by Mike Corrigan
RAND-UNIVAC was the first commercially produced computer, a room-filling behemoth with a price tag of nearly a quarter-million dollars. In 1952, a Univac owned by CBS News predicted that Eisenhower would win the '52 presidential election by a landslide. He did, of course, although Walter Cronkite didn't immediately report the computer's results because CBS executives didn't believe them to be accurate.
So much for A.I. history.
Rand-Univac is also the name that a young Spokane rock quartet settled on after their former moniker (Madison) was found to be, frankly, a tad too popular.
"Popular. Yes, definitely," agrees Rand-Univac lead guitarist and vocalist Josh Wong. "There's two in San Antonio, three in L.A. and one in Seattle. I'm from Seattle, and when I was home in December, flipping through The Stranger, I saw an ad for a Madison playing at some pub and thought, 'Yeah. That's it.' "
The group plays a total of three shows this week at the Shop -- two on Thursday with Seattle band Wide Awake, and one on Friday night with three other acts. Thursday night's show will be recorded by the Shop's in-house techies.
Wong and drummer Kevin Germer formed an early musical collaboration, known as Sketchbang Fairwell, about three years ago while they were both enrolled at Whitworth College. In early 2001, fellow Whitworth students Jeremiah Webster (acoustic guitar, vocals) and Andrew Means (bass) signed on and the group changed its name to Madison. Wong's revelation precipitated the switch to Rand-Univac, a name that is effective immediately.
"I think Rand-Univac works," he says.
The primitive computer-inspired band name interweaves with the graphic motifs of Rand-Univac's Spokane indie label, Redshift Recordings, which incorporates early Space Age photographs and technical drawings into its Web site and press kit design.
But Rand-Univac's journey from a word-of-mouth college phenomenon to broad local stardom has been one with a couple of tentative starts and at least one near-stall. After their Whitworth studies wrapped up last spring, the band took the summer off -- with one notable exception.
"We played one show during that time north of Seattle," says Wong. "It was really not the highlight of our careers so far. It was a very frustrating day. After that, we took about a month-and-a-half where we didn't do much at all. I think most of us were thinking, 'I don't know about this.' "
The guys regrouped in the fall with new energy and dedication.
"We started writing stuff that we could be really passionate about again, that would allow us to expand and push each other."
The band also got a push from Charles Greer of Redshift Recordings, who signed on as the group's manager. Things began to happen very quickly. They entered the studio, recorded an album's worth of songs and are currently gearing up for the release of their first full-length CD around the end of March.
Wong, Webster and Means do most of the writing, but all four members contribute to the arrangements. The band members apply their sonic influences (Radiohead, Pearl Jam and Sunny Day Real Estate among them) with subtlety and skill. And though the members of Rand-Univac are firmly grounded in worldly, human concerns, their songs exist in a twilight realm, both secular and Christian, where ambiguous lyrics grapple with concerns both personal and universal.
"All four of us are Christians," explains Wong. "But I've always had a big problem with Christian bands. When I was younger, my mom tried to push some Christian music on me, and I just couldn't handle it. It really turned me off religion as a whole. Preaching from the stage is one of my pet peeves. Our music definitely reflects who we are and whatever it might be that we have to say at the moment. But as soon as you become a 'Christian band,' you get stuck into a box. All of a sudden there are certain things that you're not supposed to talk about. You're subject to someone else's standards, not your own. And a lot of people will just turn you off."
He understands that urge: "The majority of Christian music is just really generic. I think it's way worse than mainstream pop." Still, Wong is adamant about the vitality of his band's music and its relevance within the larger sphere of modern indie rock.
"I'm an art student, and I'm from Seattle," he says. "I'm fairly liberal. I'm definitely not evangelical. I really love music. I want to be a musician and be passionate about it. If I write a song that reflects a day I had or, on the other end of the spectrum, if I have something sort of theological to express, I guess I'd just like to retain that freedom."
DON BLACKBURN is a local musician, drum instructor and author who's on the horns of a dilemma. He's written a book called Fill the Beat, an instructional manual for aspiring drummers. The book is published by a well-respected company and has received glowing endorsements from some of the top drummers in the business, including Alphonse Mouzon (founding member of Weather Report), who is planning to use Fill the Beat as the manual for his own students.
Sounds great. So what's the dilemma? According to Blackburn, his publishing company (Stipes Publishing of Champagne, Ill.) has been reluctant to allow him to make content revisions and add endorsements to the sleeve. He also asserts that they've done a less-than-stellar job of printing and -- most significantly -- of promoting the book. Subsequently, sales of Fill the Beat have been unimpressive.
Blackburn has been a drummer for more than 35 years. He's played in numerous groups and is currently the drummer for local cover band AM/FM. He also conducts drum instruction for two dozen students in his home. He began writing Fill the Beat in 1997 out of a desire to make available instructional book that could get would-be drummers up and performing live.
"My intention was to take drummers with some music background, high school instruction or whatever, and give them sort of a crash course so that they can get to playing on a set quickly," he says. "The book is an encyclopedia of all types of drumming styles -- jazz, rock, pop, the less familiar beats to the most common ones. My goal is spark the desire and to teach people how to get out there and play live as quickly as possible, as opposed to the old way of doing it, teaching book one, book two, blah, blah, blah. People today want a crash course in how to have fun."
Blackburn spent three years researching and writing Fill the Beat and another year shopping around for a publisher. He ultimately hooked up with Stipes Publishing, and the book hit stores in 2000.
"They sent out copies to schools and universities and also to professional drummers for them to review," he says of Stipes. "But they didn't do a very good job of printing the book. Some of the pages are crooked. They also didn't want to wait for the comments from the famous drummers. They just went ahead and printed it."
Perhaps it's only lip service, but Stipes' description of Blackburn's book lifted directly from the company Web site exhibits confidence in the book's promise. According to Stipes, "Fill The Beat is a unique and innovative drum-set instruction book which we feel has the potential to become the staple drum set instruction book of our time." Aside from Mouzon, the book has been heartily endorsed by Wally "Gator" Watson (Lionel Hampton Band), Gregg Gerson (Billy Idol, Gloria Estefan, Ronnie Spector) and Tommy "Muggs" Cain (Michael Bolton).
So how would an aspiring drummer secure a copy?
"That's the dilemma," Blackburn says. "I can't make the changes myself, then self-publish and sell the book behind my publisher's back. That would cause me real legal problems. Stipes has 750 copies. So if people want the book, they should go to Stipes (www.stipes.com)? If they started to get lots of orders for the book, they might feel it was worth their while to incorporate my changes and additions."
"I just want to get the book out there," he adds. "Not have it languish in a publishing company's warehouse somewhere. The bottom line is, it's a very good book. It's got a lot of potential."