail started."

Ponytail's birth as part of an art class is unique, but the band is one of many musical ties to MICA. Double Dagger, photo credit Scott Russell.

According to Bruce Willen '02, member of the post-punk trio Double Dagger, that's because creative people are creative in almost everything they do. He should know. Willen, along with Nolen Strals '01, are co-founders of the award-winning design studio Post Typography in addition to being a part of Double Dagger.


"It's rare to find a creative person who has only one thing they focus on and no other creative pursuits. They have other interests-music, food, writing. Most artists I know are involved in different creative fields. One of my outlets is music," Willen said. 

MICA junior Kelly Laughlin, lead vocalist for the up-and coming Secret Mountains, explained, "I've been involved in music since I was 14, and I've always been really involved in art. I can't say I love music or art more, they're the same to me."

Laughlin, who is majoring in printmaking and pursuing a concentration in book arts while heavily involved with the band, continued, "The workload can be hard, but there's a kind of ease to it because you're doing something you love. You work hard for the things you love to do. I also think the things I'm learning here fuel my music. It's all interrelated. A professor actually said in a crit, ‘this piece has rhythm and motion to it.' I've become attuned to visualizing music." 

Another MICA alum, Chris Muccioli '11, plays drums and percussion for Secret Mountains. The band, which has been featured in The New York Times, released its first record Kaddish in August 2009. They have toured throughout the United States, including an appearance at the 2011 South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas and are using their time this summer to cut a full-length album.

Secret Mountains group shot in New York. (Photo be Ace Kieffer)

"The past two summers, we spent our time touring, but one of our goals is to perform in Europe. To get to that stage, we need a full-length LP," Laughlin said. "This summer is slow compared to others, but we're cranking out music." 

Willen, who toured northern Europe with Double Dagger in 2010, said of the experience, "Never in my life did I think I would be in a band that would tour internationally. We played in small clubs and at small festivals, from England and Belgium, to Poland and the Czech Republic. We played in seven countries in all. And there were people there who knew our work and drove a really long way to see us. It was very exciting." 

Double Dagger has earned considerable critical praise, as evidenced by positive reviews in publications, such as The Washington Post and BBC Music. Rolling Stone listed Double Dagger among other MICA-related musicians when it named Baltimore "Best Scene" in its 2008 feature, The 125 + People, Places, and Things Ruling the Rock & Roll Universe. 

Weekends, a two-piece art band featuring Brendan Sullivan '09 and Adam Lempel, released Strange Cultures in March 2011. The duo met while they were students, Sullivan studying sculpture at MICA and Lempel pursuing a philosophy degree at The Johns Hopkins University. Matmos, an experimental featuring electronic duo, is another MICA/JHU collaboration, this time featuring MICA faculty member Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel, who teaches at Hopkins. Sam Trapkin '08 and Justin Gilman '08 are part of the four-man pop-rock group, Diamond.

MICA's ties go back even further; seminal noise-rock band Candy Machine was formed by graduate students at the College during the 1990s, and David Byrne, a founding member and principal songwriter for the new wave band Talking Heads, studied at MICA during the 1970s. 

Seeno expects to continue his work in music well into the future, as well as other creative pursuits. He said, "Though Ponytail is on hiatus now, we're trying to put together a Japanese tour in the future. We are also pursuing individual projects because we've always been four individual artists who collaborate. Dustin and I are releasing solo music under our own names, for example, and Jeremy plays with The Boredoms. And I've been working more seriously in 35mm photography. There is a lot of opportunity out there for us. The things I have seen and done, on stage and off-they've been a dream!"

Visit: Ponytail Band Site                                             Visit: Double Dagger Band Site

Visit: Diamond Band Site                                           Visit: Secret Mountains Band Site

Visit: Weekends Band Site                                            Visit: Candy Machine Band Site

                                            Visit: Talking Heads Band Site


Image captions (top-bottom): Ponytail group shot. (Photo by Joyce Kim '07); Double Dagger, photo credit Scott Russell; Secret Mountains group shot in New York. (Photo by Ace Kieffer)